1.1 Introduction

Figure 1-1 – Electric storm above the Loop in Chicago

Energy is a vital part of modern society– it lights our cities after dark, speeds the movement of people and goods, and powers the continuous advancement of technology. Energy sources such as crude oil and natural gas have been helping humans for more than a hundred years. However, the use of these fossil fuels for power has resulted in many negative consequences; some of these include severe pollution, extensive mining of the world’s resources, and strong political influence of countries that have extensive natural resources. In addition, there are concerns that these energy sources will not be able to keep up with the rapid growth of global population.

The world’s supply of fossil fuels is limited, and these supplies are not evenly distributed throughout the world. This uneven availability of resources has led to regional conflicts and wars. As a growing population causes the demand on this limited supply to increase, the cost of fossil fuels will also likely increase, leading many to predict that the end of low-cost fossil fuels may be approaching. Of course we need fossil fuels to sustain our current living conditions; we can’t just stop driving cars, using plastics, or generating electricity. However, the side-effects of these fuels can cause great suffering for people, plants and animals. Carbon dioxide exhaust from these fuels heats the earth’s atmosphere and waste from their manufacture and use pollute the Earth’s air, water and ground.

This pollution makes living conditions worse for all species of the earth. There are both economic and environmental reasons for developing alternative energy technologies.

Alternative energy sources first came into the international spotlight in the 1970’s when crude oil was suddenly in short supply. Even though there eventually proved to be plenty of fossils fuels left, the crisis awakened the world to the fact that supplies of fossil fuels are limited and eventually will run out. During the past decade, there has been an increased interest in environmentally-friendly and more efficient power production. This interest has rapidly expanded research in alternative fuels and power sources. This renewed interest in alternative energy has come about because of the increasing amount of evidence showing that pollution from fossil fuels is changing the atmosphere of the world. This trend is called global warming, and will continue to worsen due to increased demand for combustion of fossil fuels by a growing world population. The world needs power sources that have low emissions, high energy-efficiency, and an unlimited supply of fuel for a rising world population.

Figures 1-2 - Hydroelectric, Wind and Solar power .

Figure 1-2 – Hydroelectric, wind and solar power

Many alternative energy technologies have already been researched and developed. These include solar, wind, hydroelectric power, bioenergy, geothermal energy, and more. Solar cells use the sun to generate electricity, wind power is obtained from the kinetic energy of the wind, and bioenergy is extracted from plants. There are also renewable energies that extract gas from biological waste and harness energy from ocean waves. Each of these alternative energy sources has its advantages and disadvantages and all are in varying stages of development. Figure 1-2 shows examples of wind, solar and hydroelectric power.

It is advantageous for our Earth and all of the species that inhabit it to be conscious of the energy that we are using. The Renewable Energy Kit explores many basic renewable energy technologies: wind, solar, electrolyzer, PEM fuel cell, and a hydrogen storage system. These types of energy can be naturally replenished by our environment. By learning about this technology through experimentation, you can find out exactly how these technologies work. We hope that by conducting experiments with tools such as the Renewable Energy Kit that you will not only learn about the energy technologies explained in the kit but will be inspired to explore alternative energy technologies outside the classroom. This can be as simple as keeping up with the news about climate change or speaking about renewable energy with your friends and family. And maybe exploring these energy technologies today will motivate you to one day improve these technologies or even discover new ones as an engineer or scientist.


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