Energy Supplies in Abundance
ENERGY is very much in demand. All life in the universe depends upon it. Without energy there would be no food to eat, water to drink or air to breathe.
In recent years people have become concerned about the supply of energy available to man. Electric power cuts, blackouts, rising prices for heating fuels and long lines at gas stations have made “energy crisis” household words. This could lead some to believe that the earth’s supply of energy is running dangerously low. Is that really the case? Not at all. In fact, the earth has abundant, virtually unlimited, energy supplies. How so?
The Sun—Energy Unlimited
The sun is the principal source of energy for the earth. Each year this immense, nuclear furnace bathes the earth with energy equivalent to that contained in 250 million million tons of coal, about 100,000 tons for each person on earth. In one day enough sun energy shines upon Lake Erie alone to meet the needs (if it could be fully utilized) of the entire American populace for a whole year. Where does the sun get its energy? Scientist Ralph E. Lapp explains:
“The sun is an enormous nuclear machine. It runs by fusing ions of light hydrogen (H1) to form the heavier atoms of helium (He4). . . . The energy released becomes heat. Every minute about 40 billion tons of hydrogen atoms are fused on the sun.”
The sun is indirectly responsible for many other forms of energy too. The sun’s rays cause tropical air to warm up and rise while cooler air from polar regions flows in to replace it. This creates winds that can be used for sailing ships, grinding grain, or even for producing electricity from windmill-powered generators. Coal is the fossilized remains of plants that stored solar energy in their cells long ago. Likewise, the chemical energy in oil is the light and radiant energy of the sun stored in the cells of living things in the past.
Sun Power for a Modern World
Efforts in modern times to make greater use of sun power have been interesting. There are at least twenty houses in the United States using solar energy to reduce heating costs. An experimental house in Newark, New Jersey, derives 80 percent of its electrical, heating and air-conditioning needs from the sun.
Two United States solar energy researchers, Dr. and Mrs. Aiden Meinel, have suggested spreading out sunlight collectors over vast areas. They say that such “solar farms” covering a total area of 15,000 square miles in the southwestern United States could achieve an electrical generating capacity of one million megawatts,* enough to care for the entire country’s electrical needs between now and the year 2000.
Some have suggested putting a huge solar energy collector into earth orbit. Such a satellite would contain “solar cells” that convert sunlight directly into electricity. It would beam this back to a receiving antenna on earth as microwaves that would be reconverted into electricity. And a satellite would be unencumbered by inclement weather.
God’s generous gift of the sun has made available to mankind virtually unlimited supplies of energy. Of course, devising means of ‘plugging into the sun’ for today’s massive energy demands presents some knotty technological, political and economic problems.
But is today’s massive energy consumption really working for man’s happiness? Does the ready availability of material gadgets in crowded, smog-filled cities result in a sense of well-being greater than in the society of bygone days?
Some persons have concluded that they would rather have a different way of life. They enjoy pollution-free power from their own windmill-powered generator. This source of power was common on farms in the past. But recently both individuals and the United States government have been giving windmills a second look. With little difficulty a family can at least pump water and provide light for their home in this manner.
Energy from Water in Motion
For thousands of years man has taken advantage of the power of flowing water as a source of energy. The first plant for generating electricity by water power appeared in Appleton, Wisconsin, in 1882. Hydroelectric plants now utilize the power of onrushing waters to produce close to a third of the world’s electricity.
The oceans, which cover more than 70 percent of our globe, hold vast potential as an energy resource. The ebb and flow of the tides keep countless billions of gallons of water in motion each day. During 1961-1967 a major hydroelectric plant that uses tidal energy was built in northern France. A dam equipped with reversible turbines permits production of electricity by tides flowing in either direction. In 1969 a tidal power plant was completed in the Soviet Union. There are nearly one hundred sites in the world that could, on the basis of man’s present knowledge, be utilized to provide tidal electric power.
Energy Beneath the Earth’s Crust
Another potent source of energy is within the earth itself. Less than forty miles beneath its surface there is a layer of molten rock and gas, called “magma.” This seething mass may reach temperatures as high as 3,300 degrees Fahrenheit. The gases from cooling magma heat underground water, causing geysers of hot water and steam to erupt, sometimes hundreds of feet into the air.
