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Energy Research

  1. Nov 15, 2013 #1
    Hello all, in your opinion, what alternative energy has the greatest potential for employment (solar, nuclear, etc)? I'll have a B.S. in environmental science and physics, and alternative energy research seemed like a nice way to combine the two. I'm aware more advanced education will likely be required (env. engineering masters?) to hone into a specific research area. Sorry for the vague question, but I really am just starting to look into this field and am a beginner in every sense of the word - so any advice at all will be much appreciated!
  2. jcsd
  3. Nov 17, 2013 #2
    You have a foolish misconception brought about by idiot media moguls. There is no alternative energy. There is energy. The question is where to find it and how to exploit it while disrupting the environment around us as little as possible.

    The fact remains that if you remove energy from an existing biological process, or you burn energy produced by a biological process, you will be affecting the environment. Even if the energy were nearly cost "free", you will still be adding to the problems in the environment by inefficiencies and heat.

    In other words, there ain't no such thing as a free lunch (TANSTAAFL). Engineering a power gathering and distribution system is the art of designing such systems so that they affect the environment as minimally as possible. If someone says go solar, ask them how you're going to manufacture the solar cells (hold your nose when you get the answer to that one). If someone says use biofuels, ask them how you'll recover the Carbon Dioxide (or other pollutants). If someone says build more efficiently, ask them where the materials come from.

    There are no one size fits all answers. There are only good engineering practices. The people who cloak themselves in the "alternative energy" mantra are mostly crackpots or salespeople. Real engineering of real processes is the answer. Finding the ways to extract energy with the least impact to the environment is an art.

    That is what your degree is good for. Do you want to make a big difference? Go work for an electric utility, oil or gas companies, or even a car company. The way to improve the situation is to work from the inside. If you find the right places, they'll be very happy to have you. If you get strident and dogmatic, they'll show you the door.

    Again, there are no perfect alternative energy solutions. That's why engineering remains a source of very steady employment.
  4. Nov 17, 2013 #3


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    I tend to agree, though typically "alternate energy" is used to describe energy sources in the error margins of a pie chart ("other"). Nuclear usually is not put in that pie piece. Regardless, the question really comes down to what you want/are interested in. Energy is a good field and there are jobs available in all types.
  5. Nov 18, 2013 #4
    Thanks for the replies guys! I guess I used the word "alternative" wrong? I just meant types of energy beyond oil, gas, etc.
  6. Nov 18, 2013 #5
    You used the phrase in the same manner as the media uses it. The problem is that the wording itself has some loaded connotations to it that do not match with what real engineers actually know and do about the problems.

    Please understand that I am not a fan of fossil fuels any more than I'm a fan of any particular energy source. They all have advantages and disadvantages.

    Personally, I think the best possibilities lie in finding transportable methods to store and release energy at will. We actually know how to build reasonably efficient solar and wind farm systems. The problem is that they tend to produce energy at inconvenient times, or leave you with no energy production when you need it. As such, they are not much of an "alternative" to fossil or nuclear energy sources.

    If you wanted to make a real progress toward more energy diversity, look at the efficient energy storage problem.
  7. Nov 18, 2013 #6

    Vanadium 50

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    I also think this question is exactly backwards - you don't want to pick the solution first and then study the problem.
  8. Nov 18, 2013 #7
    What energy source do you think shows the most potential for the future?
  9. Nov 18, 2013 #8
    How do you define the problem?
  10. Nov 18, 2013 #9
    What purpose? Energy for the home? Energy for a car? Energy for a ship at sea? Energy for your phone?

    These are all different applications with different storage and safety parameters.

    For example, a methane fuel cell might be a pretty good way to power your phone in a few years. There are new discoveries of catalysts that can even outperform platinum, they don't seem to have the same problems with cell poisoning, and they cost a fraction of what platinum cells cost.

    But what works adequately for your phone may not scale up all that well. Accidental release of an ampule of methane probably isn't particularly hazardous in most places, but releasing a tank-load from your back-yard might be a serious problem.

