Sunday, October 22, 2006

Energy: Part 2

Hey, sorry it took a little longer than anticipated to post this, I've been busier than usual for the past few weeks.

In the first part of my Energy series, I primarily focused on solving the energy needs for vehicles, but equally as important is the energy that powers our homes. Right now, depending on where you live, your home is either being powered by a non-renewable resource, such as coal, oil, or natural gas, or is being powered by a renewable source, such as wind, hydro-electric, or solar. A major source of energy around the world is nuclear energy, which is caused by nuclear fission, the splitting of atoms. The technology for nuclear fission, which is also used in nuclear bombs, was developed during WWII, and generally remains unchanged today. And despite Chernobyl and Three Mile Island, nuclear energy is extremely safe. Nuclear power plants are the most heavily fortified and guarded private facilities in the world. In fact, there is more radiation surrounding coal power plants than there is surrounding nuclear power plants. In the future, nuclear energy will become increasingly more important to quench our thirst for more energy.

Currently under development, is the process of nuclear fusion, which is the process of combining atoms. Nuclear fusion, unlike fission, is theoretically much safer and does create the amount of radiation as fission. Though it isn't expected to be fully developed for another few decades, primarily because of a lack of funding, the attainment of nuclear fusion will coincide with a very important era in modern history: the return to and the exploitation of the Moon. Okay, so what does the Moon have to do with nuclear fusion you may be asking?

In the lunar regolith, there is an element that has been expelled by the Sun for 4.5 billion years that will prove to be highly effective for nuclear fusion: Helium-3. There is enough Helium-3 on the Moon to power a global population of roughly 10 billion (which is what current estimates say the population should round off at) at consumption levels that the United States experiences now, for
4 BILLION YEARS. By that time, the Earth won't be habitable for any kind of civilization, or life.

There is not an energy shortage. Even if we were to allow NASA to lead the way on this one, NASA's budget only accounts for one percent ($16 billion) of the national budget, and it is with that budget that we will return to the Moon and build lunar bases with. By the time there is a market for helium-3, the private spaceflight industry should be capable of making sorties to the Moon, and demand for helium-3 should allow for rapid growth in that area of spaceflight, minimizing the need for the government to do all the heavy work.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Energy: Part 1

For anyone who owns a car, the current situation in the Middle East hits you where it hurts, your wallet. America's dependence on foreign oil is nothing new, its just that now we are almost irreversably in Middle Eastern affairs, so our gas prices are going to go up. Unfortunately, it is also Bush's oil cronies that have raised the price of a barrel of oil to over $70, and they are also the ones bringing the price down again, at least for the time being. This dependence on one, unrenewable resource is dangerous. With the expansion of industrializing nations like India and China, it is entirely likely that we will run out of oil within 60 years, not the 100 to 150 years the oil companies tell us. The same goes with coal. A significant portion of the United States is still powered by coal, and it is said, by the coal companies, that there is a 200 year supply. Again, with competition from larger industrialized nations like China and India, the supply is probably only half that size.

So what can be done? Brazil is a prime example. Here is a nation, which after the first oil crisis in the 1970's, implemented laws to integrate ethanol, extracted from its sugar crops, into the fuel supply. Brazil is now totally energy independent, and the emissions released from burning the ethanol are equal to the emissions released from the sugar cane plants when they decay naturally, thus making it carbon neutral. This is good for the environment, and it doesn't rely on a resource which will eventually be totally expended.

U.S. automakers, by public demand, have started building vehicles which can run on an ethanol-gas mixture, E-85. The ethanol is extracted from either corn or switch blade grass, the latter of which can produce more energy. This is a good start, but in order to survive into the 21st Century as a major world power, the United States needs to become energy independent, and needs to use a renewable source of energy over oil.

The other option for renewable energy, hydrogen, should take the stage as well. Unlike ethanol, hydrogen doesn't rely on the state of a particular crop to control its supply and demand. Unfortunately, as it stands now, it takes more energy to extract hydrogen from water than what it generates in return, and there are limited reserves of hydrogen in its raw form on Earth. I'll explain that later in "Part II."