Turn On The Lights – WIF Next Gen Power

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The Future of Power:

New  Sources

of Energy

Listen, fossil fuels have been great. They’ve provided such an abundance of cheap energy over the last century and change that we’ve ridden their wave from horses and muskets all the way to rocket ships and the internet. But there are costs to burning them (you know, like how you also burn the planet). As the cons begin to outweigh the pros, it’s abundantly clear the time of oil and coal is rapidly coming to an end.

The debate over which renewable sources could potentially replace them (and therefore deserve more public investment) has been raging for years now. But solar, wind, hydroelectric and nuclear (fission) are just the beginning. Turns out one thing we don’t have a shortage of is jaw dropping ideas for energy production that can, with the right resources and public investment, be implemented within our lifetimes. Things like…

8. Nuclear Waste

Nuclear fission reactors have been around forever, currently provide roughly 20% of America’s energy, and will likely be a central component to any climate response plan due to the low greenhouse damage they cause. Contrary to popular belief, they’re also quite safe, as accidents like the infamous Chernobyl and Fukushima disasters are preventable and rare. But there is one problem that isn’t being overblown, and that is the nuclear waste issue.

Current light-water technology surrounds uranium fuel rods with enough water to slow the neutrons and generate a sustainable fission reaction, but only an unacceptably inefficient 5% of the uranium atoms inside the rods can be used before they have to be replaced. The remaining 95% kind of just gets dumped into an ever-growing stockpile (90,000 tons and counting) that we don’t really know what to do with. This is where Fast Reactor technology comes in, which submerges the rods in sodium and can therefore switch those numbers: using 95% of the uranium and only dumping the remaining 5% rather than further contributing to the current mess. If we can muscle our way past the political stigma against nuclear power, this technology has real potential.

7. Nuclear Fusion

Of course, we don’t have to stick with fission at all. At least not long term. Nuclear fusion, in which molecules are combined into a new element using immense heat and pressure, is safer, overwhelmingly more powerful, clean and harmless to the environment, and could provide power in enough abundance to launch mankind into the kind of future only dreamed of on The JetsonsSadly, at this moment it’s not easy to sustain net positive (meaning we get more energy out of the reaction than we have to put in to trigger it) fusion reactions long enough to be commercially viable.

There’s an old adage commenting on the long, long road fusion has already traveled and how far it still has before we start rolling it out: “nuclear fusion is the power source of the future, and always will be.” It’s funny and a bit depressing, given the enormous potential that always seems to be just one breakthrough away. But we know fusion, the Holy Grail of clean energy research, works. We need only look up at the stars, which exist because of fusion. So technically, since none of us would exist without the sun, you do too. 

6. Geothermal Energy

As appealing as fusion and wind are, though, there’s certainly something to be said for an energy source that doesn’t depend on expensive reactor facilities or unreliable weather conditions. Enter geothermal energy: heat pulled straight from beneath the surface of the Earth, where there’s always plenty. Now technically, we’ve been harnessing geothermal energy for over a century by just collecting it from water and steam. But modern geothermal harnessing techniques are limited, both in range of use (even when the technology is mature, it’s mainly used for basic heating and cooling functions) and by geography itself (we have to harness the heat where it is, almost always in tectonically active areas).

However, we’re constantly improving at both getting to the heat and spending less money, effort and time doing it. And in the very near future, expect technologies falling under the umbrella of Enhanced Geothermal Systems, which drill and pour water into ‘hot dry rock’ areas in the earth’s crust in order to turn the currently inaccessible energy stores there into several times more usable, clean energy than fossil fuels currently give us access to, to reshape the energy landscape.

5. Space-Based Solar

The first thing anyone thinks of when they hear the term ‘renewable energy’ is probably solar. Why wouldn’t they? The sun is bombarding the earth with more raw power every second than we’ve ever managed to spend in a year. But the problem was never a lack of it; it’s always been harnessing and storing the stuff. Luckily, solar panels are getting cheaper and better at an alarming clip. But what if we could harness the sun’s energy in space? It’s always there, after all, in waves not filtered and diluted by the fickle atmosphere (which reflects 30% of it back into space anyway).

The basic idea would be to construct enormous solar farms which would collect the sun’s high-energy radiation and use mirrors to deposit the energy into smaller collectors, which would then send it to Earth in the form of microwaves or laser beams. As of right now, this technology is prohibitively expensive. But maybe it won’t be for long. After all, companies like SpaceX are constantly engineering ways to drive down the cost of sending cargo into space, so hopefully we’ll be running out of excuses not to build one of these world-changing (and charging) behemoths in our lifetime.

