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Alternative fuel for thought

Gasoline has got to go, say big thinkers at the Future in Review conference. But what the replacement will be is far from clear.

CORONADO, Calif.--Conventional fuel strategies seem to be running out of gas.

The world's reliance on crude oil as the fuel for transportation has to end, according to nearly a dozen speakers at the Future in Review conference this week. That's not exactly a novel idea these days, but there's plenty of debate surrounding the question of how people will consume energy in the future, whether it's electric cars, hybrids, biofuels, or something else entirely.

"The world's energy system as it is fundamentally unsustainable," said Vijay Vaitheeswaran, global environment and energy correspondent for The Economist during one panel session. "The needlessly dirty and inefficient ways we use fuels today make it unsustainable."

So then, what's next? There was no consensus on a solution, but plenty of ideas about what is needed. The next source of fuel for the transportation world must be clean, efficient, dense, abundant, safe and, most importantly, cheap.

"The politics of the energy business in the U.S. has been, 'let's make sure it's cheap and let's don't worry about having the next generation of sustainable supply,'" said Randy Foutch, president of Foutch Consulting and oil industry veteran. But at this point, both industry players and government officials have to look ahead because the means to get something done is there if the will can be summoned, he said.

Organizers of the Future in Review conference here try hard not to have a common theme, with sessions ranging from biomimicry and the future of AIDS to rocket science and global investment trends. Likewise, the participants and attendees hail from a wide range of backgrounds: information technology, finance, government, academia and venture capital.

"Efficiency itself is an alternative fuel."
--Vijay Vaitheeswaran, global correspondent,
The Economist

But the technology world is increasingly turning its efforts toward finding alternative ways to power homes and automobiles in hopes of curbing global warming, reducing dependence on the Middle East, and getting rich. That was reflected in the sessions inside the Hotel Del Coronado, where the event is being held, and in the cocktail-hour discussions afterward.

Before even getting started on alternative fuels, technologists and engineers should be finding new materials for building cars, said Nate Lewis, a professor of chemistry at the California Institute of Technology.

"You can't fight physics," Lewis said, questioning the logic of building a 3,000-pound car to haul around 300 pounds of passengers. "The transportation industry will go to lightweight high-strength materials," which will produce cars that need less fuel to move about town.

And while they're at it, figuring out how to make the good old-fashioned combustion engine more efficient would be a good idea, Vaitheeswaran said. "Efficiency itself is an alternative fuel." Hybrid cars like Toyota's Prius are a nice first step toward that idea, but they don't really solve anything fundamentally because they are still dependent on gasoline for most of the time, he said.

Several panelists and speakers supported the idea of all-electric cars. For one thing, they are much more efficient than gasoline engines, Lewis said. They also aren't locked into one future source of energy or another, since the electric car doesn't care whether its charge was produced by burning gas, solar power or a nuclear reaction, said Martin Eberhard, CEO of electric car maker Tesla Motors.

"If you can store the energy in an electric form, you have complete independence of the source," Eberhard said. Gasoline-powered cars, on the other hand, were designed to run nothing but unleaded gasoline or perhaps diesel fuel from the start, giving drivers only one way to move the wheels.

Tesla has been on a whirlwind publicity tour showing off its Roadster, which it parked on the lawn outside the Hotel Del Coronado on Wednesday. The Roadster is an all-electric vehicle that gets its power from a conventional wall socket and stores it in lithium-ion batteries. "We can make a difference by proving that tech is there to produce a viable electric car, and that people want to buy it," said Elon Musk, chairman of the company. Also on Thursday, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice got a look at the Roadster during a visit to Silicon Valley.

Others want to focus on ways to improve existing car engines. Martin Tobias, for example, has started a company called Imperium Renewables that is trying to develop refining technology for "plug and playable, hot-swappable hydrocarbons that could replace oil," as he put it.

Biodiesel-fueled engines have been gaining support as a relatively simple way to take existing diesel engines and run them on a cleaner fuel derived from corn, palm oil or other plants. The problem is that a government push behind ethanol hasn't really produced results, and some worry about the risks of basing the fuel economy around a crop that could compete with the food supply.

There is another push these days to explore using genetic engineering to produce plants with a higher fuel content than those used for food, or to develop types of algae that can produce a lot of energy with a small footprint, Tobias said. J. Craig Venter, in a speech kicking off the conference Tuesday night, said he's also looking into developing algae and microbes that could be used as fuel sources.

All of these ideas are still in the relatively early stages, but momentum is growing. As countries like India and China begin to consume energy at the levels used by the developed world, and the love affair with the automobile rages on, there appears to be little choice.

"There's no way in hell we're going to persuade 300 million people to get out of their cars," Vaitheeswaran said.