3 Alternative Fuels from Sci-Fi and How They Might Actually Work

Sci-fi writers use alternative fuels to power their fictional spacecrafts. But could any of them actually work in real life?

alternative fuels

Esurance loves technology — it’s how we make car insurance easy and modern. But technology isn’t just for car insurance (so we’ve been told). In fact, technology’s also revolutionizing the way we power our cars — paving the way for fuels that are renewable, domestic, and friendly to the environment (and you know we’re all about being green).

Some alternative fuels (algae, electricity, biodiesel) may seem like science fiction — sci-fi writers have been toying with bizarre fuels to power their high-tech, fictional spacecrafts for years. But interestingly enough, many of these space-age fuels aren’t actually that different from what real scientists are already working on. Here’s a few of our favorite sci-fi fuels, and a look at how they might work in the real world.

Star Trek — plasma fuel

The USS Enterprise is one of the most iconic and strangest looking spacecrafts in science fiction. Apart from looking like a pancake or maybe some sort of mushroom, the Enterprise is famous for popularizing the idea of warp travel — i.e., “faster than light!”

To achieve its necessary faster-than-light propulsion, the Enterprise relies on its matter/antimatter reactors to create plasma, the invaluable fuel of warp travel. But what is plasma? Well, as incredibly intelligent scientists tell us via the Internet, it’s the fourth state of matter — neither liquid, solid, nor gas. It’s the ubiquitous, nebulous substance powering our televisions, our sun, and our hard-to-explain science fiction technologies.

Could plasma fuel work?

Plasma fuel may sound outlandish, but astrophysicists at Ad Astra Rocket have been working on it as a solution for deep space travel. They’re currently developing an engine called the Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket (VASIMR®), which uses radio waves to heat argon gas to a million degrees, turning it into plasma — or a mini sun. Come 2014, the VASIMR will be tested in space. And if it’s successful, we could one day reach Mars in as few as 39 days (instead of the usual 2 years). Sounds pretty Trekky, doesn’t it?

But could plasma technology work on a smaller scale — like, say, in our cars? Unfortunately, this sort of technology is mainly limited to fictional, theoretical, and experimental spaceships. But don’t count plasma out yet! In 2009, 10 inventors (including Bill Gates) filed a patent for an electromagnetic car engine that would use a plasma injector, instead of a spark plug, as an ignition source.  It may not be Star Trek, but it’s a step.

Battlestar Galactica — tylium ore

Battlestar Galactica’s eponymous spacecraft is a giant military vessel that leads the survivors of an annihilated solar system through space in search of a new home: a distant planet called — dramatic pause — Earth.

However, the Galactica faces a big problem in meeting their ship’s huge appetite for fuel. With no home planet to refuel on, the Galactica is forced to jump from planet to planet, mining a rare metallic ore called tylium, which they refine into a yellowish, combustible liquid fuel. Sounds kinda familiar, doesn’t it? (Ahem, petroleum.)

Could tylium ore work?

Tylium is, by earth standards, an outdated fuel source. After all, reliance on foreign, non-renewable fossil and mineral fuels is so passé.

Back to the Future — garbage fusion

Everybody’s favorite time-traveling DeLorean is also the poster child for recycled energy. The DeLorean’s flux capacitor, which allows it to cross the threshold of time, is actually powered by pure garbage. Its generator (called the Mr. Fusion) transforms raw garbage into nuclear energy through the process of nuclear fusion (please don’t ask how it works).

Could garbage fusion work?

With a little help from our old friend plasma, a garbage-to-fuel transformation is actually conceivable. Engineers have been working to turn our landfills into major stockpiles of fuel by blasting garbage with plasma at such high temperatures that the waste is vaporized to its individual atomic parts, yielding a substance known as syngas — a combination of mostly hydrogen and carbon monoxide. Syngas, once it’s cleaned, can be converted to fuels like ethanol or diesel.

The process of turning trash to fuel is still in its infancy, but it’s a promising solution. Not only does it recycle previously unusable garbage, but it also creates clean-burning, renewable fuel. (Also, garbage gasification releases extremely low emissions.) So while we may not be time traveling anytime soon, we may be a bit closer to the world of Back to the Future than we thought.

Next up in alternative fuels: biofuels

While some of these sci-fi fuels aren’t quite ready for everyday use, scientists have been busy working on the next solution to our fuel problems. Today, many alternative fuels are available, including several different types of biofuels, like ethanol and biodiesel.

Interested in affordable green rides that are actually on the market? Find out how to choose the greenest gas-powered vehicles.

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One Response to “3 Alternative Fuels from Sci-Fi and How They Might Actually Work”

  1. J
    October 31, 2013 #

    What about di-lithium crystals??

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