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Caltech eyes cleaner fuel

The technology exists to make auto, home and jet fuel from sunlight and water, but Caltech professor Harry Gray told an audience this week that the United States lacks the will and money to accelerate the use of alternative sources of energy.

“If gas weren't so cheap, we'd probably be there,” he said. “My feeling is that we should do it now and become energy-independent. I think the cost is worth it.”

Finding permanent replacements for oil, gas and coal is the goal for Gray and fellow Caltech professor Sossina Haile, who addressed the topic of alternative fuels at a meeting sponsored by the Pasadena/Foothills chapter of the United Nations Assn.

Both said improving and taking advantage of solar technology would lead to jobs, even if U.S. policymakers don't take the lead.

“So many other countries are taking a very aggressive view on reducing their current footprint,” Haile said. “If we can develop those technologies and develop the manufacturing base to export that, that's another way to create more jobs.”

Gray and other Caltech scientists are working on creating fuel from artificial photosynthesis, but he said the process is expensive when relying on elements like platinum. So Gray, along with a team of Caltech students and faculty, is on the hunt for cheaper materials that can work as a substitute.

The students, he said, are “contributing to the solution of probably the most important problem facing our planet.”

Other research teams at Caltech are seeking ways to capture and store solar energy, Haile said.

Caltech is one of more than a dozen institutions teaming up with the National Science Foundation to find ways to produce clean fuel. The effort, called Powering the Planet Center for Chemical Innovation, includes students and faculty from Cal State Los Angeles, MIT, Penn State and UC Davis. Southern California Edison and BP are also partners.

The city of Pasadena hopes to run on 40% clean energy by 2020, City Councilwoman Margaret McAustin said at Tuesday's event. “We are on a path to meeting those goals, but it's not easy being green.”

Pasadena has long-term contracts with coal producers that will keep coal in the mix for years, and relying increasingly on solar power and other energy sources would force the city to impose substantial rate hikes on customers.

Gray envisions a future where solar fuel and water purification plants border the Pacific Ocean. Energy and pure water can be derived from salt water or reclaimed water, he said, while the salt can be made into sodium and chlorine for chemical products.

“We've got lots and lots and lots of sea water,” he said. “We won't even make a dent in the Pacific Ocean to make all the energy we need out of sunlight and water.”


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