It's official: sucking dead-dinosaur juice out of the ground and burning it is officially uncool. Whether you object to the way you can't breathe the resulting fumes, or it's the thought of a swing back to $200 dollars a barrel that will leave you gasping for air, people from both ends of the political spectrum agree that it's time to find a new way to power our playthings. The mathematics of a fuel-based economy are a vast and complicated field but the simple summary is:
a) The number of people using energy continues to increase
b) The number of new dead animals turning into oil remains constant at zero
This compelling argument has led to increasingly odd research into alternative energy sources. And even if "the fate of modern society" doesn't motivate them, the idea that their oil-based business rivals use a unique "constantly increase the price of our product" strategy means they have a good chance of making money.
1) Wind based x 1000
Wind farms, while undeniably renewable, have run into a multitude of objections including cost, limited applicability, and people whining "They may eliminate the need for the local coal-burning plant but we think it ruins the view from our bay windows". While the latter can be rightly ignored, and maybe mocked a little bit for being extremely small-minded simpletons, the other problems remained valid - which is why a group of engineers said "Why don't we just make it a thousand times better?"
This kilo-improvement isn't a playground boast but exactly what Chinese developers at the Guangzhou Energy Research Institute claim to have achieved by using permanent magnets to float the turbines - making them much easier to turn and scale up in size. A single power plant could replace thousands of old-model windmills and utilise much lower wind speeds, increasing the areas over which they design can be applied. Big words need proof, of course, and we could have it soon - Zhongke Hengyuan Energy Technology is already building a factory to make this ecological and economic fantasy into a reality.
2) Handy home nuclear power plant
You want to know the real solution to the power problem? Nuclear Energy, and lots of it! That's the strategy of Hyperion Power Generation who, in a plan straight out of a 50s black and white movie reel, picture a safe and friendly nuclear reactor in every backyard! A hydrogen atmosphere surrounds a uranium hydride core, the whole thing is encased in concrete and then buried somewhere to power 25,000 homes for up to five years. Exactly what you're meant to do with the buried nuclear material in a container designed never to be opened, operated or ideally even approached by humans after the five years elapse is not exactly clear - doubtless Hyperion would suggest buying another reactor and burying it next door.
The makers say they prefer not to call it a "reactor", which is probably a good idea when you're talking about something you intend to drop in a hole and then leave unsupervised, but if they think changing the name will get people to overlook the problems inherent in running around the place randomly burying uranium then they need to hire a seriously upgraded PR team. Environmentalists are not reacting well to these plans, in the same way they wouldn't react well to plans to deploy whale blubber powered oil-derricks on top of a orphaned kitten hospital. Considering the efforts people have made to render nuclear waste grounds like Yucca mountain dangerous and scary looking even to aliens, future humans or even the descendants of ants, the odds of this scheme being approved are worse than Jack Thompson's of being voted "Video-game developer of the year: Swimsuit edition".
3) Taming tornadoes
In what can only be an attempt to get notice by COBRA's recruiting division, retired engineer Louis Michaud has filed a patent for a device that would generate tornadoes and then harness them for power generation. Think of it as the Xtreme version of wind power. Also, unless you're reading this on a holographic display generated by a cybernetic cheerleader in your secret mountain lair, you should really think of it as the coolest thing you've ever heard.
The principle is that you can set up the conditions that create the tornado, then harvest the energy after it has naturally grown from "pattern of hot and cold air" to "terrifying twisting column capable of scarring the earth like God's own drill bit". Mr Michaud suggests that we can be even more economical by using hot water generated by a nearby nuclear power plant to provide those initial conditions. Since this hot water is normally generated as a waste product, this is both an inventive and efficient use existing technology and a demonstration that - if sufficiently diabolical - a person can sit down and produce a complete design and patent application without ever realizing "Wait a minute, I'm telling people to create tornadoes right next to a nuclear reactor!"
Posted by Luke McKinney
Related Galaxy posts:
KiloWind power http://www.engadget.com/2007/11/26/maglev-wind-turbines-1000x-more-effiencient-than-normal-windmill/
Hyperion nuclear battery
Yucca mountain warnings