Alex Lowe’s Energy Paper

Alex Lowe

Mr. Pollock

English 12

February 2022

The Flaws of Modern Energy, the Transition to Storing Energy, and the Future of Clean Energy

Throughout the course of history, mankind has always been chasing power, whether that is political power, land and intimidation, and quite literal power and energy. Humans have been making advances for all of history when it comes to power and energy, it started with a simple exothermic reaction releasing energy and heat making what is known as fire, and ever since then humans have found more and more ways to harness this energy. It started with simple fire but has evolved into a CO2 emitting dystopia that humans are struggling to fix. We as a species have been slowly working towards the extinction of our own kind in the most recent years of our existence and have barely started to try to undo the damage that we have inflicted. Modern Energy methods such as fossil fuels and coal burning are damaging the environment all while humans waste the energy they make with these methods by refusing to store it. Recent advances in the field of energy production and energy storage such as nuclear fusion and flow batteries prompts the need for humanity to make the switch to renewable energy sources and begin to store energy whilst being environmentally conscious allowing for the transition into other fields of research promoting humanities’ development as a species.

Cars, households, planes, buses, and many other modern forms of luxury make the quality of life better for many people in the world, however, all of these “necessities” of life come at a major cost. All of these things require energy to function, whether that comes from fossil fuels, natural gas, or coal burning, they all have one thing in common, they all output CO2 into the atmosphere. Initially this started out relatively slow, but as technology and the need for technology has increased the amount of CO2 being pumped into the atmosphere has greatly increased. According to the EPA, coal burning outputs 919 metric tons of CO2 every year, natural gas burning outputs 696 metric tons every year, and petroleum sources output 21 metric tons every year leading to a grand total of 1,636 metric tons of CO2 every year being output into the atmosphere (EPA). All of this CO2 culmination is reflected in NASA’s yearly “CO2 Concentration” publication. In the most current 2022 release, NASA measured the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere to be 419 ppm (parts per million). This means that for every one million particles in the air, 419 of them are CO2. This is also the highest it has ever been in recorded history. The natural cycle of CO2 in the atmosphere has followed one simple pattern for hundreds of thousands of years and simply follows the pattern of sitting around 180 ppm before rising to 300 ppm and dropping again. This pattern was followed until 1950, when the CO2 ppm started to rise drastically. It has risen every year since then and is currently sitting around 419 ppm (NASA). The major issue with this increase of CO2 is how it interacts with infrared light in the atmosphere, “Oxygen and nitrogen molecules are simple — they’re each made up of only two atoms of the same element — which narrows their movements and the variety of wavelengths they can interact with. But greenhouse gasses like CO2 and methane are made up of three or more atoms, which gives them a larger variety of ways to stretch and bend and twist. That means they can absorb a wider range of wavelengths — including infrared waves,”(Smerdon). Oxygen and nitrogen molecules only absorb light wavelengths less than 200 nm (nanometers) whilst CO2 absorbs light in wavelengths ranging from 2,000 – 15,000 nm which creates an immediate problem when it comes to infrared light. The sun emits its light in a wavelength range where it can pass freely through the atmosphere without trouble, it is only when the Earth absorbs the light and re-emits it as infrared light that the CO2 molecules don’t allow it to pass back through the atmosphere into space. Infrared light has a wavelength ranging from 700 – 1,000,000 nm which lies within the CO2’s absorption range. All of this means that the infrared light is trapped between the Earth and the atmosphere which causes all sorts of issues like global warming and increased air pollution rates. All of this environmental damage is derived from a single byproduct of modern energy methods and only begins to address some of the major issues of modern energy.