    Likewise, thorium fission processes are interesting, but it may not be practical or safe to scale down to an acceptable level that could be used in a car.

    First figure out what the problem is, as Vanadium 50 pointed out, and then try to find a better solution. That's what scientists and engineers do for a living. Don't fall in to the trap of being a political solution provider looking for a problem. Most people can see that kind of nonsense from a long way off. You're not likely to get far by pretending to be an environmentalist engineer. Be an environmental engineer instead.
  11. Nov 19, 2013 #10


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    Let me follow up your quote above with the following questions:

    (1) To your knowledge, how much progress has been made in the efficient energy storage problem in general. More specifically, how much progress has been made in specific areas of the energy storage problem for, say, in the electric grid for powering homes and businesses?

    (2) Are you aware of promising areas of research in energy sources that are more environmentally sustainable than currently available sources, with respect to energy for home/business electricity? Cars (e.g. research in electric vehicles)? Ships or planes? Phones and other similar electronic devices (e.g. battery research)?
  12. Nov 22, 2013 #11
    This is not my specific area of expertise; however, I have read of using molten salts to store thermal energy gathered from solar mirror arrays. I have read of improving fuel cell technologies, I continue to read about using algae or yeast mutations make bio-diesel or methane fuel, thorium fuel fission reactors, and, yes, even fusion continues to get closer to being more efficient --though it is still a long way off from anything practical.

    My take on this is that we'll probably get more diverse with our energy supply. And this is actually happening right now. However, to sit here and declare that I think the future lies in technology X --I won't go there. Many have tried to predict where things will go and they've been hilariously wrong. I would rather read science fiction than try to predict how things will be.
  13. Nov 22, 2013 #12
    The fact of the matter is that if you want to do energy research and you are an undergrad, you WILL have to make a prediction as to what will be a promising field. In other words, you aren't going to be working on technology X when it comes to the forefront if you did your masters/Ph.D. on technology Y. You'll probably still be working on Y. Maybe (a very small maybe) if you spent years of working on Y and you rose to the top of the field, you might have a chance to get involved in something different at a more administrative level.

    So, if you are interested in energy research, find a field that interests YOU, and pursue it. As others wrote, it's most likely any energy sources of the future will be well diversified, so most things will have an impact. And research life on advanced nuclear is going to be a lot different than research on advanced battery technology, solar cells, wind, etc. So pick which one interests you. Likewise, I'd worry less about what the degree is in and more on what the program seems to be focused on. If a program has great researches working on solar, then go there if you want to work on solar, etc.

    I can tell you one thing for sure - there's a lot of cool things going on in fusion research, and no, you probably won't live to see it providing a lot of baseline power.
  14. Nov 28, 2013 #13
    They are if that problem can be solved! What about batteries? For example:


    Or pumped storage hydroelectricity:


    This whole area of energy storage is fascinating, and there are possibilities. The only reason they aren't being explored, so much, today is that there is no need for them because wind and solar only provide a small percentage of energy. But that's growing fast! And so better storage solutions will be needed *soon*. Looks like an area well worth getting into *now*.


    If you move into the area of storage then you can hedge your bets - both solar and wind need storage solutions, and other energy sources may require storage for backup in case peak demand shoots up. By that argument, I guess energy conservation is another "no brainer" area to get into.

    Isn't "finding transportable methods to store and release energy at will" just another way of saying "finding ways to store energy?" Any fixed source of energy can be converted to electricity and, hence, transported. I guess it's not enough to be transportable, it has to be efficient, and making all these means of production & storage more efficient is an ongoing problem that will always be providing jobs!
    Last edited: Nov 28, 2013
  15. Nov 28, 2013 #14
    Well, of course, the physics is interesting, but will governments continue to increase funding? With onshore wind just about competitive with fossil fuels, now, that looks like the big growth area in the immediate future. I mean, wind turbines actually work! So which does the politician fund? Politicians think very short term, so I'd bet on wind, and connected storage facilities.

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