Corn ethanol production has grown so fast, driving up corn prices and driving down the price of ethanol, that some producers are having trouble breaking even. But an energy bill signed into law last week that requires greater use of biofuels will provide new incentives for both production of biofuels and research into new technologies. Reaching the ambitious goals set by the law will require new technologies for transforming biomass into fuel. Others are developing ways to convert biomass into hydrocarbon fuels that could be more practical than ethanol. In the current print issue, Technology Review's editor takes a close look at the technology needed to replace a significant part of gas consumption with renewable fuels and the costs of doing so.
Investors are rushing to pour money into solar energy companies to capitalize on an industry that's growing by leaps and bounds. That brought good news for solar technology this year, as the wraps came off a number of technical advances that could eventually make energy from the sun as cheaply as conventional sources. These include new types of panels that use cheaper materials or cheaper manufacturing techniques.
One company in particular, San Jose-based Nanosolar, attracted attention for its decision to build an enormous manufacturing facility for making inexpensive thin-film solar panels, only to see delays in production. But by the end of the year the company had started manufacturing solar panels for its first customer.
Researchers are also investigating more distant possibilities for solar, including using the exotic physics of quantum dots and mimicking the complex chemistry of photosynthesis to help make solar power ubiquitous.
Researchers are making progress in finding ways to use carbon dioxide as a source of raw materials for fuel, by taking a cue from biology. But these technologies are still far from eliminating the need to sequester large amounts of carbon dioxide in order to reduce greenhouse emissions.
If alternative energy sources such as wind and solar are ever to provide a big chunk of our electricity, we'll need a better system for storing and distributing that power. That's because these sources of energy, unlike coal or nuclear power, are intermittent: solar panels only make power when the sun shines. New battery systems and thermal storage systems could help.
GM made news this year with its plans for a new electric vehicle that gets extended range, compared to other electric vehicles, from an onboard generator. Other companies are developing similar vehicles. But technologies for boosting the efficiency of conventional internal combustion engines could play a big role in helping automakers meet new fuel economy standards.