The Energy Enigma
All it takes is one quick glance at the cityscape to realize how energy-dependent the modern world has become. Massive networks of power lines dominate the streets of every metropolis, eternally present in chaotic jumbles that hang dangerously close to the ground. Flocks of pigeons mingle on the endlessly long black cables, supported by thin electricity poles, never more than ten meters apart in their spacing. It is almost as if nobody can rid power lines from their sight. A single free particle called an electron travels along one of the many untarnished copper wires inside the cable’s rubber casing, transfers its electrical energy to an appliance, and returns through the loop of wire. Each cubic centimeter of copper contains around 10^29 free electrons—the same as the population of people who could live on ten quintillion earths! In the modern age, the ability to harness electricity is fundamental to the function and development of our society. As the global population continues to grow, our electricity demand will only continue to increase. We must therefore find a sustainable and efficient way to ensure that everyone around the world has an ample supply of electricity.
Far, far away from the metropolitan cable networks are energy sources. In essence, energy sources convert a form of energy accessible through natural resources into electrical energy. The most well-known energy sources include fossil fuels, wind, solar, and nuclear power, all of which fall into one of two categories: non-renewable or renewable. Unfortunately, the raging debate on energy production is oddly opinionated and political. Many environmentalists and news agencies have taken firm stances on which method they believe is the most suitable for the future of humanity. However, the unfortunate reality is that no ideal energy source exists—at least not yet. Every energy source has its pros and cons, but the world needs a reliable supply of electrical energy that does not harm the environment or accelerate climate change. Humanity’s frantic search for an energy source that is environmentally friendly, cost-effective, and reliable, may continue over the next few centuries. This article will critically evaluate several methods of energy production in terms of environmental and economic feasibility, in order to determine the best ways in which humanity can generate sufficient electricity while being conscious of the fragile environment.
1: Fossil Fuels
Fossil fuels include coal, oil, and natural gas—the remnants of decomposed plant and animal matter. These fuels are present in the earth’s crust and contain hydrogen and carbon, which can be burned to produce high-pressure steam, which spins a turbine, producing electrical energy. Fossil fuels are a non-renewable energy source, meaning they come in a finite supply.
According to the National Academies of Sciences, “81 percent of the total energy used in the United States comes from coal, oil, and natural gas.” There is a reason why the use of fossil fuels overshadows the use of any renewable energy source—they are inexpensive, efficient, and reliable. Fossil fuels played a fundamental role in driving the industrial revolution and transforming the human race into a technologically advanced society. The world has been burning away at lumps of charred rock and combustible fuels since the late 1800s, meaning infrastructure has been given plenty of time to develop and industrialize. Fossil fuels are abundant in rich deep veins all over the world, meaning all nations can easily access them. The process is also extremely efficient—most power plants have the capacity to generate massive amounts of energy in comparison to most renewable energy sources. Most fossil fuel power plants operate at 35-45% efficiency. Fossil fuels can also be transported easily and effectively over long distances, while other natural resources, such as sunlight and wind, are unmovable.
Although fossil fuels have driven humanity forwards up until the present, we cannot rely on them in the future for many obvious reasons. Firstly, fossil fuels come from organic matter deep underground from organisms that roamed the earth millions of years ago. This is why they are classified as non-renewable resources. Once we use them all up, we cannot produce any more—not unless we wait another many million years for more to form. According to Worldometers, “we will run out of oil in 47 years, natural gas in 52 years, and coal in 133 years.” This means that to boost electrical energy production, sustainable and inexhaustible resources will be required.
The major disadvantage of fossil fuels is the massive pollution that their associated power plants produce. In the last 20 years, the burning of fossil fuels has accounted for almost three-fourths of the world’s emissions. The emissions include “CO2, SO2, toxic heavy metals, cadmium, arsenic, and mercury,” which can contaminate the water, soil, and air. The emissions trigger the enhanced greenhouse effect and accelerate climate change, which makes the burning of fossil fuels a major disadvantage.
Because of such consequences, scientists have done thorough research into possible ways to mitigate the environmental impacts of burning fossil fuels. For instance, researchers at the United States Department of Energy and Stanford University are trying to make oil drilling and coal burning cleaner for the environment by using greener technology. A promising solution is to use more natural gas, as it “emits 50 percent less carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than coal does”. Our modification of traditional practices is a step in the right direction, but the truth is that carbon emissions can never be removed from the process. The bottom line is that fossil fuel combustion is the primary cause of climate change and we should retreat from these practices eventually.
