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My, that's Power


Asperion
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I got thinking recently about the different ways that people attempt to create energy.  In ancient times,  people had muscle power in some form, either human or animal.  Eventually we figured out power of moving water,  then came other forms of power that are either more powerful or portable (or both). Today we possess a wide array of ways to create power  - muscle,  hydro, steam,  wind,  petroleum,  solar, among MANY more.  Including discussion about their strengths and weaknesses,  I would like for us to brainstorm possible ways people can create energy that either are only theory today or not even at that stage,  might even talk about completely fictional sources - those might become real someday. 

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For a complete guide to human energy use, from the Paleolithic to the present, there's Vaclav Smil's Energy and Civilization. One thing he finds: Use of past energy sources hasn't declined in real numbers -- only in proportion, as new energy sources have eclipsed them. Thus, humanity gets just as much energy from biomass (burning wood, animal dung, etc.) as a thousand years ago -- it's just that we get so much more from hydro, fossil fuels, etc. We still burn as much coal (or nearly so) as ever, it's just that we also burn increasing amounts of petroleum, with natural gas use still rising.

 

Nuclear is anomalous in its real decline, but it's also very new and so subject to political hiccups. It hasn't been around long enough for the normal pattern to have happened yet.

 

Of course, this pattern will inevitably suffer an enormous exception as stocks of easily recoverable petroleum are exhausted. Coal and natural gas simply take longer, but they too are finite, even without taking climate change into consideration. Smil is not optimistic that civilization can decarbonize quickly enough to do so in a smooth and orderly fasion. The historical record also shows how long technological transitions take, and they aren't quick. The history of Bronze Age deforestation to support copper smelting is also not encouraging. Still, at least we've been told, and some people are trying to manage a speedy transition.

 

Dean Shomshak

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G. Harry Stine's Space Power lays out a fairly detailed plan for shifting civilization to solar power using satellites equipped with huge panels of solar cells. The great problems with Earth-based solar power, after all, are that solar energy is diffuse and unavailable half the time. In space, though, it's always sunny and there's plenty of room. Of course, lifting all those satellites into orbit would carry a prohibitive cost... but you can make it all much cheaper by getting raw materials from the Moon. The greatest practical difficulties remain those Stine found when he wrote the book in 1981: Start up costs are too high for private industry or even any single government, and the legal issues for the necessary partnerships are not yet worked out. But there is no technological impediment, and Stine even works out how a solar power satellite system could benefit less developed countries that lack an electrical grid.

 

It would be an excellent system for a nearish-future, hard-SF setting.

 

Dean Shomshak

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Moving into pure SF, when I was building the wider background for my Planetary Romance campaign, I had nuclear batteries as the convenient energy source for any tech that never needed refueling. However, I didn't want to leave them as pure magic. For the rubber science, I invoked hypernuclear matter, or hy-matter for short: muonic matter (replacing electrons with muons), strange matter (particles incorporating the "strange" quark as well as the "up" and "down" quarks of protons and neutrons), magnetic monopoles, and the like. Some science speculation articles by, IIRC, John Cramer had suggested such materials might have novel properties that would be useful for SF-tech.

 

And how does one make hy-matter? In very, very big particle accelerators -- so big they can only be built in space. Power them in turn with thermoneclear fusion reactors. And to fuel the banks fo fusion reactors, park the whole assemblage in syncronous orbit around a jovian planet, and drop an orbital tower pipeline into its atmosphere to such up hydrogen. I had the two big hy-matter factories at Jupiter and Barnard's Star. The Chinese extrasolar colony of Tianchi was building its own hy-matter factory to compete, but it was much smaller. The hy-matter factories had been major battle sites in the Cladist Wars... battles conducted very carefully, because nobody wanted to damage them.

 

Dean Shomshak

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32 minutes ago, DShomshak said:

G. Harry Stine's Space Power lays out a fairly detailed plan for shifting civilization to solar power using satellites equipped with huge panels of solar cells. The great problems with Earth-based solar power, after all, are that solar energy is diffuse and unavailable half the time. In space, though, it's always sunny and there's plenty of room. Of course, lifting all those satellites into orbit would carry a prohibitive cost... but you can make it all much cheaper by getting raw materials from the Moon. The greatest practical difficulties remain those Stine found when he wrote the book in 1981: Start up costs are too high for private industry or even any single government, and the legal issues for the necessary partnerships are not yet worked out. But there is no technological impediment, and Stine even works out how a solar power satellite system could benefit less developed countries that lack an electrical grid.

 

It would be an excellent system for a nearish-future, hard-SF setting.

 

Dean Shomshak

 

Does Stine discuss the efficiency factor? Broadcasting power through atmosphere will cause a lot of signal diffusion, wasting energy. And what happens if a glitch causes the satellite to shift alignment and broadcast over a populated area?

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Two forms that have been used strongly in the past and lessened up recently are matter/antimatter and zero point energy (ZPEr). In current reality,  both are either HIGHLY expensive or some other reason not available.  However,  people being what they are cannot leave any problem alone.  Due to this,  I believe that both of these energies will eventually become available to humanity. 

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23 hours ago, Lord Liaden said:

 

Does Stine discuss the efficiency factor? Broadcasting power through atmosphere will cause a lot of signal diffusion, wasting energy. And what happens if a glitch causes the satellite to shift alignment and broadcast over a populated area?

IIRC (it's been a few decades since I read this), he does. The microwave beam is already so diffuse that atmospheric distortion shouldn't matter much. (The rectifying antenna to turn the microwave beam back into electric current covers a cres -- a lot of land, but you can do other things with the land as well, such as farm.) The beam is also so diffuse that Stine claims it won't hurt anyone. Prolonged exposure...? Eh, I'm not sure I'd want to live directly in the beam, but it's no Death Ray. The system *is*inefficient -- solar cells still aren't that efficient last I heard, they were worse in 1981, and there's another loss in conversion back to electricity. The whole scheme is predicated on the input of solar energy being free, and low operating costs once the satellites and rectennas are in place.

 

It would all, of course, be terrible for Earth-based astronomers. But once you have sufficient space-based industry to impledment the system, you put all the observatories in space, too.

 

Dean Shomshak

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17 hours ago, Scott Ruggels said:

Wouldn't Microwaves beamed from space, heat up water molecules in the atmosphere, and make the temperature situation worse?

 

17 hours ago, L. Marcus said:

That depends on the frequencies of the microwaves, I imagine.

 

It does. Above a certain wavelength, the atmosphere is effectively transparent.

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