Hydrogen A Go-Go
The world's smallest oil refinery sits in a first-floor lab at MIT. Called a plasmatron, it looks a bit like a spark plug that ate too much. And what an appetite it has! MIT researcher Daniel Cohn has fed the plasmatron gasoline, diesel, even canola oil. Eagerly swallowing anything that burns, the device lets go with a belch of electricity that turns the fuel and surrounding air into plasma, a hot collection of charged atoms and electrons. What comes out is a hydrogen-rich gas that burns far more cleanly than garden-variety gasoline.
Cohn and his colleagues are betting a version of their device would work wonders on the family automobile. Tucked beneath the driver's door, a soup-can-size plasmatron could siphon off a fraction of the fuel traveling from the gas tank, refine it in just a second, then send it to the engine. Together, the charged-up gas and untreated fuel would burn so readily that the engine would in turn run more efficiently, producing only a fraction of the normal smog-causing pollutants. Best of all, the microplasmatron works with ordinary gasoline—no fancy new fuels required.
Engineers have known for years that adding hydrogen to fuel makes an engine run cleaner. "The trick was figuring out how to produce hydrogen quickly and compactly on board," Cohn says. He and his researchers got the plasmatron idea from colleagues working in metallurgy who mix hydrogen-rich gases with oxygen-rich compounds to extract metals. In miniature form, the plasmatron would function as a kind of super-carburetor.
The prototype plasmatron at MIT could convert about one-quarter of a typical automobile's fuel into hydrogen. Enough, Cohn says, to cut emission of smog-causing nitrogen oxides by 90 percent. Having proven the plasmatron works in the lab, researchers now plan to try it in a stationary engine. If they're successful, the device could be cleaning up cars, trucks, and buses around the world in less than a decade.
Flying Smarter INNOVATOR: Charles Jorgensen, NASA Ames Research Center
If a bird becomes injured in flight, it tries to recover. If an aircraft's wing is damaged in flight, the plane may plummet. So Charles Jorgensen has worked to find a way to make airplanes more like birds, by giving them minds of their own. Intelligent flight, as he calls his software, is governed by a neural network inspired by studies of the brain.
Working with Boeing, Jorgensen's team has successfully tested the software on a modified F-15 fighter, and they plan to try commercial planes next.
High-Mileage Hybrid INNOVATOR: Takehisa Yaegashi, Toyota
Environmentalists frown on gasoline-guzzling autos because they emit too many pollutants, especially in cities. Customers have shunned electric cars for their high cost and limited range. So Toyota created something in between: the Prius, the world's first gasoline-electric hybrid.
At low speeds, it runs on an electric battery. When climbing hills or going faster than 18 miles per hour, the car switches to a gas engine. That combination gets 66 miles to the gallon in the city and emits half the carbon dioxide of conventional cars. Since its December 1997 debut in Japan, more than 20,000 Priuses have been sold, for about $17,000 each. Toyota plans to sell the auto here next year.