Revolutionary new energy sources may result in the most disruptive changes in human history. Any one of these potential energy sources may become a Black Swan event. This may have both positive as well as unintended consequences for climate change and biodiversity conservation. While the implications for climate change would be positive, severe disruptions in land-use patterns will require intensive monitoring of biodiversity and proactive conservation management.
Accelerated fossil fuel use could conceivably push the Earth’s climate past a dangerous tipping point resulting in runaway global warming. James Hansen warns that we are on the verge of crossing a tipping point into catastrophic climate change. More and more evidence suggest that we could potentially face runaway climate change at a much faster rate than anticipated. While we need to actively pursue all alternative energy options, including energy conservation, novel energy solutions may be essential. We need to provide the growing energy needs of a growing world economy, both in terms of population growth as well as increasing consumption due to growing wealth required to eliminate poverty of the growing population.
Since the German physicist Hans Bethe first explained how nuclear fusion powers the stars in 1939, there have been many attempts to harness fusion on Earth with mixed success.
The largest government-sponsored fusion projects include ITER in France and the NIF in the USA. In 2007 construction work started on ITER in Cadarache, France. And in 2009 the US National Ignition Facility in Livermore, California, opened. NIF uses powerful lasers to compress and heat hydrogen fuel and so initiate fusion for military and astrophysical research. These large research programmes, however, may take decades to become economically viable.
An interesting potential Black Swan is the independent, privately funded project that was initiated in 2002 when Dr. Michel Laberge founded General Fusion to develop economically viable fusion energy. His key insight was realizing that Magnetized Target Fusion, with the aid of modern electronics, materials, and advances in plasma physics, could provide a faster, lower cost, and more practical path to fusion power.
General Fusion’s Magnetized Target Fusion system uses a sphere, filled with molten lead-lithium that is pumped to form a vortex. On each pulse, magnetically-confined plasma is injected into the vortex. Around the sphere, an array of pistons impact and drive a pressure wave into the centre of the sphere, compressing the plasma to fusion conditions.
Novel Forms of Energy
Perhaps the most surprising Black Swans may come in the form of novel solutions that may be found in nuclear processes that have not yet been harnessed, which could result in an unexpected energy revolution.
As a student in 1984 at the University of Cape Town I studied physics under Prof Jan Rafelski (now at The University of Arizona). At the time one of his fields of research was the physics of table top Muon-catalyzed fusion (Rafelski and Jones, 1987). Since then I had a life-long interest in the possibility of clean fusion energy.
One of the most exciting recent developments in physics is in the field of Low Energy Nuclear Reactions (LENR). At present it is not clear when LENR could replace fossil fuels. But if successful, LENR may result in the most disruptive energy revolution in history. It provides the potential for limitless, cheap, safe, distributed, clean energy that can be used on a small scale to provide energy for a single home or scaled up for industrial uses.
In a video released on January 16, 2014 at Serious Science, MIT Associate Prof. Peter Hagelstein talks about the Problem of Cold Fusion and the Fleischmann and Pons experiment, condensed matter physics, and the laws of conservation of energy in momentum.
In 2009 Scott Pelley of the CBS News TV programme “60 Minutes” did a story on “Cold Fusion Hot Again.” A video was released by Joe Zawodny (2012) of NASA and in 2013 Forbes reported on research conducted by NASA on LENR. An “Overview of Theoretical and Experimental Progress in Low Energy Nuclear Reactions” was presented by Francesco Celani (2012) and Yogendra Srivastava (2012) at a CERN Colloquium in March 2012 in Geneva, Switzerland. Robert Godes (2012) maintains that Brillion Energy Corporation will be able to generate power at a fourth of the cost of coal or natural gas power.
Two physicists, Giuliano Preparata (Univ. Statute di Milano) and Allan Widom (Northeastern University, Boston), have proposed a theoretical model of the physics of LENR (Srivastava, 2012). While various chemical elements may be involved, one version of LENR involves Nickel (one of the most abundant elements on Earth) and Hydrogen, which would provide a limitless supply of cheap energy. The by-products would be the transmutation of Nickel into Copper, with no radioactive waste, greenhouse gases or any other form of dangerous pollution (Srivastava, Widom and Larsen, 2010).