While CO2 is one of the major issues of modern energy, there are many other byproducts that have had more immediate impacts on the environment than CO2’s slow 100 year effect of destroying the atmosphere. Two of the most destructive and apparent leaders would be coal mining and oil spills. Coal mines have greatly affected the environment throughout history, in the 70s all the way through the 90s mountaintop removal with explosives occurred in the Appalachian mountains in West Virginia and Kentucky in order to make mines. This caused pollutants and debris entering many water sources and rendering it harmful to humans and wildlife. According to the EPA, coal mines also release all sorts of harmful compounds including Sulfur Dioxide (SO2), Nitrogen Oxide(s) (NOx), Carbon Dioxide (CO2), a variety of particulates, mercury and other heavy metals, as well as bottom and fly ash. All of these byproducts pose major threats to the health of wildlife and humans alike, causing effects such as respiratory illness, developmental issues, and even neurological issues (EPA). All of these particulates and byproducts pose immediate damage to the environment and living organisms. The best example of immediate damage to the environment would be oil spills. According to NOAA, there have been 44 major oil spills directly affecting the U.S. since 1969 alone, all of these spills consisting of 10,000 barrels (420,000 gallons) of oil or more being spilled. The NOAA states that there are 4 major effects of oil spills including fouling (direct damage to plants/wildlife), oil toxicity towards living organisms, oil toxicity compromising water sources, and oil slicking. Oil slicking becomes a major issue as oil creates a thin film over the surface of the body of water preventing critical bacteria to grow all while contaminating the water rendering it undrinkable/usable. One pint of oil is enough to slick 1 acre of water which leads to issues in major spills (NOAA). In 1991, Exxonmobil was responsible for a fractured pipeline underneath Los Angeles county which ended up spilling 1,700 barrels worth of oil and cost 2 billion dollars to clean up. Despite all of this damage and liability,  Exxonmobil was only fined 4 million dollars for the endeavor (EPA). “This case underscores the harm oil spills can cause despite a rapid response by the company — at least 1,777 barrels of crude oil were discharged and the spill caused extensive damage. Enforcement in this area is crucial to ensure companies have plans in place for preventing, preparing for, and responding to oil spills.” (Suarez (EPA)), this quote by Suarez shows the lack of responsibility taken for major incidents involving the environment. Clearly fossil fuels can have more immediate impacts on the environment such as oil spills but other modern methods such as nuclear fission can have both incredibly devastating immediate damage and long term damage.

Out of all modern forms of energy, nuclear fission is considered the most efficient in terms of production and energy yield. A single nuclear plant can output up to 1 gigawatt per day which is enough to power 750,000 homes ( Now this may seem like the best option for energy but nuclear fission has byproducts that can be more harmful and devastating to wildlife and humans when compared to oil spills and raw CO2 output. Nuclear fission is the process of splitting a single Uranium 235 (U235) isotope into Barium 141(Ba141) , Krypton 92 (Kr92) , and 3 stray neutrons (3n) by launching an initial single stray neutron into the U235 isotope. The written reaction is n → U235 = Kr92+Ba141+3n, and the major problem with nuclear fission are the three stray neutrons that are released from the splitting of U235 (EIA). These three neutrons cause what is known as ionization radiation, which is radiation degradation caused by the stray neutrons ripping electrons away from other isotopes. Ionization radiation is similar to x-ray radiation and causes radiation sickness and cancers to wildlife and humans alike (CDC). This free ionization radiation can cause runaway reactions that lead to major issues in nuclear plants. A clear example of this would be Chernobyl. On April 26th, 1986, unit 4 turned off power regulation and emergency safety measures while removing control rods from the reactor all while allowing it to continue to run at 7% power. This led to runaway reactions caused by ionization radiation to create an explosion blowing the concrete lid off the reactor allowing radioactive materials to be released into the environment. It is estimated that between 50 million and 185 million curies of radionuclides escaped and directly affected a 1,600 square mile area alongside killing 31 people from radiation related complications (Britannica). The effects of the radiation are still being felt today and show how nuclear fission releases something more immediately deadly than CO2 pollution and major oil spills. Chernobyl isn’t a special case in history either, the incidents of Three Mile Island and Fukushima were both examples of the impact nuclear fission can have on the environment. Three Mile Island was caused when an attempt to clean a cooling line led to the release of hydrogen and radiation into the main reactor room causing hydrogen explosions to occur and release 100 million curies of radionuclides into the surrounding 10 mile area. Three Mile Island is directly linked to 333 leukemia/cancer related deaths that occurred in the following years (Wikipedia). Fukushima was caused by an earthquake off the coast of Japan that made Fukushima nuclear plant switch to emergency diesel cooling engines, but the earthquake had caused a tsunami wave to crash into the plant causing the cooling system to fail which led to three nuclear meltdowns and 3 nuclear explosions. 18,000 TBq (terabecquerel) of radioactive Cesium-137 into the surrounding 12 mile area (Wikipedia). “The major accidents of Three Mile Island and Chernobyl did not devastate the industry, but they did sound the alarm that the industry needed to make safety a top priority” (Ferguson 138). This quote talks about how these major environmental and humanitarian disasters merely brought safety into consideration when it comes to nuclear fission instead of continuing to pursue clean alternative methods of energy production. All of these events display the risk of nuclear fission and the dangerous byproducts caused by such methods of energy production.

