21.03.2003
Energy Without Borders
№1 2003 January/March
Zhores Alferov is Vice President of the
Russian Academy of Sciences, Nobel Prize Winner, Chairman of the
Global Energy Prize international committee.
Zhores Alferov
Yevgeny Velikhov Yevgeny Velikhov is President of the
Kurchatov Institute — Russian Scientific Center, Member of the
Russian Academy of Sciences, a member of the International Global
Energy Prize committee.

Since the time when human beings learned how to produce fire,
they have been discovering alternative sources of energy, including
the energy which exists in the depths of the stars. It is through
man’s command of fire that he eventually became master of nature,
and energy has been an indispensable part of his life since time
immemorial. Today, the level of civilization is determined through
per capita energy consumption. Consequently, human conditions will
never be stable unless alternative energy sources are found. This
will also require improved technologies for generating this energy
and successfully delivering it. In other words, our well-being is
directly dependent on further development of energy production,
which is impossible without a proactive approach to this problem by
the scientific community.

The energy problem is expected to become particularly acute in a
couple of decades from now, with energy consumption increasing by
two-thirds from its current levels. This increase in energy
production will demand that huge investments are made in this area.
According to the

estimates of the International Energy Agency (IEA), within the
next 30 years mankind will have to pay as much as U.S. $4,200
billion for electricity production alone. The developing countries
will consume half of this production, which is twice as much as was
consumed by them over the past 30 years.

In the future, approximately 90 percent of all generated energy
will derive from organic materials and fossil fuels such as oil and
natural gas (the demand for gas is expected to increase 100
percent). However, air pollution resulting from the combustion of
organic substances has been a matter of great concern around the
world as it is threatening to aggravate the environmental problems,
while drastically changing the global climate. Paradoxically,
according to the IEA’s forecast, hydrocarbon emissions will grow
faster than energy consumption. Through the act of burning organic
substances to produce energy, the atmosphere is accumulating
hydrocarbons; much of humanity ignores the fact that it will take
at least 100 years to reduce these high concentrations. Global
warming has been proven to arise not only from the repetitious and
alternating warming and cooling periods on the planet, but from
human activities as well. Carbon dioxide (CO2), methane and some
other by-products of man’s earthly activities absorb heat emissions
in the atmosphere. Once these by-products become heavily
concentrated, they aggravate changes (initially insignificant, but
thereafter more substantial) in the temperature of the Earth’s
surface. By upsetting the temperatures on the Earth, we are
actually leading the mankind to collapse.

Sun, wind and water

One of the urgent challenges of our times involves the search
for new sources of energy, as well as new techniques which will
make this energy usable by man. This problem is currently being
researched by many scientists, researchers and engineers in Russia
and elsewhere. The scientific community is familiar with potential
new sources of energy, but it has not been able to adopt these
sources for use at this time. For new types of energy to be
employed, they should be environmentally clean and allow for
conversion of one type into another through the use of special
techniques. Energy saving technologies and renewable sources of
energy – such as the sun, wind and water – should play the main
role in these processes. For example, by the year 2010 the European
Union plans to obtain as much as 22 percent of its electricity
through the use of alternative sources. One of them is wind energy
– a reliable, environmentally friendly and inexpensive source,
which plays an increasingly important energy role in many regions
of the world. By way of illustration, in 2001 wind turbines
generated 8,000 MW of electricity in Germany, which accounted for
3.5 percent of the total; 3,000 MW in Spain; and 1,700 MW in the
U.S. It is very impressive to see the ‘wind farms’ stretching for
kilometers near San Francisco.

Denmark enjoys real success in harnessing wind energy. As a
country which has a strong tradition in pursuing environmentally
friendly energy policies, Denmark has been among the pioneers of
implementing alternative energy programs. In terms of energy, the
wind is a strong rival for natural gas in that country. As early as
2000, Danish wind turbines accounted for 12.6 percent of the total
national electricity production – the world’s highest record.

Russia has to work hard to develop economically feasible power
systems, as well as the techniques for their practical use. The
wind potential is unevenly distributed over the world, and there is
no point in building wind power stations in areas where the wind
velocity is insignificant. Mainland-based stations can produce only
a very small amount of wind energy, whereas the Kurile and Aleutian
Islands, for example, offer good opportunities for using natural
wind farms to generate a significant amount of electricity.

