Monday, March 31, 2008


Ever thought about electricity? Probably not often. For most of us in the states, if you plug the appliance into the socket, it works, and if you flick the light switch up, the lights turn on.

I've been thinking about how it's made. Yes, without somebody else's work, if you flicked on the lights, nothing at all would happen. There are no free lunches in physics, and electricity is no exception.

All of our power comes from a magnet. Somewhere, there is a power station, which has a big loop of wire, probably made out of copper, which connects to the wires going to your house, apartment, or business. Inside that loop, there is a very large magnet, that almost, but not quite, fills the loop. The magnet is mounted on a rod that allows it to rotate around the axis of the loop. If you spin the magnet, the wires develop an electrical charge, the energy of which flows down the wire to you.

Okay, how do you spin the magnet? I mean, gerbil power plants aren't too common, right?

You use steam. Engineers in the mid to late 1800s discovered that you can push with steam. Much of the technology developed during that time used that principle to get work done, like trains, massager, and (this is a very long story that you can ask me about later) dildos. Because of the prevalence of steam as an energy transmission medium, the late 1800s are known as the steam era.

Okay, so you're shoving the magnet around with steam to make it spin. Where do you get the steam from? Steam doesn't just come from nowhere, right?

You boil water. The only power generation techniques that don't boil water are hydro power, and that involves the shove of water trying to flow downhill, conveniently blocked by the magnet-in-the-loop. So the water, pulled downhill by gravity, shoves the magnet into spinning, and wind power, in which wind shoves blades into rotating, and the blades spin a rod, that spins a magnet.

Everything else makes heat to boil water. Coal power works by burning coal to boil water, oil involves burning again, bio-power has been proposed in which wood would be burned. Power by burning must, of course, remove the smoke and ash from the process before it smothers the fire. Nuclear power produces heat by splitting atoms, changing a small portion of the atom's mass into heat. The heat boils water.

The ultimate power source would be antimatter. We have a lot of garbage laying around that no one would mind if it was destroyed, and a piece of matter the size of a small candy has enough power to fly a plane completely around the world several times. (Planes use a ridiculous amount of energy to stay aloft, by the way.) Enough matter to power a large city for several years would fit in the tiny wastebasket under my desk. The whole world could be powered for several years from the mass of a car.

Unfortunately, antimatter is very volatile stuff. It explodes if it touches regular matter, and so far can only be contained magnetically, and then only if charged. The process to produce it is ludicrously expensive. For the price required to produce the small candy's worth of antimatter, you could buy enough gold to completely cover the earth.

Since this is not an option, the next most promising technique is plasma arc gasification. This involves heating garbage with an electrical arc, which rips apart the atoms. As it cools back down, yes, it boils water. Also, some of the condensation resembles gasoline insomuch as it could power an engine. It was developed as a waste disposal technology, as it is so much cleaner than just burning the garbage, but it has been noticed to provide more electricity than it uses once it gets going.

Fusion power would also be great. With fusion, technicians would maintain a toroidal star that they constantly extract energy from. Hydrogen from water would power this star, and it would give off helium. The mass of helium would be less than the mass of the input hydrogen, so the energy comes from mass. Unfortunately, stability is a problem with fusion. Fusion operates at extremely high temperatures, so the star has to be prevented from touching the floor, which it will happily burn right through if allowed. Most existing fusion reactors can only safely be operated for a few seconds, or require more energy to maintain than they produce. Scientists have claimed commercial fusion power to be 50 years off....for the last 50 years. Serious roadblocks.

I'm going to recommend plasma arc gasification and nuclear power for now. Plasma arc gasification uses up waste that people pay to get rid of as it is, and nuclear power produces electricity with about my weight in waste per year. The waste could be recycled, technically, but we don't for political reasons. Could nuclear waste be plasma arc gasified? Probably.

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