Sunday, February 28, 2010

Alternative Energy

Most of the United States' electrical power comes from coal fired steam plants. There's an effort to shift away from this, because coal is made almost entirely of carbon, and produces a sooty ash that pollutes everything in its immediate environment. Even "clean" coal, which would be more accurately described as "slightly less sooty than usual." (And lastly, to use coal requires coal mining, which isn't pleasant work.) Yes, the soot can be scrubbed, if you bother with that. Many don't.
So, how else can we generate power? In a world increasingly thirty for electricity, and increasingly wary of the problems with traditional electrical generation, how can we get the juice to keep our cities running?
* Nuclear
We put a very heavy metal into a chamber, where we ram it with neutrons until it splits into two smaller metals. This makes heat, boils water, and makes power.
+ No carbon output or soot
+ Fancy
+ Uses relatively little fuel
- Nuclear waste
- Media will get hysterical about it
* Natural Gas
+ Cheap
+ No soot.
- Same carbon problem
Natural gas is a hydrocarbon trapped in many rock formations. It burns easily, and cleanly, producing carbon dioxide and water, with none of that sooty problem.
* Bloom box
I've heard quite a lot of bragging media about this, unfortunately most of them neglect the part of mentioning how it actually works. It's a small box into which natural gas is pumped. The gas burns, but instead of making heat, it instead is channeled directly into electricity. A bloom box the size of two bricks can power an average American house, a bloom box the size of a refrigerator would power a commercial building, and each uses natural gas in proportion to its size.
+ Same as natural gas
+ Power is made where and when it is used, for greater efficiency
+ Awesome hype
+ More reliable than electric grid connection
- Setup costs
- Same carbon problem
- Stored natural gas could potentially explode
* Gravity power
A building contains a large shaft, with many turbines embedded in the edges. At the bottom is a steel plate on a spring, and a doorway to a large chamber. Rocks are thrown down the shaft. When they hit the sides, they impart rotation to the turbines, and when they hit the bottom, they compress the springs, both of which are exploited for power. The rock will bounce out into the chamber. I assume that there are stairs to the lower chamber.
+ Hillariously overengineered
+ No pollution. (Maybe noise?)
+ More easily constructed than the other methods. Could be built anywhere gravity exists.
+ Fuel not required. Rocks are not destroyed by being used.
- If rocks are not collected, they will first fill the lower chamber, then the shaft, ending the usefulness of the system.
- If rocks are collected, this will inevitably take more energy than was put in, possibly by cheap human labor. Unskilled workers would take a large bucket, fill it with rocks, and haul the rocks up the stairs.
* Hydroelectric power
A river is dammed up, forcing it to run past a turbine to get back to the ocean. The river backs up behind the dam, producing considerable pressure.
+ No carbon. (Sometimes even absorbs some as the cement cures!)
- Requires a river
- Will flood the region behind the dam
- Flood will likely damage wildlife far beyond where the water eventually reaches. Rare species could go extinct.
* Radioisotope
A piece of nuclear waste the size of a soda can is surrounded by a vast metal stiller machine. the metal enclosure absorbs the various radiations (alpha, beta, gamma) emitted by the waste, and as the heat flows out, the machine uses the flow to produce electricity.
+ Safe, Stable, few moving parts
+ Heats area where it is housed
+ Makes something useful out of nuclear waste
+ Consistent, will last for thousands of years with no maintenance
- Making it requires handling nuclear waste
- Bulky and heavy. A unit as tall as I and as thick as a trash can would produce 300 watts. You'd need 5 of those to power an ordinary American house
- Only made by one laboratory in Idaho, which will only sell them to the government.
* "Hamster Wheel"
A hamster wheel is a small wire-mesh device with a round rotating part attached to a stand. A small animal, like a hamster, can run inside the wheel for exercise. scaled up, a horse or human could run inside one, and a shaft connected to a turbine. The turbine would make power when the wheel is spun by running.
+ Power is made near where it is used
+ Could be run by unskilled labor
- Excessively crazy
- Worst. Job. Evar.
* Fusion power
In a process basically identical to what happens in the sun (or any other star), hydrogen atoms are rammed together, where they combine into helium. Some mass is transformed into energy instead, from which power is extracted.
+ can take hydrogen from any source, including water
+ Water is extremely abundant on earth
+ Carbon not produced until at higher temperatures, and even then as solid carbon, not gas.
- Current setups use more energy than they produce.
- Higher technology level required for efficient use.
* Antimatter
An oppositely charged particle is run into a conventional one. Both destroy each other in a burst of energy, some of which can be extracted.
+ Anything would be fuel. Anything. Water, garbage, coal, toxic waste, rocks, anything.
+ No pollution
+ No carbon emission
- Inputs destroyed forever and irretrievably.
- Half the input must be antimatter, which makes it....
- Impossibly expensive with today's technology if even possible at all.

So....we have options. Let us hope we choose wisely.

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