The History of Energy


Historical progress of humanity is inextricably linked with the amount of energy we are able to generate and store. From the earliest humans, our usage of energy has grown exponentially [1]. For tens of thousands of years, our main source of energy was biomass fuel, which we burned for cooking and warmth. With this energy, we built our first towns and castles, we explored our planet, and began thinking about the future. We were making progress, but the civilization we know today could not be sustained by the energy sources we had then. This leads us to the eighteenth century, and the invention of the steam turbine, which marked the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. We began burning coal, oil, and gas for energy, and our civilization grew at an unprecedented rate. The newly available energy transformed the daily lives of us all.

Where We Stand


We stand in a race against the clock. We are using non-renewable rescources to generate energy at an alarming rate, and are doing everything we can to phase these sources out. Renewable sources of energy like wind, solar, and hydroelectric are quickly becoming cost-competitive with the traditional fuels and progress in battery technology gives much better capabilities of storing energy. We are also taking steps to make our energy usage more efficient, with smart-grid technology reducing waste in energy distribution, the rise of energy-efficient buildings, the increasing popularity of distributed energy sources, like solar panels. However, all this is happening in the short term, so let us take a step back and look at the bigger picture of our future.

The Future


Continuing the growth of our energy generation capabilities at an exponential rate is a daunting task. Clearly, none of the sources of energy we have available today will be sufficient. So, how do we get there? Firstly, let’s talk about theoretical methods of energy generation. A great candidate is the Dyson swarm [3], which consists of a sphere of solar panels orbiting the Sun. Creating such a megastructure will be a great challenge, and impossible without numerous breakthroughs in materials science and engineering. Maintaining it will be no easier, but the rewards are too great to pass up. There are other ways to utilise the energy withing stellar structures. We are looking into ways of harvesting portions of a star in the process of stellar lifting. Proper execution of this process can theoretically optimise a star’s energy output and lifetime simultaneously. An even more daunting method would be to take advantage of the Penrose process, in which a black hole reduces its angular momentum by spitting out photons. This process can be optimized by feeding stars, or portions of them, into the black hole [4]. Usage, production and recycling of antimatter is another possibility.

Of course, this is only part of the picture. Once we find and implement a new method of generating energy, we have to be able to transport and store it. We will need to see huge advances in wireless power transmission – research is currently underway on utilising microwave and laser beams for this purpose. We are also looking into superconducting power cables, which would enable us to transfer extremely large amounts of energy with no resistance. As for storage, we are looking into improving capacitor technology, creating hyrdogen fuel cells which have the potential to be more efficient and cleaner than conventional batteries, while also allowing for much larger storage of energy.

The future of energy holds myriad exciting challenges to us, not only on the scientific front, but also on the geopolitical. We will need to see a never-seen before kind of international collaboration to achieve any of these goals. Surmounting the physical challenges of the ordeal is a matter of time, the all too human challenges are not. Our future hangs in the balance of our ability to cooperate.

Further Reading


[1] Kardashev, N.S. (1964) Transmission of Information by Extraterrestrial Civilizations. Soviet Astronomy, 8, 217-221

[2] Yan Wang et al 2018 J. Phys.: Conf. Ser. 1074 012140

[3] Dyson, Freeman J. (1966). Marshak, R. E. (ed.). “The Search for Extraterrestrial Technology”. Perspectives in Modern Physics.

[4] Newman, Phil (2001-10-22). “New Energy Source “Wrings” Power from Black Hole Spin”. NASA.

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