General Motors engineer John Bednarchik points a smoke wand to the nose of a 2013 Chevy Malibu to test air flow. Reducing aerodynamic drag is just one way automakers around the world are ramping up fuel economy.
Gasoline consumption in the developed world is seen as leveling off due to mileage standards in the United States that will force automakers to double the average efficiency of their fleets to 54.5 miles per gallon (23 kilometers per liter) by 2025, and in the European Union, to achieve 57.4 mpg (24.4 km/l) by 2020. (See "Pictures: A Rare Look Inside Carmakers' Drive for 55 MPG.")
The next phase, designing tomorrow's cars, has inspired seasoned experts and a new generation alike. Auto engineering guru Gordon Murray, who designed championship race cars for a living, is now hoping to use weight-shaving techniques from the track in more fuel-efficient consumer autos. (See "Formula One Legend Murray Sets Course for Energy-Efficient Car Design.")
A teal fringe along the Louisiana coastline is the enormous low-oxygen "dead zone" that forms in the Gulf of Mexico each September. Research is inconclusive on whether the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon disaster, the worst oil spill in U.S. history, has worsened the hypoxic area formed by Mississippi River agricultural runoff. But studies have tracked the oil's impact on zooplankton, some marshes, and other aspects of the ecosystem. (See "Gulf Spill Pictures: Ten New Studies Show Impact on Coast.")
While studies continue on long-term impacts, in some cases visible reminders remain all too clear. Even now, scientists say, sticky tar balls of oil from the Macondo well wash up on Gulf beaches after storms. (See "BP Oil Spill's Sticky Remnants Wash Up Sporadically.")
The spill's impact on the business of drilling is also murky. After BP agreed to pay the highest criminal penalty in U.S. history, $4 billion, to settle charges stemming from the spill, the U.S. Government temporarily barred the company from government contracts, including new leasing in the Gulf of Mexico. However, BP still holds 700 existing Gulf leases, which will not be impacted, and plans to invest $4 billion a year there over the next decade. (See "BP Excluded From Sale of New U.S. Leases for Gulf Oil and Gas.")
Photograph by NASA-GSFC, Science Faction/Corbis
Fuel Subsidies Spur Energy Waste
Residents of the United Arab Emirates enjoy two perks—cheap gas to power SUVs and sandy deserts for putting them through their paces. While drivers in much of the world feel increasing pain at the pump, the UAE is home to some of the world's cheapest gasoline thanks to high government subsidies—almost $2,500 per person in 2010.
Such subsidies mean less cash in government coffers, and they also encourage more consumption of finite, greenhouse gas-emitting fossil fuels. But efforts to cut the era of cheap fuel aren't met with enthusiastic responses. In some places, such as Nigeria, subsidy rollbacks have hit low-income people hard, leading to protests and even violence. (See "Nigeria's Rocky Effort to Wean Itself From Subsidized Fuel.")
Farmers use huge amounts of electricity to tap underground water sources and pump fluids to their fields. Subsidized by governments, many are using too much power, producing too many emissions, and depleting finite ground water at an unsustainable rate. (See "Growing Food Demand Strains Energy, Water Supplies.")
But other synergies between water and energy may lead to creative, sustainable solutions. Scientists are working to tap the energy that's currently poured down our drains in the form of hot laundry, shower, and dishwasher waste. Some experts estimate that enough energy to power 30 million American homes—about 350 billion kilowatt-hours—is sent down the sewers each year. (See "Waste Wattage: Cities Aim to Flush Heat Energy Out of Sewers.")
A Milton, Massachusetts, man taps into an ancient energy source that is enjoying a newfound surge of popularity: wood.
In some parts of the United States, particularly New England, Colorado, and the Pacific Northwest, consumers are combating high fuel costs by supplementing their heat with wood-burning or pellet stoves. Pellet stoves use waste products like compressed mill sawdust in a system that burns cleaner than a traditional fireplace. (See "High Fuel Costs Spark Increased Use of Wood for Home Heating.")