Five Exciting Energy Solutions for the Future

Gas and coal went out with powdered wigs, as far as I'm concerned. It's time to acquaint yourself with the slightly science-fictional future of energy.

Every Friday, I’m compiling a list of five things that meet one criterion. “What is that criterion,” you ask? Well, it’s going to change every week and you’re just going to have to try and keep up.

This week…

Five Exciting Energy Solutions for the Future

Fossil fuels aren’t going to last forever. Whether you believe in global warming or not, there’s no denying that there are finite amounts of oil and coal on our planet and we need to figure out new tent-poles for our energy consumption that are renewable, sustainable, and cost-feasible.

Even though most every car is still running completely on gasoline and a great deal of American electricity is still derived from coal, there are (fortunately) new paths being carved into the next decade that will hopefully lead to us acting on the bright ideas already being offered up by extraordinary minds around the world.

5. Wind

Everyone is familiar with the current windmill model that litters the more desolate areas of nations around the world but the future holds many new and interesting concepts for wind power.

The most important thing to remember when imagining the potential of wind-generated power is that wind turbines do not exist only in terms of “giant tall fans in the desert.” New designs involve giant helium-filled wheels in the sky, various styles of windmills anchored in bodies of water (some standard in appearance, some substantially less orthodox), unique ideas that aim to take advantage of the air flow above and next to freeways, and skyscraper-sized structures that generate electricity while also purifying the air.

One of the answers to our burgeoning energy crisis, quite frankly, is blowing in the wind. Bob Dylan knows what I’m talking about (I mean that figuratively, of course… I don't think the man has any engineering expertise).

4. Algae

The utilization of the natural fuels that can be found in crops high in vegetable oil or sugar is already a prevalent practice in the world energy scene. Harvesting gas created by landfills and waste is a process that is on its way to widespread application.

But then there’s algae, which is the cream of the potential organic fuel crop (pun completely intended).

Whether it’s coming from normal, naturally occurring algae or genetically-modified organisms with astounding fuel-producing abilities, a clean, natural, carbon-neutral replacement for gasoline certainly qualifies as exciting. Additionally, algae-derived fuels are particularly unique because, unlike every other entry on this list (which all relate to clean and efficient electricity generation), liquid fuel derived from organic matter could quite easily be implemented into the existing gasoline infrastructure without as much overhaul as, say, converting all gas stations to accommodate hydrogen-powered or fully electric vehicles.

3. Space-based solar

This one is pretty simple. Basically, think of solar power as you currently know it: photovoltaic cells + sunlight + no harm or waste. Perfect and easy, right? Well, yes, except that Earth’s atmosphere reduces the amount of sunlight that can reach our planet’s surface. Oh, and solar panels don’t work so well when it’s cloudy. Or at night. Or if something obstructs the sunlight. Hmph. Suddenly not so perfect. The answer? Go to space.

Solar panels in space don’t have to compete with any atmosphere, weather, or obstructions. In short, they can catch a lot more power in a lot less time. The idea of sending solar panels towards the stars has been around for a while but still remains an unrealized dream, largely due to costs (getting to space is a pricey endeavor, as you may have gleaned over the years). That doesn’t mean our world isn’t trying — America is on board, as is Japan. Here comes the sun.

2. Solar thermal

A variation on the standard practice of turning direct sunlight into electricity, solar thermal energy is created through an array of mirrors that concentrate reflected sunlight to turn water into steam in order to spin a turbine and generate electricity. In short, it’s like a benevolent version of a death ray (so, we must take extra special care to ensure no maniacal businessman or disgraced scientist ever gets his or her hands on one of these places).

One of the biggest differences between thermal solar power and the “original” solar power – and what makes thermal power so intriguing – relates to energy storage. Because thermal solar power depends more on heat than sunlight, there is no need for batteries; electricity is transmitted as necessary and any gathered excess heat for thermal power can be stored in molten salt and then released as necessary (see: quickly and easily creating clean electricity from the sun, even at night).

It’s a very viable option that is already becoming a reality in California and in China, alike – even big oil companies are adopting it to make their job easier. It’s bound to be featured in a James Bond movie in the next few years, I’m sure, and that's when you know something is legitimate.

1. Nuclear fusion

The brass ring. The Holy Grail. The day that human beings effectively crack the fusion code will be a pretty awesome day. However, I would advise you not to hold your breath, waiting for that glorious breakthrough (even though I am, regardless).

Even though nuclear fission went from military application to energy production tool in under a decade, the dream of fusion has struggled for over fifty years to be realized in the commercial world. Many are skeptical about the process’s viability at all and, even in the event that it can be harnessed, there are many questions as to whether or not the men in the black helicopters would even let civilians reap the benefits.

Regardless, modern efforts are ongoing and they are serious. There’s the normal use of lasers and plasma in most research but new ideas come along every once in a while and one of these blind squirrels in a lab coat may ultimately find us a nut. Both in the United States and overseas, the quest to effectively solve a large chunk of our world’s energy issues is well underway.

Truthfully though, even if we achieve consistent “net gain,” this saga will probably never be completely over until we have fusion reactors that fit in the palms of our hands.

Justin Brown

Justin Brown is an artist and writer living in Virginia. He channels most of his enthusiasm into making things for his online art shop, Artness! by Justin Brown. You can keep up to date with him, his worldly adventures, and his dogs by following him on Instagram and on Facebook