Wednesday, 27 December 2006
THE ENERGY PROBLEM -- A POSSIBLE SOLUTION
Mankind consumes an enormous amount of energy; the requirement for energy is set to escalate exponentially in the decades to come. There are two good reasons for that. The population of the world is increasing by nearly 80 million (yes, 80 million!) every year. Also the 'underdeveloped' world aims to catch up with the 'developed' world as fast as it can. To put this into perspective, the energy consumption per capita in Africa now is just 10% of that of the USA!
As everyone is now aware, the continuous burning of vast quantities of fossil fuels is increasing dramatically the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other harmful emissions into the atmosphere which in turn is causing global warming and smog. In any case, the earth's supply of oil and natural gas is being rapidly exhausted; a time will come when there is none left. It only takes a day or two's breakdown in the supply of electricity or petrol/diesel fuel to create chaos; it is all to obvious how utterly dependent we are on an unbroken supply of electricity and fuel for vehicles and aircraft.
What mankind needs is a virtually unlimited supply of cheap energy, without producing CO2 or other harmful emissions and with minimal damage to the environment. Question -- Is it possible?
If this could be achieved, many of mankind's problems would be solved. For example, in many parts of the world there is a shortage of water, and the shortage is getting worse by the year. Fertile land is becoming desert causing widespread death through starvation and/or mass migration. Many millions of people are living in poverty, without decent housing, hospitals or work opportunities. With unlimited electricity an unlimited amount of sea-water could be de-salinated and the desert 'greened' as in Las Vegas. With unlimited energy, infrastructure, housing, hospitals and factories could be built to lift those millions above the poverty line.
So, where does our energy come from? Could the current volume of output be increased -- enormously? Here is a list of where our energy comes from and some notes on each.
MAJOR ENERGY SOURCES
COAL A fossil fuel - Generates carbon dioxide (CO2) and
other harmful emissions - Only available in certain
locations - Supply prone to political considerations - Is
irreplaceable although there is still a vast amount
OIL and NATURAL GAS Fossil fuels - Generates CO2. and
other harmful emissions - Only found in certain locations -
Supply prone to political considerations - Is irreplaceable
and the easy to obtain supply is diminishing fast.
NUCLEAR Theoretically unlimited supply - Currently
produces about 7% of world electricity, greatest in France
about 80% - Risk of radiation due to accidents or
terrorists (Chenobyl) - Little air pollution but major
problem with disposal of waste - The metal uranium is
limited and is already becoming scarce - Only found is a
few locations - Uranium supply prone to political
HYDRO-ELECTRIC Most practical projects already exist -
Limited increase possible and with great environmental cost
WIND Intermittent - Currently produces about 1% of world
electricity; greatest in Denmark about 25% - Only suitable
where wind is reasonably constant - Electricity consumed in
manufacture and installation barely covered by electricity
generated - Need to have other generating source as back
SOLAR (Solar Panels) - Intermittent - Limited to
locations where clear skies are more or less certain -
Needs large area of panels to generate volume output - Need
to have other generating source as back up.
MINOR ENERGY SOURCES
BIOFUEL (Growing vegetation to produce alcohol as a fuel
additive) - Generates CO2 but vegetation absorbs CO2) -
Requires vast areas and water and possibly fertilizers.
GEOTHERMAL (Natural hot water) Specific areas only -
Expansion very limited.
EXPERIMENTAL / THEORETICAL
WAVE POWER Intermittent - Limited to coasts with large
waves - Need to have other generating source as back up.
TIDAL FLOW Intermittent - Limited to coasts where tidal
rise and fall is sufficient - Need to have other generating
source as back up.
OCEAN THERMAL (Using difference between the sea's
surface and deep temperatures) - Theoretically unlimited
energy source - Not yet tested
FUSION POWER (Nuclear fusion) - Theoretically unlimited
energy source - Practicability not yet proven.
HOT DRY ROCK (Tapping heat from deep below the earth's
surface).- Testing in progress.
As stated above, mankind needs a virtually unlimited supply of cheap energy, without the emission of CO2 or other harmful emissions and with minimum damage to the environment. It seems to me that none of the current sources of energy, nor a combination of them, is likely to provide a solution.
However, there are two other hitherto undeveloped sources of energy which, in my opinion, could: Fusion Power and Hot Dry Rock (HDR)
The energy which could be generated by Atomic Fusion is continuous and unlimited. The heat produced by Fusion would be used to produce steam to power conventional turbine driven dynamos to produce mains electricity. The nuclear process behind Fusion Power is quite different from the process employed in existing Nuclear Power plants. The basic materials 'fused' are readily available isotopes of hydrogen.
Fusion Power produces no emission, no pollution, no CO2 or other emissions, no nuclear radiation. In the event of accident or sabotage, Fusion would produce radiation or contamination. There is no lethal waste product to dispose of (as there is with Nuclear Power).
