By Elaine Meinel Supkis
The human mind is a wonderful thing. It can imagine anything. Chimerae of the mind populate the historic record. Even as humans drew the first portraits and views of living things, they began to create imaginary symbols. There is a strong element of wishful thinking which humans indulge in and it is a good thing for this is how we cope with life.
But it has dangers. Believing in Santa Claus as an adult means one will be the victim of many schemes and plots. Believing in the Easter Bunny is foolish if one seriously thinks a member of the rodent family will fetch candy and eggs for you.
When comtemplating the reality of energy use, one encounters downright insanity.
A U.S. chemist is trying to determine how the world will produce enough energy to supply 9 billion people by mid-century — and whether that can be done without pumping off-the-charts amounts of carbon dioxide into the air.The perpetual motion machine is also an alluring dream. The problem with solving our lust for power using simple methods is that if it worked, it would have worked already. Even though, compared to 50 years from now, energy is really cheap, a source of energy that is easy and even cheaper would have swept the world long ago.
Daniel Nocera, 48, is working to achieve an old, elusive dream: using the bountiful energy in sunlight to split water into its basic components, hydrogen and oxygen. The elements could then be used to supply clean-running fuel cells or new kinds of machinery. Or the energy created from the reaction itself, as atomic bonds are severed and re-formed, might be harnessed and stored.
There is a beautiful model for this: photosynthesis. Sunlight kickstarts a reaction in which leaves break down water and carbon dioxide and turn them into oxygen and sugar, which plants use for fuel.
But plants developed this process over billions of years, and even so, it's technically not that efficient. Nocera and other scientists are trying to replicate that — and perhaps improve on it — in decades.
Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe, but it's generally locked up in compounds with other elements. Currently, it is chiefly harvested from fossil fuels, whose use is the main cause of carbon dioxide emissions blamed for global warming.
And so while hydrogen fuel cells — in which hydrogen and oxygen combine to produce electricity and water — have a green reputation, their long-term promise could be limited unless the hydrogen they consume comes from clean sources.
That's where Nocera's method comes in. If it works, it would be free of carbon and the epitome of renewable, since it would be powered by the sun. Enough energy from sunlight hits the earth every hour to supply the world for months. The challenge is harnessing it and storing it efficiently, which existing solar technologies do not do.
"This is nirvana in energy. This will make the problem go away," Nocera said one morning in his office at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where the Grateful Dead devotee has a "Mean People Suck" sticker on his window. "If it doesn't, we will cease to exist as humanity."
The other thing that terrifies me is the contention about ceasing to be human if we can't consume vast quantities of energy. Humans lived as humanity with only stone tools and simple fires. Millions live today, lives that have near zero levels of energy. They may appear poor to us but they still have families, culture and a life. Not being able to live in an artificial environment isn't the end of the world.
My family lived with me in a tent complex on the side of a mountain in the northeast where it snows half the time and we did this with minimal electricity from our single solar panel and a generator and our woodstoves for heating.
Far from dying or being miserable, it was a blast. We lived like this for ten years. I am still human, last time I looked.
"Dan is even-money (odds) to solve this problem," says Harry Gray, a renowned California Institute of Technology chemist who was Nocera's graduate adviser.There is always more hitches than at a Boy Scout Jamboree. Once, when there was no life on earth, the oceans were rather acidic. Why do all our energy lusts lead to a planet hostile to living things? This is the real problem.
But there's a catch. In fact, there's a few, and they illustrate how hard it can be to move alternative energy beyond the proof-of-concept phase.
Nocera has performed the reaction with acidic solutions, but not water yet.
The catalyst he used was a compound that included the expensive metal rhodium. To be a practical energy solution, it will have to be made from inexpensive elements like iron, nickel or cobalt.
Nocera's reaction got the photons in light to free up hydrogen atoms, but that's only half the equation. The harder part will be to also capture the oxygen that emerges when water molecules are split. That way, both elements can be fed into a fuel cell, making the process as efficient as possible.
The sun has tons of energy but this doesn't mean we should turn our planet into a sun like some want to do by building a zillion nuclear power plants, just for example.
Nocera cites a calculation by Caltech chemist Nathan Lewis that power demands in 2050 will be so great that just to keep carbon dioxide emissions at twice preindustrial levels, a nuclear plant would have to be built every two days. There's not enough room on the planet's surface for other widely touted solutions such as wind and biomass to have much impact.Unlimited lust meets limited planet! There is plenty of surface available for solar energy, for example. Our roofs. They are everywhere and on every building! Of course, most are oriented in such a way as to be nearly useless but they exist and future homes will be built like mine, with a compass and a roof pitched to accomodate solar panels. The real problem is our joy at living in a literal bubble. This massive bubble requires incredible amounts of energy to sustain. I used very little energy living in my tent, the refrigerator turned on in late October and turned off in April, for example (a joke). In summer, I grew veggies and ate them as I harvested them.
The cycles of nature even in harsh climates are quite livable. But we would love to live in a hyper-nice padded bubble and this is, due to population growth and desire to make the bubble bigger and bigger, on a collision course with harsh reality. The quest for everlasting life is part of this whole human quest for the Holy Grail, a perfect world that allows us to be absolutely out of control, to live forever while consuming everything.
Alas, only one person can end up doing all this and that person will end up becoming the god of a dead planet.
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