As fans of innovation, we’re always interested in new technologies — especially as they pertain to cars and driving.

Related: Are hydrogen fuel cells the wave of the future?

With hydrogen-powered fuel cell vehicles (FCVs) hitting the market and gasoline from garbage still showing promise, here’s the latest scoop on emerging fuel technologies.

Hydrogen fuel cells

As we reported last June, big automakers have started making serious investments in hydrogen-powered FCVs. In the U.S., Hyundai rolled out its Tucson Fuel Cell SUV in 2014, and Toyota will launch its aptly named Mirai FCV in fall 2015 (“mirai” means “future” in Japanese). Honda’s also planning to launch an FCV in 2015.

In the past, the difficulty and expense of creating hydrogen fuel presented problems for FCV development. Our previous post highlighted new, cost-effective ways to generate hydrogen from water. Since then, the most promising method that emerged is a device called the “artificial leaf,” which mimics the way plants convert sunlight into energy. When dipped in water and exposed to sunlight, the leaf device breaks apart water molecules to produce hydrogen.

What’s new: the artificial leaf

The artificial leaf was first introduced in 2011 by a professor from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. However, that first leaf quickly degraded after a few hours in water. In 2014, researchers at the Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis added a thin coating of titanium dioxide to the leaf, allowing it to work efficiently for thousands of hours without degrading.

Other artificial leaf innovations have, er, sprouted up as well. In late 2014, chemists at Berkeley Lab announced progress on their device, made of semiconductor nanowires. They say their system is freestanding and can be inexpensively scaled up.

These innovations may help solve the problem of producing hydrogen cheaply, cleanly, and at a commercial scale. But there’s still the challenge of getting this technology into a fuel cell car near you.

For now, at least, you’ll need to be in California. There are currently 9 hydrogen fuel stations open and 49 in development in the state. The California Fuel Cell Partnership says 100 stations are needed in order to create a self-sustaining market. A report by the University of California, Davis, estimates this is possible within 5 to 7 years.

Other states are getting in on the action — there are stations in Columbia, South Carolina, and Wallingford, Connecticut. And Toyota has agreed to help develop hydrogen fuel stations in the northeastern U.S.

Gasoline from garbage

Fuel cell cars are cool — but what if you drive the plain old gas-powered version?

In August 2013, we wrote about 2 companies, KiOR and INEOS Bio, that produced commercial amounts of cellulosic ethanol from nonfood plant material. The ethanol was intended for use in flex fuel vehicles and also potentially in ordinary vehicles.

While revolutionary technologies are often very promising, they don’t always pan out. KiOR recently filed for bankruptcy. INEOS Bio remains operational and committed, but isn’t producing much yet.

However, there’s been a lot of buzz about converting plastic waste into fuel. This technology uses nonrecycled (and often unrecyclable) plastic, which would otherwise end up in landfills.

What’s new: plastic potential

A recent study found that if all nonrecycled plastic material in the U.S. was turned into energy, it could produce enough gasoline to power almost 9 million cars a year.

Commercial production facilities are currently open in Salt Lake City, Utah, and Niagara Falls, New York; 2 more are under construction in Ohio; and several others are in development.

But this fuel source also has its challenges. Plastic-to-fuel technology isn’t universally considered renewable energy, so it doesn’t always meet regulations or qualify for funding. And though the process itself doesn’t create a lot of emissions and the fuel burns more cleanly than traditional fossil fuels, it still generates some greenhouse gases.

From the artificial leaf to the potential of plastic, one thing’s for sure ­— there’s no shortage of innovators trying to come up with new ways to power our transportation. As a company with an eye on the future (always), we can definitely get behind that.

Related links

The Car of Tomorrow (You Have to See It to Believe It)

Ethanol From Trash: Is the Garbage-Fueled Car Finally Here?

Are Hydrogen Fuel Cells the Wave of the Future?

Recycle or Trash? Proper Waste Disposal of Tricky Items

Smart technology


about Ellen

Ellen has spent many years as a professional wordsmith, helping to shed light on such topics as world travel, cargo pants, and the porosity of bath tiles. As a freelance copywriter for Esurance, she brings her boundless curiosity to the world of insurance. Outside work, she can be found cheering on the San Francisco Giants, hiking in the Oakland hills, and (barely) resisting smuggling penguins home from Antarctica.