4. Tapping fuel from the ocean floor
In the race to find an economically viable biofuel, researchers are now looking at a surprising source: seaweed. While making cheap fuel from pond algae has proved difficult, the potential advantages of seaweed, or macro-algae, are big. It's one of the world's fastest-growing plants, doesn't need fertilizer, requires less acreage than land-based crops (plus, no clear-cutting to make way for farms), and its fuel would emit less CO2 than the current ethanol champion, corn.
More important, more than half the dry mass in seaweed is sugar, which is the new crude, fuel scientists say. That's because sugar can be easily converted to ethanol or butanol. Bio Architecture Lab, a startup, has partnered with DuPont (DD), the Department of Energy's ARPA-E labs, and the venture arm of Norway's Statoil (STO) to develop the chemistry that would unlock the energy in that sugar and create a fuel that's cheaper than the alternatives.
Bio Architecture Lab, headquartered in Berkeley, has built three seaweed farms off the coast of Chile. Workers using winches and lines harvest giant strands of seaweed from boats. The company recently broke ground on a pilot ethanol manufacturing plant in the Los Lagos region of Chile, slated to start operations next year. The challenge: It's one thing to make small amounts of fuel in a lab, but fuel production is a big global business. Will this technology be able to scale affordably? --A.V.
More from Fortune's guide to the future
This article is from the January 16, 2012 issue of Fortune.
In labs around the globe, scientists are working on radical technologies, from 500-mile car batteries to solar space farms.
By Stuart F. Brown and Anne VanderMey
1. Building a 500-mile car battery
The holy grail in the electric-car world is beating range anxiety: the fear you'll run out of juice in the middle of nowhere. Today's electrics, like the Nissan Leaf, have a range of about 100 miles, but scientists at IBM (IBM) are in MOREJan 5, 2012 5:00 AM ET
2. Harnessing the sun's power
Ever since cold fusion flopped spectacularly, the idea of finding an affordable way of replicating the sun's method of generating energy has become almost a joke. That may be about to change. Yes, the two major fusion reactor designs being explored in the research world -- one is called a tokamak and the other is inertial confinement systems -- show promise, but they are 20 to MOREJan 5, 2012 5:00 AM ET
3. Creating electricity in space
The idea of beaming solar power down to Earth from space was popularized in a 1941 Isaac Asimov short story in which the machinery was controlled by a robot called Cutie. Today, solar space stations still sound far-fetched, but scientists in the U.S. and Japan are pursuing modern versions of the system, which are becoming more feasible as space flight and solar panels promise to become MOREJan 5, 2012 5:00 AM ET
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