In the "Back to the Future" movies 20 years ago, Marty McFly drove a sports car equipped with a "Flux Capacitor" that ran on garbage.
Pure fantasy in the 1980s. Not quite so crazy now.
As gas prices have increased, so has research into futuristic fuels and vehicles that may help break our dependence on pricey planet-polluting gasoline.
Today companies are learning to make biofuels from everything from household waste and crop residue to old tires and cow manure. The first batch of biofuels may be on the market by 2010, helping to offset growing energy demand, and, perhaps, providing a creative use for the nation’s swelling landfills.
And you want a flux capacitor? We might be close.
Toronto's Zenn Motor Co. announced last month that it would make a car powered by a breakthrough version of an electrical storage device called an "ultracapacitor." While the new car won’t travel through time, the CityZenn could be the answer to a more practical prayer. Set for manufacture in 2009, it reportedly will have no battery, no emissions, a range of 250 miles, reach 80 mph on the freeway and be capable of recharging in five minutes (with a special charging infrastructure in place).
Skeptics, who say it sounds too good to be true, call it today's equivalent of cold fusion, a still-theoretical energy source announced in 1989 that delivered more hype than hope. Wait and see, said company founder and CEO Ian Clifford. He told The Christian Science Monitor in April that the revolutionary technology would bring an end to petroleum's "100-year run."
It remains to be seen whether the new ultracapacitor lives up to its astonishing claims. Even if it doesn't, there are scads of other alternate-fuel technologies that offer drivers hope down the road. Here's an update on a few of them.
Plug-in hybrid electric vehicles
Plug-in hybrids offer the most realistic help for consumers in the near future. They're essentially regular hybrids with an extension cord, and much better mileage.
Depending on how you drive, some experts say you could get the equivalent of 100 miles per gallon or more. (Other experts are dubious of such claims.) One such car is the Chevy Volt, a car that's being developed "with a strong sense of urgency." Chevy, which hopes to begin production by late 2010, is actively encouraging customers to dream.
"Imagine a daily commute without using a drop of gas," it says on the company Web site. "For someone who drives less than 40 miles a day, Chevy Volt will use zero gasoline and produce zero emissions."
For longer trips, the car's gasoline engine kicks in and helps charge the battery while you drive. Expect a range of 640 miles.
For General Motors, it's the second try at an electric car. The company pulled the plug on its first effort — the EV1 — in 1996, sparking controversy and conspiracy theories. Seeking to head off more controversy, the company included an article on its Web site headlined "Aren't You The Guys Who Killed the Electric Car?" It’s a clear reference to the 2006 documentary "Who Killed the Electric Car?"
GM's explanation? It wasn't the right time.
"When GM launched the EV1 gas was cheap, there wasn't a war in Iraq, and there was less discussion about global warming," the article explained. "We didn't kill the electric car; electric vehicle technology is far from dead."
Pure battery electric cars
Many fringe automakers have developed all-electric cars. The problem? There's always a trade-off. If they're affordable, they're typically puny, weird-looking or have a severely limited range. If they're roomy with a long range and a short charging time, they'll often cost more than your house.
But soon the next generation of all-electric cars will hit the market, and there's reason to believe things may change.
Nissan and Mitsubishi have announced they will begin marketing pure battery electric cars by 2010 that are utilitarian, attractive and affordable. The Nissan will have a range from 100 to 150 miles and will take less than five hours for a full recharge. No word yet on the cost. More offerings are in the works from many other major manufacturers.
But there are unresolved problems with electric vehicles that could short-circuit consumer enthusiasm.
"I think it's unlikely that the batteries, which are going to be expensive, will last the life of the car," said Steven Plotkin, a Washington-based transportation energy analyst at the Argonne National Laboratory. "Imagine having to spend $4,000 to replace your batteries just four years in. And it may be more than that. Even the plug-ins will have this issue."
But given enough time, he said, those and other problems can be overcome.
Hydrogen fuel cell cars
Once just a dream, fuel cell cars are now a reality. Yes, they work, and testers seem to love them. No wonder. They're smooth and powerful, don't pollute and are powered by the most plentiful element in the universe.
So why aren't we all driving one?
There are two main problems, said Joan Ogden, director of the Sustainable Transportation Energy Pathways program at the University of California at Davis.
-- Cost. Current prototypes can cost a million dollars each. Mass production will bring down the costs. The questions are, how far, and how fast?
-- Infrastructure. Even if you could buy an affordable fuel cell car, where would you refuel it? Retrofitting filling stations around the country to dispense hydrogen is possible, but it's not easy, cheap or fast.
Still, companies are making hydrogen headway. On Monday, Honda celebrated the beginning of the production of its FCX Clarity, the world's first hydrogen-powered fuel cell vehicle intended for mass production. The rollout will be modest, with only 200 of the futuristic vehicles slated to be made in the next three years. The company will increase production as hydrogen filling stations become more common.
Jonathan Wenzel, a post-doctoral fellow at Missouri University of Science and Technology in Rolla, said the school is working on a way to do just that.
Its solution would enable filling stations to make hydrogen on the premises using an ethanol and water reaction. Given time, he said, he’s confident we have the technology to create the hydrogen infrastructure we need.
"If I had a million dollars, that's what I would put it in," he said.
The school is seeking commercial or government partners to continue to develop its technology.
Consumers would not have to wait until fuel cell cars were affordable to take advantage of hydrogen’s clean-burning technology (although that would give the best combination of power and efficiency). As more filling stations begin to offer hydrogen as an alternative, customers could convert their current internal combustion cars to run on the new fuel.
How soon might this begin to happen?
"If I had a crystal ball I wouldn't be a chemical engineering Ph.D., I'd be retired on an island somewhere," Wenzel said. "But I think within five to 10 years you’ll be able to take your car to a mechanic and convert it, if you want, to run on hydrogen."
One big problem. Many experts say hydrogen — while plentiful and nonpolluting — will be as expensive as gasoline, if not more so, for a long time.
Wenzel also warns consumers to stay away from breathless offers on the Internet for $50 conversion kits that promise you can run your car on water.
They're too good to be true, he said.
Which brings us back to the CityZenn, the "game-changing" car with the futuristic-sounding "ultracapacitor" that could shock the world. Is it too good to be true?
Even experts don't know.
"I’d like to think it's true," said Plotkin of Argonne Labs. "Ultracapacitors are very good in their ability to accept and deliver high power. But they are not real good in the amount of energy they can store. If in fact (EEStor) has found a material that can store that much power in a car, then they're right, it's revolutionary. But there have been so many claims that sound like this. I'll remain skeptical until I get to drive one."