The energy sources we take for granted
We are privileged to live in an age of multiple and readily available energy sources, but where does all this power come from, and can we afford to simply take these sources for granted? Our brightly lit and multi-functioning homes and businesses are comfortably heated in winter and cooled in summer, and we get on with our daily routines without giving this more than a brief passing thought.
Occasionally, though, something goes wrong with the system, and the power suddenly goes down. Nothing works! A glance through the window confirms that the whole neighborhood is in darkness. We find ourselves rummaging in the kitchen drawers for candles and matches. The air suddenly seems stuffy and the eerie silence is so intense that it can almost be felt!
It is at such times that we realize how helpless we are without the energy that powers our daily lives. If, on top of this, our phones have run out of charge, we are really lost! No wi-fi. No internet! No texting! We feel completely isolated. When the lights suddenly come back on accompanied by the welcome sounds of everything starting up again, we breathe a sigh of relief.
Let’s turn the clock back a little
Open the kitchen or bathroom faucet, and water comes streaming out, on demand. Amazingly, this wasn’t available even in the palaces of kings a few hundred years ago! Water for cooking or washing, had to be manually hauled from often distant wells, or rivers and had to be very carefully stored and conserved for only the most important use. Heating up a tub of warm water for a bath was an infrequent and major task, and indoor plumbing was completely unknown. So many of the conveniences we are unable to live without today, were unknown and unthought of by our earlier ancestors.
Science fiction and the new generation
What is common place to today’s school children, wasn’t even dreamt of by the science-fiction writers of the mid-20th century. Apollo ll landed on the moon in July 1969 with a computer possessing only one-eighth of the memory of the first IBM PC’s of the early 1980’s. The smart phones we have today, in turn, have memories over a thousand times greater than those early IBM’s. As regards processing power, the iPhone 6 is over 32,000 times faster than the Apollo Moon Lander and can perform instructions 120 million times faster! Yet Apollo was able to navigate and traverse the distances required to take man from the earth to the moon, and back! Next time you visit the Smithsonian NASA exhibits give some thought to how far we have come!
Even more amazing is the miniaturization that was the outcome of the space program. Take for example those original IBM PC’s of only thirty-five years ago which packed a hard drive with all of 20MB storage capacity! It would take a football field crammed side-by-side with hundreds of those ‘ancient’ cream-colored square PC’s, to approximate the hard drive capacity of a single laptop that you can carry around in one hand!
The origin of energy resources
All of this great technology requires energy. The same energy that powers and propels the cities and homes we live in. Where does this power come from and is it going to last forever?
Science has no definite answer to the question of how and when energy was originally harnessed by primitive man. From the earliest times, though, the need to cook food, and supply light and heat meant they had to have a practical means of producing the only form of energy known to them at that time: fire.
Ancient cave dwellings where roughly made flint tools have been found, suggest that the method of striking one flint against another may have been the earliest known method for producing fire on demand. The sparks generated using this technique could ignite dry tinder, and in fact this is a method still used today in some extremely remote tribal societies.
Where have all the forests gone?
This daily need, meant that these primitive peoples were out, constantly foraging for any available firewood. When this was eventually depleted, the group was forced to pack up and move on to a new location, yet again, searching for a new source of fuel for their fires. Some additional fuels that were also used, where available, included charcoal, peat, and dried animal dung, but wood remained the primary source.
In an age of small rural nomadic family groups, this was still a feasible solution, but as society developed and people started to settle in permanent villages and towns, it became difficult to find sufficient fuel for their fires, and other energy sources had to be found.
Wood, though, continued to be the main fuel source, down through the ages, providing mankind with the means to cook and bake, and to fire the furnaces that smelted the metal ore used to produce household implements, tools and weapons.
Fossil fuels and the new era
The need to safeguard and replenish the supply of trees was surely understood, but there was no means of enforcing this. Preventing the less informed and uneducated rural populace from cutting down and destroying all available trees was impossible. These were all sourced for firewood to fuel their ovens and stoves, as well as for building materials for their dwellings. A new energy source had to be found.
With the discovery of fossil fuels, it was presumed that the solution had been found, and the age of industry was born. Although coal had been known from antiquity, it was only in the 18th century that coal mining on an enormous scale was started internationally. This led to the replacing of wood as the major energy source, and was the prime factor resulting in the rapid growth of manufacturing that we refer to as the Industrial Revolution. Subsequently the use of Petroleum and Natural Gas joined and at times supplanted coal as the major energy sources, together generating the vast amounts of electricity that powered, lit, heated and cooled, the civilized world from the 19th century onwards.
Supply and demand
We are now fully aware that the fossil fuels are in limited supply, while the insatiable demand for energy world-wide continues to expand. Clearly the result will be that we will eventually run out of power unless alternatives are found.
The answer is to minimize usage of depletable sources and bring sustainable and renewable energy sources into play. Tremendous progress has been made in this direction, but with the cost of such alternative energy sources still being more expensive than the historical fuels commonly in use, it will take time before the new systems completely replace the old.
Fortunately, though, energy sources such as solar and wind power are rapidly being developed on a scale and at a cost that will ultimately bring the economic utilization of these natural and sustainable within the reach of everyone. The solution seems to be at hand.