We seldom hear about the positives of fossil fuels, which is why it is important to consider the benefits: they are inexpensive, effective, and reliable. However, the tradeoffs are their major contributions to climate change and pollution. The mere sight of the words “fossil fuels'' elicits a strong sense of fear and hatred in most people, as they are not the greenest option available. We are still heavily dependent on fossil fuels today and have no choice but to keep the power plants running to support the world’s high demand for electricity—that is, until cleaner, renewable alternatives can be developed enough to support the expanding global population just the same.
2: Wind and Solar Power
Out in the countryside, where the sun shines and the wind blows through wide open fields, are wind and solar farms. Gusts of wind exert torque (the rotational equivalent of force) on the blades of wind turbines, which rotates a generator, producing electrical energy. Solar panels absorb radiant energy from sunlight and transform it into electrical energy, which can then be transported to the national grid. This is more sustainable because wind and sunlight are renewable resources and thus will exist for as long as humanity prevails.
Wind and solar farms are highly esteemed by many environmentalists and climate activists—why wouldn’t they be? Sunlight and wind are completely free, abundant worldwide, and are renewable resources. The operation of wind and solar farms does not damage the environment at all; no carbon dioxide emissions, no chemicals leaked into the environment, and not the slightest trace of any pollution. Their running costs are low and getting cheaper every year. It seems as if they may be the key to a prosperous future, free of environmental repercussions ... but are they really?
A mere 2% of the world’s energy is supplied by wind and solar farms, which is peculiar as both technologies are over a century old. There is a dark side to wind and solar farms, one that is seldom heard of. Frankly, we are uncertain as to whether or not renewable energy alone will be enough to power such a rapidly expanding population.
On the Tibetan Plateau in Eastern China lies the largest solar farm in the world, consisting of 4 million solar panels. It spans over 27 square kilometers and has the capacity to produce 850 MW (megawatts) of power. Compare this to a single coal-fired power plant: most of them have the capacity to generate quantities of power ranging from 3,000 to 7,000 MW. Solar panels are not only inefficient when compared to the burning of fossil fuels (most solar panels being below 20% efficiency), but vast expanses of land are required to produce anywhere near the same amount of power as a typical coal-fired power plant could.
Similarly, a single wind farm produces around 250-600 MW of power, and on average, 50 MW per acre of land. Also, only 3% of the land in a wind farm is actually used for the placement of wind turbines. If the world were to be solely dependent on current wind and solar technology, major habitat destruction would be required to clear enough land to accommodate a sufficient number of wind turbines and solar panels, just to be able to supply the power that society demands. The installation of these farms could also disrupt ecosystems and local communities, leading to retaliation and backlash against renewable energy projects.
The primary reason for this inefficiency is weather-dependency: solar panels only operate when sunlight can reach them, and wind turbines only operate when the wind is blowing at them. These methods of energy production are relatively unpredictable, as weather is largely uncontrollable. Additionally, there is no way to increase power supply in times of peak demand. These are times of the day when citizens use electricity the most (typically in the morning and evening). In other words, it is impossible to force the generators to run when the weather is uncooperative, while a great number of people require them to do so for electrical power.
Despite the fact that wind and solar farms have low running costs and do not damage the environment during their operation, they have high upfront costs, and manufacturing them does produce pollutants—far more pollutants than would be expected of “green energy sources”. Solar panels require rare metals and plastic to produce, and National Geographic reports that “production also requires sodium hydroxide and hydrofluoric acid”. There are certain solar cells that require expensive and scarce metals, such as copper indium gallium selenide (CIGS) and cadmium telluride (CdTe). As for wind turbines, they require massive amounts of steel and concrete. However, although manufacturing wind and solar farms is harmful to the environment and can contribute to climate change, the impacts only occur during the extraction and production processes. Solar panels and wind turbines can operate effectively for 20-30 years, during which no greenhouse gases are emitted. Fossil fuels are thus more detrimental to the environment than most renewable sources: they continuously emit greenhouse gases during their operation, unlike their cleaner counterparts.
Renewable energy sources are usually looked at uncritically by many environmentalists. It is paramount to weigh the pros and cons of these energy sources carefully before jumping to conclusions (which occurs far too often regarding the topic of energy sources). Wind and solar energy may eventually take over the energy production industry in the future, but as of right now, further research is necessary to make them cleaner and more efficient. As much as it hurts to say this, renewable energy is far from ideal. With climate change looming on the horizon and land availability shrinking, renewable energy may not be as perfect as we may have hoped. Perpetuating the use of fossil fuels may leave our planet vulnerable to climate change, which could potentially terminate the human race, so alternative renewables should be brought into use—but they must be developed rapidly in order to reduce the severity of their disadvantages. Nevertheless, there is one energy source that remains to be discussed as a potential candidate for a brighter future.
