Of the resources facing impending scarcity, water and fuel are the most serious as they are integral to growing, processing and delivering food. Consequently, these are the resources that stand to drag us into conflict when they run low, which is unsurprisingly why we've been fighting over them throughout much of history. Universal Energy is the solution to this problem because it generates enough power to synthesize these resources in that order: water and fuel, and as a result, food - enabling us thereafter to synthesize building materials.
How so? It all starts with a trip to the ocean.
To begin, it’s important to clarify for technical fairness that we aren’t facing a water crisis in and of itself; we’re facing a fresh water crisis. 71% of the planet’s surface is covered by water, yet less than 2% of that water is fresh (with 1.6% of that locked in polar ice). For our purposes, the remaining 0.4% is the only percentage that has historically mattered. Thanks to modern seawater desalination technologies, that is no longer true today.
The desalination of seawater is a well-proven concept. The same is true with extracting hydrogen fuel from water via electrolysis (running an electric current through water to chemically separate it into hydrogen and oxygen). Yet both processes require large amounts of energy, which has traditionally made them highly expensive. The electricity generated by LFTRs and solar roads removes energy limitations as a constraining factor, allowing us to synthetically produce fresh water and hydrogen fuel from seawater on a large scale. This begins with a system known as a Multi-Stage Flash Distillation Chamber (MSFDC), shown by this diagram:
An MSFD facility features a series of interconnected chambers (referred to as “stages”) that are set at varied temperatures and pressures relating to the boiling point of water. Seawater is pumped in through one end and is heated to reach a certain temperature. Once at the right temperature, the seawater is then pumped through a series of valves into subsequent stages that are set at different temperatures and pressures. As pressure and temperature are the factors that determines when water boils, this process forces water to instantly “flash” turn to steam, which is then collected via a condenser and turned into liquid in the form of fresh water.
From there, the remaining hot brine is then pumped back into the system to counterflow with the influx of cold seawater to heat it up, recycling a majority of heat energy in the process. What waste remains is essentially very salty water, which can be evaporated to leave only salt.
MSFD is common today; 60% of all desalinated seawater in the world is produced through this method in more than 18,000 facilities worldwide. However, MSFD requires large amounts of energy to function, translating to higher operating expenses. This has made MSFD implementation more difficult to justify. Accordingly, Universal Energy allows us to turn this from an expensive system to the exact opposite, giving us the ability to produce unlimited amounts of fresh water as a function of technology.
The use of the word “unlimited” is intentional in this context, and it is not hyperbole. There is a vastness to the oceans that “71% of Earth’s surface” does not give justice to, as they dwarf terrestrial landmasses by a factor of nearly four. Only 0.4% of water on Earth is both fresh and accessible, and while its functional scarcity grows by the day, human civilization takes over a decade to consume that amount in entirety.
With that in mind, we would have to increase our water consumption by thousands of percentages for large scale desalination efforts to even measurably impact sea levels (especially since the water cycle would inevitably return desalinated water to the ocean). And even if we could somehow do that, it would be to our benefit anyway since sea levels are rising due to climate change.
Questions regarding the environmental impact of MSFD (both on local ecosystems and the ocean as a whole) are of course valid. But any concerns arising from them tend to center on inferior and unnecessary means of operation. From a conceptual standpoint, MSFD doesn’t do anything except place a pipe in the ocean and suck in seawater, and rather than one large pipe that might risk sucking in marine life, a smaller series of filtered pipes designed to minimize environmental impact can be used.
As these intake systems can operate 24/7/365, a large volume of water can be produced through a slow yet steady flow, meaning it does not need to be strong enough to interfere with the local ecosystem. The greatest environmental impact of MSFD plants today usually involves the dumping of waste brine back into the ocean with toxic chemicals used to pre-treat seawater for desalination – steps that need not be taken with modern facilities for two primary reasons:
- Chemical pretreatment of seawater is not necessary in modern MSFD plants. Older models have sometimes introduced chemicals to “soften up” water to make it easier to heat, but this was done to offset energy costs, a factor that Universal Energy effectively mitigates.
- Currently, some multi-stage flash facilities pump waste brine back into the ocean, which raises salinity levels of the local ecosystem and risks causing varying degrees of environmental damage. This step is unnecessary with Universal Energy, as we now have the excess energy to boil off waste brine and leave only salt as a byproduct.