For decades some homes and greenhouses have tapped these “geothermal” energy sources for hot water and heating. In 1904 Italians hooked up generators to a source of natural steam at Lardarello, Italy. This power plant produces enough electricity each year to operate most of Italy’s railway system. Dr. Robert Rex, a geologist who has done much work exploring the possibilities of geothermal power, feels that large-scale exploration of this type of energy could turn up a generating capacity of a billion kilowatts, nearly three times the present United States generating capacity.
But economic and political obstacles crop up here too. The initial cost would be high, for geothermal steam is cooler than that used in most generating plants and, therefore, not so efficient. Extraction of energy from “dry” subterranean areas requires sinking wells into hot rock to allow water from the surface to penetrate so as to produce steam. Pollution from salts and sulfur in the hot water and steam is another problem. But if these difficulties could be worked out in a system of things in which love of neighbor took precedence over self-interest, how beneficial this rich source of energy that lies beneath the earth’s crust would be to mankind!
What About Nuclear Power?
Nuclear energy, that is, the energy locked up in the nucleus, or central mass of an atom, is by far the greatest known source of power in the material universe. Two ways of releasing that energy are called “fission” and “fusion.”
Nuclear fission means splitting a nucleus into two lighter ones. Scientists have learned that the combined weight of the two new nuclei is slightly less than the original one. The difference is converted into energy. So great is the power in the atom, it has been said, that the fission of a piece of uranium no heavier than a loaf of bread and smaller than a golf ball can provide as much energy as 2,300,000 pounds of coal.
But nuclear fission as an energy source presents problems. For one thing, only 7 percent of uranium, the fuel used for fission, is of a readily fissionable type (called uranium-235). Scientists have endeavored to overcome this difficulty by developing special “breeder reactors” that produce or “breed” more fissionable fuel than they consume. According to The Americana Annual for 1973, successful breeder reactors would permit man to use 50 to 80 percent of the world’s known uranium resources, enough to meet the world’s electrical needs “for at least several hundred years.”
The hazards of radiation from atomic power plants, especially in the disposal of radioactive wastes, present a more serious problem in the view of many. The danger of cancer and leukemia as a result of radiation is twentyfold higher than the experts thought less than ten years ago. And what if a nuclear reactor went out of control or was sabotaged by a hostile power? That could possibly result in the death of hundreds of thousands of persons.*
Nuclear fusion, such as takes place within the sun, occurs when nuclei of two atoms come together, producing energy in the process. Nuclear fusion can produce heat energy 1,750 times as great as that which is necessary to cause it. And fusion does not present the radiation dangers of fission.
The difficulty of duplicating nuclear fusion is to build a device that could keep a “plasma” of fusable nuclei in a small enough area at sufficiently high temperatures (about 180,000,000 degrees Fahrenheit) for fusion to occur. If this process could be perfected, what would be its possibilities for producing energy? Science Year for 1972 observes:
“Fusion power plants will probably use lithium and two forms of hydrogen—deuterium and tritium—as fuel. Seawater has enough deuterium to meet the need for 3 billion years and the lithium in the upper kilometer of the crust could meet it for 15 million years.”
If the earth has such energy supplies in abundance, why all the talk about shortages? Principally because of a decrease in the availability of fossil fuels (coal, oil and natural gas).
The Problem with Fossil Fuels—Why?
What has caused shortages in fossil fuels?
John Noble Wilford, in the New York Times of April 22, 1973, points to the basic reason for today’s energy shortages:
“The energy crisis could have been predicted and perhaps averted—but it wasn’t. Americans chose a high-energy technological society. They drove more and bigger cars and moved offshore to drill for the fuel to run them. They installed washers and air-conditioners and all manner of gadgets, and they stripped hillsides for the coal to generate the electricity to run them. . . .
“No one wants to give up the good life of fast cars, jet planes and air-conditioning . . . Few Americans seriously want a slowing down of economic growth, for the consequences in unemployment, buying power and political power are at the moment unthinkable.”
Thus an enslaving political and economic system, human greed and shortsightedness have caused today’s energy pinch with fossil fuels, and have often hampered development of other energy sources. As for the Creator, He has given man energy supplies in abundance.
One megawatt equals 1,000,000 watts, or 1,000 kilowatts.
See “Is Nuclear Power the Answer?” in the September 22, 1972, issue of Awake!