4. Solar Windows

But you know what? Cool as space solar is, we don’t actually have to go into space to revolutionize solar energy generation (which is already revolutionizing energy itself). Down here on the surface, solar panels are already covering rooftops throughout Europe and desert expanses in the American Southwest, not to mention steadily eating away into fossil fuel dominance. With upcoming quantum dot solar cell technology about to burst onto the scene, which essentially replaces standard silicon with artificial, solar-energy collecting molecules, expect the revolution not just to continue, but to accelerate. 

Before we continue, it’s worth noting that lots of cool but ultimately impractical solar-panel-as-something-else designs (where solar panels replace roads, walls, windows, etc) have been floated lately. The problem always comes down to the fact that solar panels just aren’t advanced enough to double in function. But quantum dot tech may change that. Imagine every window in the world filled with solar harnessing technology that you wouldn’t even be able to see with an electron microscope. So say goodbye to those unsightly panels, because without even looking different, your transparent windows might function as mini power stations in just a few short years.

3. Tidal Power

We already have hydroelectric power, generated by massive dams that use rushing river water to turn energy turbines. It’s powerful, clean stuff and certainly worth continuing to use. But it’s nothing compared to the untapped energy of the ocean’s currents, which, if properly harnessed, could power the planet several times over. Sadly, solar and wind cornered the renewable market early on, and as a result, tidal power is only just now getting reconsidered due to its enormous potential.

Oyster, for example, is essentially a giant hinged flap bolstered to the ocean floor, which swings back and forth with the current and pumps enough resulting energy to the surface to power thousands of homes. There’s also the Terminator turbine, designed by Air Force Academy engineers and inspired by aircraft, which ditches drag technology for wing-like lift, in order to (theoretically) harness an astonishing 99% of available tidal power (as opposed to the standard 50%). And the potential isn’t limited to raw energy generation, either. Perth, Australia just started using a tidal-powered desalination plant that can provide drinking water for more than half a million residents.

2. Hydrogen

Advantage number one: burning Hydrogen produces just about no pollution or greenhouse emissions at all, which is why NASA has been using the stuff to send rockets and shuttles into space for years. Sadly, it’s tough to expand this energy source to a global scale since hydrogen, the simplest and most abundant element in the universe (by orders of magnitude) isn’t available in large enough quantities where we can actually get it (unless it’s combined with other elements like Oxygen, as is the case with H2O).

But if we could figure this out, maybe by engineering a way to separate hydrogen from the elements of which it’s a part, we could change the world. Luckily, such hydrogen fuel cells, which may very well be the future of transportation, are already being built. Honda is actually planning to demonstrate the power and efficiency of this technology with a new Clarity Fuel Cell car by plugging the vehicle into a house which it will then power (as opposed to electric vehicles, which would draw power from the house). Like all new technology, of course, this will be expansive and unavailable to the public at large for some time. But the potential is real.

1. Biofuel

Like a lot of entries on this list, biofuel itself has been around for ages. Henry Ford actually envisioned his Model T car running on ethanol before cheap oil was found everywhere and captured the energy market instantly. Ethanol, the first generation of biofuel, is making a comeback too, but the fact that it can only be harnessed using the same land and resources as food is problematic (and driving up the cost of food). Generation 2’s switchgrass was floated as an alternative for a while, due to its hardiness and ability to grow like a weed virtually anywhere. But we’d need an amount of land equivalent to Russia and the US combined to grow it in large enough quantities to overtake fossil fuels as the primary power source for cars, so that won’t work.

But what about algae? Its natural oil content is over 50%, it’s not food, and doesn’t require fields or fresh water to grow. Instead, the remaining parts of the plant can be converted into gas and electricity and fertilizer to grow more algae in small labs. This one’s no brainer, folks.


Turn On The Lights

WIF Next Gen Power

Fragile China – A WIF Environmental Update

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fragile-china

10 Ways China Is Ruining

Its Own Environment

In recent years it’s come to light that, despite China’s best efforts to the contrary, they have a massive pollution problem. As China finds themselves trying to quickly and cheaply produce goods that meet the consumer demands of the majority of the world, they’ve also found themselves polluting the atmosphere on an unprecedented scale.

While the world is crying out for China to lower their emissions, many aren’t prepared for the lifestyle changes that would be required if the world’s major manufacturing hub decided to greatly lower its output. In the meantime, the Chinese people suffer the consequences, and as the pollution starts to spread around the globe we may all eventually feel the effects.

