Are we running out of options to generate power?
Posted on February 23rd, 2012

Dr Hector Perera        London

Energy can be found in a number of different forms. It can be chemical (thermal energy) light or radiant energy, mechanical and also nuclear energy, electrical energy heat. Renewable energy is generated from natural resources such as sunlight, wind, rain and tides. These sources are considered renewable because they quickly replenish themselves and are usually available in a never-ending supply.

Even from very early days, we made use of coal, fossil fuels, wind power; water falls to generate electricity and power, not only that biogas and bio fuel, geothermal energy to generate electricity. Then nuclear power, tidal power, hydrogen and solar power also used while some of them are still under improvement.

It is quite noticeable the chimneys on the top of the roofs of the houses in England, they used to let out the coal smoke which when mixed with fog produced, “smog”. I must say that was in the good olden days when coal was burnt to get the heat, now the chimneys only left on the roofs, may be to remember the good olden days with pride. Coal can be used for cooking as well but, “coke”, the smokeless coal is a better option. In Sri Lanka “Coconut coke” was used in small tea boutiques boilers and in ironing clothes.

Until just a few years ago, we had steam railways in Sri Lanka. Those days no one couldn’t go passing the Dematagoda level crossing without noticing the abandoned old steam railways ran by coal but now, you just fly pass on the fly over. I am sure some of you fondly remember the scenic beauty of upcountry viewed through smoke, gushed out from two engines, one from the front and the other from the back when climbing KADUGANNAWA. The rotten egg smell in the smoke was due to sulphur in coal burning to produce sulphur dioxide.

Wind power

We’ve used the wind as an energy source for a long time.  Wind power was used in the Middle Ages, in Europe, to grind corn, which is where the term “windmill” comes from. The Babylonians and Chinese were using wind power to pump water for irrigating crops 4,000 years ago, and sailing boats were around long before that. In 1505 Portuguese invaded Sri Lanka by accident, they came on wind sailing boats, not by any other power. Even now you would see little fishing boats with sails. So the people are using wind power but now they are exploring the ways to generate electricity.

Hydroelectric power

There are plenty of natural water falls in Sri Lanka and they have been using them to generate power for the last many decades. In 1882 on the Fox River, in the USA, hydroelectricity produced enough power to light two paper mills and a house. The first house in the world to be lit by hydroelectricity was Cragside House, in Northumberland, England, in 1878.  When it was first built, the huge “Hoover Dam”, on the Colorado River, supplied much of the electricity for the city of Las Vegas; however now Las Vegas has grown so much, the city gets most of its energy from other sources.

Bio fuels

“Bioconversion” uses plant and animal wastes to produce “bio fuels” such as methanol, natural gas, and oil. We can use rubbish, animal manure, woodchips, seaweed, corn stalks and other wastes. In a way it helps to keep the streets and markets because the waste products are a sauce of energy. Another form is Biogas that is a bio fuel and usually means a mixture of methane and hydrogen are produced by using bacteria to break down organic material. The gas produced depends on the material you started with. If you start with wood or other biomass, you get “wood gas” which is nitrogen, hydrogen, carbon monoxide and a little methane. If you start with manure, sewage or “green waste” from your garden, you get mainly methane and carbon dioxide.

Near Didcot in Oxfordshire in England, when you flush the toilet, off it goes to the waste treatment plant where the solid waste is separated from the other sewage, then digested by bacteria to produce methane. The methane is then cleaned and perfumed, and used in local homes that same as usual. I was communicating with Mr Joseph, the retired Director of Science and Technology in Sri Lanka about my energy saving method then he mentioned that Sri Lanka is now developing this new technology.

Geothermal Energy

The centre of the Earth is around 6000 degrees Celsius – easily hot enough to melt rock. Even a few kilometres down, the temperature can be over 250 degrees Celsius if the Earth’s crust is thin. In general, the temperature rises one degree Celsius for every 30 – 50 metres you go down, but this does vary depending on location.

In volcanic areas, molten rock can be very close to the surface. Sometimes we can use that heat. Geothermal energy has been used for thousands of years in some countries for cooking and heating.

The name “geothermal” comes from two Greek words: “geo” means “Earth” and “thermal” means “heat”. If you happened to visit Jaffna in Sri Lanka there is a hot water spring area called, “Kirimalae” where you can have a swim in nice hot water, a kind of hydrotherapy. They say it has some medicinal value too because it must be coming through sulphur beds. Naturally sulphur has some antiseptic properties for a number, illnesses and diseases such as itchy skin or scalp, dermatitis, eczema and many more including coughs and cold.

