New Advances in Fossil Fuel Alternatives: Are They What They Seem?

Written by on December 7, 2014 in Eco-Friendly, Environment with 0 Comments

  | Pachamama Alliance

Every day you hear of a new advancement in energy production. We live in a world that runs on very large amounts of energy so many people spend lots of time and resources seeking newer, cheaper, more sustainable ways of producing it.

In order to create the mutually beneficial Human-Earth relationship many of us seek, we must find a way to balance our need for energy, and the demands we place on the planet. This means both massively changing the way we live, as well as seeking out and developing energy sources that are renewable, and that do not damage the fragile ecosystems of the Earth through mining and extraction practices.

When it comes to the announcement of miraculous new advances in energy production, it is always best to remain wary and grounded. The promise of quick-fixes can easily lead our mind astray into the realm of complacency, a place where answers are easy and short-cuts are promised, but seldom delivered on. However, the path towards healing the Earth, changing the dream of the modern world, and paving the way for a more sustainable future is not one that contains any short-cuts.

Fusion: An Infinite Promise

The recently announced Lockheed Compact Fusion Energy Generator is one such example of an announcement that likely merits scrutiny. Lockheed Fusion, financed by trusted U.S. military contractor Lockheed Martin, is purported to be able to generate unlimited clean energy using the same molecular process that powers our Sun and other stars in the Universe, nuclear fusion.

The announcement has stirred up some major waves. Esteemed Lockheed team Skunk Works claims they will build and test a reactor within a year and it will have a prototype ready in five. They’ve even projected that they will be able to mass produce these compact (7 ft x 10 ft) fusion reactors within ten years. Size-wise, the sheer notion of such a small reactor was previously unheard of.

Fusion energy is mostly clean and, if it was to work as projected, it could put an end to the use of fossil fuels as well as fission power (nuclear energy). But, again, these are all big “ifs.”

One of the reasons fusion energy is not regarded to be viable is because of the extreme heat needed to facilitate a reaction. In fact, no material on Earth is strong enough to withstand the heat of a fusion reaction (upwards of a million degrees).

However, it is possible to contain this immense heat in a small area using magnetic fields.

Scientists have been working on making fusion energy feasible for over 60 years. In 1989, Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann, of the University of Utah, announced that they had developed a method of energy-generating fusion that did not use heat – cold fusion. Pons and Fleischmann failed to generate any results with cold fusion.

Yet an announcement from a massive and credible military contractor like Lockheed Martin carries far more weight than an announcement from two Utah scientists. Lockheed is putting its reputation on the line by making such a bold claim. Fusion has yet to produce results, and it’s fully possible that Lockheed’s projections will not come to pass.

Unlimited Energy on the Moon

Another theoretical way to produce abundant clean energy is found in helium 3. On the moon, as well as other heavenly bodies in our solar system, there exists an abundance of of a substance known as helium 3. Scientists believe helium 3 could be used in nuclear reactors without any harmful emissions or by-products.

Helium 3 would be used in a nuclear fusion process to create clean energy. A commercial fusion reactor using helium-3 has never been built, but a prototype has been constructed in Cadarache France. The goal is for it to be operational by 2016.

Helium 3 is in vast abundance on the moon. Solar winds blow it towards Earth, but it dissipates in our atmosphere. Because the moon does not have an atmosphere, helium 3 from solar winds simply accumulates on the moon’s surface. The supply of helium 3 is, for all intents and purposes, infinite. As long as the sun is alive there will be ample amounts of helium 3 available.

The biggest environmental drawback to such a method is the damage rocketing to the moon could do to the atmosphere, but the amount of helium 3 needed may be small enough so such damage is not an issue.

Using the latest advances in 3D printing, it will be possible to print out mechanical parts on the moon, which can be used to build robots to collect helium 3. This would decrease the need for shuttling people and equipment back and forth from the moon to Earth – thus sparing Earth’s atmosphere from unnecessary damage.

It is still too soon to tell whether or not helium 3 is a solution that will bring us closer to the just, sustainable future we seek to create.

Using Graphene In Batteries

In a recent blog, we discussed the remarkable application of graphene in solar panel energy efficiency and production. Graphene, which was first created in 2004, has unique properties that can serve many new purposes.

Graphene is made of pure carbon and is composed of sheets of graphite one atom thick. Both graphite and diamonds are formed from carbon. Graphite is composed of countless impossibly thin sheets and this is the structural difference that accounts for why graphite and diamonds vary so dramatically when it comes to durability. However, when graphite is reduced to one atom strips to produce graphene, it results in a substance a 100 times stronger than steel.

Not only does graphene have potential for improving the production and efficiency of solar panels, it also can be used in batteries. Graphene batteries have the potential to hold more charge than typical batteries and they can also be recharged far faster. It is speculated that an electric car battery made of graphene would fully recharge in only 5 minutes, and a phone battery would recharge in 5 seconds. This technology could vastly improve energy storage capacity.

The production of graphene would have a far lower environmental toll than the production of traditional disposable batteries – which contain ample amounts of toxic chemicals. Graphite is abundant here on the Earth, and it’s not toxic – it’s what’s at the end of your pencil! Still, it is a resource that must be extracted from the Earth, a process that almost always has negative effects on the surrounding ecosystems.

Having Hope While Remaining Skeptical

These scientific advancements in the production of energy give us hope for a clean energy future, but we would be wise to take it all with a grain of salt. Fusion and the use of helium 3 are still just theoretical, and who knows what unforeseen effects these new methods of producing and storing energy will have on the Earth.

It can be very easy to get carried away by exciting technological news, but the true solution does not reside solely in science. Not even unlimited clean energy is an automatic magic bullet that will completely solve the crisis our world is currently facing. We still must learn to treat the Earth with respect and reverence, and only take what we need. We must also be prepared to look inside ourselves and rethink how we live our lives.

Pachamama Alliance is a global community that offers people the chance to learn, connect, engage, travel and cherish life for the purpose of creating a sustainable future that works for all.

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