It sounds like magic, far-out fiction, a California dream. Yet earnest scientists are hard at work on a new alchemy: brewing fuel for cars — synthetic gasoline — from little more than water and sunshine.
Mimicking the way plants turn sunlight and carbon dioxide in the air into energy and oxygen, the Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis (JCAP) at the California Institute of Technology is in a race to trump nature and slow global warming. Nate Lewis, a Caltech professor and solar energy research star, has a plan to remake fuel as we know it.
“If we couldn’t get to that, we wouldn’t be doing it,” Lewis said.
The effort is backed with $122 million of U.S. Energy Department funds and combines the talents of 120 scientists at Caltech; Stanford; the University of California’s Berkeley, Irvine and San Diego campuses; and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.
Not so long ago, all-electric cars seemed fantastic, too. Now Tesla Motors Inc., which makes only battery-powered vehicles, has a higher market value than some old-line automakers.
To revolutionize fuel, Lewis has a two-step plan. Really, it’s two leaps.
First, the coalition aims to develop a system to make large amounts of hydrogen fuel using cheap solar-panel-like devices. Liquid or gaseous hydrogen, which can power super-clean fuel-cell cars, is needed for chemical plants and refineries.
Then comes the second leap: applying that same research to a system that can blend the hydrogen fuel with carbon dioxide from the air, much as a plant does, to make liquid fuels that can power cars, heavy trucks, boats or aircraft. JCAP aims to get to that point by the mid-2020s.
Synthetic, carbon-free gasoline won’t come easy, quick or cheap.
Research labs worldwide are racing to find renewable alternatives to petroleum. Some are private endeavors; others are government-funded. While some seek to make fuel from algae, corn or other crops, Lewis argues that such solutions require too much water or land that will be needed for food production.
Projects like JCAP have the luxury of not having to satisfy investors’ short-term demands, said Pavel Molchanov, a Houston-based analyst for Raymond James & Associates Inc.
“Companies that rely on private capital, even venture capital, in most cases aim to be commercial within the next three years,” said Molchanov, who follows biofuel companies. “If we think about what private developers of biofuels are focusing on now, none of them have a commercialization road map that goes out to 2025.”
JCAP’s Energy Department, deemed an Energy Innovation Hub, is one of three Manhattan Project-like efforts. Others are to improve nuclear power plants and make buildings more energy-efficient.
With the government funding, Lewis can be more methodical.
“The first five years of JCAP, our goal is to show that this can be done; to make the pieces, components, to build an artificial photosynthetic system,” he said.
That prototype “isn’t going to be commercializable, in the same way the Wright Brothers’ plane wasn’t a 747. We first have to show people there’s a there there.”