 

10. Poor Air Quality Is Creating A Tremendous Death Toll

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The air pollution problem often keeps many people indoors, and forces them to wear masks to keep out toxic fumes even on days where total avoidance of the outside isn’t advised. This problem is giving China a black eye on the national stage. Even after the Beijing Olympics, when the problem became more obvious, the true extent of pollution was swept under the rug. China has never offered journalists free reign to poke around, and has long denied any major problems caused by the air pollution.

However, a joint study involving the Chinese Academy for Environmental Planning and the World Health Organization found that somewhere between 350,000 to 500,000 Chinese people are “prematurely” dying from lung cancer due to pollution. Unfortunately, there are people who try to hand wave these numbers away. China’s government has tried to keep journalists from even talking about the issue, and they’ve done their best to keep the numbers out of international reports whenever possible. While some would suggest that all the smoking in China is the main cause, the study makes it clear that the number of people dying from lung cancer have continued to rise even as the number of smokers has declined.

9. They Are Burning Petcoke As Fuel

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The United States likes to feel that they’re a much cleaner country than China, and that they’re doing more to deal with the crisis of pollution and renewable energy. However, the situation is more complicated than it seems. The United States and other countries are happy to buy products made using Chinese industry while claiming to take the high road themselves. The United States has put its foot down on certain fuels such as petroleum coke (petcoke). This fossil fuel is a byproduct of the oil refining process and is much, much dirtier than burning actual coal. While America don’t use the fuel, the US exports it to China so America can make some money off this byproduct instead of just letting the dangerous pollutant “go to waste.”

Every year, the amount of petcoke exported to China grows, because it’s an incredibly cheap fuel and China is dealing with the industrial demands of much of the modern world. While it’s cheap, it is hardly sustainable. With carbon emissions already out of control, using a fossil fuel that’s dirtier than coal is going to make an environmental crisis approach even faster. Of course, the rest of the world is partly to blame for selling the stuff in the first place. Sometimes it’s better to think ofprotecting the world from catastrophe than it is to squeeze every last possible cent of profit out of your waste.

8. Record Algae Growth

A boy man lies on a beach

While algae blooms aren’t necessarily dangerous to humans, they’re usually a bad sign for the local ecosystem. Large blooms of algae have been surfacing every year in the Yellow Sea near the Qingdao Province, and the problem seems to be worsening. These huge piles of algae sitting on top of the water create an enormous mess, and in 2013 the local government was tasked with trying to clean up a bloom that was larger than 11,000 square miles.

These algae blooms greatly affect the local marine life, which often simply can’t survive the conditions they’re forced to deal with. The algae tends to block the sun’s rays, and can also greatly change the chemical balance of the water. To make matters worse, the algae can start to cause problems to humans when it decomposes and sends toxic fumes into the atmosphere. When the Olympics were hosted in China, the government had to spend millions and enlist the aid of 10,000 people to clean the algae up enough to allow the games to continue. The damage from that year alone was estimated to cost local seafood farmers roughly 100 million dollars. Part of the problem may be seaweed farmers, who are scraping waste into the water that later turns into algae blooms when the conditions are right. Of course, many experts feel that if industrial pollution wasn’t so bad those conditions wouldn’t be there.

7. They’re Approaching A Water Crisis

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When you think of a country with a serious water crisis, China isn’t what comes to mind. But China is approaching a crisis, even though they would appear to have plenty of water to go around. To begin with, many industrial plants are located near water sources and dump their waste directly into the water, with very little recycling or treatment. Oftentimes sewage isn’t treated properly or at all, and ends up in the same sources of water intended for industry, drinking and bathing. If that wasn’t enough, since the 1960s, 10,000 bodies have been found in water sources.

Apart from pollution, China is also destroying some of their water sources. Due to industry using water without sustainable practices, many of China’s rivers are drying up. Many different ruined rivers and lakes will affect other water sources and make the crisis worse. On top of all that, China has an infrastructure problem when it comes to getting water where it needs to be. Most of China’s people and the agriculture that keeps them fed are located in the north, but the large majority of the country’s natural water is still located in the south. And even if you can get water, you may not want to drink it. Some experts believe that half the drinking water in major cities is unsafe to consume, and groundwater supplies are in a similar state of pollution.

6. They’re Starting To Experience Conditions Similar To A Nuclear Winter

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A nuclear winter is a theoretical scenario that would occur in the aftermath of multiple nuclear bomb detonations. Apart from the dangers of the radiation itself, the ash that accumulates in the air would block the sun’s rays for a period that may last years. This would cause the planet to cool, and would greatly impede photosynthesis. It would be almost impossible to grow crops.

