Editor at ‘The Secrets Of The Universe’, I have completed my Master’s in Physics from India and I am soon going to join Institute of Space Sciences, Barcelona for my doctoral studies on Exoplanets. I love to write about a plethora of topics concerned with planetary sciences, observational astrophysics, quantum mechanics and atomic physics, along with the advancements taking place in the space industry.
Stars exhaust their nuclear fuel to produce energy. The human body needs food as its fuel to sustain its activities. We need different types of energy sources to run our vehicles and cook our food. In short, every phenomenon occurring in our universe needs energy, and to produce energy, we need fuel, or you can say, a source of energy!
Now talking about various human activities on Earth, humanity has long taken the canopy of fossil fuels like coal, oil, and natural gas as its primary energy sources. Even today, fossil fuels supply 80 percent of the world’s total energy consumption to warm homes, charge devices, and even power transportation. But they are also the primary human source of greenhouse gas emissions! Moreover, these fuels are not available in infinite quantities and take millions of years to get regenerated.
So, looking at these limitations, a need to have alternative energy sources has always been felt. When it comes to renewable energy sources, wind and solar energy are amongst the most famous. However, the Sun does not always shine, and the wind doesn’t always blow. Moreover, extracting energy from these sources is a costly affair. And this is the reason that despite the hype around the progress of renewable energy, solar and wind energy have only made a tiny dent in the energy mix so far.
But renewable energy is not only about wind and Su. Instead, several other sources and phenomenons can be used to fulfill our energy requirements cleanly and sustainably. Some ideas have been tried and tested, while some are very complex and are expected to become a reality in the future. So here is a list of some out of the box ideas to meet humankind’s energy requirements in the future:
1. Next generation nuclear power
As the energy demands multiplied in the past few decades, nuclear energy occupied a center stage in dealing with the energy crisis. At present, there are more than 400 nuclear power reactors that are operational in 30 countries worldwide. These reactors account for almost 14% of the total power generation of the world.
As the name suggests, nuclear energy is an outcome of a few nuclear phenomena. It is harnessed by either splitting (fission) or merging (fusion) the nuclei of two or more atoms. At present, nuclear fission is the primary method by which nuclear energy is being harnessed. Nuclear fission primarily employs uranium in the process of harnessing energy. If the current energy consumption rates are concerned, the uranium found in the Earth’s crust can last us about a century. However, it has been estimated that the energy consumption will triple in the next century, indicating that the available uranium resources will only last us for approximately 30 years.
So to deal with the limited reserves of uranium, researchers are looking for ideas to make up the compensation. One such idea involves the reprocessing of the fuel spent so far. The used fuel is rich in plutonium, and when it is combined with the leftover uranium, it can be reprocessed into a mixture known as MOX or Mixed Oxide Fuel.
This idea is expected to help in stretching the available uranium resources by a few more decades. However, the limited availability of fuel isn’t the only concern with nuclear fission. Another drawback is the disposal of harmful radioactive waste and the high cost of building nuclear power plants. Moreover, how can one ignore the disasters that minor failures in these nuclear power plants can lead to!
Considering all the dangers that fusion reactors expose us to, researchers have long searched for safer and cleaner technology solutions. One such idea includes nuclear reactors that are dozens or even hundreds of times smaller than the existing ones and are more distributed. There are also plans to develop nuclear reactors offshore, like the oil and gas industry’s floating platforms. As the reactor cores would actually be submerged beneath the platform, there would always be a fresh supply of cold seawater to cool the reactor core, thereby limiting accidents.
Apart from this, if there’s a Holy Grail of clean-energy generation, it’s undoubtedly nuclear fusion. The fusion reactions happening inside our Sun are the reason behind our existence. So if we can figure out to carry on the same kind of reactions that occur at the center of the Sun in a controlled way, we would be able to use fusion reactors to supply a whole lot of energy, and that too without producing dangerous nuclear waste.
Although this technology is still 30 years away from maturity, it is one of the best options available to deal with future energy requirements.
- The Challenges of Building a Nuclear Fusion Power Plant
- Nuclear Reactions Happening Within Stars
- The 7 Magic Numbers And Their Importance In Nuclear Physics.
2. Geothermal energy
It is a known fact that our home planet has numerous hot spots. Earth is incredibly hot at its core, and the volcanic eruptions are proof of this. So is there any way to utilize our planet’s inherent heat to meet our energy requirements? The answer is “Yes”!
