New Kinds of Renewables to Address Climate Change
By harnessing the wind, sun, and other forces of nature, renewable technologies have showcased humanity's incredible imagination and inventiveness, and offered a glimpse into a more hopeful future with cleaner air, plentiful resources, and lots of energy without fossil fuels.
Despite its prospects, though, current renewables have limitations. To fully meet the existential challenge posed by climate change, science, government, and industry would need to reach even further and tap even more far-out—or “way-in,” depending on how one looks at it—sources of energy that are much more plentiful and reliable even than the wind, sun, or ocean waves.
Empirical research says those sources of power actually do exist. Neutrinos, static electro-magnetism, and nuclear fusion are some of the mind-bending concepts that may someday offer a superior source of energy to current forms of renewable power. They may solve the vexing problem of satisfying modern society's insatiable appetite for energy while at the same time bypassing all the challenges and eliminating all the harmful by-products presented by its generation.
The Power is All Around Us
As promising as they may be, the potential of these energy sources remains hypothetical. Yet, scientists continue trying to capture that potential. Take for example, the neutrino.
In 1930, an Austrian scientist, Wolfgang Pauli, postulated the existence of an infinitesimally small particle present throughout the universe, a particle so tiny that he described it as "improbable." A few years later, Italian physicist Enrico Fermi named it neutrino, which is Italian for "little neutral one,” and the name stuck.
It took until the 1950s for scientists to finally confirm the existence of the neutrino. It is generated by a process known as decay, which occurs whenever particles change from one type into another. This occurs in several ways, such as in the sun and stars and from "cosmic radiation" interacting with the Earth's atmosphere. There are even neutrinos still hanging around from the Big Bang that created the universe almost 14 billion years ago.
Given the grandiose scale from which they are generated, neutrinos are extremely plentiful. They exist everywhere. In fact, they are the most plentiful particle with mass in the universe. A hundred trillion neutrinos pass through a human body every second. Not only are neutrinos plentiful, but they also have potential as a power source—if only it could be harnessed. So far, development of the technology that can perform that seemingly miraculous feat remains elusive. Yet, just as solar and wind power seemed far-fetched science fiction only a few decades ago, harnessing neutrinos may soon transition into the realm of reality.
Enter the Neutrino Power Cube. German mathematician and entrepreneur, Holger Thorsten Schubart, has assembled a group of scientists who are working on the development of a prototype that will generate energy from neutrinos.
Schubart believes that “neutrinovoltaic” technology offers an opportunity to meet “the growing energy needs of mankind without destroying the ecological balance of the planet.” He calls it “the power of the future.”
The device is comprised of stacked layers of graphene, each consisting of a single layer of carbon atoms. The graphene layers can convert the kinetic energy generated by neutrinos passing through them into electricity.
Neutrinos’ greatest advantage is their infinite supply. Because of their ubiquitous presence and abundance, they offer a limitless source of power that can be harnessed any place and at any time—not just when the sun is shining or the wind is blowing. They would not only surpass solar and wind power as the ideal clean energy source, but fundamentally reshape the power generation and transmission dynamic as we now know it. A neutrino power cube could generate electricity anywhere it is located and whenever it is needed.
Initial applications of the neutrino power cube will charge up mobile phones. Eventually they could be applied on a larger scale, powering electric vehicles, and household appliances.
Electricity Without Fuel
While neutrinos may transform the process of generating electricity by providing a fuel source that is infinitely small and plentiful, imagine reducing the process even further by generating electricity without the need for any fuel at all.
In the 1930s, German Navy Captain and inventor Hans Coler developed a device called the Magnetstromapparat, or "Magnet Current Apparatus."
The device consists only of permanent magnets, copper coils, and condensers in a static arrangement, meaning they do not move or change. No energy or motion is introduced into the device. It can generate an electric current on its own based only on the constant electromagnetism generated by the materials used to construct it.
While this may not sound impressive, consider how most electricity is generated. Electricity is generated by a variety of devices, but almost all of them operate on the same basic principle: the rotation of an electromagnetic turbine surrounded by a standing coil of wire. This motion, or kinetic energy, causes electrons to begin to move. These moving electrons form a current which then travels along the wires. Those wires are connected to more wires, which deliver the current to users—factories, buildings, and homes. This is the basic principle of all electric generators, including those in hydroelectric dams, steam and gas turbines, and wind turbines.
Almost all electric power generators operate by the rotation of an electromagnetic turbine requiring energy to start and maintain motion.
All these devices require some form of energy to start and maintain the motion within the generator. In hydroelectric dams, the force of falling water drives the turbines. In conventional power plants, coal, gas, or other fuels are burned to generate heat and then steam, which is captured and channeled to move the turbine. In combustion turbines, hot expanding gas drives the mechanism. Finally, wind turbines rely on the force of the wind to move the blades which drive the turbine, either directly or through a system of belts and gears located inside the wind turbine.
All these fuel sources have limitations. Coal and gas must be extracted and delivered to the site of the turbine before they can be consumed. Alternatively, hydro- or wind-power turbines must be situated where the fuel is plentiful and can be harnessed. This is usually in a remote location, which introduces the complicated process of transmitting the electricity to populated areas where it is used. In addition, the burning of coal and gas emits harmful greenhouse gases. Wind power itself is clean, but not always plentiful and constant.