Aside from the radiation, this may soon be a reality in parts of China. As the country’s smog problem worsens, and the government becomes less able to sweep it under the rug, more Chinese scientists are delving into the miasma, and it’s not good news. One scientist concluded that the smog in some areas is already bad enough that itcould be severely impeding photosynthesis. She believes that if the problem isn’t dealt with soon, it could spread to much of the country and put agriculture across China at serious risk.

5. Improperly Designed Garbage Incinerators Are Polluting The Atmosphere

A garbage collector looks for recyclable waste at a garbage dump site in Nanchang

China is struggling to contain the insane amounts of waste the country produces. Landfills are quickly overfilling, leaving them with nothing to do but simply destroy the garbage if they can. In many situations, this has led to a strategy of garbage incineration, with the fumes vented straight into the atmosphere. While this probably doesn’t sound like a great idea even in the best of situations, there are some incinerator plants in China that are having a serious environmental impact. Regulations aren’t well designed and there are a plethora of incinerator facilities that aren’t even close to standard, belching nasty smoke into the air with mercury and every other poison you could imagine. The horrible toxic fumes that spew forth have caused protests by everyone near them, and they’re an obvious threat to everyone’s health for miles.

4. It’s Become The Largest Dumping Ground For E-Waste

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E-waste is an increasingly vexing problem for the world. When old electronics are tossed out they often aren’t properly recycled because it’s too time consuming, unsafe or expensive. In many cases, a venue that recycles old cell phones and computers may just take all that junk and send it to another country to pick over as they please. This is technically illegal, but there’s little deterrent. Using both the guise of donations and straight up smuggling, China has becoming the leading importer of e-waste to the point that 70% of the world’s e-waste is ending up there.

One town called Guiyu has become a hot zone for the stuff, and many entrepreneurs have risen up around mining old electronic garbage for valuable metals and other useful scrap. Unfortunately, this is terrible for their health and the environment. The process often involves burning plastic or using hydrochloric acid, neither of which is good for the user or the atmosphere. To make matters worse, this pollution has also affected the town’s water supply and rice crops. While the local government is trying to stop the flood of e-waste into the town, they face resistance from some residents because it’s the only way they know how to make a living.

3. Pollutants Are Making The Food Supply Unsafe

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It stands to reason that if China’s air and water isn’t doing well, their soil probably isn’t faring much better. The problem with the soil may actually be more serious than any others. While many farmers are worried about the constant pollution levels they’re exposed to, most of the country is worried about the safety of their food supply — a supply they’re increasingly unable to trust.

The soil problem has been one of the most carefully guarded secrets in China. In fact, a few years ago the Chinese government conducted a study of the soil in order to assess environmental concerns. The results have never been released, which led to speculation that they’re worse than anyone could have imagined. To give you some idea, a group of Chinese officials found levels of cadmium beyond what’s recommended as safe in 155 samples of rice. One official commented that eight million acres of Chinese farmland was so poisoned with heavy metal contamination that it should no longer be used to grow crops. The worst part is that it’s almost impossible for Chinese consumers to know whether or not their food is contaminated.

2. Cancer Villages

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Since the late 1990s, international activists and groups in China have been working on the problem of cancer villages. A cancer village is a small town of 100 or so residents that’s extremely close to industrial plants. These plants are constantly producing some of the nastiest pollutants on earth. People from the villages describe it as a nightmare, with chemically tainted water that can’t be purified and clouds of toxic ash floating through the air.

The Chinese government doesn’t want to address or acknowledge the issue, but like the smog the problem has become bad enough that no amount of covering up can hide it. Unfortunately, these villages are unlikely to go away anytime soon. As it turns out, the richer citizens of China don’t like pollution when it affects them, so they’ve been pressuring the government to move industrial plants. The government obliges and moves them near poor villages that lacks the political influence to do anything about it.

1. It Affects The Entire World

The San Gabriel Mountains are seen in the background during cloud cover over the Los Angeles skyline

While it’s important for China to help its own country, the problem affects more than just China. The massive amount of pollution is starting to affect the rest of the world, and the results aren’t pretty. Scientists at Texas A&M University ran climate simulations both with and without China’s current air pollution and found troubling results. According to their simulations, cyclones in the Pacific Ocean are being strengthened by the pollution levels, and there’s an increase in ocean storms in general. If that wasn’t bad enough, tracing the pollutants led to the conclusion that some of it’s reaching the western United States, and much of the pollution levels in those states could be blamed on China.

Fragile China

– A WIF Environmental Update