SEATTLE – Getting out from under the thumb of foreign oil producers and saying goodbye to polluting power plants could be just a couple of scientific breakthroughs away.
Some of the brightest minds on the planet are working on solutions to the energy crisis, ranging from harnessing the power of the sea to recreating solar fusion in a doughnut-shaped tube.
But all of these new technologies have a common downside: They don't come cheap, at least not yet.
Since the dawn of the atomic age, scientists have dreamed of colliding hydrogen atoms to create energy.
Unlike nuclear fission, which carries the threat of deadly fallout, fusion is safe. It relies on water heated to 100 million degrees and a magnetic field.
"It has the most potential energy, the most energy available of any technology," says Tom Jarboe, a physics and aeronautics professor at the University of Washington. "Essentially, you could heat the earth with it if you wanted to."
The U.S. government has invested $1.2 billion in the ITER Project , an international research and development project that aims to demonstrate the scientific and technical feasibility of fusion power.
Participating in the project are the European Union, Japan, China, India, South Korea, Russia and the U.S.
Construction on a fusion plant is set to begin in 2008 and is expected to last eight years.
Another idea that's closer to reality is turning biomass into fuel.
Wood chips, corn stalks and food scraps all contain energy. Scientists at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory are working on ways to use fungus to speed up the process of breaking down the biomass.
Researchers say there are 1.3 billion dry tons of biomass produced annually in the U.S., enough to fill up half the cars in America if it is converted to fuel.
But there are significant production hurdles.
"Our energy use is so large, this isn't something you can do in everyone's garage," says Jud Virden of the PNNL. "It needs to be scaled so it can fit into the nation's infrastructure, so there's quality of fuels and consistency."
Scientists are also looking to the skies, where NASA and Defense Department engineers are exploring the possibility that orbital platforms might one day beam solar energy back to earth.
The Pentagon's National Security Space Office (NSSO) wants to build a platform in geosynchronous orbit that would be larger than the International Space Station and capable of beaming 5 to 10 megawatts of power to a receiving station on the ground.
Military leaders envision using the technology to power troop operations in remote locations.
Other scientists are trying to capture wind power from the upper atmosphere. And back on Earth, scientists are working to harness the power of ocean tides.
"It's clean and renewable, no volatility in gas or oil prices," says Steve Klein, general manager of Snohomish Public Utility District in Washington State. "Mother nature provides the fuel for free."
Of all the alternatives to fossil fuels, tidal power is the closest to becoming a reality. Wave energy could be contributing to the power grid in five years, and by 2050 it could account for 10 percent of the nation's electricity.