Science in Science-Fiction: Energy of the future

Posted on Saturday, August 31st, 2013 at 23:05

In the previous “Science-in-sci-fi” posts I discussed space-craft, of various sorts. There was a common problem with all the really good ways of travelling through deep space which was power. Science-fiction has thrown us all kinds of odd power and energy systems through the years, but only a few stand any chance of really working. Of course I suppose I should start with what we’ve already got and how that turns up in sci-fi.

What are fossil fuels? A T-Rex in the tank?

Post-apocalypse the plants claim everything for a while...

Post-apocalypse the plants claim everything for a while…

We aren’t burning dinosaur fat, but we may as well be. As far as geologists know all the fossil fuels on (or in) Earth were created by biological processes that occurred in the ancient past. All fossil fuels are essentially petrified sunlight, as they all seem to stem from ancient plants, be they Carboniferous Fern trees, or algal mats on shallow seas, the energy of the sun is used to create sugars and starches that through geo-chemical alchemy were converted into coal, oil or gas. Fossil fuels turn up in all sorts of science-fiction, whether its as the diesel power of a stealth ship in E.E. “Doc” Smith’s Lensman series or the coal-fired machinery of the steampunk sub-genre, with petrochemicals taking the major role in the dieselpunk pulp offshoot. Any post-apocalypse science-fiction often hinges on who owns the fuel, it is pivotal to The Last Chase, Mad Max 2 and that cinematic masterpiece of the over-budget under-acted school of post-apocalypse moisten nonsense “Waterworld“. It even raises its head a little in the slightly more entertaining “Reign of Fire“. Some sci-fi since the 1970s explores the role of fossil fuels in causing a post-apocalyptic world, but lets face it, since eventually all the fossil fuel has to run out, this Apunkalypse stuff is all a bit dystopian and depressing. More interesting (perhaps) are a few of the novels that crept out of the 70s oil crisis which are more about the politics of power such as Frederick Pohl’s “JEM: The making of a Utopia” and Rory Harper’s “Petrogypsies“. For a crazy story about time-travellers hijacking middle eastern oil fields you could try Wolfgang Jeschke’s “The Last Day of Creation

Bio-fuels and the outer planets.

Neptune's blue isn't because it's minty fresh.

Neptune’s blue isn’t because it’s minty fresh.

There is a small glitch in the traditional geological view of fossil fuels (or the idea there is only life on Earth) in that Methane is pretty common in the solar system. There are plumes of it on Mars, and when we get to the gas giants Methane seems almost mandatory. Either some methane must exist due to non-biological organic processes or the solar system is a lot more populated than we believed (perhaps both). Now if Methane exists out there then it seems to me there is a good chance that more complex forms of petrochemical are quite likely (pressure and temperature being quite universal), so perhaps in some not too distant future we may have methane mining in the outer planets where billion-ton freighters carry liquid hydrocarbons back to Earth, although considering the potential environmental damage that this (or any other Bio-fuel for that matter) would do I can only hope the bottom falls out of the organic energy market first.

Nuclear Fission or How to baffle a Victorian Scientist with grey rocks.

Liberating the power of the atom was a common discussion amongst the Victorian scientific elite. The general consensus was that it couldn’t be done, or if it could that the release of energy would be quite feeble. The truth is the Victorian scientific elite were completely wrong, releasing the power of the atom can be achieved with little more than highly refined dull grey metals and one of two Stone Age technologies. The first is banging rocks together, which makes a nuclear bomb, the second is piling, which makes a nuclear cairn, sorry atomic pile. The atomic pile was later refined with the concepts of dangling rods to make the neutron kerplunk game known as a modern nuclear reactor. Blow-ups happen” by Robert A. Heinlein is a short story set around one of America’s early nuclear piles in his ‘Future History’ series of stories and novels. For a while in the forties and fifties the gift of nuclear power seemed to be the solution to almost every problem, Heinlein pointed out some of the potential problems with this, although he thought there would be a good chance of a nuclear explosion (after all the bombs went bang and it was the same stuff wasn’t it) whereas there is no real chance of that happening (power stations are not generally fueled with weapons grade metals), although it turns out “Melt-downs happen” would be just as good a title. Lester del Rey touches on similar elements for his story “Nerves” a couple of years later.

Alternative power

Rather like alternative comedy and music, the idea of alternative power really gained ground during the 1970’s and 80’s. Nuclear fission and burning dinosaur fat suddenly seemed a bit old hat, and the space-age was bringing us some new ways of generating power.

