What will power cars of the future?

Written by Monica Villavicencio

Henry Ford bet on biofuels. In fact, he built the Model T to run on both gas and ethanol.

Giovanni Meloni, associate professor, chemistry: Studies the combustion and atmospheric reactions of biofuel molecules. His research has been funded by the American Chemical Society-Petroleum Research Funds, the Advanced Light Source at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and the Swiss Light Source in Villigen, Switzerland.

Nearly a century later, USF Associate Professor of Chemistry Giovanni Meloni agrees that biofuels are probably the easiest replacement for oil. And if we can get the recipe just right, maybe we can make the switch, without having to change the internal combustion engines in most cars.

But perfecting that recipe has been tricky. Early biofuels were primarily made from corn and soybeans and drove up food prices. Second-generation biofuels are made from the stems, leaves, and husks of food crops, and also switchgrass, wood chips, and other biomass.

Meloni studies these fuels, looking at their reactions during combustion in order to see how efficient and clean they are. He says that some second-generation biofuels are promising, but the biggest challenge is producing them in large quantities, cheaply.

“The main problem is always mass production,” Meloni says. “We can make the stuff, but if it’s going to cost $100 a gallon, who’s going to use it?”

Researchers are searching for cheaper ways to convert plant leftovers into fuel, but Meloni insists that powering our cars will require a variety of energy sources.

Electric cars could gain traction, for example, but the technology is still developing. Most of those now on the market can only go about 100 miles before they need an overnight charge. Researchers are looking into ways to store more energy in electric car batteries.

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If they can design higher-performing, more efficient batteries—that can also be produced cheaply—we could soon see more electric cars on the road.  

Meloni says the most promising source of energy for those cars is our most plentiful and renewable: the sun.

“I think solar power is going to be most important. Maybe we’ll have an electric car that you can drive for 400 miles and maybe it recharges itself while you’re driving because it has solar panels.”

What scientists will need in order to discover and fine tune these technologies is time.

“If everyone was driving less, that would buy time for technology to advance,” he says.  “We need to change the way that we drive and use our resources in a smarter way—car sharing and not driving just to go buy milk. Walk instead. It should be a technology shift, but also a cultural shift.”

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