What can the VC community do to help our energy crisis?

[Editor's note: This is an Op-Ed piece by Ray Rothrock, a partner at venture capital firm Venrock.]

New Electrons Powering the Planet
There is a tremendous opportunity in what I call “new electrons” to help drive a substantial change in the energy source of modern society. New electrons are technologies and techniques that efficiently harness and store energy and electricity. New electrons, in Venrock’s view, is the most promising area of venture investing. New electrons could have a major impact because they significantly reduce emissions from fossil fired electric plants and make better use of all the fuels currently produced.

Ethanol and biofuels have been popular fuel sources, yet adoption has been slow, they have proven to be only marginally economical and they rely on heavy government subsidies. Gasoline is a fuel that is manufactured, understood, used and safe but has plagued our planet with carbon emissions. How can fuel be refined better and stored more effectively so that it is environmentally sound and provides clean energy? How do we preserve the planet’s ecological community of life if new energy sources are not lasting, and require more resources to ultimately generate the power?

This is where new electrons come in and Venrock has identified several approaches.

More Miles Per Gallon
Venrock invested in Transonic Combustion as it represents a new electron by improving internal combustion engine efficiency. In other words, it minimizes the volume of carbon emissions by developing a way to reduce the amount of gasoline or other liquid fuels needed to go the same distance as engines today. With a goal of 100 miles per gallon in a stock car, Transonic is working on an “injection ignition” engine that can run efficiently on gasoline, ethanol or other fuel without electric assist or major engine modifications. A key aspect of the technology is a revolutionary new type of fuel injector. This injector can be supplemented by advanced thermal management, EGR, electronic valves, and advanced combustion chamber geometries for even better utilization of a unit of fuel. As an investor, I may be biased. But I believe Transonic represents possibly the most significant improvement in internal combustion efficiency engines in decades.

Battery Power
Our mobile society needs energy everywhere. People are all carrying devices that run on energy – mobile phones, iPods, laptops, radios and surveillance systems. It is clear that we need to have cheap, clean portable power.

Battery power is one of the most important areas of new electrons. Its challenge is how to get the most power out of the smallest battery unit. There are some emerging techniques in battery power that provide new sources of clean energy and methods for storage. These batteries last longer, weigh less, have a miniature footprint and require shorter times to charge and recharge.

Boston Power, another Venrock investment, represents a new electron for portable clean energy: it harnesses the power of lithium in a safe and environmentally sustainable way by increasing the lifetime of batteries. Last year, you might remember the unfortunate incident when a Dell laptop violently exploded. It was powered by lithium, a potentially dangerous element when not properly used. Much like a microphone’s sound can break your ear drum when there is too much feedback, the battery used on that laptop experienced a similar chemical reaction: when the elements reinforced one another, it kept generating heat and power, leading to the fire. It is a chemistry issue and Boston Power invented a way to address it. Boston Power is reusing conventional battery materials that self regulate, to sense feedback and naturally shut down when it gets too hot. It is focused on generating power and storing it through alternative means, safely for longer run times as well.

Fuel cell technology is a different kind of new electron. It gained popularity in the 1960s with the NASA space program. After more than 40 years of research, it is now being selectively deployed commercially. Fuel cell technology is based mostly on hydrogen, the lightest element in the universe. Hydrogen is plentiful and comes with unique chemical and physical characteristics. Fuel cell technology, as a source of green energy, has reemerged in distinct, specialty scenarios as society goes mobile and as military and law enforcement needs intensify.

For those in our military forces, it can save lives. Venrock invested in Jadoo Power, for example, which is making a power pack for the US Special Operations Command. The goal is to reduce the weight of energy storage carried in the field. Imagine you’re on the front lines and you want to survey miles ahead. Rather than send your soldiers into unknown terrain, surveillance devices that run on fuel cell technology can go in their place. With a limited heat signature and light weight, it can last weeks longer than a device running with conventional sources of energy.

Preserving Nature with Nuclear Power
Harnessing nuclear power, the most powerful energy source in the universe, is another example of a new electron. Nuclear energy is clean because it does not involve burning fossil fuels – the largest source of emissions of carbon dioxide, one of the greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming. Today, nuclear fission power generation is much safer and currently provides about 17% of electricity in the US. It also powers many of our Navy’s ships without incident. France generates three-quarters of its electricity with nuclear fission power. Improving the way we harness nuclear energy is an important area of exploration for the venture community because of its tremendous, industrial impact. How we deal with nuclear waste, though, is a political challenge, not a technical one. Public support for nuclear fission plants in the United States greatly diminished in the last three decades. Emerging economies like China are purchasing new plants form US manufacturers as this is written. It’s time to seriously reconsider nuclear fission as a viable option and commence construction.

Shaping our Planet’s Future
Individually, we can all work on our carbon footprint by driving a more fuel efficient car, better insulating our home or using compact fluorescent light bulbs. However, ultimately, advances in energy have to be at the scale of our major power grids. Venture capital makes its mark on big applications for clean energy on this industrial scale. It takes time, but both must happen.

Regardless of the vast supply of fossil fuels, it is no longer an option to be so dependent on this source of fuel for our energy needs. The entrepreneurs that focus on new electrons – innovation that allows generation of power through alternative means efficiently and creates a way to store it – are those that are building companies that shape our planet’s future.