Water has also been commanding the time-consuming efforts of
scientists throughout the world to find effective ways of
implementing this important source of energy. In a few decades from
now, given the scarcity of oil supplies, together with the
ever-growing environmental problems, the need will arise to develop
new fuels for automobiles. Today, scientists are working to develop
an efficient and ecologically clean prototype of an engine that
would consume hydrogen fuel obtained from water. Russian and
Japanese scientists are now engaged in a joint project for
converting water into hydrogen using the process of electrolysis.
The resultant hydrogen, which may be used as a motor fuel, could be
transferred via pipelines and delivered to the necessary markets,
or directly supplied to the consumer.

The joint efforts of scientists around the world have given rise
to progress in other related spheres. For example, based on the
international experience now available, Russian scientists have
been able to enhance the efficiency of gas turbines, thereby
reducing the cost of electricity production with the use of natural
gas. Currently, gas turbine technology is one of the most efficient
ways of using natural gas; the efficiency rate of this technology
has reached an impressive 50 percent through the combined efforts
of international R&D. At the same time, there are other fossil
minerals – hydrates for example – that have proven to be as
efficient as natural gas. Furthermore, these mineral reserves
exceed those of natural gas, but the scientific community must
first learn how to extract, process and employ them.

Island in the ocean

Despite the continued attempts to find alternative energy
sources, there are presently no realistic alternatives to such
liquid fuel as oil, despite its potential threat for altering the
global climate. According to the IEA, oil consumption will not
decrease, but rather increase since the demand for engine fuels
will be met mostly by oil; oil consumption is expected to grow at
an average rate of 2.1 percent a year. Many countries are presently
looking to make greater use of the scientific and technological
advances achieved for the production of oil: this is now possible
not only through its direct extraction, but by extracting it from
coal, shale oil, oil-bearing sand and even from plants. Meanwhile,
mankind remains dependent on cheap mineral resources. This
situation is continually burdened by petroleum crises and the
competition for getting access to energy resources, which
occasionally leads to political confrontation and even armed
conflicts. Increasingly, it is through the development of science
and technology, forecasting energy crises and finding technological
ways of their prevention, that the world economy will be able to
function normally and in a self-sustained manner. It is also
essential that we learn to combine a variety of energy sources and
thus become independent of oil imports.

Today, however, thermal power stations remain the basic
electricity-producing source. These facilities continue to burn
fossil fuels, such as oil, natural gas and coal. In this context,
it is worth remembering the words of Dmitry Mendeleyev who said
that “using oil as fuel is like heating our houses by burning
banknotes.” By exploiting and wasting natural energy resources,
modern human beings, like primitives, are making huge campfires in
order to burn away their national wealth.

Do we really need to manipulate the Earth’s resources in such a
barbaric way? Given the huge potential of the human intellect,
mankind can generate a different and special type of energy – the
intellectual one. It has now become evident that the ongoing
increase in energy consumption requires that we invest not only our
money, but also our intellects. There are various energy sources at
hand that can be used to our benefit. As John Wheeler, the renowned
American physicist, put it, “we live on an island of knowledge
surrounded by an ocean of ignorance.” If that is so, let science
make use of the wealth stockpiled in the depths of this island! The
international scientific community is now confronting a challenge
that can be handled only by committed and dedicated scientists who
have a clear understanding of the Earth’s problems, and who possess
the intelligence to solve them. What we need is a real intellectual
breakthrough, and a continued search for solutions, which will meet
the specific space and time requirements of a given problem. This
is a critical prerequisite for the efficient contribution of
scientists to the development of our civilization.

Energy of intellect

Russia has a huge potential of energy in terms of its abundant
natural resources, as well as its well-developed research
facilities. And from an economic point of view, it is vital that
Russia maintains its leading positions in science. Russia’s
contribution to the field of scientific research has been
acknowledged worldwide, since it has been the pioneer of many
energy research projects. Russia’s achievements include the
development of fusion reactors, the TOKAMAK system, and the world’s
only VF-600 fast-neutron commercial reactor with liquid sodium
cooling. Another notable achievement of Russian science is the
Unified Energy System – a genuinely unique innovation in terms of
its scale. There are 98 large hydroelectric power plants in
operation in Russia now, and there exists a good potential for
building several more plants of this type, which will have a total
output of 12 to 14 million kW. However, the use of natural
resources will only be efficient if it is scientifically
substantiated and consistent with the country’s production
potential.

