Silicon Valley redirects its energies to clean fuels

PALO ALTO, Calif. — Silicon Valley has emerged from the year-2000 technology bust with a new mission: finding clean-energy technologies that will free the U.S. from its reliance on imported oil and rid the atmosphere of emissions that may be warming the planet.

The devotion of some of the nation’s top scientific minds and many billions of dollars in venture funding to such important yet elusive goals is raising optimism that solutions will be found in time to prevent an international or environmental calamity potentially caused by the growing use of fossil fuels.

Under the Silicon Valley microscopes is an array of potential solutions, from cars powered by cleaner and domestically derived fuels such as hydrogen, ethanol, electricity and solar power, to potentially revolutionary film coatings made of nanostructured materials that could enable homes and offices to inexpensively generate much of their own heat and electricity from the sun’s rays.

Making any of these widely discussed options commercially viable will require breakthroughs in intricate technologies that Silicon Valley is uniquely capable of supplying.

The enticements for engineers and scientists working here in university laboratories, corporate research parks and backyard garages are plentiful: Whoever invents the technology that replaces the gasoline-driven car or coal-fired power plant will not only be a national hero but most likely also become one of the world’s next billionaires.

“A lot of people are working on it,” said Brian Cheung, a Stanford University engineering graduate student who helped design a solar-powered car that relies on computer chips and batteries to store far more solar energy than once was thought possible. Like many young technicians devoting themselves to the task, he is confident that alternatives to gas-powered cars are just around the corner.

Basking in California’s bright, sunny climate, it is not hard to imagine the possibilities. The state already is leading the nation in mandating the use of alternative fuels and renewable technologies. Recently, it enacted far-reaching legislation requiring massive cuts in carbon-dioxide emissions from cars and power plants within 15 years — apparently relying on hope that new technologies will make that possible without imposing painful conservation measures on drivers and consumers.

“Now the people who brought you Silicon Valley are also stepping into energy,” said Daniel Yergin, chairman of Cambridge Energy Research Associates. He attributes the “great bubbling” of creative research and investment in alternative energy to high oil prices, which hit a record of $77 a barrel last summer. Rapidly escalating energy prices since 2002 have prompted the interest of entrepreneurs as much as they have exasperated consumers.

“They are stimulating the most widespread drive for technological innovation this sector has ever seen,” Mr. Yergin said.

Technicians and scientists are trying not only to find wholesale alternatives to conventional cars and power plants but also to make existing fuels and technologies more efficient and productive.

A major oil find nearly four miles under the Gulf of Mexico by Chevron in September was made possible by digital technologies once only dreamed of — “an extraordinary technological achievement,” Mr. Yergin said.

Renewable fuels such as wind and solar energy have “captured the public’s imagination” and have developed into a $40 billion global market driven by governmental mandates for their use in Europe and the United States, he said. But the biggest change from earlier efforts on alternative energies, he said, is the “rising funding and fervor that are going into innovation.”

Funding spigot gushes

Venture-capital investment in Silicon Valley reached $1.7 billion in the first three quarters of the past year — five times what it was two years earlier. Financiers there believe they can use the same kind of focused funding efforts that created the information and biotechnology industries to revolutionize the energy field.

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