Alternative Energy
ae-windmill
No area of research in both science and technology is more hotly pursued than ‘alternative energy.’ This makes sense; replacing fossil fuels (that is, oil, natural gas, coal) and their derivative petrochemicals with alternatives, now that’s where the Big Money will be made. However the list of potential alternative energy sources is long:
 

- Wind: Already a viable alternative source of electrical energy, the use of wind power typically by using ‘wind mills’ has grown enormously in the last two decades but still needs to demonstrate cost competitiveness with other forms of energy.

- Solar: Producing electrical energy from solar radiation is one of the fastest growing forms of alternative energy. From vast projects to single-device solar cells, the technology is evolving quickly and in many forms. For example, one relatively exotic approach is to collect solar energy in outer space and beam it back to Earth.

- Hydroelectric: Energy produced by falling water, that is, hydroelectricity from dams will continue to be important, although the number of locations for dams and the problems with environmental degradation combine to make growth in this area limited.

- Tidal: Harnessing ocean waves or tidal currents to generate electrical energy is an old idea. New technology may make this approach more practical.

- Nuclear: For immediate practical purposes, this is energy generated by nuclear fission from new or existing nuclear power plants. Some time in the future, perhaps, there will also be a nuclear fusion alternative.

- Hydrogen: Usually derived from water, hydrogen is a potentially inexpensive though somewhat finicky source of energy.

- Fuel cell: This is most commonly based on hydrogen as the energy source. Fuel cells are already becoming commercial, although none have yet proven to be a cost effective replacement for their nearest competition, batteries.

- Biomass: Burning of agricultural material and other mostly biological sources (like garbage) can produce significant amounts of electricity.

- Biofuels: As an alternative energy source, this covers many different approaches although all of them use biomass – natural resource inputs such as wood, grass, and sugar cane – to produce fuels.

- Geothermal: Using the heat from volcanism as an energy source goes back to the Greeks and Romans (if not further) and has been used commercially for decades in countries such as Iceland and New Zealand. However, the distribution of geothermal sources and some of the inherent difficulties in tapping it limit the potential.

- Coal gasification: Of course coal is a fossil fuel, but with somewhat larger reserves than oil or natural gas, so the idea of turning coal into some kind of ‘clean fuel’ gets attention, particularly from coal and oil companies.

The 64 trillion dollar/euro question is which of these will become consistent competitors with traditional hydrocarbons (oil, natural gas, coal)? There is also an important sub-question: When? These are not easy questions to answer at the moment. Research results are still coming in. The difficulties of bringing new technologies to market have not been resolved. The status of traditional hydrocarbons is almost constantly changing. Sources, quantities, and prices shift all the time, which has a direct affect on the viability of alternative energies.

It should be pointed out that the list of alternative energies is presented at the ‘macro’ level – the level of processes and products that are visible and tangible to humans. Nearly all of them also have a ‘micro’ level, where scientists are trying to explore and explain the processes involved in terms of microbiology, molecular chemistry, and various forms of physics. The micro level is more fundamental to developing new energy sources, but slower. The macro way is kind of brute force, but expedient. Sometimes new energies, biomass for example, will require both approaches like finding better ways to process garbage for burning (macro) combined with research that will understand the complex chemical activity in burning and perhaps find more efficient ways of doing it, such as using catalysts.

Impact

The impact of developing viable alternative energy sources is enormous. Certainly, a lot of money can be made. If done right, the creation and use of alternative energies will have less adverse affect on the environment. Of course, when we begin to run out of fossil fuels, then alternative sources of energy become a necessity for the continuance of modern civilization.

For SciTechStory, tracking all threads of alternative energy research and development is probably undesirable. If we posted everything that comes along, there would be scores of entries every month…too much for the non-specialist. This impact area in particular demands some kind of additional filter, such as: What’s ‘significant’ among the reported results? Which of the alternatives is at the stage of being commercially competitive with fossil fuels? Judgment calls are in order, but hopefully informed judgment calls.