The concept is still theoretical. The first experimental Fusion Power plant will be built near Marseille, commencing 2008. It will take 10 years and $10,000 Million to construct. 20 years of experimentation are planned. If successful, and that's a big IF, within 50 years Fusion Power plants could be built in every country and region to supply that area's energy requirements for eternity. However, the harnessing of Fusion Power is still very much a theory.
HOT DRY ROCK (HDR) POWER
The principle is simple. HDR technology extracts heat emanating from the core of the planet. (Alterative name: Deep Heat Mining,
DHM) The temperature below the earth's surface increases with the distance from the surface. If a well ('injection well')is sunk at any spot on earth, at some depth the temperature will reach 200+0C. If then water is forced down that injection well and a bore hole has been sunk to the same depth nearby ('production well'), the water will forced up the production well to the surface and will emerge at a high temperature. This very hot water will produce high pressure steam to drive a conventional steam turbine electrical generating plant.
In most parts of the world at a depth of about 5 Kilometers the temperature of the rock is over 2000C. In some parts this temperature is reached at a lesser depth, in some parts at greater depth. But, at EVERY place on earth there is a depth at which the temperature reaches 200+0C.
As a heat source, HDR is continuous and inexhaustible. It produces no emissions of CO2 or other harmful substances; there are no waste products of any kind. A HDR power plant is 100% 'clean'. It requires no transportation or storage of fuel. HDR makes virtually no impact on the environment, presents no potential hazards. HDR consumes no material, not even water, as the steam emanating from the wells is condensed back to water and reused.
The technology for HDR is fully established. The drilling of the wells is virtually the same as drilling for oil (some oil wells are sunk to over 10Km). The steam turbine and dynamo plant required to generate electricity is standard. Building and installation of HDR electrical generation plants could commence immediately.
HDR plants could be established in every region in every country in the world so that each region would produce all the electricity it needs. The current dependence by non-fossil fuel countries on the importation of fuel and the costs of its purchase, transport and storage would be eliminated.
Currently there is a pilot HDR plant working in a remote part of Australia (see www.geodynamics.com.au) . The developer claims that, just from around the area of the pilot plant alone, there is more than enough subterranean heat to supply the electricity needs of the whole of Australia! Other experimental HDR plants are working in the USA, Switzerland, Japan.
VEHICLES, INTERNAL COMBUSTION and JET ENGINES
Of course, the world need to fuel the motors of vehicles and airplanes. Currently all the fuel for vehicle and jet engines (petrol, diesel, kerosene) is derived from oil. However all internal combustion and jet engines could be converted to be
fueled by hydrogen gas instead. (Early internal combustion
engines were fueled by a coal gas and air mixture) Additionally, much research is being undertaken on 'Hydrogen Fuel Cells' which generate electrical energy from hydrogen gas to power electrically driven vehicles.
In several parts of the world, notably in Iceland and in California, a number of busses are already running on hydrogen, and some roadside 'gas' stations have been equipped to store and re-fuel them. Using hydrogen as fuel for busses has been proven practical and presents little or no problems.
Hydrogen is made by converting plain water into its elements, hydrogen and oxygen (electrolysis). The hydrogen is compressed and stored as a liquid in pressure containers, as is natural gas today. The oxygen is released harmlessly to the air. Hydrogen gas has been produced and stored commercially for many years.
(Airships of the 30's were filled with hydrogen gas.) Since the 'raw material' for hydrogen production is water (could be de-salinated sea water), the supply is universal and unlimited.
However, the production of hydrogen requires large quantities of electricity. This could be little or no problem with the use of Nuclear Fusion or HDR plants. There is one very great advantage to using hydrogen: the emission of hydrogen fuelled engines and fuel cells is simply pure water!
Vehicles using electrical storage batteries have long been in use -- Harrods used battery powered delivery vans in the 1930s.
Development in the use of storage batteries will no doubt bring battery powered vehicles into increased general use.
The 'coal gas' and 'natural gas' currently being supplied by urban mains could be replaced by hydrogen gas. Household heating and cooking appliances which now use urban or bottled gas could be converted to use hydrogen gas.
Heating systems which now burn oil could be converted to burn hydrogen gas or to use mains supply electricity.
The optimum practical solution to the problem of supplying the world's future energy needs is the world-wide installation of HOT DRY ROCK plants generating a virtually unlimited supply of cheap electricity, coupled with the widespread use of hydrogen gas generated by electrolysis.
With government incentives, all existing fossil fuel burning and nuclear powered electricity generating plants could be replaced by HDR powered plants.
Again, with government incentives, hydrogen generating plants powered by HDR and the necessary distribution infrastructure could be installed in each country and region to fuel vehicles and aircraft which would run on hydrogen.
Likewise, all oil and coal burning heating equipment could be converted to use electricity or hydrogen.
Thus, over a period of 20/30 years, the 'unlimited cheap energy'
objective could be achieved and the use fossil fuels could be entirely eliminated.
Research into FUSION POWER should continue and could be used in conjunction with HDR if/when proved practical.