Thomas Koon, a well-known American scientist, wrote that there
is a shortage of competitive schools within the developed sciences;
the scientific community seems to have a unique audience but a
limited range of ideas. As evidenced by the history of science, it
requires certain incentives for its continued development, and the
fundamental and applied research in the area of energy is no
exception. The best incentive for scientific development is
prestigious international prizes, such as the Nobel Prizes awarded
by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. A newly established
International Global Energy Prize, to be awarded annually in St.
Petersburg starting from 2003, is expected to take a worthy place
among these prizes. Around 300 prominent scientists from all over
the world will select nominees for the first prize. The
International Prize Committee has been set up and its members are
comprised of leading Russian and foreign scholars, including five
former Nobel Prize winners. It was no accident that the
international contest is dedicated to the field of energy research.
After all, it is the driving force of history and progress which
brings about serious changes in the social sphere. It promotes high
technology, and is a decisive factor in development of various
industries and the world economy as a whole.

The procedures for selecting the nominees and determining the
winners of the Global Energy Prize are very similar to those used
by the Nobel Prize Committee; it is a simple and open competition.
What makes the Nobel Prizes so prestigious? Each award marks a
milestone in the development of science. Alfred Nobel chose the
fields of fundamental research which continue to influence the
development of world science. These are physics, chemistry,
physiology and medicine. The 20th century has been recognized as
the domain of physics, because quantum physics gave rise to the
present-day philosophy of cognition. The field of energy science
can well claim to be the science of the 21st century, and that was
the main consideration for establishing the International Global
Energy Prize as an addition to the family of prestigious
international prizes.

The award is expected to not only promote international
recognition of the achievements of individual scientists and
research teams, but also help accelerate the integration of various
individual studies into one common knowledge. Science is
international by nature; it ignores national frontiers, especially
when it has to solve the comprehensive problems connected with
energy research. It is symbolic that the establishment of the
International Global Energy Prize was initiated by Russia. Russian
science has strong positions in all of the key fields of energy
science, but in order to assure its further development it will
require the continuous exchange of ideas on an international scale.
The prize is expected to provide a new impetus to power engineering
in the country, facilitate the solution of problems that have
confronted Russia in the last few years, and meet the growing
demand for new energy sources. Finally, it will eventually
contribute to implementing strong economic reform.

From stellar energy to quantum computers

In the middle of the last century, Hans Bete, a U.S. expert in
theoretical physics and Nobel laureate, came out with a hypothesis
that thermonuclear fusion is a source of stellar and solar energy.
And more recently, the Nobel Prize was awarded to physicists who
provided experimental evidence to the effect that fusion processes
are taking place in the interior of the Sun. In fact, it looks like
a gigantic thermonuclear reactor. Strictly speaking, life exists on
Earth thanks to its main energy source, namely the thermonuclear
reaction which is occurring inside of the Sun’s deep core. The
products of this reaction reach the Earth in the form of light
energy which keeps our planet warm. Moreover, it is converted into
electricity or accumulated as oil, natural gas and coal. It is this
huge flow of energy fed by the Sun that makes life on Earth
possible. A human being needs this continuous flow of energy like a
fish needs flowing water.

Solar energy is one of the most promising fields in energy
science and in power engineering. Today, the most effective way of
converting solar energy is through a semiconductor photoelectric
effect. In 1876, the first photoelectric cell was developed in
Great Britain. Since then researchers have been working to improve
the technology and enhance its overall efficiency. The actual
history surrounding the use of semiconductor converters dates back
to 1958 when the third Soviet satellite, as well as the U.S.
Vanguard satellite, were equipped with solar silicon cells as power
sources. Since then, solar cells have become the key power sources
used on spacecraft. In 1974, Russian scientists launched commercial
production of heterostructure solar batteries and started fitting
artificial satellites with them. The use of heterostructures
allowed Russian scientists to develop photoelectric cells with a 30
to 35 percent efficiency rate. Currently, work is underway around
the world to double the capacity of the solar photoelectric power
plants. It is a most promising way of power generation and
utilization on our planet, albeit the most expensive one. However,
in the future it is expected to equal nuclear power stations in
terms of its cost. But most importantly, this power source is
ecologically clean, and its reserves are unlimited.

