The news of the oil spill in the Gulf are everywhere. It is almost impossible to avoid them. Like a tragic soap opera that still needs a happy ending the disaster is affecting the economies of several communities, fauna and flora. The spill is a sad remainder of how much the oil driven economy propels our progress at the cost of so much environmental degradation.
Frequently, in Science Fiction novels human and alien civilizations alike have found alternative and more efficient ways of generating energy. This makes perfectly sense. Long term survival and technological progress walk hand in hand with advancements in obtaining new, reliable, abundant and non pollutant forms of energy.
In Star Trek, the elegant Starfleet ships use antimatter as source of energy for their warp engines. Inside a reaction chamber, Dilithium Crystals control the flow in which both matter and antimatter mix and annihilate each other releasing huge amounts of energy. Antimatter, could possibly be used to power vehicles and our homes because even some ounces of antimatter are needed to produce enormous amounts of energy Sadly, today, we are incapable of producing quantities needed to use it in the scales that would be useful to our society. Even if we could, antimatter is very volatile. Everything that touches antimatter, including the walls of the container holding it, generates a reaction. Today, whatever we can produce is stored in huge chambers that generate magnetic traps. Cost is also a difficulty to be surpassed. One gram (0.03oz.) of Antimatter costs $25 Billion.
Author Larry Niven, in his Ringworld novels, developed the fascinating concept in which a ring (Later popularized as a Niven RIng) could be built around the sun. This ring would capture big portions of solar energy. This structure would be so big that people could inhabit it. Even if we could construct a Niven Ring, we have no method to transmit the energy collected to Earth or any other place.
Freeman Dyson, a theoretical physicist, imagined a network of many satellites that could be built around the sun almost encasing it. The satellites would be able to collect vast quantities of solar energy. While a more realistic method the same difficulties of transport the energy applies. Science Fiction authors took the concept up a notch and imagined the possibility of building a complete closed sphere, a Dyson Sphere, around a star that would serve as place to live and collect all energy produced by the sun. Peter F. Hamilton in his Commonwealth novels used Dyson Spheres as a method of entrapping a whole alien race and preventing from escaping its own star system.
Isaac Asimov in his Foundation novels elaborated on a possible gravitic propulsion system. Collecting gravitons (Theoretical Gravitational Particles) a spaceship would be able to move freely across the universe without concerns regarding its energy source.
More down-to-earth concepts such as fusion reactors, solar energy, geothermal energy with stations based on Earth also appear. These are much more in sync with our current technological development and we might see them very soon.
It is difficult to predict what path will mankind take into finding alternative forms of energy that will ensure our long term survival. With tragedies such as the one we see today in the Gulf region it highlights the urgent need to find suitable replacements for the oil. We have all the tools to create a 21st century that will be the first in which mankind progresses and, yet, sustain a positive relationship with the planet.