Engineering: The Energy Crisis

Engineering: The Energy Crisis

by Andrew Plebanek. Racine, WI
Second Place (grades 7-9)


Scientists, engineers, and technicians have developed thousands of fantastic inventions in the past century, ranging from the mundane transistor and microwave oven to the nuclear reactor. These devices have influenced our lives since their creation, around the house, and around the world. But no matter what the device, every invention is built for a common purpose: to solve a problem. Why did Thomas Edison invent the lightbulb? To provide a simple source of manageable light, of course. What provoked Mr. Graham Bell to dream up the first telephone? To allow instant, long-distance conversation. When these ideas came to fruition, they seemed extraordinary; yet today, we take them almost completely for granted.

One problem that remains to be solved by engineers today is quite challenging. Within the next few decades, one of our most crucial energy sources will have become quite scarce: fossil fuel. We rely on diesel and gasoline for powering our cars, motorcycles, and most other vehicles. Also, many devices used in and around the house use fossil fuels, such as lawnmowers, stoves, and heating units. Without fossil fuels, life would be very different. However, the source of these fuels isn't infinite. Fossil fuels, as their name implies, were created when tiny prehistoric plankton slowly decayed during the fossilization process. This sludgy material became petroleum, or "crude oil". Given the millions of years that this process requires, and also the tiny amount produced per fossil, once we use up our oil reservoirs, they are gone for good.

So, what happens when all of the fuel is used up? What alternative energy source can we turn to? At the moment, engineers are trying to find out just that. Among the many creations of science and technology, several candidates for our next energy source have been brainstormed. Three of the most likely are detailed in this essay. All have their advantages and disadvantages, their conveniences and drawbacks. Some may be left to the realm of the future, others are being prototyped this day. There is little doubt that, by 2020, one or more of these will become a new power source. Which ones... I leave that for you to decide.

WAVE POWER: One idea for future energy production uses a force that many of us have encountered as children playing on the beach. When you stand out in the water, you find that, despite being liquid, water packs quite a kinetic punch. Inventors have attempted to create an efficient way to harness the motion of waves, with little sucess. However, in the near future, it may be possible to utilize this energy. Prototypes of a machine called Pelamis are currently being tested, and within a decade or so may be in operation. Pelamis is a large, jointed machine resembling a giant snake, undulating with the waves and tethered to land by a cable. With each passing wave, hydraulic fluid is pumped into an engine in each segment, generating electricity. Although simple, this ingenious device can produce large amounts of electricity, even in stormy conditions.

Pelamis is, perhaps, one of the most efficient ways to generate power, because it uses a source which is inexhaustible; Obviously, waves can't be used up. There is a small problem, though. Although waves can't be used up, they are not always there. In calm conditions, Pelamis generates far less energy, because there are fewer large waves. However, the benefits seem to outweigh these shortcomings. The generator is simple to repair, actually works best in rough weather, and gives off absolutely no emissions. So, this idea seems almost perfect. Almost.

HYDROGEN POWER: Another idea for a future method of energy production is being brainstormed. Like wave power, the power source for this generator is very, very common: Hydrogen. Hydrogen, that simplest of elements, may pave the way for future vehicle propulsion. Scientists are developing engines that, using machines called steam reformers, run only on Hydrogen and water. The latest engine design uses a rotary motor, along with a small amount of water and pure, heated hydrogen, to create steam. Then, working like a rather old-fashioned steam engine, the motor generates electricity. So, technically, it is really a steam-powered car, but it is the Hydrogen which makes it much easier to power.

There is a glaring flaw in this otherwise sound plan, however. Being a gas, Hydrogen is very difficult to store. A car engine, Hydrogen or otherwise, works best with liquid fuel, which isn't a problem with gasoline. But Hydrogen requires special conditions to become liquid: it must be stored at very low temperatures, and high pressures. A "Hydrogen Pump" would need to have a built-in refrigerating unit and pressure chamber. Add that to how many Hydrogen stations would have to be built, and the overall cost becomes very, very high.

FUSION POWER: With our last possible candidate we stand on the boundary between possibility and science fiction. This source uses energy that we have only witnessed in military tests, a force so powerful, it drives our sun itself: nuclear fusion. As of today, fusion power has only been used in nuclear bombs. But that hasn't stopped people from dreaming of harnessing it. Fusion relies on the use of extreme heat to fuse two atoms together. This creates massive amounts of energy. Given the number of atoms that can fit into a nuclear reactor, mind-bogglingly huge voltages can be generated by the process. Also, though fusion bombs usually use only radioactive elements, nearly anything could be used to create energy in a fusion reactor, even water.

As you probably already have realised, fusion is a very dangerous process. Because of the intense heat needed to start the fusion reactions, containment is a serious issue. So serious, in fact, that no one has sucessfully built a reactor capable of withstanding the intense heat required to start fusion. However, that doesn't mean we'll never harness it. Plans for the first generator to accomodate fusion are already on the scientific agenda, and hopefully by 2020 may be under construction. Hopefully, that is, if nothing goes wrong...

Although which of these methods will become the world's next main energy source is uncertain, one thing is: Someday, fossil fuels will be exhausted. When that happens, we will need to change to alternative power sources . Even today, oil becomes increasingly less plentiful. Inventors and investors are putting great effort into solving this problem, and new ideas are being tested every year. By the year 2020, one or more of these ideas will have crossed the boundary between theory and fact. In 14 years, who knows what can happen?