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.
While some seek to make fuel from algae, corn or other crops, California Institute of Technology Professor Nate Lewis argues that such solutions require too much water or land that will be needed for food production. Lewis, a solar energy research star, has a plan to remake fuel as we know it.
An early prototype solar fuel generator sits in a laboratory at the Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, California, on July 9, 2013. Photographer: Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg
Mimicking the way plants turn sunlight and carbon dioxide in the air into energy and oxygen, the Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis 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 in an interview last month.
The effort is backed with $122 million of U.S. Energy Department funds and combines the talents of 120 scientists at Caltech; Stanford University; the University of California’s Berkeley, Irvine and San Diego campuses; and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.