National Geographic‘s fifth episode of its eye-opening Breakthrough series — which sees six Hollywood directors crafting documentaries on the most cutting edge breakthroughs in science and technology — is called “Energy On the Edge,” and it tackles the stunning developments in renewable energy advancements.
Akiva Goldsman directs this episode. You will know Goldsman from films like “A Beautiful Mind,” “Winter’s Tale,” and “I Am Legend.” (“I Am Legend” still gives me the willies just thinking about it. Amazing but very creepy zombie apocalypse film.)
Guildsman’s contribution to the “Breakthrough” series illuminates world-changing, history-making developments happening right under our noses. Some of these breakthroughs might very well be on the level of the Thomas Edison lightbulb.
1. Dancing with Tornadoes
The episode warms up with a look at 72-year-old private inventor and former ExxonMobile engineer Louis Michaud. What’s he up to? Oh, nothing much. Just figuring out how to power the world using tornadoes — the energy released by the vortexes observed in tornadoes, to be exact. He doesn’t have to go and chase down tornadoes, in other words. But the amazing thing is that the machine he built actually works. (You’ll just have to watch it to see his invention in action. It’s fascinating.) His technology, though it works, must be proven to be cost-effective in comparison to the usual fossil fuel methods for companies to begin relying on it. Accomplishing this task will require tons more money, so Mr. Michaud has some hurtles to overcome. These roadblocks may not be cleared in his lifetime, but the potential for a renewable energy source is there. Someday we might live in a world powered solely (or partially) by tornadoes.
2. The Next Great Location for a James Bond Movie — And a Stunning New Source of Energy Too
Then Goldsman whooshes us on over to the Crescent Dunes power plant on the west side of Nevada (about even with Yosemite National Forest in California if you drew a straight line across). This insanely brilliant and visually spectacular power plant (that looks like the set of a sci-fi movie with a $1 billion dollar budget) produces 110 megawatts of energy 24 hours a day using only the power of the sun. Its 10,000 mirrors align with perfect precision, like some wild version of that laser on the Death Star, and the reflections from those 10,000 mirrors all target one spot.
I would not want to be in that one spot.
(And how long will it be before a James Bond movie uses this power plant in the film’s plot? I can imagine the super villain who is fighting James Bond will take over the Crescent Dune power plant and tie James Bond to the target area of those 10,000 mirrors. I’m seriously predicting we’ll see that happen in a movie within 10 years.)
The reason you would not want to be in that spot where the mirrors aim is because it heats that target area to 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit. In reality, this target spot is a tower at the center of the power plant and — seriously, people, it looks exactly like a set from the Avengers — and this tower contains huge amounts of salt. The mirrors melt the salt into molten salt, and the molten salt is then stored for power generation. (The plant produces power by having water poured on the molten salt, which produces steam, which spins the wheels of electricity-generating turbines.) The excess energy stored in the molten salt allows the plant to continue producing vast amounts of electricity even during the night after the sun has gone down.
Now why didn’t I think of that.
3. Geothermal Awesomeness
We also get a look at the brilliant folks over in Iceland and their use of geothermal energy. They’re drilling deep beneath the earth’s surface, locating water that is super-heated by magma, and then dumping water on it. This produces super-heated steam, which they channel to power turbines and create electricity.
However, this particular job is, shall we say, explosive. (Again, you’ll just have to watch it to see what I mean.)
4. The Most Powerful Laser in the World
Experimental physicist Tammy Ma at the National Ignition Facility (NIF) has the dream job of playing with the world’s largest, most powerful laser — well, 192 lasers, to be exact. She and her team are working on taming nuclear fusion. They are trying to create the first sustained fusion reaction.
By basically turning water into a star.
In more technical terms (well, just slightly more technical), they are aiming 192 lasers at hydrogen fuel — the same kind of atom you’d find in water. In fact, as Tammy Ma says in the episode, o
ne bottle of water has enough energy to power San Francisco for a day. We just need to harness it. If they can successfully ignite the hydrogen fuel, the lasers will collapse the hydrogen into helium. When this happens, it will release a tremendous amount of energy as it converts to helium.
However, it’s extremely difficult to align the lasers in the exact configuration that will produce sustained fusion.
5. Beer-Powered Energy
And then there’s Dogfish Head Brewery. Although they’re not using a super awesome world’s-largest-laser gizmo, they’ve created something pretty amazing too: a brewery that uses its beer to generate all the electricity and drinking water it needs. Through a very interesting technology (which you’ll just have to watch to understand), the brewery takes the waste from the brewing process, separates the liquid waste from solid, purifies the liquid waste into clean water, and then takes the solid waste and uses it to power an engine that generates enough electricity to power the plant.
And that is a very simple word to describe one of the amazing documentaries I’ve ever seen. And there are five other documentaries like this one?
National Geographic’s “Breakthrough” (@NatGeo, #Breakthrough) series airs every Sunday night at 9/8c through Dec. 13.
To read my reviews on the other five episodes in the “Breakthrough” series, follow these links: