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Science Fortnightly: Energy Crisis

Energy Research at UNSW come with a lot of success stories. Back in 2014, UNSW developed the most energy efficient solar cell. This was followed by an amazing world record of  the fastest electric vehicle by sUNSWift eVe. So, it probably does not come off as a surprise to hear that UNSW hosted the annual Selby lecture on ”Energy for the future of humanity”.

The Selby Scientific foundation finances distinguished overseas scientists annually, to visit scientific centers in Australia. Prof. Federico Rosei, a Selby Fellow, visited UNSW last week on the 9th.

“Energy is the greatest challenge to humanity as of 2016”

Understanding the Problem

How many barrels of oil do we use every second? Take a guess! The answer is a whopping 1000 barrels a second! Imagine the amount of oil that was used within the few seconds you read the phrase “1000 barrels a second!”. The amount of oil we use is only half of the problem though. The other half is not so easy to distinguish; ‘oil’ or fossil fuels as some may call it, is a FINITE resource. We do not know when it may run out but it definitely will. Coupled with the ever-growing world population, putting aside Climate Change for a second, we are still going to come to an energy shortage at some point.

In more Scientific terms we can say that an exponentially world population growth dependent on their energy from a finite resource is just not ‘sustainable’. It simply adds up to one  immense and unavoidable catastrophe.

Solution?

According to Prof. Rosei, the only way to avoid a catastrophic strain on our electricity production by the time oil resources start to show signs of depletion is to replace 75% of the existing fossil fuel based electricity production by other renewable and more sustainable energy productions.

“There is no easy way out. You can’t find a ‘one size fits all’ solution” There is no ‘one, ultimate’ solution. But, starting from our existing technologies the transition should be made.

At UNSW – we harness the energy from the sun

Did you know? If all the energy from the sun rays that reach the earth was converted to electricity within a day, we have enough energy to last an year world-wide! This should show the potential Solar power alone possess. Currently the global usage of Solar Power for energy production lies between 1-2%. However, we can definitely do better! Same goes for many other forms of renewable energy technologies that exist today. Unlike coal, it is also easy to target particular renewable energies for niche markets; like Quebec, where Prof. Rosei comes from where the local community is supplied power from hydro-power stations with an extensive network of over 61 dams.

The next key idea Prof. Rosei stressed upon was ‘Energy Storage’. He describes; “Energy Storage is THE Grand Challenge of all Renewable Energies”. Why? Unlike coal and liquid fossil fuels, renewable energy cannot be stored in big containers and transported over millions of miles of land or water. This is one of the greatest incentives to use fossil fuels. So, if Energy Storage does increase in Efficiency, Renewable energy usage is also predicted to increase considerably.

As Energy Storage improves, the efficiency in using Renewable Energies increase as well

Just so you know – If we replace the energy we require in some technologies with the number of people that can provide the same amount of energy, then a washing machine will require up to 15 people (not the average amount of people you find in an average suburban Sydney home). A Boeing on the other hand will require up to 1.6 million people during take-off.

Prof. Rosei describes the current situation as an “Energy Crisis”. This seems to impend something disastrous. However, this is not necessarily true. The word ‘crisis’ originates from a Greek word that actually means ‘choice’; and ‘choice’ is not altogether impending disaster. So, this all comes down to a choice regarding power generation in the future. For the sake of humanity, we will hopefully make the ‘right choice at the right time’

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About Dinushi Mudalige

Hey! I am a first year at UNSW and will write to Blitz about everything and anything related to Science!

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