These prototypes are many years from commercialization, but by increasing the power output of solar panels without greatly increasing the cost to make them, they could reduce not only the cost per watt for solar panels but also the number of solar panels needed and therefore shipping and installation costs—something that will be key for solar to go head to head with conventional power.
Clean Fuels and Efficient Engines
Meanwhile, better engines will reduce the need for petroleum. A number of new engine prototypes can achieve fuel efficiencies that exceed that of hybrid vehicles (Reinventing the Gasoline Engine, 70 mpg, without a Hybrid, and The Two-Stroke Engine, Reconsidered).
Even as advanced biofuels such as cellulosic ethanol are slowly coming to market (What’s Holding Biofuels Back?), companies are developing a new generation of biofuels with chemical properties like those of gasoline or diesel—replacements that can be used in existing cars and transported in existing pipelines. Researchers created genes that allow bacteria to produce diesel fuel, and these are being commercialized by a company called LS9 (Genes to Make Hydrocarbon Fuels). Another company has started producing a precursor to synthetic diesel in Brazil (Searching for Biofuels’ Sweet Spot). Researchers have also engineered microorganisms that can convert sunlight and water into diesel (TR10: Solar Fuel). And the U.S. government has funded a $122 million research center with the goal of converting sunlight to fuel without using organisms (Fuel from the Sun).
To be sure, it will be years before many of these advances work their way into the marketplace. The lack of a comprehensive energy policy in the United States, where many of the innovations are taking place, doesn’t help (Piecemeal Energy Policy Will Still Cut Greenhouse Emissions). And the inability of Congress to pass a budget this year could stifle research and development—the funding of ARPA-E, for example, hangs in the balance (Dim Prospects for Energy R&D). But if the willingness to compromise that allowed Democrats and Republicans to pass a tax-cut bill at the end of the year continues, there may be surprising progress. Meanwhile, China continues to push forward with plans to lead the world in electric vehicles, providing government incentives to develop the cars and install charging stations. Next year, that ambition will be evident outside China, as Chinese automaker BYD plans to start selling its first electric car in the United States.