By Stephen J. DeVience
Energy for the future is probably the most underemphasized problem facing the world today. Many people acknowledge its gravity, but they complacently believe engineers will find solutions in time to avert a crisis. This could happen, but only with more support for energy research. Industry will not devote major resources to alternative energy until it feels pressured by higher energy costs. By then it might be too late. We need to invest in more energy research now rather than later.
Petroleum is the major concern because deposits of crude oil are quickly being depleted. Gasoline use accounts for a large portion of the demand for petroleum, so the main focus of research should involve the automobile. New hybrid cars are a step in the right direction, but not sufficient.
With cars, one major issue is "energy density." Gasoline holds a large amount of energy in a small volume, and it is easy to store and distribute energy in liquid form. Among the alternatives, only ethanol comes close to matching gasoline's energy density. And since ethanol is made from plants, it is completely renewable. It would also curb the increase in greenhouse gases, because the carbon dioxide emitted by cars would get reabsorbed by the next generation of plants.
There already are processing plants for ethanol, which is used as a gasoline additive. But a large expansion would be needed to make it a primary fuel source. New technology could help as well. For example, genetic engineering might create plants that produce ethanol directly.
Gasoline will not be the only product affected as crude oil becomes depleted. Plastics, fibers, pharmaceuticals, and a host of chemicals are made from oil. New ways of producing these products will have to be developed, and those processes could take more energy than refining petroleum.
Actually, plenty of energy is waiting to be utilized. Solar energy is one obvious source. Unfortunately, it is also expensive and inefficient. But scientists are looking to the most effective converters of solar energy known, plants, for new ideas. One is to harness plant chloroplasts for more efficient solar cells. New solar systems for houses have enormous potential, such as photovoltaic roof shingles and siding. If every new house were required to have a solar system, a huge amount of power could be produced without burning dirty coal. Spain announced such a plan last year.
Other good alternative-energy sources include tidal, wind, and hydroelectric plants. They have certain drawbacks, however. Hydroelectric dams disturb the aquatic ecosystems of rivers and lakes. Wind-power farms are a a visual eyesore to some. Tidal plants are effective only at selected coastal sites. Nuclear power may be the main workhorse until the ultimate solution is ready. That's fusion energy, but it probably won't generate much electricity before 2050.
Meanwhile, we need to use energy more wisely. We can conserve gasoline by avoiding SUVs and pickup trucks when they aren't necessary -- specifically, for commuting to work. The public must take some responsibility.
Although the government should support more energy research, it can only do so much. Ways must be found to encourage industry to take the lead, if not for the public good, then for its own sake. Otherwise, energy prices will rise to levels that hobble the economy. That is surely a crisis nobody wants to live through. Luckily, it can be avoided.
DeVience was a finalist in the 2005 Intel Science Talent Search