Skip to content
Surprising Science

Hope on the Energy Front?

As with anything else, there’s good news and there’s bad news.

The bad news is that the earth is continuing to heat up—this past decade was in fact the hottest decade ever recorded in the history of science. Last year, China surpassed the United States as the largest producer of carbon dioxide, and India is not going to be too far behind as it continues to industrialize. This of course is going to put an enormous strain on the atmosphere of the planet Earth. So, in a nutshell, the nations of the world simply don’t have their act together. We can only hope that in time, the nations of the world will strive to make changes that affect future generations for the better.

However, there is also some good news to this story.

First of all, the price of solar hydrogen continues to drop. Renewable technologies are not yet cheaper than fossil fuels, but they are approaching fast and getting very close. I personally believe that within 10 years to 15 years at the maximum, the price of solar hydrogen will drop to the point that it will in fact cross the curve for the rising cost of fossil fuels. So when the declining cost of solar hydrogen intersects with the rising cost of fossil fuels, we will reach the tipping point and a sea change will take place. At that point, it will be quite economical to go solar.

I should also point out that the plug-in hybrid car is already on the horizon and has been for quite some time. About 50% of energy use goes into transportation, and transportation of course burns off huge quantities of oil. But plug-in hybrids are going to be hitting the markets soon. Already, Chevrolet plans to release its version—called the VOLT—in 2011. A year later, Nissan plans to release the LEAF. Toyota also plans to up the ante by releasing an affordable, rechargeable version of its popular Prius hybrid in 2011, most likely as a 2012 model.

These plug-in hybrids have the advantage of relying on their electric batteries as a source of power for the first 50 or so miles. If you go beyond that, as a backup, there is the standard internal combustion engine. But most of your commuting, grocery shopping, and other errands are done during that window of 50 miles, meaning that you could essentially go completely electric. However, there’s a catch (there’s always a catch). That is: where does the electricity come from when you plug in the car? Ultimately, it comes from a power plant, and where do power plants get their electricity? Well in the short term, the answer is coal, and coal produces copious quantities of carbon dioxide. So don’t believe that the plug-in hybrid is going to save us completely.

There are, however, various strategies being designed to cope with this very problem. One potential short-term strategy is carbon dioxide sequestration and the implementation of carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology. This technology is still in the experimental stage, and we don’t know yet if CO2 can be taken from a coal plant and injected deep into the earth’s crust. According to the Department of Energy’s website, “CCS is the process by which CO2 is isolated from the emissions stream, compressed, and transported to an injection site where it is stored underground permanently.” (You can read the DOE’s Carbon Capture and Storage R&D Overview here.)

Another possibility is that of fusion power, and let’s face it, fusion power always generates some snickers among the general public. There are currently two fusion reactors that have a chance to achieve the overall goal. The first reactor is the National Ignition Facility (NIF) built by the Pentagon. The NIF has the possibility of, perhaps even this year, attaining breakeven—that is, creating more energy than it consumes. It consists of 192 laser beams that concentrate nearly two million joules of UV laser energy on a pellet smaller than the head of a pin. This tiny little pellet reaches temperatures hotter than the inside of the sun (100 million degrees Fahrenheit). In some sense, you have a small hydrogen bomb going off. It’s of course not dangerous because it’s smaller than the head of a pin, but it could eventually be the prototype for a working fusion reactor. You can read more about the National Ignition Facility (also known as the world’s largest and highest-energy laser) on the official website, where you can also take a virtual tour of the facility, watch a series of videos, and even view high-resolution photographs.

Another reactor, scheduled to be built in France and to go online around the year 2018, is called the ITER (originally the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor). It features an experimental design using hydrogen gas that is pressed and heated inside a doughnut-shaped magnetic field. The machine will be quite large—23,000 tons—when complete. As a reference point, view this image of the ITER and pay close attention to the man dressed in blue at the bottom right of the graphic.

While it’s still a dark horse, some experts think that by mid-century we may have fusion. In other words, the danger period could be the next 10 to 15 years, during which we will still generate a lot of C02—then we will eventually hit that tipping point at which we will shift to a focus on solar power, renewables, wind power, and geothermal power, to name a few.

Of course, it’s not a shoo-in by any means, but particularly if the cost of solar hydrogen keeps on dropping, there is still some hope for a clean energy future.


Up Next