Starting with the premise that we’ll eventually stop using fossil fuels, Robert Laughlin imagines the energy sources of tomorrow
Robert Laughlin, a Nobel laureate for his work in quantum physics, starts his study of our energy futures with an absurd proposition — that it doesn’t matter much whether we burn all our coal and oil or leave it underground.
It’s a cop-out, of course. If we burn all the coal, we would probably burn too. But for the purposes of Powering the Future, it means “we don’t have to analyze contemporary energy struggles”. Instead, he moves swiftly on to imagine what a world that does not burn carbon might look like.
He likes nuclear best, and fast breeder reactors in particular, because they will extend the lifetime of available nuclear fuel to “about 20,000 years”. But he also has a soft spot for solar energy, especially solar thermal energy, which uses mirrors in the desert to heat pipes full of liquid. Deployed in the Mojave desert in south-eastern California, he says, the technique could make Los Angeles “the world’s first great solar city”.
Laughlin sees a “coming conflict” between nuclear and solar energy for global supremacy. Ever the physicist, he points out that the two are fundamentally the same thing, since “the sun is really just a big nuclear reactor in the sky”. But he figures nuclear will win, because the sun’s energy is too spread out by the time it reaches us. Catching its rays on a huge scale needs far too much land to be practical.
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