In May 2013 an independent report has been published on the “Indication of anomalous heat energy production in a reactor device containing hydrogen loaded nickel powder” (Levi, et. Al. 2013). The authors report that: “Even by the most conservative assumptions as to the errors in the measurements, the result is still one order of magnitude greater than conventional energy sources.” News reports have been featured in Forbes (Gibbs, 2013) and Wired (Hambling, 2013).
The inventor Andrea Rossi aims to bring a commercial product to the market within the next few years. On January 24, 2014, it was announced that Industrial Heat has acquired Rossi’s E-Cat Technology. “The world needs a new, clean and efficient energy source. Such a technology would raise the standard of living in developing countries and reduce the environmental impact of producing energy… Even by the most conservative assumptions as to the errors in the measurements, the result is still one order of magnitude greater than conventional energy sources”
In competition with Rossi, companies like Defklaion Green Technologies, Nichenergy, Brillouin Energy Corporation, Lattice Energy LLC as well as high-profile companies like Mitsubishi and Toyota are also working on commercializing energy generation based on LENR.
An update in Wired magazine, “Cold fusion continues to progress stealthily into the mainstream,” suggests that 2014 is set to be a very interesting year for Low Energy Nuclear Reactions.
Implications for Climate Change and Biodiversity
If any one of these potential energy solutions can successfully be brought to the market, it will be a true Black Swan event that may have profound implications for climate change and the conservation of biodiversity.
Climate Change: It may completely replace fossil fuels, halting the increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Furthermore, inexpensive clean energy may make it possible to extract carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to bring it back to pre-industrial levels, thereby stabilizing the climate. However, even if we stopped using fossil fuels, we may still experience disruptive climate over the next 100 years.
Water and Food Production: It may become viable to desalinate sea water on a large scale, minimizing the need to extract fresh water from rivers. Vertical farming (Despommier, 2009) may become more efficient than conventional farming. Large areas of farm land may revert back to wilderness. While this may increase the area of land available for biodiversity, it is not clear what the unintended impacts may be of the uncontrolled spread of alien species on abandoned farmland.
Social and Economic Disruptions: Accelerated urbanization and depopulation of rural areas. Inexpensive energy may accelerate the automation of industry resulting in large-scale unemployment. This may require a fundamental restructuring of the economy.
Biodiversity: An irregular climate and the disruptive impacts on land-use patterns may require intensive monitoring of biodiversity to manage the spread of alien species and the influx of indigenous species onto abandoned farm land.
CyberTracker’s Vision: In the future millions of citizen scientists worldwide may use their smartphones to monitor the entire global ecosystem in real time. Large-scale unemployment may provide an opportunity to create “Green jobs” to stimulate the economy and provide the manpower needed for conservation management. Intensive monitoring may reveal new data on the complexities of ecosystems evolving over time in response to disruptions in land-use patterns. Intelligent computers may be used to analyse huge quantities of complex data and predict future trends.
Celani, F. 2012. “Overview of Theoretical and Experimental Progress in Low Energy Nuclear Reactions (LENR).” CERN Colloquium Thursday March 22, 2012, Geneva, Switzerland.
Despommier, D. 2009. “The Rise of Vertical Farms.” Scientific American, Vol. 301. No. 5.
Gibs, M. 2013. “Finally! Independent Testing Of Rossi’s E-Cat Cold Fusion Device: Maybe The World Will Change After All.” Forbes.
Godes, R. 2012. Interview with Robert Godes, inventor of the controlled electron capture reaction (CECR) being commercialized by Brillion Energy Corporation of Berkeley.
Hambling, D. 2013. “Cold Fusion gets red hot and aims for EU” Wired.
Hansen, J. 2009. Storms of my Grandchildren. The Truth about the Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save humanity. London: Bloomsbury
Levi, G, E. Foschi, T. Hartman, B. Hӧistad, R. Pettersson, L. Tegnér and H. Essén. 2013. Indication of anomalous heat energy production in a reactor device containing hydrogen loaded nickel powder.
Pelley, S. 2009. “Cold Fusion Hot Again.” CBS News TV programme “60 Minutes.”
Rafelski, J. and S. E. Jones. 1987. “Cold Nuclear Fusion.” Scientific American, Vol. 257, No. 7.
Srivastava, Y. N., A. Widom and L. Larsen. 2010. “A primer for electroweak induced low-energy nuclear reactions.”
Srivastava, Y. N. 2012. “Overview of LENT Theory Low Energy Nuclear Transmutations.” CERN Colloquium Thursday March 22, 2012, Geneva, Switzerland.