Thursday February 19, 2015: Updated February 21, 2015
I’m currently a huge advocate of renewable energy because at this stage of our civilization and humanity, it is what is within our current technological capabilities. It is cost effective, non-polluting and easy to do; Almost anyone can safely use it at home, literally in their own backyard. There is so much untapped solar energy available from Earth, renewable energy will probably remain our future, staple energy source for the next few centuries. In conjunction with putting solar panels on your roof (and making your home and vehicles more energy efficient), you can have endless free energy, sufficient for all your needs, for life!
We are now at the point in our civilization’s technological advancement that for almost all our energy needs, it is foolish to continue using fossil fuels. They're antiquated, barbaric and poisonous. Not only does using renewable energy solve our immediate pollution and climate change problems, the renewable energy available on Earth has more than enough capacity to cover all our energy needs for at least the next few centuries.
The technical challenges involved in switching all our buildings, vehicles (and our entire global energy economy) over to renewable energy are already solved. It is a relatively easy and inexpensive solution. All that we need now is the political will to actually do it.
This is where we currently stand in the year 2015. Now let's switch gears and look forward about 150 to 300 years into the future.
The Far Future:
Whether you still burn fossil fuel like your ancient ancestors or have switched over to more responsible sources of renewable energy, the amount of energy that we humans use (in the year 2015), is very tiny in comparison to what is potentially available and locked up inside of atoms.
There will come a time in our distant future when, (even with huge advancements in energy efficiency), the energy needs of humanity will be billions, (if not trillions) of times greater than what is required today, (in 2015).
We Humans like to dream big and every once in a while we even act big.
We set foot on the moon a few times in the late 1960's and early 1970's, (almost 50 years ago). As far as taking a next step and a giant leap, that’s HUGE! It’s really quite embarrassing that we have not been back to the moon since then, nor have we humans ventured beyond our own planet's orbit. But perhaps we had a good excuse, (albeit a slightly pathetic one). It takes a lot of energy to life heavy things into orbit and travel far from our Earthly home. Oh and we have also been very busy financing/fighting wars, with ourselves and arguing over fossil fuels, (like I said, pathetic).
But being able to travel to another solar system will require a whole new energy technology, one in which we are just barely figuring out the basics. Nuclear energy.
The amount of energy locked up inside of all matter is mind-bogglingly huge. So far, we only know how to convert a few sources of matter directly into energy and most of these are extremely dangerous and highly radioactive. Many of our attempts at harnessing this energy have ended either in mass killings during wartime, or horrific peacetime accidents that have hurt millions more.
Poor Japan, they have had more than their fair share of bad dealings with nuclear energy.
We have come a long way but we still have much to learn about nuclear energy.
Even with our toddler-like failures and successes at harnessing the atom, the efficiency of releasing atomic energy in a nuclear explosion is still only about a 5% yield of what is theoretically possible.
Being able to convert any form of matter directly into energy would enable humans to transition from our current, meager, Earth bound existence, into a Utopian, interplanetary civilization.
So what does E=mc² even mean anyway?
E=mc² is an expression that calculates the amount of energy E, (in Joules), that you will get out of a given mass m (in kilo-grams), if you converted all of it directly into energy. c is the speed of light in meters/second.
Since the speed of light is so fast and you are also multiplying the speed of light by itself, the amount of energy ends up being utterly enormous.
Suppose you were going to convert 1 kg of matter directly into energy, (use whatever matter you have on hand: witches, bread, apples, very small rocks, cider, gravy, cherries, mud, churches, lead, a duck, more witches).
Regardless of the matter used, according to E=mc², with only 1 kg, the energy out would be:
1 kg x 300,000,000 x 300,000,000 = 90,000,000,000,000,000 Joules.
For comparison there are 3,600,000 joules (3.6 MJ) in 1 kWh.
Joules of energy in common items
- Chemical energy in 1 snickers bar = 250 kcal = 0.29 kWh = 1.046 MJ
- Chemical energy in 1 Gallon of gasoline = 34.6 kWh = 124.6 MJ
- Chemical energy needed to drive a 20 mpg car 12,000 miles a year = 74.7 GJ
- Energy used by a typical (albeit wasteful), American household each year = 74,000 kWh = 266.4 GJ
- Solar energy absorbed by Earth’s atmosphere each day = 10,574,000,000,000 GJ
- Atomic energy in 1 kg of matter = 90,000,000 GJ
Imagine if you could take a liter of water and convert all of its mass directly into energy?
With that energy, you could provide all the energy needs of 338,000 typical (wasteful) American households and all their cars. 1000 liters of water (or dirt or whatever you have on hand) could power all households in the entire United States for a year.
This is the mind-blowing capability of what can happen if and when we truly harness the power of the atom. Except in very limited applications, we won't need this much energy for a very, very long time. Renewable energy can cover all our energy needs for the next few centuries.