3: Nuclear Power
Nuclear power was invented in 1951, so it is the most recent innovation out of all of the energy sources discussed, and the power plants are easily recognizable by their hyperbolic cone-shaped cooling towers. The fundamental site for energy production is the nuclear reactor, which initiates and controls fission chain reactions. This is where particles called neutrons are fired at Uranium-235 nuclei, causing them to split into smaller daughter nuclei, releasing a tremendous amount of energy. This process of nuclear fission releases more neutrons that split other uranium nuclei, triggering what is known as a nuclear chain reaction. The energy released heats up water, producing steam, which spins a turbine, generating electricity. Nuclear fuel, which includes Uranium-235 and other radioactive metals, are considered non-renewable resources.
Nuclear power plants have some remarkable benefits. They are extremely efficient and reliable, generally more so than most fossil fuel power plants. Most operational power stations have a capacity in the range of 1,000 to 6,000 MW, with efficiencies ranging from 33% to 37%. Another notable feature is the specific energy of nuclear fuel, which is the energy stored per kilogram of fuel. The specific energy of coal is 24 MJ/kg, while the specific energy of Uranium-235 is 3,900,000 MJ/kg (megajoules per kilogram)! Because of this, only a tiny amount of uranium is needed to release a massive amount of energy, which is a result of Albert Einstein’s famous mass-energy equivalence formula, E = Δmc^2. Additionally, nuclear power plants do not release any carbon emissions during their operation, as other methods of non-renewable energy production do, making their environmental impacts similar to those of wind and solar energy. Both the high efficacy and low severity of environmental impacts of nuclear power make it an effective energy source.
As with all energy sources, there are imperfections. Unlike sunlight and wind, nuclear fuel is not inexhaustible; it is a non-renewable resource. Some studies claim that the world’s supply of uranium will be depleted in anywhere from 80 to 200 years if current mining rates are maintained. Others suggest that, with seawater uranium extraction and developments in reactor construction, nuclear fuel could last on Earth for another 4 billion years. These statistics have a massive numerical difference, so it would be prudent to first conduct further studies on uranium abundance in the earth’s crust, where undiscovered areas that are plentiful in uranium may be found. But even if uranium is abundant in supply, mining thereof is also an environmental hazard that must be taken into consideration.
Nuclear explosions, reactor meltdowns, and the famous icon of a black propeller against a yellow background all evoke images of catastrophe. Nuclear energy provides only 10% of the world’s electricity, as it is a relatively new innovation and has had the least time to develop. Without meticulous planning and research, accidents such as nuclear reactor meltdowns could destroy cities and claim multiple lives, much like the Chernobyl disaster. The immediate explosion in the Chernobyl reactor killed 31 people, and in 2005 it was predicted that “a further 4,000 might eventually die as a result of the radiation exposure”.
In contrast to this argument, the NASA Goddard Institute predicts that “nuclear power has prevented 1.84 million deaths that would have occurred if the energy was produced by fossil fuels. This is 370 times less than the number of lives lost due to nuclear power plant issues in the last 40 years”. Returning to the topic of fossil fuels, the emissions produced by their associated power plants are terrible for human health and can lead to respiratory illnesses. Nuclear power plant accidents, however, occur much less frequently than people may think. This situation is similar to how people fear airplanes due to the risk of crashing but do not fear cars, despite the latter having higher vehicle accident rates. Furthermore, the mainstream media's portrayal of nuclear power plant accidents in films as catastrophic and apocalyptic events has sparked fear amongst audiences, especially after Godzilla and the China Syndrome were released to the public.
‘Radioactive waste’ is yet another term that induces fear—it is the more sinister name for the daughter nuclei produced in a nuclear fission reaction. Radioactive waste is encapsulated in large storage tanks and must be stored well below the biosphere in order to prevent radiation exposure. Through a process called deep borehole disposal, the radioactive waste is packed together and disposed of deep below the ground. Although this seems like a major issue, disposing of radioactive waste is far more manageable than controlling the emissions produced by burning fossil fuels. It is better to store waste underground where it cannot harm the environment and people. Furthermore, “96% of this waste can be recycled to make new fuel for more fission reactions,” making it useful and not a complete waste after all.
But the radioactive waste disposal process can be very costly. In fact, the upfront costs of nuclear power plants altogether are extremely high: they lie in the range of “$5,500/kW to $8,100/kW or between $6 billion and $9 billion for each 1,100 MW plant” (Schlissel, 2008). This may pose problems for lesser developed countries looking to build nuclear facilities.