I am not quite sure, whether geothermal energy is used in Sri Lanka for generating electricity. The first geothermal power station was built at Landrello, in Italy, and the second was at Wairekei in New Zealand. Others are in Iceland, Japan, the Philippines and the United States. In Iceland, geothermal heat is used to heat houses as well as for generating electricity.

Nuclear power?

Should we worry about nuclear power? Nuclear power stations are not atomic bombs waiting to go off, and are not prone to “meltdowns”.  There is a lot of U-238 in there slowing things down; you need a high concentration of U-235 to make a bomb. If the reactor gets too hot, the control rods are lowered in and it cools down. If that doesn’t work, there are sets of emergency control rods that automatically drop in and shut the reactor down completely. Nuclear power is generated using Uranium, which is a metal mined in various parts of the world. The first large-scale nuclear power station opened at Calder Hall in Cumbria, England, in 1956. Some military ships and submarines have nuclear power plants for engines.

Tidal Power

There are eight main sites around Britain where tidal power stations could usefully be built, including the Severn, Dee, Solway and Humber estuaries. Only around 20 sites in the world have been identified as possible tidal power stations. It’s quite possible in time to come this technology comes to Sri Lanka as well.

Hydrogen fuel

Hydrogen fuel is an eco-friendly fuel which uses electrochemical cells or combustion in internal engines, to power vehicles and electric devices. It is also used in the propulsion of spacecraft and can potentially be mass produced and commercialized for passenger vehicles and aircrafts. Now who would argue it cannot be used to run cars and for day today cooking?

There are different ways to manufacture it, such as, electrolysis and steam-methane reforming process. In electrolysis, electricity is run through water to separate the hydrogen and oxygen atoms. This method can be used by using wind, solar, geothermal, hydro, fossil fuels, bio mass, and many other resources. I have a feeling in the future homes; hydrogen will be produced at homes by the simple method of electrolysis of water, then store in gas cylinders to run cars. If it can power spacecrafts, run cars who would say it cannot be used for cooking? So there is an alternative fuel, completely pollution free fuel for cooking. I have a feeling in the future homes; hydrogen will be produced at homes by the simple method of electrolysis of water, then store in gas cylinders.

Solar Power

There are so many resources of energy as mentioned above but I am certain the immediate future is solar power for energy.

In Sri Lanka we use the Sun for drying clothes and certain food items.  When you travel to dry zone including to Pollonnaruwa, Minneriya or even to Kataragama and the surrounding area, you would be able to see how the villagers dry chillies, garcinia indica or “Goraka” and many other, “Hayne” products in the sun without any fear of sudden rain. What about dry fish and Maldives fish? In England when we see the sun, we call, “Here comes summer” but in Sri Lanka there’s summer all year around.

Thanks for new technology but only recently we have been able to use it for generating power. The Sun is 150 million kilometres away, and amazingly powerful enough to meet all our power needs many times over. The question is how do we harness it properly? Since recently in the UK there are grants available to help them install solar power in your home. This helps out their central heating system, and cuts your fuel bills. I am pretty sure solar heating is a worthwhile investment in Sri Lanka as well because Sri Lanka is in the equator that means sun is just there, no need to wait for sunny days unlike in England.

There are plenty of advantages of using solar power, mainly it’s free, yes it’s a free resource, no need of other fuels to run the system, it produces no waste, no pollution and eco friendly. One can get solar power to any part of the island, no wires or power cuts, it’s you the supplier. You can have garden lights; charge the batteries, no energy bills to pay to anyone because you own the system, hurrah! Any comments [email protected]

4 Responses to “Are we running out of options to generate power?”

  1. Fran Diaz Says:

    Great article, Dr Perera ! Many thanks.

  2. desh Says:

    No we are not, Hector, until the Sun shines.
    And what about your 5 lakh challenge earlier?

  3. aloy Says:

    Dr. Hector,
    What about matter reacting with antimatter to produce huge amount of energy?. They say one gram of antimatter is sufficient to generate enough power to run a car for a hundred years. This universe consists of matter and antimatter. The amount of matter is slightly more than antimatter and that is why we exist. Experiments in this direction are being done in CERN, Switzerland. Perhaps the global oil companies do not allow research work to go ahead in full steam. If US really wants, they can do it. All the problems in the middle east will be over then.

  4. nandimitra Says:

    As long as we have an economic policy that has a never ending thirst for energy the demand will never end. The answer is a change to our life style. The greatest problem of SL is that it is too close to the white man but too far from our own culture. With the way we are living at the moment humanity will be ultimately threatened.

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