Right now, energy surges within the Earth. It vibrates through the planet’s living systems. It explodes inside the burning stars across the cosmos. From these sources come more than enough energy to power our cities and homes, work and personal lives.
It’s already available, waiting to be made accessible. From the heat of the Earth’s iron core… to the movements of rain and tides, winds and waves… to the absorption of sunlight, and smarter use of the life that grows beneath it. Sooner than you think, biology will be reprogrammed to “grow” new energy (no, I’m not just talking about agriculture). Eventually, we’ll recreate and control the massive explosions that occur inside stars…
Sound fantastic? It is.
And can you believe how we tiny humans accomplish these big things?
We do it through the most subtle observations. Science can focus these little observations like rays of the sun until they are magnified. Consider how modern aviation came to be…
We harnessed a simple law. We found out that if you have slightly more air pressure under — rather than over — a curved wing…
You get lift…
And soon enough, liftoff!
The future belongs to those with business models that are not too attached to older tech. You should get in the habit of writing down — as a discipline — which technologies will change your business. And keeping in mind that evolution takes time, we picked seven sources of energy that new tech is launching forward. While some may be decades down the road, all of the energy sources we’ll review already show promise in the marketplace.
We start today’s issue in the future, and as our series continues, we’ll review back to now.
Power Source No. 1: Nuclear Fusion — Years 2050-2100
Technology has always been a double-edged sword. Fire for example can be used to cook your food and keep you warm. It can also be used for war. But few kinds of tech stand on the brink of humanity’s greatest hopes and deepest fears like nuclear energy.
In 2010, Professors Stephen Hawking and Brian Cox were both asked to name the most pressing scientific challenge facing humanity. They both gave the same answer: producing electricity from fusion energy. On one hand, a successfully operational fusion reactor would provide abundant, clean fuel. We could throw off the shackles of fossil fuels and give industries vast room to grow.
On the other hand, it is hard not to think of the atom bomb when you hear the word “nuclear”.
This isn’t just a man-versus-man conflict, however. Hiroshima and Nagasaki aside, what about the Fukushima Daiichi power plant explosions on March 11, 2011? Man versus nature hit Japan in the forms of both an earthquake and tsunami. Even with the highest engineering standards in the world, nuclear reactors were not wholly prepared. And let’s not forget Chernobyl and Three Mile Island.
To destroy is easy. To create takes more skill. You see it when someone stomps on a sandcastle they spent hours building. Turning a weapon of mass destruction (WMD) into a weapon of mass creation (WMC) takes more work. And more time. But it is possible to not only disarm nuclear weapons. It’s also possible turn them into productive forms of nuclear energy, as the U.S. has been doing with Russian warheads.
Now I should clarify… basically all nuclear plants today use fission… not fusion. The difference? Fission pulls molecules apart, while fusion slams them together… releasing big energy in the process. Fusion is, in essence, what our sun uses to create heat.
Fusion reactors are mostly experimental at several labs around the world. And the ones that do exist do not create more energy output than input. “By 2014-15, we will be setting new records here,” says Professor Steve Cowley at The Joint European Torus (JET), where physicists birth “mini-stars” about the size of a family car inside a 70-tonne steel vessel.
JET’s tokamak fusion reactor
Credit: EFDA JET
Here comes the sun…
According to Cowley, JET’s tokamak becomes “20 times hotter than the sun’s core and we produce an intense magnetic field, 1,000 times that of Earth’s normal magnetic field”.
The facility above has the record for the best-ever “shot” in 1997, for just two seconds. JET’s tokamak got up to 16 MW of fusion power from an input of 25 MW. “We hope to reach break-even point in five years. That will be a huge psychological moment,” he says. So we’ve made fusion happen, but there are no fusion reactors. But the staff at JET says there needs to be a near-constant 10 fold power gain for commercial reactors to be viable.
That’s why JET is giving all that they’ve learned to what’s going to be the next greatest effort to achieve nuclear fusion on the planet. It’s called the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER). At a cost of 15 billion euros, it’s funded by the EU, the US, China, India, South Korea and Russia. But it won’t be operating until 2020. And it won’t be commercially viable, producing electricity, until 2050.
In the words of Jan Vande Putte, Greenpeace International’s nuclear campaigner:
“Advocates of fusion research predict that the first commercial fusion electricity might be delivered in 50-80 years from now. But most likely, it will lead to a dead end, as the technical barriers to be overcome are enormous.”
But not everyone thinks so.
Here’s one reason to be optimistic about the future of nuclear fusion energy…
My favorite example of some of the people who are working to make nuclear energy a reality is Taylor Wilson, 17 year-old nuclear physicist. At age 14, he was the youngest person in the world to make nuclear fusion. Although energy input was stronger than output, learning how to create fusion in your garage with no instruction besides the Internet is not too shabby.
During a T.V. interview, Taylor Wilson showed them what’s called “yellow cake” in his vault. As you may know, this isn’t what you eat at a birthday party. It is what Saddam Hussein bought, which provided a big reason to go to war with Iraq.
Somehow… yellow cake isn’t illegal to have, though Taylor told the media that the Department of Homeland security keeps an eye on him.
But if Taylor learned all this at 14, simply by using the Internet, I am convinced that a future with nuclear energy in it is not just ideal or possible. It’s probable.