By Francesco Turso
The Industrial Revolution has changed the face of our planet. The Earth heats up due to waste gases released into the atmosphere. Gas prices rise due to massive consumption of this fossil fuel worldwide. Nuclear power plants alleviate some of these problems, but at great risk to our environment. The world is now looking for better ways to fuel our civilization.
Biofuels have been around as long as cars have, however huge petroleum deposits kept these alternative fuels at bay due to cost. The rise in oil prices is causing people to rediscover these fuels as a possible alternative to gasoline. According to National Geographic, countries around the world are using various kinds of biofuels. For decades, Brazil has turned sugarcane into ethanol, and some cars there can run on pure ethanol rather than as additive to fossil fuels.
Biodiesel, a diesel-like fuel commonly made from palm oil, is generally available in Europe. However, the process of growing the crops, making fertilizers and pesticides, and processing the plants into fuel consumes so much energy that there is a debate about whether ethanol from corn actually provides more energy than is required to grow and process it.
Solar panels are a great way of producing electricity from the Sun, but they are notoriously inefficient. According to Scientific American, photovoltaic cells only transform 10 to 15 percent of the light that they collect into electricity. There is an alternative being studied at the University of Texas called Quantum Photovoltaics, these could boost the percentage to 60 percent. This would make solar panels much more efficient and alleviate part of the problem.
Clean Coal has been talked about recently as another viable mean of electricity. Scientific American calls coal “the cheapest and most plentiful energy resource in the U.S., and as the most carbon-heavy source, a major driver of climate change.” Scrubbing the gas that is produced is the process that makes coal “clean,” however this process uses up 30 percent of the energy created.
University of Notre Dame’s Energy Center has been using a liquefied form of salt in the scrubbing process which pulls in twice as much carbon dioxide. “Our modeling shows that we should be able to reduce the parasitic energy to 22 or 23 percent,” Joan F. Brennecke, director of the energy center, told Scientific American. “ Ultimately we’d like to get it down to 15 percent.”
Wind power has been used for centuries. Ancient Persians are believed to have been the first group to use windmills to turn grain grinding machines, the Dutch, of course, are also famous for their windmills. Wind is a clean source of renewable energy that produces no air or water pollution, and since the wind is free, operational costs are nearly zero once a turbine is erected.
People have complained of noise pollution created by these, but according to National Geographic the wind energy industry is booming. Globally, generation more than quadrupled between 2000 and 2006. At the end of last year, global capacity was more than 70,000 megawatts. In the energy-hungry United States, a single megawatt is enough electricity to power about 250 homes. A small turbine (a turbine is on a vertical axis and the blades look like a giant egg beater) in a backyard can produce enough electricity to power a home or small business.
With the scare of the Fukushima plant in Japan, many are shying away from nuclear power. Scientists at the National Ignition Facility in Livermore , California, have come up with a new twist; using fusion to drive fission. Director Edward Moses told Scientific American that this process may lead to prototype power plants in 20 years.
These plants would increase electricity production by 25 percent or more. Because fusion-fission plants do not have to rely on a chain reaction, other fuels can be used; including depleted uranium rods, a waste product of current nuclear power plants. Scientific American explains that these plants use up 90 percent of the fuel in the reactor, this would enable scientists to reduce the amount of nuclear waste we currently have. Moses agrees that there are still many daunting challenges to overcome, however he has “mapped out an aggressive development path to achieve them.”
As we continue to use electricity in today’s world, in is in our best interest to find alternative means of power. There is no “silver bullet” that will enable us to end the problem all at once, but rather a combination of various technologies that would enable us to quench our thirst for oil.