Usually, when somebody talks to me about energy in a context that gives it near-religious importance, I start to doubt that person’s sanity. However, as you will see in my multi-post upcoming series regarding my predictions of the future of humankind, energy is the most important point to ponder.
Here’s the preview: There’s a big yellow ball in the sky. It sends electromagnetic radiation (and some streams of matter as well) toward our smaller-yet-still-large blue ball. Our blue ball goes around the yellow ball in a slightly elliptical orbit, held on its path by a pulling force called “gravity.”
I digress — the important thing here is the energy given off by the Sun. It comes to the Earth, and manifests itself in potential and kinetic energy of the matter on the planet.
Much of the energy of the planet (and especially the energy that humans use) comes directly or indirectly from the Sun. The neat thing about the stored energy found in carbon compounds (the fuels you’re familiar with) is that it can exist deep below the surface, then be used on demand by humans. It’s just limited, and doesn’t renew nearly fast enough.
As you can see by the current drive toward ethanol fuel, corn gets energy fairly directly from the Sun, and grows back reliably with human intervention — so it’s a reasonable alternative to fossil fuels.
The next step, it then follows, would be to harvest energy from the Sun in even more direct and efficient ways.
Solar panels and other technologies are being developed to make this a reality — but there are problems:
- areas with a lot of cloud cover
- the materials used to make panels
…but there have been recent breakthroughs. The sun is also responsible for things like wind and the motion of bodies of water — which can also be used by humans for our own purposes.
It’s all about efficiency, and mills from many centuries ago that were powered by rivers and streams were, in a way, better at efficiency than some of the things we’ve come up with since. I guess convenience might be important too.
In the twentieth century, we found a way to harvest energy that uses the very properties of matter to derive energy — nuclear fission and (in a currently impractical sense) fusion. A white-haired gentleman gave some sort of theoretical formula relating energy and matter, but for the life of me I can’t think of it off-hand. This framework shows that matter itself could very well be interchangeable with energy in some sort of meaningful way. Perhaps us humans should look into this a little more…
That’s the premise — I’m leaving out a lot — but I’m stressing that energy is important, and there’s a source for it that we thrive by.
[Disclaimer: I’m writing in layman’s terms because I am a layman — if there are glaring errors, I’d like to know, but let’s not pick nits.]