The future of fission (and other sources of energy)


Students from Berkeley Connect Physics brainstorm sources of energy.

How do you envision the future? Self-driving cars, virtual reality, Hyperloop passenger pods? Whatever gadget or gimmick might reveal itself in the future, all technologies have one commonality: their reliance on energy.

Tackling the question “How can physicists shape our future?,” Berkeley Connect Physics students broke into teams of three or four to brainstorm a list of energy sources: tidal, hydroelectric, fossil fuels, solar, geothermal, nuclear fusion, battery, and wind. Once they re-convened as one group, graduate mentor Trevor Grand Pre clustered these sources into categories: nuclear, fossil, renewable, and electricity. He then asked the class to analyze the major issues with each source, with regards to disposal, storage, transportation, and production.    

Fossil energy includes oil, coal, and natural gas. These are nonrenewable and detrimental to the environment. According to the Department of Energy website, “Over the past 20 years, nearly three-fourths of human-caused emissions came from the burning of fossil fuels.” Recognizing the harms of fossil energy on Earth’s ecosystem and atmosphere, students agreed they would have to seek other forms of energy for the future.

Renewable energy draws from sources regenerated within a short time relative to the human timescale. Berkeley Connect students gave tidal, solar, geothermal, and wind as examples of renewable energy. Although these sources would reduce carbon emissions, students pointed out that renewable energy was not entirely efficient in many cases. Solar panels, for example, release spikes of energy in the day in inverse correlation to spikes of usage at night. Most of the class agreed that with further research and improvement, renewable energy would be an invaluable source in the future.

Nuclear energy refers to the use of sustained nuclear fission, a reaction by which a heavy nucleus splits and releases energy, to generate heat or electricity. Proponents of nuclear energy vouch for fission as a sustainable source which reduces carbon emissions. However, opponents worry nuclear power may harm the environment and people, citing power plant accidents to support their claims. The class appeared divided on whether nuclear fission was a reliable source of energy for the future, exemplifying the many opinions surrounding this debate.

Electricity, a secondary energy source, is used to store and deliver energy in a more useable form than the primary sources (nuclear, fossil, renewable). After one student listed batteries as an energy source, Pre clarified batteries as energy storage of chemical energy or electricity. Electricity most commonly draws from nonrenewable primary sources such as gas. Students envisioned that in the future electricity would mix renewable sources and nuclear fission.

By participating in engaging discussions with their peers, students were able to identify the problems of energy sources and realize the need for innovation in these fields. By posing questions and encouraging conversation within the classroom, Pre reminded the Berkeley Connect students that they could be the ones to work towards that energy breakthrough.


posted by Gloria Choi

Berkeley Connect Communications Assistant