the fuels of the future

No one can say for certain what will power our vehicles in the decades to come, but CSU faculty can offer some very educated guesses.

Right now, California runs on a combination of fossil fuels and, to a far lesser extent, sustainable alternatives like electric vehicles (EV) and hydrogen fuel cell vehicles (HFCV). The future of fuel remains to be seen, but faculty experts at the California State University, along with the students who work with them, are diligently researching the next level of clean fuels that will keep the state’s people and economy moving ahead while helping to protect California's natural resources.

(Read the previous installations on fuel in our series on transportation, “Moving California Ahead,” to find out how the CSU is making fossil fuels a little cleaner and paving the way for even better electric vehicles and hydrogen fuel cell vehicles.)

NEXT-LEVEL EV: CHARGE-AS-YOU-GO

Even if electric vehicles (EV) didn’t continue to improve, they're still good enough right now to become Americans' car of choice, says San José State University Assistant Professor of Electrical Engineering Mohamed Badawy, Ph.D.

But EV will get better, of course. A lot better. Specifically, “customers are looking for shorter charging periods compared to what we have right now,” notes Dr. Badawy, who says in the near future a family may decide to buy different kinds of EVs—one for trips closer to home and another with a longer range for, say, a long work commute.

One of the most exciting developments Badawy has seen is wireless charging. “Imagine that there’s a parking lot and all you have to do is just park your car, go get your groceries and come back and find your vehicle has been charged,” he says. “So I don’t need to connect the cable to my vehicle, I don’t need to go to a charging station ... underneath my parked car there’s a transmitter coil that’s going to keep charging my vehicle.”

If that's not next-level enough for you, how about this: dynamic charging. “The idea is very similar to wireless charging, but with wireless charging you need your car to be stationary at a certain point so it gets charged,” explains Badawy, who directs SJSU’s Center of Power Electronic Converters Laboratory and will soon start research in this field. “The idea of dynamic charging is that chargers are underneath the road, so that while you’re actually moving, you’re charging your vehicle. It’s more like San Francisco cable cars, but without the cable.”

“It’s going to take more years to see it implemented,” he adds, “but the possibilities with a technology like that are endless: You don’t need to stop to charge your car, and you can make the vehicle lighter. I don’t need to build a battery with a 300-mile or 400-mile range because I’m always charging them as long as I’m on the highway.”

San José State has given Badawy and his colleagues the chance to pursue cutting-edge research, he says. "The university and our college specifically are pushing for more advancements with electric vehicles from a global initiative because they can see that this is the future and there is a real need.”

“The idea of dynamic charging is that chargers are underneath the road, so you're actually charging your vehicle while you drive." 

— Dr. Mohammed Badawy, Director, San JosÉ State's Center of Power Electronics convertors laboratory 

GROW YOUR OWN: A TRULY GREEN FUEL

Slimy. Green. Wet. When you think of algae, that’s probably what comes to mind. But where the average person sees pond scum, Dean Arakaki, Ph.D., associate professor of electrical engineering at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo and a co-founder of the interdisciplinary Algae Biofuel Project, sees potential.

Dr. Arakaki and his colleagues in biological sciences and physics, respectivelyElena Keeling, Ph.D. and Jonathan Fernsler, Ph.D.are leading students in research that explores the application of electric pulses to open algae cells so they release lipids (fats) that can be refined into biofuel. “We’re developing a renewable energy source, because algae is inexpensive to culture,” says Arakaki.

WHAT’S A BIOFUEL?

A biofuel is any kind of transportation fuel made from biomass, organic material that comes from plants and animals.

  Examples of biomass include wood, garbage and crops. Transportation fuels made from biomass include ethanol, an alcohol fuel made from sugars in grains, and biodiesel, made from vegetable oils and animal fats.

Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration

The SLO project is sponsored by Boeing, which is investing in research into renewable energy sources to replace jet fuel—a fossil fuel. It draws students in biological sciences, food sciences, physics, and electrical engineering, encouraging them to collaborate and communicate across disciplines. The research provides hands-on experience with lab equipment, as well as the chance to share work with the wider scientific community in poster presentations at conferences.

It’s still early for this research, says Arakaki, but “a good outcome would be to definitively detect lysis [opening of the algae cell]." The researchers would then investigate whether lysis through electric fields is more cost-effective than other approaches. 


THREE MORE BIOFUELS TO WATCH

California is considered the fastest-growing market for biofuels, thanks to the state’s Low Carbon Fuel Standard, established in 2007. It requires companies that produce “petroleum-based fuels to reduce the carbon intensity of their products” by 10 percent by 2020. These biofuels are already making inroads in California:

  Biomethane

This renewable natural gas is made from decaying organic matter such as woody biomass (the residue of dead trees, leaves, pine needles, seeds and other plants that line the forest floor), manure and food waste. Biomethane can reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent to 70 percent and is typically used in medium- and heavy-duty natural gas trucks.

  Ethanol

This renewable fuel is alcohol-based and made by distilling sources such as corn, sugar cane, wheat, manure and food waste. It is the most widely available gasoline substitute and helps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

  Renewable Diesel

Made from vegetable oil and other sources, renewable diesel is chemically similar to petroleum diesel and can be used in a regular diesel engine with lower emissions than petroleum diesel. In early 2018, renewable diesel made up nearly 12 percent of the net diesel supply in California—a three-fold increase from 2011. The renewable diesel “footprint” is expected to grow more than six-fold by 2021.

Source: California Energy Commission

This article is the fifth in a series on California's most pressing transportation problems and the many ways the campuses of the California State University are working to solve them. Read our previous coverage on the CSU's role in finding solutions to California's gridlock, building better roadsmaking fossil fuel production somewhat greener, and supporting the EV and hydrogen fuel cell vehicle industry. Check back for the final article in the series, which will address how the CSU is preparing a workforce in the trillion-dollar logistics industry.

Story: Lorie A. Parch

photoGRAPHY & VIDEOGRAPHY: PATRICK RECORD; courtesy of cal poly Slo

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