Tech UPTechnologyThe new dawn of energy

The new dawn of energy

The 20s and 30s of the 21st century were decades of profligacy , decline, continued decline, and collapse, in that order. And of a lot of suffering, perhaps necessary to rethink an irresponsible growing economic model, based on feeding outdated economic-business systems in the process of decomposition. It was the Great Descent . Antonio Turiel, theoretical physicist, mathematician and researcher at the CSIC Institute of Marine Sciences, issued a premonitory warning at the beginning of 2021: “ All those mega wind farms, all those solar farms, all those electrolysis plants and all the auxiliary facilities that need, those that are actually built, will be covered with dust and forgotten in a few years. They are not necessary, and they do not help us to weather the difficulties that come our way. They are wrong solutions to the problem that we do not have.”

Although the reaction was late, already in the middle of the Great Downturn, tremendous efforts were made to take advantage of renewable energies, energy efficiency increased and energy production was relocated with small installations that improved land use planning. And consumption contracted, forcibly. The investment effort in the research and development of new technologies, especially nanotechnology, was also redoubled. There were also economic sectors, intensive in labor that grew, which did not entail environmental depredation or generated social inequality.

We are already in 2061, and in the last four decades science and technology have continued their inexorable advance in the development of new truly ecological energy production and distribution systems. We are solving the problem of energy demand , while working on a task that will last centuries and that unites humanity: repairing the damage inflicted on the environment and reversing the global climate crisis that has hardened the conditions of life in many places. .

In 2019, the scientist and environmentalist James Lovelock, author of the Gaia hypothesis , which describes that the planet regulates itself as if it were a living being, launched a new theory, which he called the Novacene . In it, he argued that the Anthropocene – the era born with the Industrial Revolution and massive polluting emissions of human origin – was going to be very short, thanks to the exponential momentum of technology and science, which would culminate in the development of a conscious artificial superintelligence of its very existence and that it would help us keep the Earth habitable. That artificial superintelligence arrived, realizing that not even electronic life could survive on a planet that continued to hurtle toward runaway global warming.

Today, humans and machines coexist and collaborate to ensure their survival and restore climatic balance. The integration of intelligent machines with people is possible thanks to bioelectronic interfaces, which also help us to withstand the serious environmental conditions that we created at the time and are now reversing in slow motion, at this beginning of the novacene that had its pioneers in the young people from the 20s of this century, who launched movements like Fridays for Future and Extinction Rebellion to combat the climate crisis.

In 2061 we live in a revolutionary Second Neolithic : we have alternative energy produced by microorganisms , which also eliminate and recycle contaminated materials. It is based on so-called microbial fuel cells (MCCs), devices that use microorganisms to convert the chemical energy of organic matter into electricity. This kind of biological batteries are an excellent source of renewable energy in local areas.

After some failures caused by applying insufficiently tested solutions ahead of time, we have adjusted deadlines and technology. We have usable energy alternatives in case of need. For example, we know how to convert the flows of magma that flow through geothermal areas of high temperature, throughout the entire planet, into sources of energy. To do this, it has been necessary to drill thousands of meters below the surface, a method that the American geologist Wilfred Elders already anticipated four decades ago. Nanotechnology has been another of the keys to overcoming the difficulties of the 1920s and 30s, two critical decades in the energy transition, but in which nano techniques were refined to improve energy storage and use; produce more capable and long-lasting batteries; and rejecting some of the experimental solutions that were thrown around without much foundation at the time: by 2020, for example, giant diesel-powered container ships were transporting 150 times as many containers over 400 times longer distances and at speeds three to four times faster than what the most cutting-edge electric model could do, the Norwegian experimental freighter Yara Birkeland. Large displacements with giant ships had to be abandoned due to the shortage of diesel , especially for the transport of non-essential consumer goods, but now they have been recovered and electrified thanks to nanotechnology, only for strategic goods.

Artificial photosynthesis – dozens of times more efficient than natural and ten times faster – has become another source of energy, thanks to advances in the manipulation of matter on a tiny scale. Starting from water molecules, we made green hydrogen and began using it in various industries in the 2030s, as researchers at MIT and Harvard University had anticipated a few years earlier. Since then, appropriate geological storage locations have been selected and systems fine-tuned to produce cost-effective supplies of hydrogen from photovoltaic solar-powered electrolysis. Decarbonization efforts were favored by this type of electricity generation from hydrogen, with low carbon dioxide emissions and at a competitive cost.

The valiant attempts to achieve the technological and economic viability of nuclear fusion failed. Solar and wind power and batteries produced with nanotechnology have provided cheap electricity for years, bankrupting nuclear power and fossil fuel companies. In 2061, the only useful application of fusion is space exploration. Thrusters based on direct fusion drives (DFDs) can take a spacecraft to Titan, one of Saturn’s moons, in just two years. DFDs have become the main propulsion device for satellites and probes. Its fuel mixes deuterium (an isotope of hydrogen) and 3He, an isotope of helium. These systems are ideal for interstellar missions: they need hydrogen, and it turns out that this is the most abundant element in the universe, so the ships do not have to carry large reserves of such gas. The first fusion-powered mission to Titan was launched in 2046.

Solar energy in high orbit is a reality in 2061. There are solar panels in space capable of capturing the energy emitted by our star and transmitting it to Earth in the form of microwaves. The aesthetic and spatial laser beam also serves to transmit energy. China was the country that built the first solar power station in orbit. Such an installation circles the planet 36,000 kilometers away, and works regardless of atmospheric conditions, seasonal changes and the passage from day to night. It also avoids landscape pollution from large extensions of terrestrial solar panels. But there are so many energy sources available in 2061 that these types of stations are used, above all, to power spacecraft and generate fuel. Of course, these facilities are built with 3D printing machines.

Now let’s think about the distant future – decades, a century? – of the year 2061 from which I write: perhaps the time will come when we look at the rich surface of Titan and its dense atmosphere saturated with hydrocarbons. As the geologist and science fiction writer Carlos Peña explained in one of his articles at the beginning of the 21st century, “Titan could become our main energy supplier in the future, since it has more hydrocarbons on its surface than the entire Earth, especially methane. We would be talking about hundreds of times the current amount of natural gas reserves on Earth. Taking into account the calculated cost of the Titan terraforming mission, it is clear that the answer to the question of whether it is profitable from an economic point of view to terraform Titan is a clear and resounding YES. Will then start a new interplanetary black gold rush? If this happened… wouldn’t that mean we wouldn’t have learned anything?

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