That latter point presents an important question, however: if we were to desalinate seawater on a large scale, how do we deal with all of the leftover salt? One of two ways: responsibly introduce it back into the ocean or sell it as a commercial product. Here's how that could work:
Let's say our implementation of Universal Energy desalinated a total of 500 billion gallons of water annually. Each gallon of ocean seawater contains roughly 4.5 ounces of salt. Therefore, 500 billion gallons of seawater would contain 2.25 trillion ounces of salt, or 140.63 billion pounds. That's a lot of salt - but our national salt consumption as a nation is equally high.
According to the US Geological Survey, the United States consumed 69,500 thousand metric tons of salt in 2015 for all purposes (roads, industry, food, etc.). At 69.5 million metric tons, that translates to 153.2 billion pounds of salt. This means a 500 billion gallon annual desalination effort would yield around 91% of our annual salt consumption. At an estimated price of $40-$50 per long tonne (2,204lbs), assuming $40 per tonne, 140.63 billion pounds would yield roughly $2.5 billion in profits from annual salt sales.
At the same time, it's also notable that taking too much salt out of the ocean may harm marine ecosystems as fresh water eventually returns to the ocean and would thus reduce salinity. If that possibility proves true, this framework would suggest that we instead gradually release salt back into the ocean in a responsible manner - both mitigating environmental impact while dealing with excess salt.
With these concerns addressed, MSFD technologies can be harnessed to produce unlimited amounts of fresh water for any use, and we can use it both inexpensively and in capacities that have low to negligible environmental impact. This can effectively end water scarcity worldwide. And we can do the same for fuel.
Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe. It’s light, clean and highly combustible with an energy-per-mass ratio greater than any fossil energy source known. This makes it a flexible and useful alternative fuel to petroleum if we go about sourcing and storing it in the right way.
Hydrogen production is currently a $100+ billion industry, yet most methods to produce hydrogen today involve extracting it from oil through high-temperature steam reformation – a process that is both environmentally destructive and will likely prove unsustainable as oil becomes more expensive in the future.
Yet another option, electrolysis, becomes more attractive in a world with unlimited cheap energy.
Electrolysis is a process that introduces an electrolyte (which could just be seawater) and an electric current into water to chemically separate it into oxygen and hydrogen gas. Like multi-stage flash distillation, it is not a new concept. The process has been in use since the 1700s to extract various substances, hydrogen among them.
However, extracting hydrogen through electrolysis requires large amounts of energy to break the molecular structure of water, a problem that has previously made commercial production expensive. Universal Energy accordingly mitigates this cost factor, as it does with all other systems within the framework. As a result, hydrogen through electrolysis would become completely viable.
Conceptually, electrolysis isn’t particularly complex. You could set up a simple facility in your garage if you wanted to (just don’t smoke!). But to produce enough hydrogen for use as a viable fuel on a nationwide or global scale, production would need to happen in an industrial setting. Through Universal Energy, this can occur on an effectively unlimited scale, especially since desalination and hydrogen production can be paired to work alongside LFTRs, a concept we’ll touch upon shortly.
Once produced, hydrogen can be harnessed to power and/or make possible an array of systems and processes that we’ll be familiarizing ourselves with throughout this writing.
But even so, challenges to using hydrogen remain. Production is only one half of the equation – the other is how to contain and transport it: considerations of no small significance. Because hydrogen is highly reactive, it bonds to other substances that would contaminate its use as fuel. Due to its volatility, it requires storage in containment tanks at high pressures.
While metal tanks work for use in a laboratory or industrial setting, the weight of these tanks and the safety risks presented by the explosive nature of hydrogen have made this approach sketchy for normal transportation. In addition to production costs, these problems have hamstrung efforts to use hydrogen as a fuel supply outside of limited areas. Thankfully, recent advancements have given us superior storage alternatives to today’s methods, with the three most promising discussed as follows:
Shrink-wrap it: A British company by the name of Cella Energy has invented a method to encapsulate hydrogen compounds within tiny pellets that are 30 times smaller than a grain of sand. These compounds are normally unstable and would degrade when exposed to air, yet when encased within a polymer coating they are protected from outside elements and can therefore remain stable. These pellets are then aggregated and placed within larger pellets, roughly the size of a pencil eraser.
