Friday, August 22, 2008

Running Out of Oil

The Large Hadron Collider controversy got me thinking about big science projects and government spending in general. It would seem to me that the biggest crisis facing us right now in the science/technology realm isn't curing cancer, global warming, developing artificial intelligence or determining if there is life on Mars-its energy. People take energy for granted but we have a bigger problem that most people realize.

The general public seems to have the idea that if we generate all of our electric power from solar and wind, with maybe a little nuclear thrown in, everything is going to be fine. But that just isn't the case. Consider:

  • Petroleum isn't used all that much in power generation. In the year 2000 coal was used to generate 51.8% of power in the United States. Natural gas accounted for about 16% of power generation while petroleum only amounted to 3%.
  • The supply of nuclear fuels is finite. In fact the world supply of uranium is actually running out very rapidly. In fact the only hope for nuclear power over the long term is to reprocess spent nuclear fuel, something that would also solve the waste problem. In the universe at large, including our own solar system, there is probably more than enough uranium, but we're a long way from being advanced enough to make mining uranium on Mars for power generation on earth remotely cost-efficient.
  • Wind power is not very efficient. To power a large city you would need to cover a huge area of land, some 300 square miles. And although designs are getting better, wind turbines do kill lots of birds.
  • Solar power also isn't that efficient, and remains cost prohibitive.
  • A very important point: petroleum products are used across the board in modern society. They're used to make fertilizer, plastics, and what about asphalt? Petroleum products are ubiquitous in the modern world and how to replace all this really hasn't been part of the discussion.
So just getting electric cars and nuclear power with a few wind turbines thrown in isn't going to solve the energy crisis long term. As technology continues to improve, developments in photovoltaic cells will make solar power more attractive, as will the potential to store solar energy.

There is also too much focus on carbon emissions and "going green". Not that these aren't things that need to be addressed but wake up people. Running out of energy is a bigger crisis than global warming. What is needed right now is:

  • A recognition of how important this threat really is. There needs to be a national drive equivalent to the Manhattan project devoting most of our scientific energy to establishing a long-term energy future.
  • A stop-gap strategy should be put in place to decrease our use of petroleum while a major research push takes place that investigates alternatives to petroleum uses in products other that gasoline and power generation. Solar, wind, and nuclear will all be a part of this, as will cars powered by ethanol as well as electric cars.
  • Reprocessing of nuclear fuel needs to be utilized in the United States-its already going on overseas.
  • Instead of relying on a traditional model where power companies have large generating plants that distribute electricity and sell it to the masses, why not incorporate wind and solar power directly into individual structures. That way you don't have to worry about taking up more land for energy generation. Its already there directly built into human habitats.
A big hope for electricity generation in the future is nuclear fusion. Right now the world is forging ahead with the ITER nuclear fusion reactor. Fusion is largely the best hope for long-term energy generation, however, at present fusion remains totally experimental. More money and effort needs to be devoted to this area of research. A big joke in the nuclear fusion community is that fusion is always 25 years away from being practical. Time to recognize how serious the energy problem is and make nuclear fusion power plants a reality.

1 comment:

M. Simon said...

Actually you don't have to cover 300 sq. miles with wind turbines. Only about 1/4% of that i.e. about 1 sq mile. The rest can be used for crops.

And we are not running out of oil. The earth holds about a 100 to 200 year supply.

and then there is fusion power:

Fusion Report 13 June 008