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It just makes sense. In this day and age of innovation, why can’t we come up with a synthetic gasoline?

Maybe we have. Nate Lewis, a California Institute of Technology professor and solar energy researcher, has a plan to remake fuel as we know it. Mimicking the way plants turn sunlight and carbon dioxide in the air into energy and oxygen, the Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis (JCAP) at Caltech wants trump nature and slow global warming.

“If we couldn’t get to that, we wouldn’t be doing it,” Lewis said.

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The effort comes with $122 million of U.S. Energy Department funds and combines the talents of 120 scientists at Caltech; Stanford University; the University of California’s Berkeley, Irvine and San Diego campuses; and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

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Just a few years ago, all-electric cars seemed too good to be true. Now Tesla Motors Inc., which makes only battery-powered vehicles, has a higher market value than some old-line automakers, such as Suzuki Motor Corp. and Fiat SpA.

To revolutionize transportation fuel, Lewis has a two-step plan. Really, it’s two leaps.

First, the coalition aims to develop a system to make large amounts of hydrogen fuel using cheap solar-panel-like devices. Liquid or gaseous hydrogen, which can power super-clean fuel-cell cars, is a must for chemical plants and refineries.

Then comes the second leap: Applying that same research to a system that can blend the hydrogen fuel with carbon dioxide from the air, much as a plant does, to make liquid fuels that can power cars, heavy trucks, boats or aircraft. JCAP aims to get to that point by the mid-2020s, Lewis said.

Synthetic, carbon-free gasoline won’t come easy, quick or cheap.

Research labs worldwide are racing to find renewable alternatives to petroleum. Some are private endeavors; others receive government funding. While some seek to make fuel from algae, corn or other crops, Lewis said such solutions require too much water or land needed for food production.

“The first five years of JCAP, our goal is to show that this can be done; to make the pieces, components, to build an artificial photosynthetic system,” Lewis said. That prototype “isn’t going to be commercializable, in the same way the Wright Brothers’ plane wasn’t a 747. We first have to show people there’s a there there.”

About five years after that, with “faster, better, cheaper” fuel-making technology, JCAP may be able to license its system to oil and energy companies, Lewis said.

The program is talking with potential industrial partners to help expand its analysis of promising “earth-abundant” materials needed for its solar-fuel distillery. Lewis declined to identify specific companies. JCAP’s technicians daily are testing hundreds of alloys made from metallic salts, seeking the optimal recipe of low-cost, light-absorbing materials and catalysts needed for hydrogen generation.

Urgency to increase low-carbon energy sources has intensified as extreme weather adds to concerns that heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere are making the Earth a less hospitable planet.

Engines in autos, trucks, aircraft and ships produced 28 percent of the 6.7 million metric tons emitted by the U.S. in 2011, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), trailing only electricity generation’s 33 percent.

A big hurdle for vehicles powered by fuel cells, such as those under development by Toyota Motor Corp. and Bayerische Motoren Werke (BMW), is the lack of a clean source of hydrogen fuel. The first part of Lewis’s plan should make it more plentiful and produce it in a much cleaner way than what normally occurs.

By 2020, JCAP technology could supply hydrogen needed for chemical plants and refineries, said William Royea, JCAP’s assistant director for strategy. Both use vast amounts of the gas — and emit large amounts of carbon when getting hydrogen from natural gas, the main industrial source.

“When gasoline-like fuel produced from this process is combusted, it’s only putting back the same CO2 used originally,” Lewis said. “It’s completely carbon neutral.”

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