In a vehicle’s fuel system, the larger pellets break apart to release the smaller hydrogen-containing pellets, which are small enough to be suspended in a liquid. While stable to the touch at room temperature, they dissolve in solutions at inner-engine temperatures, releasing hydrogen fuel. From there, the spent pellets are stored in a tank for recycling, which can be a core function of the fueling process.
This image shows a two-tiered refueling concept, with one pipe pumping hydrogen pellets into a system, and the second extracting waste pellets for reprocessing. Currently, Cella Energy estimates that hydrogen fuel through this method could output the energy equivalent of a gallon of gasoline for $1.50. Even though this is less than half of the current price of gas, it is likely that this would reduce over time and make hydrogen fuel less expensive by way of Universal Energy.
Synthetic oil: Universal Energy’s approach to solving resource scarcity is based in large part on replacing oil as a fuel source, due both to its finite supply as a fossilized product and its contributions to climate change. But oil has several important uses besides fuel: it’s essential for making plastics and synthetic materials, and it's a critical ingredient to numerous chemical engineering processes. We use oil for these applications because oil is type of chemical known as a hydrocarbon, and hydrocarbons have extensive versatility in both organic chemistry and for combustion inside engines. Oil is presently the abundant hydrocarbon of our time, so as the shoe fits, it’s what we use. But that doesn’t have to be the case, especially as oil becomes economically scarce in the future.
At the core of it, all that comprises a “hydrocarbon” is the presence of hydrogen and carbon bound together in a chemical compound. And with modern technology it’s straightforward for us to synthesize hydrocarbons if we have an abundant supply of hydrogen, which Universal Energy provides as a key resource. There are several methods in chemistry that achieve this goal, and all are worth reviewing in detail if you’re inclined to learn more. Today, these hydrocarbons are usually sold as synthetic fuels, but fuel is not necessarily the best application for synthetic oil.
With an abundant supply of hydrogen, we can make specialized synthetic oil for use in advanced chemical engineering and material production. Instead of modifying oil extracted from the ground to produce ideal chemicals, we can instead engineer a synthetic oil's chemical composition from the ground up to solve specific challenges. This becomes all the more true with genetic modification of hydrocarbon-producing algae, which we’ll look over in Chapter 7. That would give us an indefinite supply of custom-tailored chemicals that we can use for effectively any purpose. With that in place we can eventually create more sophisticated materials and chemical processes that advance our way of life, and we can do so in abundance without reliance on traditional oil.
Superior storage: as touched on previously, storing and transporting hydrogen in compressed form requires immense pressure, on the order of 482–690 bar (7,000-10,000 PSI). Currently, this is only possible through steel and aluminum tanks that are both bulky and heavy – limiting their utility. Through Universal Energy, we have better materials.
We see that graphene is an extremely strong, extremely conductive and extremely light-weight material, meaning that once it can be mass produced to large scales, it could likely serve as a candidate to replace metal tanks for hydrogen storage. Also, graphene storage containers don’t necessarily need to reflect the cylindrical shape of today’s gas canisters. They could look like anything, really, allowing for hydrogen fuel storage to be applied to pretty much any application.
Fuel Cells: A hydrogen fuel cell is a means of producing electricity from a chemical fuel, in this case, hydrogen, which in practice allows fuel cells to function as emission-free batteries. Fuel cell technology has been around since the 1950’s, and has steadily grown since then into a billion dollar market. As numerous proven fuel cell designs have existed for years, Universal Energy doesn’t overhaul fuel cells by themselves. However, it does make them less expensive, easier to build and easier to expand into varied sectors of our economy, due both to an abundant supply of hydrogen and advanced synthetic materials - saying nothing of reduced energy costs.
Although hydrogen fuel cells are often looked to as a replacement for oil, Universal Energy envisions their greatest utility to be in remote areas that are traditionally hostile to power generation. There are myriad locations and circumstances where it’s not feasible to rely on local power systems and where solar isn't possible (war/disaster zones, remote research facilities, long-voyage ships, space travel, etc.), yet fuel cells can provide effectively indefinite energy as long as there is an abundant supply of hydrogen. With superior storage mediums, that supply can be provided and resupplied far easier than heavy liquid fuel. Future advances in graphene battery technology can complement this possibility (perhaps even leading to a graphene/fuel cell hybrid at even higher levels of performance), allowing for robust energy storage even when far away from civilization’s amenities.
