Patt Morrison for February 11, 2011

Sunny prospect for solar-powered cars?

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Andreas Rentz/Getty Images

Scientists at the California Institute of Technology are trying to replicate photosynthesis in order to produce fuels for cars out of sunshine and water.

In President Obama’s Jan. 25 State of the Union address, he boasted “At the California Institute of Technology, they’re developing a way to turn sunlight and water into fuel for our cars.” What he is referring to is the Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis (JCAP), a team of scientists from Caltech and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory who were awarded $122 million in July from the Department of Energy after wining a national competition. Their idea is simple: to recreate the process by which all the trees and plants on this planet create their energy—photosynthesis. They hope to be able to take the ingredients that plants use—sunlight, water, and carbon dioxide—and produce energy ten times more efficiently than common crops. Being able to store this energy in chemical fuel would get around the small dilemma with solar energy—that the sun goes out every night. Chemical fuel is the most dense way to store energy, and it can make our cars run. Creating artificial photosynthesis is the ultimate scientific challenge—where physics, chemistry, and engineering converge. If it comes to fruition, will your hybrid, natural gas, or biodiesel-powered vehicle be outdated and out-greened by a plant-like, solar-powered car?


Harry A. Atwater, Jr., Ph.D., Caltech Howard Hughes professor and professor of applied physics and materials science; founding member, Kavli Nanoscience Institute; director of the Resnick Institute

Michael R. Hoffmann, Ph.D., Caltech James Irvine professor of environmental science at W. M. Keck Laboratories

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