Energy


Here in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, North America, we are soon to be beset with a series of elections: provincial, federal, then the American elections. Increasingly, the regular talking head set is appearing on our TV screens, talking not about labour and employment, but energy and the environment.

To my eye, this is an appropriate shift. Environmental or energy issues are long term; the traditional topics of the political season are transient. I’m glad that the mainstream, public forum is now –at least a bit– occupied discussing the larger, physical and scientific phenomena bearing down upon our species and planet.

The biggest such issue, in my opinion, is energy. Energy is everything. Theoretically, an overabundance of energy presents a technological solution to almost every other issue that besets us. It is possible, for instance, to transport all Earthly garbage to the dark side of the moon; all that is required is a sufficiently cheap source of energy. It is possible, as well, to provide unlimited fresh water by moving pure ice asteroids from outside Mars orbit; all that is required is some advancement in space engineering and, again, sufficient amounts of energy. Moreover, human-mediated Global Warming can be slowed, stopped and maybe even reversed if all human activity and industry were fueled by sufficient amounts of cheap, clean energy.

(Now, the purist physicist in me bristles whenever an adjective is attached to “energy”, as in “clean energy”. But you know what I mean.)

As you are all probably now screaming at me, the practical barrier to this Utopian view is that we cannot yet produce energy without exacerbating the very same issues I propose that energy can combat. Currently, most of our energy is either chemical (fossil fuels, burning wood) or nuclear. Hydroelectric and wind sources are not nearly as popular as many in the West think.

Let’s break down the current sources:

Nuclear
I’m on record as supporting the expansion of nuclear dependence in Canada. Contrary to nay sayers’ insistence, nuclear fission is a relatively clean option. It’s certainly cleaner than coal and oil, and can produce far more energy than hydroelectric sources and wind sources.

The problem, of course, is with safety and waste disposal. I’m not too worried about the safety of modern reactors, except in the case of terrorism or enormous natural disasters; but none of this is without risk. And I’m much more worried about the deleterious health consequences of smog and other byproducts of fossil fuel consumption, than I am of the dangers of nuclear waste.

Having said all that, the truth is that there is not enough fissable nuclear material in the world to supply even a noticeable fraction of the globe’s energy demands. More to the point, the mining and processing of uranium requires the burning of large quantities of fossil fuels. Despite all that, an interim move to nuclear power would provide temporary relief from the accelerating local environmental degradation and, more importantly, show us that a path away from fossil fuels is possible.

Wind and Hydro
Wind and hydro look good in theory. They are safe, clean and renewable sources. Here’s the problem: current and easily foreseen wind and hydro sources cannot even approach providing enough energy to run an industrial economy. Unlike jurisdictions to which it is often compared, like California or New York, Ontario must power several energy-hungry industries, like ore processing. Currently, only nuclear and coal can sufficiently augment the shortfalls of Ontario’s hydroelectric services.

So why not dramatically scale up wind and hydro production worldwide? Here’s where the basic science comes in. This energy is not free; it comes at a price. Hydro power is energy extracted from moving and falling water; its extraction alters the ways that rivers move. Wind power is taken from moving air; its extraction alters the way that air moves. At large scales, these “clean” sources will also affect the environment in unpredictable ways.

Oil and Coal
Not long term options.

Conservation
Don’t make me laugh. Calls for conservation as a long term solution are beyond naive. At best, conservation on a global level will slow the demand for energy, but such demand will inexorably rise, because our economies are dependent upon energy usage. Our civilizations would sooner collapse than to deny their economic wherewithal…. and collapse is not out of the question.

So where does that leave us? Well, sort of screwed, to be honest. But there are a few possible technological solutions that are not entirely within the realm of science fiction:

Casimir Energy
Theoretical physics allows for two related concepts, the Casimir Effect and Zero Point Energy. The details are difficult, but the upshot is that these theoretical constructs are driving some of the more obscure innovators to develop fuel cells that extract this seemingly free, endless and clean energy.

Fusion
Controlled nuclear fusion has been a rational dream for decades. As most are aware, nuclear fusion is the process of joining two atomic nuclei. It is the energy that fuels the sun; all stars are essentially giant fusion reactors. It is also the process employed by the so-called hydrogen bomb.

Fusion produces no radioactive waste, and depending on what is fused, might produce plain water as a byproduct. It is, however, an EM radiation source, which can be easily contained with today’s technology.

All efforts at sustained, controlled fusion have failed. But lots of people are still trying. Many respectable global consortia are still at it. Like these guys.

Matter-Antimatter Reaction
We all remember that the starship Enterprise is powered by antimatter, which is magnetically held separate from real matter in the nacelles of the starship, with the reaction between the two controlled by “dilithium”. All fun and fanciful, but not that unrealistic, at least in its basic concept.

Antimatter is the conceptual and polar opposite of matter. It is real. It exists. In fact, one of the great mysteries of theoretical physics is why there isn’t more natural antimatter in the universe. At the Big Bang, it is presumed that matter and antimatter existed in equal quantities. So where did all the latter go?

Presently, scientists can produce minute quantities in laboratory conditions. But imagine the process could be done on an industrial scale, and without too much energy expenditure. The resulting potential energy output is mindboggling.

Power Satellites
Along with nuclear fusion, this option is the most realizable in the short term. The only barrier to its implementation is the formulation of a way to construct and launch the things cheaply. Essentially, a powersat is a satellite placed in high Earth orbit to collect pure sunlight on its photosensitive arrays, then to beam that energy back to the Earth in the form of microwaves, whereupon the energy is converted to electricity for human usage.

Conceptually, a network of powersats placed around the world could remove our need for any other kind of energy. Think about it: all energy in our solar system –wind, fossil, hydro– are all ultimately solar in their source. And the Earth only collects a minute fraction of the total solar output; most of it radiates into empty space. Using our space technology to harvest more of that free, clean energy seems a fairly obvious way to go.

The problem? Our space technology is not quite advanced enough to build these things in anything resembling the scale required. It’s taken a massive global effort decades and billions to build one crappy space station. To build hundreds of powersats, each hundreds of times bigger than the space station, requires an enormous economic and political investment.

Then there’s the practical environmental question of whether a hundred satellites beaming down a constant stream of microwaves from space is a good thing. I don’t know if anyone has done the math.

A Last Word About Oil
It’s worth pointing out that one of the biggest challenges in finding an energy replacement for oil is that oil is an economic supercharger: you can put it in your ships, factories, homes, cars and aircraft carriers. Oil allows you to build an industrial economy from scratch. The same might not be said of the other energy sources I’ve listed here.

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