Decade after decade politicians and scientists have promised us that we will soon be breaking our dependence on foreign oil based fuels and energy. Unfortunately, fossil fuels continue to dry up and the big switch to renewable energy stills feels quite a ways away. As the United States (and much of the world) continues to suck oil from Canada, the Middle East, and other fertile sources, the need for alternative energy is still ever present and will soon need serious consideration. Further research and development of several emerging alternative energy sources could break our addiction to oil, but not until they are given the funding and attention they need to become feasible on the consumer market. Following are several alternative energy sources not currently in widespread use and the needs they are purported to fill.
Cold fusion energy is a renewable energy source derived from the nuclear fusing of atoms. Cold fusion is so-called because it happens at near room temperature, whereas regular fusion reactions occur at intensely hot temperatures, such as the center of a star. Scientists have been researching the technology since the 1980's with the hope of one day constructing a cold fusion power plant, but thus far no such facility has been built. One of the most promising attempts thus far has come from the U.S. Navy's Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center (SPAWAR) who spoke at a 2004 American Chemical Society conference, claiming to have found evidence for nuclear fusion within a cold fusion cell design. The evidence was controversial however, and cold fusion technology is still a ways off from being commercially feasible.
Arguably the most cutting edge research into alternative energy involves generating power from gravity and space. Zero-point energy, as it is called, is theoretically available for the taking, provided that scientists can develop an efficient way to extract it from the vacuum flux of space. While the specifics of this technology are far too abstruse for the layman to grasp, there are several quantum physicists currently working on harnessing this energy for commercial use. NASA has reached some limitations in rocket-propulsion and has thus been looking into the possibility of using magnetic energy to power their spacecraft. Other possible uses of zero-point energy could lead to the production of automobile engines that harness this sort of energy to power themselves. Leading the way in this line of research is Thomas Bearden, President of the Association of Distinguished American Scientists. In a videotaped interview, (quoted from AltEnergy.org) Bearden states that "there is no doubt [these] engines exist and their release for public use will revolutionize society."
Energy scientists have begun investigating the possibility of extracting power from the lunar pull of the Earth's oceans. In order to generate power from the seas, turbine dams would have to be placed in strategic locations where the pull of the changing tide is strongest. Such technology would consume no fuel and, so long as there was water in the ocean, would provide clean, renewable energy for our consumption needs. Energy-Consumers-Edge.com points out several current obstacles facing the use of this kind of power, chief among them the intermittent changing of the tides. Since the tides only change twice a day, slowing down and speeding up as they come and go, the power generated by a tidal dam would be inconsistant. Additionally, the U.S Department of Energy (DOE) reports that America does not currently operate any tidal power plants because cost of building a them is higher than the expected energy yield justifies. The DOE remains optimistic about the future of tidal power however, predicting that "Newly developed tidal turbines may prove ultimately to be the least environmentally damaging of the tidal power technologies because they don't block migratory paths [of sea-life]."
Biomass fuels are a slowly emerging alternative energy source that has several important uses including heating and electricity generation. Biomass fuels are harvested from decomposing garbage, corn, and other vegetation. As these substances break down they produce methane gas, which can be captured through pipes and burned to produce heat and energy. Currently, biomass stoves are sold at the consumer level as a replacement for traditional gas and electric stoves (which still rely on fossil fuels to run), but have not caught on at a significant level. These units burn biomass pellets which are made from corn husk and various other plant matter. In order to encourage the use of biomass stoves, Energy Star is now offering a significant tax rebate to any consumer willing to make the switch.
Vegetable oil is natural energy source produced by plants. The common kitchen ingredient has been found to be a much safer, cleaner fuel source than gasoline or diesel, and has actually been shown to run in some diesel engines. With the right adjustments and modifications, anyone with a diesel car or truck could in fact drive on straight vegetable oil instead of fossil fuel. Despite the fact that this practice is currently illegal, some drivers have decided to make the switch anyway. TreeHugger.com quotes one happy veggie-driver boasting about her vegetable oil powered Jetta. "After more than 2,000 miles on veggie oil, there seem to be few disadvantages to the transformation," she says. "My car seems to get slightly better mileage, it seems to run a little more quietly and it has just as much zip as it does on diesel." It may seem impractical to drive this way in current times, but there may come a day where gas pumps serve up vegetable oil, and cars come off the line equipped to drive on this renewable alternative fuel.
Hydrogen power is a newly emerging alternative energy source that possesses the ability to power cars and generate electricity. Hydrogen is formed by the electrolysis of water and can be harnessed for energy purposes by the hydrogen fuel cell. This technology combines hydrogen and oxygen to make water, and in the process electricity is formed which can be extracted from the cell and put to use. The fuel cell is being developed for use in high-end consumer cars, such as the BMW Hydrogen-7. Aside from the fuel cell, hydrogen fuel can also be burned to produce power. In 2009, Italy opened the world's first hydrogen power plant. The facility outputs 12 megawatts of power without producing any dangerous green house gases.