Solar power

Panels, furnaces and power plants oh my.

The Man Who Sold the Moon (and other stories), my favourite cover art on this title...

The Man Who Sold the Moon (and other stories), my favourite cover art on this title…

Robert A. Heinlein’s Douglas-Martin sun power-screens from the short story “Let there be light” 1940 and found in “The Man Who Sold The Moon (and other stories)” extended from Einstein’s work on photo-electricity, but in the story were accidently created when the engineers in question were trying to create a more efficient light bulb. While this technology has come to pass (in the form of Photovoltaic cells) it has failed to reach the efficiency that Heinlein thought possible. The most efficient systems we have so far developed are capable of only 44% efficiency and most Photovoltaic systems barely reach 20% efficiency. Still the promise is there that at some point we may be able get most of our household energy from our own roofs.

Solar furnace courtesy of Wiki-commons

Its the same principle as that Death Ray of Archimedes that the Mythbusters keep saying doesn’t work (for reasons).

Solar furnaces use a slightly different technique, first envisaged by Archimedes to focus sunlight onto a single point, concentrating the solar energy to a point. This effect is what allows a magnifying glass to set paper on fire. It is actually believed that Archimedes probably couldn’t have built this weapon (at least according to the Mythbusters), so it seems that this may be the oldest Science-fiction story in the record books, still… When combined with a ‘Solex Agitator‘ this method of using a big mirror to focus the suns rays lets Scaramanga blow up James Bond’s flying boat with a Solar powered laser (no really) in “The Man With the Golden Gun“. A more usual solar furnace (although space based) turns up in ‘Die Another Day‘ and ‘Diamonds are Forever‘ (probably).

The cover of Frederick Pohl's Cool War

The Cover of “The Cool War” , just check out that Tripod, you know scifi with Tripods is always good.

In 1941 Arthur C Clarke thought up the idea that you could capture solar energy while up in space and then beaming that power in the form of microwaves to a planet. There is talk about really giving this a go and it has been proposed a few times, as you can read here. Frederick Pohl also gave this tale a go in “The Cool War“. Other authors have tried similar ideas with varying results, Heinlein offered broadcast power from both Solar and Nuclear power plants in orbit in his ‘Future History’ (“Waldo” and “The Man Who Sold The Moon” specifically) the idea being that an accidental nuclear explosion would be a lot less damaging in space.

Wind Power

There isn’t a lot of science-fiction that makes use of wind-power, but this is probably because apart from muscle, wind was one of the first power sources we ever worked out how to harness. Sails and windmills are old technologies and few science-fiction writers have ever seen a need to revisit these technologies. That said almost any post-apocalypse setting can do something with a windmill in the background, but to really see some sort of windpower you probably have to look to the Steam-punk sub-genre where you will occasionally find windmills being used for non-grain grinding purposes, as well as the Airships that have huge sails hanging off either side. I think my favourite might be in the movie “Stardust” perhaps not really science-fiction, but the lightning-catching Airship pirates are an exceptional example of this most Steam-Punkish trope.

Hydrogen Power

Hydrogen is an amazing gas, it is the most common gas in the universe and is the only matter that we can spontaneously create from energy alone (so far). It can be burnt releasing a burst of energy and making water, which has to be the safest emissions of any chemical reaction. We have built car engines that run on Hydrogen, but the problem with Hydrogen as a power source is that the Hydrogen must be stored in heavy high pressure tanks (or your car might float off) and the normal way of creating Hydrogen is to electrolyse water, splitting the Hydrogen and Oxygen apart costs energy though so there is no easy way of lugging around water and splitting it into Hydrogen and Oxygen as required. In the Keanu Reeve’s (less than stellar) movie “Chain Reaction” a bunch of scientists work out a way to split water with great efficiency, allowing them to produce massive quantities of Hydrogen for burning. In the movie those in charge start killing the scientists involved to preserve the status quo, presumably for the oil industry. Actually there is some debate as to whether the film uses Sonoluminesence to split the hydrogen from oxygen or whether there is some kind of fusion going on (there is a moment where they discuss the ‘fusion data’) which leads us nicely to…


1+1= nearly two and a bit of energy

Fusion power is almost universal in science-fiction. It is generally assumed that Fusion power is just around the corner, and with good reason it would seem. Stars manage to work on the principles of fusion power so we assume that we will be able to achieve this energy source one day. Hydrogen (usually in the Deuterium and Tritium forms) is fused into Helium with a release of energy. Fusion power is being worked on in a number of research facilities and the eternal hope is that we should have something commercially viable in a couple of decades, whether its a magnetic tokamak or a laser percussion system there is good evidence that we’ll get fusion power working in some (sub-stellar) generator sooner or later. Surprisingly Fusion power plants are not discussed often in Science-Fiction, they are almost considered a proven technology. They turn up as power plants on ships and giant robots all the time though. So you can find multiple references to working fusion power plants. Including the throwaway line in “The Matrix” where Neo is told they have a form of fusion, but still need humans to keep the batteries topped up.


or Aunty Matter and Uncle Matter get a really messy divorce.

