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2015

According to “Back to the Future,” by 2015…

Vehicles will no longer need gasoline, instead running on the Mr. Fusion Home Energy Reactor, which converts household waste to power.

OK, “Back to the Future” seems to be wrong on this one. I don’t think we will have this by 2015. But was it unreasonable to suggest this? I don’t think so. I think we will see free, unlimited, clear energy very soon and it will change the planet forever. This is from my upcoming book, “Infinite Progress: How Technology and the Internet Will End Ignorance, Disease, Hunger, Poverty, and War” :

Ask yourself this: Is energy really scarce? Or is it like air? Is it finite? Or is it for all practical purposes infinite?

Fossil fuels are scarce; there is no question. But energy? It is essentially infinite. Even more so than air! Vastly more energy than we need pours down on this planet in the form of sunlight. We just don’t know how to efficiently capture it. Think about this: Nearly 4 million exajoules of energy is absorbed by the earth’s atmosphere, oceans, and land each year. How many exajoules of energy does all of humanity consume each year? Go ahead – guess. Answer: less than 500. So 4 million come to the earth and we only need to capture 500.

Thunderstorms release tremendous amounts of energy. We can’t capture it. The wind in the upper atmosphere has extraordinary amounts of energy. Can’t capture it. The Earth has an enormous molten core that contains vast amounts of energy. Can’t get it yet. The oceans shift every day because of the pull of the moon. These are the tides and they contain a huge amount of energy we don’t know yet know how to gather. Everyone knows water evaporates, rises, then falls to the earth as rain. But no one can even guess how much energy could be captured from this if we only knew how. Every day the earth heats and cools as night turns into day and back into night. We know how to power a clock with this energy, but haven’t yet cracked the code on doing it at scale. Hurricanes release unimaginable amounts of power, as do earthquakes. We can’t yet capture this power.

These are all big things. There are also all the tiny things. We haven’t even begun to figure out all the ways we might get unlimited free and clean power from nuclear fission or fusion or other ways to unlock the vast power stored in the atom. All around the world, scientists are racing to create hot fusion reactors. A fusion research facility is being built in France that will cost 20 billion dollars. That is serious money! The United States is spending billions on fusion and the Chinese announced they are training two thousand fusion scientists. They all know what a fusion breakthrough will mean to humanity… and their bottom line.

And then there are completely new ideas and methods that new technology opens up for us. Consider what Freeman Dyson suggests in “The Sun, the Genome and the Internet”:

An energy crop could be a permanent forest of trees that convert sunlight to liquid fuel and deliver the fuel directly through their roots to a network of underground pipelines. If these two advances could be combined, we would have a supply of solar energy that was cheap, abundant, and environmentally benign.

Think about that! A genetically engineered tree that converts sunlight into fuel and then pumps the fuel through its roots to where it is needed. A few such trees in the backyard behind your condo, cabin, or yurt would be enough to satisfy your power requirements.

So is energy scarce? Not by a long shot. It is abundant beyond imagination. What we don’t know is how to capture it. But these are questions of technology, not of scarcity, and technology is about to rocket forward. One breakthrough is all it will take to change the world. And the number of areas that might provide that breakthrough is pretty substantial.

At this point, someone might point out that this is what was said of atomic power in the 1950s, that it would generate electricity that was “too cheap to meter.” And it is right; this was everyone’s hope for atomic energy and it did not pan out that way. But the point is, that is the kind of breakthrough we are working toward. That is what we expect to be able to do because it is theoretically possible in a hundred different ways. It is true that that one didn’t turn out how people hoped it would, but is that really an argument that it must therefore be impossible?

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