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The Search for New Sources of Energy

The environmental consequences of energy production have led many nations in the world to impose stricter guidelines on the production and consumption of energy. Further, the search for new sources of energy and more efficient means of employing energy has accelerated. The development of a viable nuclear fusion reactor is often cited as a possible solution to our energy problems. Presently, nuclear-energy plants use nuclear fission, which requires scarce and expensive fuels and produces potentially dangerous wastes. The fuel problem has been partly helped by the development of breeder reactors, which produce more nuclear fuel than they consume, but the long-term hopes for nuclear energy rest on the development of controlled sources using nuclear fusion rather than fission. The basic fuels for fusion are extremely plentiful (e.g., hydrogen, from water) and the end products are relatively safe. The basic problem, which is expected to take decades to solve, is in containing the fuels at the extremely high temperatures necessary to initiate and sustain nuclear fusion.

Another source of energy is solar energy. The earth receives huge amounts of energy every day from the sun, but the problem has been harnessing this energy so that it is available at the appropriate time and in the appropriate form. For example, solar energy is received only during the daylight hours, but more heat and electricity for lighting are needed at night. Despite technological advances in photovoltaic cells, solar energy has not become a more significantly more financially competitive source of energy. Although several solar thermal power plants are now in operation in California, they are not yet able to compete with conventional power plants on an economic basis.

Some scientists have suggested using the earth's internal heat as a source of energy. Geothermal energy is released naturally in geysers and volcanoes. In California, some of the state's electricity is generated by the geothermal plant complex known as the Geysers, which has been in production since 1960, and in Iceland, which is geologically very active, roughly 90% of the homes are heated by geothermal energy. Still another possible energy source is tidal energy. A few systems have been set up to harness the energy released in the twice-daily ebb and flow of the ocean's tides, but they have not been widely used, because they cannot operate turbines continuously and because they must be built specifically for each site.

Another direction of research and experimentation is in the search for alternatives to gasoline. Possibilities include methanol, which can be produced from wood, coal, or natural gas; ethanol, an alcohol produced from grain, sugarcane, and other agriculture plants and currently used in some types of U.S. motor fuel (e.g., gasohol and E85, a mixture of 85% ethanol and 15% gasoline); compressed natural gas, which is much less polluting than gasoline and is currently used by a 1.5 million vehicles around the world; and electricity, which if ever practicable would be cheaper and less polluting, especially if derived from solar energy, rather than gasoline.

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The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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