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Future Energy: Science Fiction and the Quest For Power by Ernest Lilley
Review by Ernest Lilley
SFRevu  ISBN/ITEM#: 0809EL
Date: 01 September 2008 /

Much of what science fiction predicted either has or hasn't happened as a direct result of energy economics. From the flying car to the food pill, it's the story of energy and the twin challenges of storing it and using it efficiently. Inefficient storage reduces its utility and inefficient use wastes it.

Atomic energy of is the poster child for a good idea gone bad. We still haven't figured out how to deal with radioactive waste, or effectively manage the risk of weaponization. Half a century of nuclear power has shown us that we're not nearly perfect enough to be trusted with atom splitting.

Or are we over-blowing the danger? Chernobyl is too hot for habitation, but only by humans. The animal populations around the deserted reactors are flourishing, and if they're suffering an increased cancer risk, selective breeding seems to be compensating for the environmental challenge. Hiroshima and Nagasaki are thriving cities again. The site of the Trinity atom bomb tests is a tourist destination, albeit only twice a year. Possibly we've been paranoid about the dangers of nuclear power, but if so, it has been a paranoia that has served us well.

Hydrocarbons now appear to be an unsustainable energy source, both for environmental and economic reasons. Unlike atomic power, where the costs are largely apparent up front, hydrocarbon usage incurs hidden costs that impact the biosphere. After centuries of depending on hydrocarbons for development--coal, oil, natural gas--we are only beginning to understand its impact on our planet. We can see the impact of fossil fuel combustion in atmospheric studies as far back as the IGY in 1957 showing the global impact of fossil fuels, but have made little progress over the last fifty years in either fully understanding what this means for our planet, or how to prevent, mitigate or adapt to those changes.

Even the "green revolution", the supercharging of world agriculture, is really an energy revolution. Nitrogen fertilizer, made from natural gas, boosts the concentration of energy compounds needed for plant growth. How much energy? Enough that a rental truck loaded with fertilizer could destroy a seven-story government building in downtown Oklahoma City. Like hydrocarbons, there are hidden costs to nitrogen fertilizers as well, as nitrates leech into the water supply, run off into the oceans where they cause plankton blooms, and contribute, incidentally, to acid rain.(3)

Science fiction's take on energy has been all over the map. You can find references to everything from super chemical fuels to pulling energy from the vibration of the universe itself. You'll also find a fair amount of attention on solar energy, along with stories about the suppression of alternative energy sources by the economic powers that be.

Jules Verne continues to have been prescient as bits of his stories become reality. His Nautilus was powered by sodium/mercury batteries created by sodium extraction from seawater. Power from the breakdown of extraction will more likely be a result of low energy hydrogen separation (4), but it's beginning to look very feasible. I'd long thought that the Nautilus was powered by atomic energy, as shown in Disney's Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1954 - the same year the USN Nautilus was launched) but it seems that Disney played with the book here.

E.E. "Doc" Smith delved into what was then termed super-science with his Skylark and Lensman stories, choosing to pull energy from the ether itself in possibly the first SF adaptation of zero point energy. Research today is only just beginning to show the fruits of this weird piece of physics, where the vacuum itself appears to be chock full of energy for us to use.(5)

But there's more energy around than we can actually make use of without invoking E=MC2 or exotic physics.

Heinlein refers in a number of places to high efficiency solar power conversion. In his short story "Blow Ups Happen", he posits the nation's principle power supply as solar, with one remaining massive atomic power plant posing an unreasonable risk. Ironically, it's the short term risk of explosion that captures his attention, rather than the longer term risks associated with waste and health issues.

We may well be on the verge of a "solar singularity" with a number of new(ish) solar conversion power processes coming into the economically viable range. Concentrated solar energy conversion shows great promise by first collecting solar power into a small area and then using the extreme energy differential to make power with high efficacy. Thin film solar arrays are driving the price per kilowatt down to levels that make sense to consumers and conversationalists alike. Possibly the most exciting new alternative energy development I've heard of is the use of nanotech fabrication to make antennas that resonate at IR (infra-red) wavelengths. These "nantennas" (6) have an extremely high efficiency, being able to capture 80% of the IR energy available, and can perform solar energy conversion even on cloudy days and well into the night as they pick up the residual heat from the ground.

I have a great affinity for solar power--unlike burning fossil fuels or cracking atoms, it doesn't add energy to a system whose balance is already threatened by human activity. Also, the prospect of limitless power doesn't impress me. We don't have control or distribution systems capable of handling it, nor do we understand its impact on either the environment or society. Finally, we just don't need it.

As Heinlein puts it in his novel Friday: "Those who spoke of energy scarcity and of conserving energy simply did not understand the situation. The sky was raining soup; what was needed was a bucket to carry it."

Between high efficiency conversion processes and new storage technologies, which we'll go into in a later article, I feel we are on the threshold of energy independence…not from other countries, but from non-renewable resources themselves.

Ernest Lilley
Sr. Editor, SFRevu
1) Chernobyl – Catastrophe and Consequences by J.T. Smith and N.A. Beresford

(2) Why Do We Use Explosive Fertilizer?Isn't there an alternative? By Brendan I. Koerner

(3) Acid Rain - Sources Of Sulfate And Nitrate In The Atmosphere

(4) 'Major discovery' from MIT primed to unleash solar revolution

(5) The Casimir effect: Much ado about nothing

(6) Solar Nantenna Electromagnetic Collectors

(7)Friday, (1982, Robert A. Heinlein, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 0-03-061516-X, $14.95, 368pp, hc)(pg 234)

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