Overall, nuclear power is very close to ideal, yet still problematic in some ways. Many people are against nuclear power, as they are concerned about safety and expenses, while others believe it to be a worthwhile modern alternative to more outdated energy sources. It may not be as environmentally friendly as renewable energy, considering the involvement of uranium mining, building the power plant, and radioactive waste. Nuclear reactor accidents may also occur, but the risk can be diminished with careful planning and development. In addition, it may be one of the most expensive energy sources, but it is carbon-free, exceptionally reliable, and one of the very best candidates for a sustainable future.
It seems that there are major disputes in the mainstream involving the discussions about which methods of energy production are most suitable to move forward with. After conducting elaborate research into fossil fuels, wind and solar, and nuclear energy, it is evident that many news agencies and educators frequently approach their arguments in a narrow-minded fashion and cherry-pick evidence that supports the energy source towards which they are biased. Arguments have been spewing all over the internet, with contradicting statistics, false claims, unreliable sources, and more. But now is not the time to bicker. The earth is subject to climate change and the global population is rising at an exponential rate. Humanity must find a solution more quickly than ever—before the fossil fuel industry chokes the world with pollution, before the renewable energy industry envelops every last field and shore, and before the nuclear industry turns cities radioactive. These flaws can be eliminated, or at least mitigated, through research and experimentation, but not through political debates and inducing fear in the mainstream. So, will the drawbacks to existing energy sources ever be managed, or are there better energy sources out there that we have not yet discussed?
As it turns out, there are. Einstein’s mass-energy equivalence formula, E = Δmc 2, indicates that a small mass can be converted into a tremendous blast of pure energy, due to the proportionality constant of the speed of light squared, equal to 9 x 1016 m2 s-2. According to this equation, a cat with a mass of 5 kg should be able to power the entire country of Norway for a year, requiring approximately 4.2 x 1017 J of energy. But harnessing this energy is not a simple task.
The world, the solar system, and most of the universe we live in is overwhelmingly composed of particles of matter. But most particles have antimatter counterparts, which have an opposite charge but are identical in every other sense. When a particle of matter collides with a particle of antimatter, the two undergo pair annihilation, where both particles completely annihilate one another and a huge blast of energy is released. This energy is equal to the product of the masses times the speed of light squared, 2Δmc 2. This hypothetical method of energy production would be superior to any existing method as “the reaction of 1 kg of antimatter with 1 kg of matter would produce 1.8×1017 J”. However, antimatter is scarce in this universe. The value of antimatter is predicted to be “about $62.5 trillion per gram”. It is almost certain that, despite our advanced technology, we may never be able to find a single atom of antimatter during our period of existence in the universe.
In a short glimpse of the twilight sky, you may be able to see thousands of stars that are light-years away with only the naked eye. In the daytime, the sun, the closest star to Earth, radiates energy towards us. Stars are churning spheres of gas that produce vast amounts of energy through nuclear fusion. In this process, nuclei of deuterium and tritium (isotopes or variants of hydrogen) are fused together to form helium nuclei, releasing unparalleled amounts of energy without releasing any emissions! Here on Earth, we use nuclear fission reactions in nuclear power plants to harness energy. Nuclear fission, however, does not release anywhere near as much energy as nuclear fusion does. So why is nuclear fusion not an option? Misfortune strikes us again, as sustainable nuclear fusion is unachievable on Earth. This is because we would need a star-like environment to perform the reactions, an environment with temperatures greater than 10 million degrees Celsius and with pressure 340 billion times the earth’s atmospheric pressure! Simply put, these conditions are impossible to replicate on Earth, and, of course, we cannot just take a trip to the Sun.
The most plausible solution to the earth’s energy enigma would be to develop nuclear power and renewable energy as rapidly as possible. These forms of energy are getting cheaper and more reliable as time goes on, but the rate of progression must accelerate. When renewable energy becomes as good as we can make it, it may overtake nuclear energy, should the earth’s supply of nuclear fuel eventually deplete. But if the low reliability of renewable energy is set in stone, we may have to search for new methods of energy production that are closer to flawlessness. The development of the fossil fuel industry, however, must be derailed soon, before it can bolster the effects of climate change to the absolute worst.
So, the next time you take a pleasant stroll on a city sidewalk, just take a moment to consider the cobwebs of power lines above your head and remember that energy does not materialize out of thin air. We are in desperate need of a way to harness it sustainably, reliably, safely, and cheaply—even if we do not yet realize just how pressing the issue really is. While theoretically perfect methods of energy production such as nuclear fusion and pair annihilation do exist, they seem to be far out of our reach.
But if we were somehow lucky enough to have access to antimatter or nuclear fusion here on Earth, that would be lovely.
That would be really, really lovely.
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