Nuclear fission may be efficient, but it clearly has many unwanted byproducts and poses huge risks to the environment with the potential for disaster, alongside the risks of nuclear fission, coal mining and other modern energy methods are polluting the environment at an ever so increasing rate. All of this may seem like there is no way to work towards solutions to mankind’s current problems, but recent advances in the field of nuclear fusion say otherwise. Nuclear fusion is the opposite of nuclear fission whereas instead of using neutrons to split isotopes, it uses neutrons to fuse two isotopes together.

The process of nuclear fusion starts with Deuterium (hydrogen with one neutron) and Tritium (Hydrogen with 2 neutrons) and then some sort of outside force does work (such as a laser or magnets) to ignite a fusion target resulting in products of Helium and a single neutron mass. A fusion target is a 2mm sphere filled with 2H and is surrounded by cryogenically frozen 3H and is forced to implode on itself when hit by a series of 292 lasers that are converted from infrared light to UV light causing the implosion to occur at 220 mph and causing pressure 300 million times greater than the Earth’s atmosphere and a heat of 100 million degrees Fahrenheit. The reaction of nuclear fusion is written as 2H + 3H →2He + nm. “Everytime we think we get close to fusion, nature tricks us, and resists the compressing of the gas” (Seif), this quote explains how for almost a hundred years physicists have been chasing the elusive net gain in energy through nuclear fusion but as of December 2022, scientists at the National Ignition Facility (NIF) used lasers delivering 2.05 million Joules of energy to a fusion target which then yielded 3.15 million Joules of energy, this resulted in a net gain of 54% energy (Brownie). The reason this is so significant is because of the capabilities of nuclear fusion, nuclear fusion has no risks of runaway reactions occuring, has no carbon emissions, yields 4 times more energy per reaction than nuclear fission, yields 4 million times more energy than coal burning, and just two pounds of fuel is equivalent to 55,000 barrels of oil and fuel for nuclear fusion is extremely abundant (CNBC). All of this means that the development of nuclear fusion allows for a possible future of infinite clean energy.  

With this future potential of infinite clean energy there arises another problem, what is going to be done with this excess of energy? This question is answered by the modernization and normalization of storing energy in clean ways. The most common association made with storing energy is batteries, not just any type of battery but the commonly used lithium batteries. Lithium iron phosphate (IP) batteries are most common in energy storage grids and more energy dense material batteries like lithium nickel cobalt aluminum (NCA) and lithium nickel manganese cobalt (NMC) batteries are used for houses and electric cars (IEA). Lithium batteries have been the go-to in most recent years and are the most widespread and common form of energy storage and yet they have many harmful repercussions. In order to collect just the lithium for the batteries it requires 500,000 gallons of water for 1 metric ton of lithium. Alongside the lithium, the batteries contain toxic metals such as nickel, cobalt, and manganese which frequently contaminate water supplies and ecosystems if they leak out of landfills. Alongside the contamination through exposure, major fires in landfills can be direct results of improper disposal of lithium batteries. All of these negative impacts led to jurisdictions being put in place requiring the recycling of lithium batteries. Recycling lithium batteries is costly and still has an impact on the environment so the rate of recycling the batteries is still relatively low (Wikipedia). With the most widespread and modern form of energy storage being lithium batteries, it has led to major breakthroughs in alternative energy storage research and the discovery of new, green methods.