To make the most of Earth’s heat energy, researchers in Iceland have spent several years digging into the volcanoes to access their boiling water and magma deposits. With this, the researchers aim to eventually develop these naturally high-temperature resources into far more efficient geothermal power stations.
Talking about the benefits of geothermal energy, how can one miss the fact that harnessing geothermal energy requires no fuel and minimal land. Moreover, the amount of heat trapped inside the Earth’s bed is so vast that even if we harness more energy than we require, it will still suffice for millions of years to come. This definitely makes geothermal energy a relatively cheaper and sustainable source of energy for future consumption.
It is expected that massive stores of heat energy are reachable just 1,000 meters below the seabed at the Juan de Fuca Ridge off the coast of Washington state. And if the efforts pay off, humanity would soon be able to gather much hotter geothermal resources around the globe that can produce 10 times as much energy as today’s geothermal facilities.
3. Space-based technologies
Okay! I agree that ideas like harvesting hydrogen from the moon to power fuel cells on Earth seem very absurd. Moreover, bold propositions to construct orbiting systems that would absorb direct sunlight continuously around the clock to beam it back to Earth still seem to be a content of science fiction. But what if these energy sources become a reality in the future? It would be an incredible achievement. Isn’t it?
And you would be amazed to know that both NASA and the U.S. Naval Research Lab have already started working on converting these fictional energy fantasies into reality. In May 2020, US Naval Research Laboratory conducted its first test of solar power generation in a satellite. With advancements in technology, solar-based solar power is edging closer to becoming a reality.
There are ideas to use huge mirror-like solar reflectors on satellites in orbit to concentrate energy from the Sun onto solar panels. Later, the collected solar energy will be converted into electromagnetic radiation that would be beamed back to Earth in either laser or microwave form with the aid of an antenna. Eventually, a rectifying antenna would be employed to collect the waves or electromagnetic radiations from lasers and convert them back into electricity.
With advancements in technology, such ideas would indeed take at least 25 years to get commercialized. Moreover, the ongoing contribution of private space agencies for more ambitious projects in space is expected to garner results in this regime of space-based energy sources. Undoubtedly, some exciting energy sources are on their way to us!
4. Biofuels and Biomass as energy sources
As the name suggests, these energy sources have biological components and include fuel from plant and animal sources. Biomass typically includes all kinds of combustible biodegradable waste that originate from plants and animals. For instance, oil and ethanol can be obtained from plants such as sugarcane, algae, poplar, and corn can even be used individually or in combination with other fuels like diesel and gasoline to generate energy and provide power.
Not only the green plants, even dry plant matter, including wood, leaves, and branches, are promising energy sources that can be burnt to generate energy. However, like all other energy sources, even biofuels have their limitations. To begin with, a large number of crops are needed to be grown to harvest the energy trapped in plants, which demands vast areas of fertile land. And not to forget, not all plant sources offer a high energy yield. And did I already mention the air pollution?
For a few years, scientists working with biological energy sources have continuously been conducting experiments to hybridize and genetically alter selective crops to make them more efficient and cleaner for providing energy. As a result, it is expected that biofuels will have a better share in meeting energy needs on a global level in the coming years.
5. Carbon capture and sequestration
Although it is not directly one of the possible energy sources, it is definitely something that can bring about a revolution in clean energy generation. To put it into simple words, carbon capture and sequestration includes technologies that can capture carbon dioxide from power plants without letting it enter into the atmosphere to pollute it. The captured carbon dioxide can further be transported and stored in underground reservoirs for centuries for various purposes.
For years, carbon dioxide has been injected into geological formations for several decades for interesting purposes, including enhanced oil recovery. Still, the long-term storage of carbon dioxide is a relatively new concept. It can one day become a supporter of other energy generation technologies like biomass or biofuels that produce carbon emissions and pull carbon from the atmosphere before converting it to fuel.
Apart from the above-mentioned discussion on energy sources, there are also some ideas to use humankind’s mechanical power and matter-antimatter annihilation to produce energy to provide for our daily needs. All the ideas seem pretty exciting, and I’m definitely looking forward to knowing what the future of energy would appear like! But yes, among all our efforts to harness energy in the future, we must also consider the factors that would pose drastic harms to our planet’s health and should definitely find efficient ways to make healthy compensations. Shouldn’t we?