We’ve all heard of energy, and I’m sure that many of you have some intuition as to what it is. Maybe you’ve read in sci-fi about weapons or fields made of pure energy, but what does that mean? Fortunately, these things are science fiction for a reason, and there’s a much simpler definition. In science, energy is defined as the capability to do work, which is to displace something against a force. Essentially, energy is a measure of how much something can cause something else to move. Energy comes in many forms, which is likely why it is often misunderstood. In this article, I will discuss a few types of energy found in nature, and our most modern techniques of utilizing it for our purposes.
The most fundamental principle of generating electrical energy for human purposes is known as induction, and yes it is the same technology that’s in fancy new cooktops. When a magnet is moved through a coil of wire, current is produced. Electrons flow through the wire and we get electricity! Huzzah! This conversion of mechanical energy, motion, into electricity is the basis of most of our power production. Thankfully, plenty of things move in nature, so let’s talk about these sources first.
Windmills, dams, and wave energy converters (WECs), all work because of induction. Windmills use wind to move magnets, delivering power to us completely passively. Dams work the same way, but using mass amounts of moving water. WECs are a very new passive energy source: they float in bodies of water, and as waves move them up and down, magnets are moved which creates current. WECs are especially exciting because they’ve exceeded expectations during initial trials, and are a sort of merging of wind and water power. Okay, so things that move produce power. But then what’s all the fuss about coal and wood burning, and even nuclear power? It’s all the same!
Fossil fuels and nuclear reactors work by causing a reaction that heats up water, which makes steam, which then goes and spins big turbines and generates power for all to use. Energy sources like oil and coal are all very flammable, so they generate a lot of heat , and hence a lot of power. But they also fill the air with nasty pollutants, and leak into our environments.
Many people are afraid of nuclear energy, thinking it to be unsafe and to have many of the same effects as fossil fuels. This is not exactly true; nuclear fission works by splitting atoms into lighter atoms, neutrons (a subatomic particle), and heat. These extra neutrons go on to split other atoms, which split other atoms… you get the idea. These fission reactions generate plenty of heat, thus plenty of power. What scares people about nuclear fission is the chain reactions and radioactive byproducts, along with news of nuclear accidents like Chernobyl and Fukushima. While it is far from ideal, nuclear fission is actually the safest source of energy (measured in deaths per unit of energy produced), other than solar power. But fission is old news. The new kid on the block is nuclear fusion, which essentially works by getting two small non-radioactive elements to stick together, which releases heat, etc. Fusion is actually what fuels our sun and other stars, lighting up the night sky from light-years away. In July, we had a groundbreaking high in power output from fusion, but it is far from perfect. New developments continue to be made, and we will hopefully one day see fusion as a major power source.
Finally, that leaves solar energy. In chemistry, we are taught that electrons are bound to atoms, meaning they need energy to ‘break free’. That energy can come in several forms, and in the early 1900’s we discovered that light was one of those sources. If the light has enough energy, it can actually knock the electron out of its orbit, which a cleverly designed solar cell can pick up. So, our electricity is generated directly from light evicting electrons from their homes and into our homes. UVM just opened a new solar research facility, so you can expect to hear exciting new solar science from right here in Burlington soon!
I hope you come away from this writing with a new understanding of energy, what it is and how we get and use it. I also hope you come away with the understanding that the future of our energy must be renewable, and is a non-political issue. Human infrastructure requires energy, and our future requires it to be renewable.
Kavadiki Veerabhadrappa a, & et al. (2022, May 16). Power generation using ocean waves: A Review. Global Transitions Proceedings.
Hanna Ritchie, H. (2023, September 27). What are the safest and cleanest sources of energy?. Our World in Data. https://ourworldindata.org/safest-sources-of-energy#article-citation
Chang, K. (2023, September 25). A laser fusion breakthrough gets a bigger burst of energy. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2023/09/25/science/nuclear-laser-fusion-nif.html
How panels prevail: New Solar Research Facility to study effects of challenging VT conditions. The University of Vermont. (2023, October 30). https://www.uvm.edu/news/story/how-panels-prevail-new-solar-research-facility-study-effects-challenging-vt-conditions