So having fused matter, is there any other way of liberating more energy. Well, as old wild-haired Albert pointed out, Energy is equal to mass times the speed of light squared. Mass is literally just coagulated energy, and it is possible to liberate more energy the more mass is lost. Total liberation would occur if there was some way of annihilating all the mass of our fuel, and there might just be a way. A favourite of Sci-Fi since its invention in 1928 by Paul Dirac , anti-matter could do exactly that. Matter and anti-matter meet and completely annihilate releasing a burst of photons containing all the energy both had stored within. Perfect for power production on a scale that can throw a star ship around the galaxy at pretty much any warp-factor up to 10. There is just one teeny problem, the energy cost to produce anti-matter is extraordinarily high, much too high to go around using it for anything. We’d need to find a natural source or a shortcut to anti-matter construction. Then we might really have something, the only problem may be regulating the annihilation without Dilithium (or similar) crystals.

Artificial Singularities

and other ideas from the great bird…

Never fear though, even if Star-Trek’s warp core of anti-matter/matter reactor is always going to be beyond us the Star-Trek universe has provided us with another equally as scientifically plausible power source. The artificial (Quantum) singularity. The Romulans use these as the power source for their Warbirds in The Next Generation series. The Singularity in question is a gravitational singularity (a black hole) only very small and very light one so that it can be controlled. You can then tip any old matter into the singularity and it will accelerate towards light-speed. As it does so it begins to heat up and emits photons (often fairly strong x-rays), which the power plant captures and uses to boil some water or whatever.

Vacuum energy extraction

Or how to run your Stargate…

Energy is everywhere, wherever we look in the universe we see echoes of the Big Bang, distant Quasars (which are probably distant feeding Blackholes) and even mild thermal energy. This energy is ubiquitous it even exists in a vacuum (in fact it even exists at absolute zero, stopping Helium from ever freezing at normal pressures). This Energy known as Vacuum energy or Zero point energy actually appears to hold space open and stops it from collapsing. Of course science-fiction writers have written about tapping into this energy, which does seem to be limitless (although in practice it is probably going to be far more limited than chemical or nuclear power sources if we can ever work out how to tap it). Arthur C Clark again seems to be the first author to dip his toe in this technology of the future, using it to power a space ship in “The Songs of Distant Earth“.

You want to watch Jack with that ZPM Sam, he might swap it for a cake.

You want to watch Jack with that ZPM Sam, he might swap it for a cake.

In the Stargate:SG1 TV series (and the later spin-offs Atlantis and Universe) the Zero-point Module or ZPM is a plot device that can generate oodles of power with no apparent cost or fuel. In reality extracting this energy is a lot harder, with the only way generally known to be plausible being to build huge plates that the energy will slowly push together against some sort of geared generator (the Casimir effect). Zero point energy even rears its head in the Star Trek universe (inevitably) as the warhead of the “Quantum Torpedoes” much fired during the Star Trek Voyager show, but never really explained beyond a few sentences in a Technical guide.



We can’t rely on fossil fuels much longer, besides considering how useful oil and shale gas are to industry it’s pretty ridiculously short-sighted to burn the stuff for energy. Nuclear power is the only really viable means that we have for long term power generation without moving over to a more efficient energy grid that relies more on micro generation by distributed wind and solar generators rather than macro-generation in power plants. I hope that within fifty years we’ll have commercially viable fusion plants (and shortly after that fusion batteries for the TV remote with a thousand year lifetime) which should be largely clean (although there will be radioactive byproducts and dangerous neutron radiation probably). Sometime later (probably centuries off yet) we may work out how to transmute mass directly into energy, by either annihilating it with anti-matter or by accelerating it into a singularity, or perhaps some other method as yet unknown to science, which will solve all of our energy problems—at least for normal uses—star travel will still probably require some pretty extreme power consumption and always be expensive.