As research into alternative forms of energy storage advances, more eco-friendly alternatives have been discovered. One of the most major breakthroughs when dealing with clean energy storage would have to be flow batteries. Flow batteries are special when compared to regular batteries in that they store energy as an electrolyte rather than an electrode material. Flow batteries work with two tanks of an electrolyte solution, one positively charged and the other negatively charged which are then pumped into a tank and separated by a membrane. The movement of electrons and ions allow energy to be directly taken from chemical energies which then can be discharged. All of this chemical energy provides emissionless clean energy, batteries with lifespans of 20-30  years, instant recharging by replacing the electrolyte liquid, and instant response of power. While all of these things are positive, flow batteries have low energy density and only have capacities ranging from 25 kilowatts to 100 megawatts, which prompts the continued need for research in this field of technology and energy (Freethink). Flow batteries also are preferred over lithium batteries as they do not show performance degradation for 25-30 years and can be sized to meet limited investments into energy. China has made advances in the field of  flow batteries as in July 2022 it was commissioned that the world’s largest redox flow battery was to be built with a capacity of 100 mW to 400 mWh (IEA). While flow batteries could be a possible solution for the future grid energy storage, the most common method for grid energy storage is pumped hydro storage. “Pumped-storage hydropower is still the most widely deployed grid-scale storage technology today. Total installed capacity stood at around 160 GW in 2021. Global capability was around 8,500 GWh in 2020, accounting for over 90% of total global electricity storage. The world’s largest capacity is found in the United States. The majority of plants in operation today are used to provide daily balancing” (IEA). Even though hydro storage is the most common form of energy storage besides lithium batteries, it has certain impacts on the environment such as environmental degradation in order to make two reservoirs that are used in the storage. The reason hydro storage requires two reservoirs is because the storage system is dependent on the conversion of potential gravitational energy (Ug) to kinetic energy (K). Hydro storage starts with water in the lower reservoir and when energy is wanted to be stored, water is pumped into the higher reservoir. When energy is extracted water is allowed to flow back down into the lower reservoir powering a turbine in the process creating energy, thus creating the transition of gravitational potential energy to kinetic energy. Hydro storage also takes up lots of space and is only able to function in very specific locations that have the possibility for one reservoir to lay above another and still be close enough to allow for pumping of water from one reservoir to the other (CBNC,Freethink).

While flow batteries and hydro storage continue to be improved upon, a more modern and immediate solution would include thermal storage. Thermal storage is simple; a clay brick is heated up in an insulated container and then when energy is needed water is boiled and the brick and the steam created is used to spin turbines in order to create electricity. The length of storage of thermal energy can last from days to weeks and overall last longer than both lithium and flow batteries. “Another interesting part of thermal batteries is that they can be charged and discharged at the same time, in addition to having little maintenance. Their durability far exceeds that of lithium batteries, where they reach up to 3,000 charge cycles without degrading, and only drop to 80% with 5,000 charge cycles. In the case of lithium batteries, they normally reach 80% load capacity when they carry around 700 cycles. With this, each battery can last up to 20 years.” (Dankworth). What this means is that on average thermal storage lasts over 3 times longer than lithium and flow batteries and lasts over 5 times longer than lithium and flow batteries before the efficiency drops to 80%. Thermal storage also stores 6 times more energy than lithium batteries but however are very expensive. Even with the high cost, a grid scale of thermal storage would cost only 60%  – 70%  of what it currently costs with lithium batteries. “There is nothing toxic, nothing that decays over time. The bricks will still be stored just as well in 40 or 50 years when chemical batteries have gone through several generations of intricate recycling processes” (O’Donnell (Vicinanza)),what this is saying that 98% efficiency thermal storage has been achieved which would lead to extremely cheap storage that costs around ⅕ of what flow batteries cost. Advances in thermal storage have been made and started in Finland with the world’s first commercial scale sand battery being built. It is chapped like a silo that is filled with 100 tons of sand that is heated up to 500 degrees celsius and has a possible storage capability of 8 mWh that can be stored for months without energy loss. It also is currently 99% energy efficient (Freethink).

