Just as energy opens up the doors to new frontiers, those new frontiers give us energy.
Ask most consumers where energy comes from and they will point to the light switch or outlet on the wall, or maybe to the petrol station down the street where they purchase fuel for their car. Indeed, the entire system that brings energy from its raw form somewhere far away to a useful form such as gas or electricity in our homes is a mystery. The fact that energy shows up quietly and regularly just when we need it gives it an almost magical quality. This magical aura reminds me of the source of my original desire to become an engineer: space travel.
The magic of space travel inspires joy in many people, so I was not alone. For my under-graduate degree at university, I decided to study aerospace engineering. I had ambition to be part of the space programme, not as an astronaut - that heroic job belongs to people who are not afraid of heights and enjoy roller coasters - but as one of the engineers who would help take humanity to new frontiers.
I was fortunate to spend two summer internships at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California where I worked on supersonic propulsion. I continued my interests in space exploration while developing sensors as part of my PhD research. The first sensor I designed was for detecting fuel leaks on the launchpad of Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The second sensor was used to monitor a water recycling system used onboard the International Space Station (ISS), which we tested at the Johnson Space Center in Texas.
While these experiences were related to the space programme, energy was at their core. Modern fuels were the critical ingredient for space propulsion. The safety risks of leaking fuel on the launchpad motivated my work to develop a sensor. And the incredible energy burden of lifting freshwater to space motivated the desire for an onboard water recycling system.
I finally realized that modern forms of energy are central to our pursuit of the heavens. That’s when I switched career directions to focus on energy. Energy gives us the ability to push our boundaries further.
For older forms of transportation, it was wind with sailboats or muscle power rowing large Viking ships that freed humans to explore the world. As fuels improved - coal to power steamships or trains, diesel and gasoline for cars and trucks, jet fuel for planes, and ultimately rocket fuel for space travel - we could travel farther and faster. Energy is the magic key that unlocks the doors to these distant locations and, as time goes by, we get there more quickly and more often.
But our relationship with energy is more complicated than that. Just as energy opens up the doors to new frontiers, those new frontiers give us energy. The most difficult frontiers today remain space, the deep ocean, and below the Earth’s crust. In a symbiotic partnership, we use energy to explore beneath the land and the ocean’s surface and then bring energy back up. The fuels that took us up to space came from down below. The pollution we put up into the atmosphere can be sequestered down below. And space is the test bed for our latest technologies such as fuel cells and thermoelectric generators. The future will connect these disparate systems more closely.
Going to space also unlocked a new vision: for the first time, astronauts could look back down and see the Earth in its entirety. It is no accident that the Apollo programme in the late 1960s coincided with the peace and environmental movements in the United States. From space the absence of borders between countries is obvious, which makes war seem unnecessary. And the beauty of the planet helped foster more attention to protecting its fragile ecosys-tems. Energy enabled this global view.
There are two inescapable facts from space. First, most of the planet is below the land and oceans. To learn more about our home, we must go deeper. Second, the entirety of earth shares a single atmosphere. This fact was already known, of course, but from space the obviousness of the shared skies is hard to avoid. What we have come to realise very sharply in the last few decades is energy’s pollution that spreads globally through this common atmosphere.
Going deeper or going higher will require more innovation, but it will also unlock new potential.
Environmental concerns from prior eras were local in nature. Water contamination would happen from a nearby mine. Air pollution would cause asthma in the factory town or acid rain in a neighbouring country. But because greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide are long-lived, stable, and mix rather uniformly in the atmosphere, climate change today is happening on a worldwide basis. How do we increase access to energy for those 1 billion people who will suffer from climate change, but who do not have modern lifelines such as electricity, piped water, or sanitation? Can we increase their access while decreasing the global climate effect of the other 7+ billion who already have access? How do we change an industry active in every country and whose no longer isolated impacts are endured worldwide?
The problems are not easy, so we will have to look for answers in new places. Going deeper or going higher will require more innovation, but it will also unlock new potential. New frontiers demand more technical excellence from us, but also hold some of the solutions we need.
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