Today, there are already many fields where solar energy can be
widely used. For example, mobile telephones will need
self-contained power stations to feed their antennas, which, given
Russia’s vast territory, will require the production of solar
batteries on a wide scale. However, it should be acknowledged that
at present the results of Russian scientific studies are more
eagerly used abroad than in this country. In the near future, we
can expect the efficiency of Russian heterostructure solar
batteries to grow as high as 40 to 45 percent. According to
experts, by 2030 the solar energy will account for up to 10 percent
of the world total power output.

Our thermonuclear future

The international community of scientists, including Russian
Igor Kurchatov, through great personal efforts solved the riddle of
generating energy by means of a thermonuclear reaction. However,
the utilization of thermonuclear energy has proven to be a very
serious challenge. Many years ago, at one of the first
thermonuclear energy conferences, John Cockroft, head of the
British program, a Nobel laureate and one of the developers of the
first proton accelerator, was asked the question: “When is
thermonuclear energy expected to be put to commercial use?”
Cockroft’s answer was: “20 years from now.” Seven years later,
journalists asked him the same question at a similar conference,
and Cockroft responded with the same answer he had given the first
time it was asked. The professor was blamed for repeating himself,
but he retorted calmly: “As you can see, I never change my point of
view.” Today, specialists believe that thermonuclear technology
will be used on an industrial scale as late as 30 to 50 years from
now.

Nevertheless, the advances currently underway allowed scientists
to formulate an unprecedented task – the establishment of an
international thermonuclear power plant program. One of the
innovations that would be necessary to carry out such a global
project is to develop safer fast-neutron reactors. These would
possess a power of over 100 KeV (kiloelectron-volts), and would
burn away uranium without producing residual waste. To obtain
temperatures of over 150 million C0 in terrestrial conditions is
quite a challenging task, and its isolation from the environment
will require special ‘magnetic traps’ – torroidal magnetic
confinement, or TOKAMAK. The resultant magnetic field is used to
balance and provide for the thermal isolation of plasma.

Soviet academicians Igor Tamm and Andrei Sakharov proposed a
large international project designed to develop a reactor
implementing the technology of a magnetic trap. Currently, a great
amount of work has been done that has proven the feasibility and
controllability of this technology. Now it is necessary to find
technologies that would enable us to utilize the resultant neutrons
and convert them into electric energy, freshwater, motor fuel or
hydrocarbons, for example. At this time, we have completed a 2
billion dollar project (involving American, Japanese, European,
Canadian and Russian scientists) for designing the first
experimental thermonuclear reactor. Talks are now underway to
construct this reactor. Once construction is over and the reactor’s
output is brought to a desired value, the global community may
proceed building the world’s first thermonuclear power station.

Modern science continuously acquires new ideas. And the more
solutions we discover for existing problems, the more other
problems arise, because life is in constant motion. Energy is
required everywhere – in a computer, a biosensor, a heartbeat
regulator and in a cerebral stimulator expected to come of age in
the near future. The demand for energy keeps growing at a faster
rate than the supply. Presently, we don’t have a clear idea of how
to solve such crucial problems as the accumulation of electric
power and superconductivity. There are other questions that have
been awaiting solutions for years. For example, Russian academician
Gersh Budker once said that energy could be transferred without
incurring losses over long distances by using a special electronic
beam. Now we are on the verge of discovering a solution that will
help us transmit gigawatts of electric power over long distances
using an aluminum tube only a few centimeters in diameter.

As we can see, people already have many alternative methods for
generating energy and ensuring its efficient delivery. This is
being accomplished through controlled thermonuclear fusion,
high-temperature superconductivity and the photoelectric conversion
of solar energy. The scientific community must work with greater
determination along these lines of research. The goal facing the
international scientific community is to make safe and easily
accessible energy sources the basis of stable peace and a worthy
future for all those living on the planet. For Russia, the primary
goal is to revive its domestic industry and, above all, to fortify
the science-intensive sectors using the money gained through the
vast natural resources of the nation.