It would take a giant leap of imagination to address these limitations, but that is precisely what Hans Coler did nearly 100 years ago. His device reimagines the concept of electromagnetic power generation by eliminating the need for kinetic energy. In other words, he developed a generator without a turbine, thereby eliminating the need for fuel.
The device consisted of several permanent magnets wound inside a coil of wire. Their arrangement, and in particular, their separation, creates tension or resistance, which ultimately generates a small current. In this way, the device generates electricity from the magnets themselves, without the aid of motion or fuel.
Coler also developed a second device, which he called a Stromzeuger or “Current Generator,” constructed in a similar manner, but with the addition of a dry battery that provided a small input to jumpstart the process.
Coler reportedly used a large version of this device to power his home for several years before it was destroyed by a bomb during World War II. British intelligence officers discovered the work on both of Coler's devices after the war ended. If Coler could power his home in such a way, then a similar device could conceivably be used to power other homes as well.
Powering Like the Sun
While the neutrino cube and Coler's current generators reimagine micro generation, nuclear fusion is envisioning power generation with cues from the cosmos on a much grander scale. It replicates the same process that powers the sun and other stars, and for a process that produces so much energy in the universe, the potential to generate power here on Earth is nothing short of galactic.
To understand nuclear fusion, it is helpful to look at how nuclear power works in current reactors powered by a process known as fission. The two processes sound remarkably similar but are quite different.
In simple terms, nuclear fission involves the splitting of uranium atoms to create heat, which is used to generate electricity. Nuclear fusion operates on an inverse principle. It compresses or combines hydrogen atoms until they fuse and turn into helium. That process also generates energy—lots of it—which can then be used to create electricity.
Scientists and engineers have been trying to replicate fusion since they discovered it about a century ago. Someday, they will get it right, and when they do, the output could be so tremendous it would meet all the world's energy needs.
While traditional nuclear fission reactors face their own challenges, not the least of which is public opposition and fear about radiation, the main challenge for fusion is achieving a net gain in energy production.
The process of fusion requires a tremendous input of energy to create the reaction in its core. A successful nuclear fusion reactor must generate more power than it consumes, and this has been the primary obstacle to overcome. While there is no disputing that nuclear fusion has the potential to supply enormous amounts of power, so far no one has figured out how to create more power than is consumed by the process.
That has not stopped scientists, governments, and businesses from continuing the search. Perhaps the most notable is the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) project. The word iter translates from Latin as "the way." For this project, thirty-five nations, including China, the European Union, India, Japan, South Korea, Russia, and the United States, are collaborating to find "the way" to harness and commercialize the power of nuclear fusion, which is expected to be a "boundless source of energy.”
Mark Henderson is the Electron Cyclotron Section Leader for the ITER Organization. In putting the project into context, he says that the energy the world needs “is going to be in fusion.”
The focus of ITER is a project in the south of France that will build the world's largest tokamak, a reactor based on magnetic fusion. It will be the first fusion device to produce net energy, the first to maintain fusion for long periods of time, and the first to test the ingredients necessary for the commercial production of electricity from fusion. (See ITER website.)
It is a colossal effort, matching the amount of energy it has the potential to produce. ITER is projected to produce 500 MW of fusion power from 50 MW of input. That's comparable to the average-sized power plant operating today, with enough electricity to light up hundreds of thousands of homes. With a net output of 450 MW, it will demonstrate the ability of fusion to be energy profitable, and it sets the bar high.
ITER is not expected to be operational until 2035. Progress is slow to produce real-world workable results, but proponents of ITER and other fusion projects argue the benefits are worth the time and the effort. Fusion is infinitely safer than nuclear fission, and it uses an abundantly plentiful and cheap renewable fuel. The consumption of hydrogen in nuclear fusion produces no greenhouse gas emissions (although it is important to note that the process for extracting hydrogen from its natural state to be used in fusion can produce greenhouse gas emissions, depending on the methods used).
ITER’s Henderson describes it as a long-term investment for the future. The benefits go “beyond our generation,” he explains, “but that is not an excuse” to not try.
Throughout history, humanity has demonstrated its ability to solve seemingly intractable problems with scientific research and ingenuity. Solar photovoltaic cells, wind turbines, and other technologies show that replenishable fuels found in nature can be harnessed to generate energy without laying waste to the planet and its atmosphere.
As the world population grows, and the fight against climate change accelerates, sun and wind may not be enough to power future energy needs. All options will be on the table.
Research has shown that more powerful and plentiful sources of renewable power are available and can be harnessed. The neutrino power cube, the current generator, and nuclear fusion may one day pass from the imagination of their champions into the mainstream of energy production, just as solar panels and wind turbines did before them.
Or perhaps some other as yet undiscovered technology will emerge.
*Richard Laezman is a freelance writer in Los Angeles, California. He has a passion for energy efficiency and innovation. He has been covering renewable power and other related subjects for more than ten years.