Petroleum prices are relatively low right now, but there are no guarantees that the price of oil will remain low for very long. Progress on biofuels and fusion aren't great bets for the impatient, but there's an existing energy source with some serious growth potential: nuclear fission. Okay, we've been talking about advances in nuclear energy for a while, too, but the barriers are mostly economic/regulatory, not in the engineering or science.
Most of the time, when people are talking about nuclear energy, they're talking about fission. Fission gets all the attention because it's already commercially available, and every so often there's an accident that makes the news and scares people away from all kinds of nuclear energy. But fusion is entirely different. Aside from the fact that no one has ever actually built a reactor that has generated more useful energy than needed to ignite atomic fusion (hydrogen bombs don't count!), fusion energy could be a great source of energy. We've covered fusion a few times before, but here are just a few more interesting links on fusing atoms together.
According to the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, scientists are 95% certain that human activities have been responsible for most of the climate change observed on the planet since the 1950s. Apparently, we've already burned 54% of the 1 trillion tons of carbon that would need to be emitted into the atmosphere to increase the average global temperature by 2°C (3.6°F) -- a threshold set by climate negotiators in Copenhagen in 2009 to avoid catastrophic climate change. Unfortunately, even as we try to reduce carbon emissions now, some predict that we'll still surpass the 2°C limit by the end of the century. Will renewable energy be able to curb global warming while also satisfying our energy-hungry ways? Here are some energy-related links.
Nuclear energy usually has a significant NIMBY problem (Not In My Back Yard!) that prevents nuclear power plants from being constructed. There's no simple solution to this obstacle, and even when the reactor is going to be thousands (or millions) of miles away from any people in a spacecraft, the danger of launching a nuclear reactor on a rocket is still too risky for some folks. There haven't been any nuclear disasters in space, but as more and more nuclear powered spacecraft are built, the anti-nuclear groups may grow increasingly loud. Here are just a few nuclear spacecraft projects that could travel beyond our planet.
Nuclear energy has the obvious drawbacks of dealing with its waste (potentially for hundreds of years) and getting political support. But on the other hand, nuclear power can be more convenient as a power source compared to alternatives like solar or wind. Newer nuclear power plant designs are supposedly much safer than any of the current commercial reactors in operation, but there's no operational history for power plants that haven't actually been built. Here are just a few links on building safer nuclear reactors.
As technology advances, it gets easier and easier to make all kinds of complicated things. Information spreads more easily, and it's more and more difficult to keep technology away from any particular group of people. It's an exciting time, but it could also be a bit scary. The knowledge of how to design and build nuclear weapons has existed for decades now, and more countries are developing their own nuclear weapons programs (sometimes with the help of other nuclear-capable countries). Here are just a few things that might keep you awake as the Doomsday Clock is just 5 minutes away from midnight.
The nuclear power industry is currently dominated by light-water reactor designs from the 1940-50s. These reactors use ordinary water (aka light water) as the fluid for transferring thermal energy to turbines that generate electricity, but there are other nuclear reactor designs that could be safer and produce less problematic radioactive waste. Fusion reactors aren't ready to generate any energy yet, but they're getting closer (just another 30 years, promise). If you're interested in atomic energy, check out the links below.
Battery technology is a significant bottleneck for a lot of gadgets, and the limitations of batteries even prevent the widespread adoption of renewable energy solutions. Storing energy efficiently and safely is just a difficult problem. Quite a few energy storage solutions have been proposed, ranging from giant flywheels to burying pressurized air. One far out option that doesn't get much attention is the nuclear battery, so here are just a few links on this obscure technology with a decently long half-life.
Nuclear energy has been around for decades, but its safety and the safety of its radioactive waste have always been a political nightmare. Still, some researchers have been redesigning nuclear reactors to make them safer in many ways, but these newer designs have yet to be scaled up and used commercially. Maybe someday nuclear technology will be ubiquitous, but it'll likely take a long time before anyone is willing to embrace fission/fusion energy that doesn't come from the Sun.
If you happened to check your favorite major news site in the past 24 hours, you probably already know about this incredibly strange video North Korea's state media has been running, in which a peacefully sleeping Korean man dreams of a nuclear rocket detonating on American soil while Korean text is overlayed and Michael Jackson's "We Are The World" plays in the background.
Awww, we think about you when we're dreaming, too, you guys!
Now, since I can't translate Korean, I can only assume the text amounts to some kind of assertion that Michael Jackson was taken long before his time by a massive American military plot and that a nuke up our rectums will be issued as retribution. Really, who can tell? But I'll tell you what I can translate, and that's video game footage. I say this because it turns out that North Korea, in the tradition of the Chinese Air Force, apparently decided to simply yank a bunch of nuke footage from Modern Warfare 3 to use in this wonderfully disturbing bit of propaganda. This side by side will show you the rip.
Essentially, that terribly frightening part where New York is ablaze is all from MW3, with an additional explosion or two added along side a grainy filter and 'Ol Glory. For most normal people in The States, their reaction to this is probably, "So what?" But I know Techdirt readers aren't all in the States, nor are they normal, so I'm sure amongst your first thoughts was, "Hey! That's copyright infringement!" Well, the Forbes post got our juices flowing with this:
UPDATE: Activision actually DID have it killed, which is sort of hilarious.
America! So mark today as the day that copyright saved us all... And you people say we never have anything good to say about... Oh, wait... it turns out that the original video was actually taken down by the user who uploaded it (i.e., whatever North Korea's version of Ronaiah Tuiasosopo is), so it wasn't so much a victory for America! as it was a failure of America!'s media fact-checking efforts.