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Miracles that are on our doorstep

02 March 2016 - 02:30 By Eric Roston, Bloomberg

Microsoft founder Bill Gates made news last week when he called for an "energy miracle" that would halt climate change and reduce the cost of energy."I don't mean something that's impossible," he wrote in his annual letter. Gates wants a miracle akin to the polio vaccine or the personal computer.Hundreds of potential minor miracles are on display this week at the annual confab of the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), a part of the US Department of Energy.Here are some of the minor miracles included in the conference's Energy Innovation Summit technology showcase:The power wardrobePutting on and taking off sweaters and jackets has been a chore for humans in temperate regions since people first slung animal pelts over their shoulders. The staff of Otherlab are developing materials that change thickness and insulation depending on the ambient temperature. Smarter clothing could mean less heating and air conditioning.Stanford University scientists are developing clothing that's transparent to infrared energy - meaning the body can radiate heat almost as if it were unclad.That would be helpful in summer; for winter, they're looking at clothing that contains metallic nanowire to help keep body heat in.Clean vehiclesCurrent Motor, a Michigan, start-up, has developed what it calls a "mini-fleet-in-a-box" - electric, cargo- ferrying motorcycles packaged in a portable box-slash-solar- charging-station. The bikes can reach speeds of 112km/h and travel up to 80km per charge, and are built to carry either a driver and "substantial cargo" or two riders and less stuff, according to the company.A microelectronic research group at Georgia Institute of Technology has established proof-of-concept for a powerful energy storage technology that can charge and empty faster than batteries. The group's "ultrahigh-performance super-capacitor" takes advantage of the unusual properties of graphene, which has many potential uses.EnergyHundreds of labs and startups are trying to make energy miracles. Getting the technologies to work, scale up, and survive are the first steps. Gates's critics, such as renewable-power investor Jigar Shah and liberal climate expert Joe Romm, have argued we already have the technology we need to clean up the energy that powers the economy - we just need to get on it. Maybe so. But it would also be cool to have rechargeable motorcycles that can roll right out the back of a truck...

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