Hydrogen fuel cells also work well for powering vehicles, which alongside Cella Energy’s pellet system is a point warranting of special mention. Universal Energy foresees electric power to be the future of personal vehicle transportation, due in large part to graphene’s ability to double both as a structural material and as a means to store electricity. Additionally, hydrogen fuel cells can be dangerous if violently ruptured in an accident, so if they do power vehicles they must be properly secured.
That makes hydrogen fuel cells more useful for larger commercial vehicles with more energy-intensive tasks, especially those in remote areas. Smaller, personal vehicles would in turn be better suited for straight electric, or electric with a smaller array of hydrogen fuel cells to recharge batteries as a backup power source. Ultimately, it will be up to industry and consumer choice to decide which option works better over time; Universal Energy simply provides both as core products.
Combined, this approach makes it flexible to provide water, fuel and electricity at the same time from the same resource. Yet that merely reflects only the products of this approach - it doesn't reflect its underlying strategic value. As we’ve discussed previously, a key component of Universal Energy is its intention to deploy energy technologies strategically so that they can work as a team to become greater than the sum of their parts. With all of the technologies discussed thus far in place, it allows us to do just that: bringing us to a concept we’ll refer to as Energy Plants.
Universal Energy's technologies are chosen because of their ability to generate a lot of energy, but also because they can work together. This idea is commonly referred to as cogeneration, but it's not really something that happens today. Our current power infrastructure is just “there:” decentralized, ad-hoc entities that just generate electricity without really taking advantage of any of the excess energy produced by these facilities. Most power plants, at least of the coal-fired variety, have an efficiency of around 33%. This means that 67% of their generated energy is wasted as heat! That’s an enormous loss of energy that could be used to power other systems.
Because of that, the Universal Energy framework is built upon this core mindset: symbiotic operation is of critical importance.
This mindset calls for energy production systems to be built close to each other, and as nearly all of them deal with electricity, water and heat, it becomes possible to use the functions and waste energy of one technology to help power another. As a framework, Universal Energy does not have to operate as isolated technologies, but rather as a series of facilities that can be deployed together as a single unit. If these facilities are combined, they become Energy Plants, where instead of just producing electricity, they also provide fresh water and hydrogen fuel at the same location. (Click on the image below to view larger version)
Here’s how this can work:
As far as power plants go, LFTRs get hot. The key phrase in “Molten Salt Reactors” is molten, so by hot, I mean really, really hot. Heat is useful for several applications besides generating power, and as the reactor's heat exchangers are far away from anything radioactive, this heat can be harnessed to serve other functions.
The first thing we can do is integrate the heat exchangers of LFTRs with the seawater intake of MSFD facilities. So instead of using electricity to heat seawater, the already-present heat from LFTRs and the internal brine heater of the MSFD plant will take care of it. What that means is the seawater requires little energy to flash turn to steam – saving a massive amount of energy in the process.
Doing this is also useful for extracting hydrogen, as there is already an ample supply of heat, electricity and water at the facility. This energy can be used to process and/or compress hydrogen into a usable fuel and also pump water to remote locations. This presents several additional opportunities that are not possible with our current power and energy infrastructure:
- Constructing a single facility that can produce multiple types of energy and resources at one location is significantly less expensive than if these facilities were decentralized at separate locations.
- Condensing multiple functions into a single facility avoids expenses of transmission and transportation, increasing overall efficiency.
- Symbiotic design helps establish ideal standards for implementation and operation. This reduces costs and helps facilitate greater adoption of the technologies behind Universal Energy.
- The water produced from Energy Plants can come out hot, an essential factor that will become important within the next few chapters.
Taking the best aspects of the technologies behind Universal Energy and designing them to work together has promising benefits, but ultimately they are simply addendums to a far longer list. Because at the core, what we have with these systems – what we can have today – is something that we have never before had in human history: the ability to synthetically, sustainably and inexpensively produce as much electricity, water and fuel as we could ever need by our own hand.
It is difficult to overstate the implications of reaching this goal, for it changes the very foundations and constraints of our existence. It makes irrelevant so many deeply entrenched social and economic problems that have contributed to the ugliness that has plagued us since the beginning of time. We can now put all of that in the past, and instead build systems that solve core human problems on large scales. And beyond energy, the next to consider are those facilitating auxiliary resource synthesis.
This began with water and fuel, but it can be extended further to agriculture, chemical engineering, recycling processes and next-generation building materials. The next stage toward getting there comes through what I call the National Aqueduct, and we’ll devote the next chapter to reviewing how it works.