Could Tomorrow’s Cars Run On Sunshine?

The Holy Grail of transportation research is moving people from here to there using energy that comes from renewable and sustainable sources. In other words, without using fossil fuels.

That’s the promise of electric cars. They can take us where we need to go and back again without burning a drop of fossil fuel. That’s assuming the nearest electric utility is using solar, wind, or hydro power and not fossil fuels to generate the electrons needed to keep all those batteries charged up.

But could tomorrow’s cars run on sunshine? Researchers at California Institute of Technology are hard at work trying to create non-petroleum based liquid fuels like methanol through photosynthesis — the same process that nature used to convert sunlight into energy. CalTech says it has achieved efficiencies of as much as 10% in the lab. That’s impressive, since Mother Nature can’t do better than about 1-2%.

Unfortunately, the process uses platinum as a catalyst. At $1,100 an ounce, using platinum means the fuel that comes out at the end of the process is wicked expensive. But help is on the way. The Department of Energy recently renewed a five-year, $75 million grant for Caltech’s Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis — the largest research program of its kind in the U.S.

Meanwhile, the Solar Fuels Institute is building a $250,000 prototype solar powered artificial photosynthesis device it hopes to complete by the end of the year. If that is successful, the Institute believes it can bring artificial photosynthesis to consumers within five years, and that the fuels it produces could be cost-competitive with gasoline in 10 years. One benefit of that research may be solar powered distilleries we can set up at home to make liquid fuels. Or they could make vodka instead, according to the Christian Science Monitor.

Is it possible that the electric car era could be short circuited by the introduction of internal combustion engines running on renewable and sustainable non-fossil liquid fuels? In China, many buses and heavy trucks already run on a blend of 85% methanol and 15% gasoline.

Perhaps reports about the death of the infernal combustion engine are a wee bit premature?

Steve Hanley

Closely following the transition from internal combustion to electricity. Whether it's cars, trucks, ships, or airplanes, sustainability is the key. Please follow me on Google + and Twitter.