With all of these possible alternatives to the harmful modern energy production methods and the modern energy storage methods, it promotes the idea that a transition to more environmentally clean methods are needed in order to undo the damage that has been done to the environment. We as humans depend on fossil fuels because they don’t have a dependency problem meaning that they can be used at any time for energy production whenever energy is needed, but the transitions to clean energy storing methods solve the problem of consistency because energy can be stored and taken out whenever it is needed. The modern forms of energy storage like lithium batteries are the cheapest and easiest way to store energy but damage the environment while clean methods like flow batteries and thermal storage help even out the price of production with the promise of a clean future and environment, essentially a zero sum game which would transition to benefit humanity after a certain amount of time. “Non hydro renewable energy such as solar and wind are viewed as intermittent sources. When the sun doesn’t shine or is blocked by clouds, solar power plants will not generate power, and when the wind doesn’t blow or blows at less than optimal speeds, wind turbines are not working at their best. This intermittency problem could change if storage systems for energy could allow for consistent power production ” (Ferguson 207). With the possibility of a transition this raises the question how can this transition be made? A transition to renewable energy clean energy would be very beneficial to the environment and future generations although it would be very difficult and expensive to initiate. 4 trillion dollars every year would need to be invested in renewable energy worldwide until 2030 to allow the world to reach carbon neutral emissions by 2050. However the 4 trillion a year would still be cheaper than fossil fuel subsidies and would end up saving the world 4.2 trillion a year by 2030 (UN). If this is able to be achieved it would have the potential to initiate the  solution to the Great Filter. 

The Great Filter as it is known, is a possible solution to the Fermi Paradox. The Fermi Paradox is a term used to describe the lack of evidence of extraterrestrial life when the sheer number of life capable planets in the universe imply that there should be life everywhere. In the 1990s, Robin Hanson formulated a possible solution to this issue known as the Great Filter. The Great Filter states that intelligent interstellar lifeforms must take many crucial steps and at least one of these many steps must be highly improbable. Basically there is one hurdle that all species have yet to overcome in order to move onto the next steps. This can happen consciously or unintentionally such as humans working on space programs or evolution happening involuntarily to a species. It follows the course of nature. The Great Filter has 9 major steps that must be taken in order to overcome the Fermi Paradox. Firstly, there must be a planet capable of harboring life in a star’s habitable zone. Secondly, life must find a way to develop on that specific planet. Thirdly, those life forms must be able to reproduce using such things as RNA or DNA. Fourthly, prokaryotes (simple cells) must evolve into eukaryotes (complex cells). Fifthly, multicellular organisms must develop. Sixthly, sexual reproduction with increasing genetic diversity must take place. Seventhly, complex organisms capable of using tools must evolve. Eighthly, these organisms must create advanced technology needed for space colonization (roughly where humans are today), and finally, the space capable species must colonize other worlds and star systems whilst avoiding self destruction (Alder). If the human species could reach this final step, proof of extraterrestrial life could finally be found and the Fermi Paradox would be solved. This hypothetical answer to the Fermi Paradox could be potentially reached with the future of clean renewable energy such as nuclear fusion and more advanced storage in the form of flow batteries or thermal storage as there would be no need to worry about the energy and environmental crisis currently and humans would be able to spend more time advancing as a species.

With the modern dependency on non-renewable energy such as fossil fuels and nuclear fission, the environmental damage being caused has been very clear whether it’s the CO2 ppm levels in our atmosphere increasing every year or the major environmental and humanitarian disasters of famous nuclear meltdowns like Chernybol or Three Mile Island. All of this environmental damage has helped prompt advances in clean energy technology such as renewable energy in the form of nuclear fusion and clean energy storage methods such as flow batteries and thermal energy storage. All of the potential for clean energy in the future also opens the possibility of humanity solving the environmental crisis that it is facing and then transferring energy and resources into other areas of technology, possibly allowing humanity to reach the other side of the great filter.


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