A Geological Battery

I’m hesitant to admit it, but I believe that one of the reasons I’m drawn to the field of civil/environmental engineering is because of the possibility of terraforming. Terraforming is basically the ability to shape the landscape, and in a science-fiction context, it’s the ability of creating a livable environment on an originally inhospitable planet by inducing an atmosphere and ecosystem with ‘artificial’ volcanoes, oceans, forests, ect. Perhaps I have a minor god-complex (ok, maybe it’s not so minor), but I’m attracted to Terraforming not because of the egotistical appeal, but because of the wide variety of possibilities it opens up when trying to create a symbiotic society where the built and natural blend.

One great example of what I mean is Belgium’s plan to construct an artificial island to store excess wind power. I am a firm believer that while efforts should continue into developing sustainable alternative forms of energy, the real research should be conducted in increasing energy storage capacity. Renewable energy has the reputation of being not the most consistent power source (since it deals with partly uncontrollable weather events), and therefore there will be times when renewable energy does not provide enough energy to meet demand, or it provides far too much. In the latter case, the energy should be stored for future use, thus providing energy for when the former case arrives. If we increase storage capacity, the issue of reliable access to energy becomes pretty much obsolete. Besides being famous for their chocolates and waffles, Belgium is now going to be famous for having the world’s first geological battery.

This donut-shaped island uses any excess energy produced by the country’s windmills to pump out water from the interior reservoir of the island. When the energy needs to be retrieved, the water (which is now at a higher point) is simply allowed to fall (thanks to a wonderful free service called gravity) and spin turbines, which will convert the kinetic energy back into electrical. Yes, we’ve used the natural processes to create energy, but I think this is the first example of using naturally processes to store energy at such a large scale. It seems almost too simple, but that’s what makes the concept so genius. Sure, there will probably be some snags in the design, but it opens up lots of possibilities.

For instance, the artificial island is now essentially a natural system governed by not only the weather, but also by human demand. The water level of the reservoir changes, not just when sea levels rise, but also when electricity demand changes. This principle can be taken further if instead of just making donut-hole reservoirs, we created islands with artificial lakes that could be drained or filled in a similar manner. Then the lake levels would rise and fall not just with the tides, but with human activity. A whole ecosystem could develop surrounded by these patterns. I know it seems like an obvious fact, but these islands just make it even more clear that human activity has a profound impact on not only the life on this planet, but how this planet works. This solution shapes our world into somewhat of a machine (I know, that seems like a very industrialized point of view), that is fueled by the natural forces around us. It’s a battery that works by storing energy with manufactured pumps, and releasing energy by gravity. I think it’s a good example of how human and natural processes can work together to benefit all.

I may just be fantasizing, perhaps this island won’t be as amazing as I’m making it out to be, maybe I don’t fully understand how the process works. But I think it’s certainly an interesting concept, creating engines and batteries not out of metals and wires, but out of soil, sand, rocks and water. But how cool would it be if our society was powered by geological constructs, where we could point at a river or lake and say “that’s what’s giving me power” or point to a volcano and say “that’s what’s giving me heat.” I know it’s a controversial to be talking about terraforming, but perhaps I am just fascinated with the possibility of creating an Earth Engine.

“Welcome to Magrathea, where we construct planets made to order.” (Source: Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy)

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6 thoughts on “A Geological Battery

  1. dude dont question your own motives the concepts are excellent and considering the current destructive methods of energy production yours is as Utopian as they come. If we could just abandon the wasteful and destructive processes which we have adopted the world could be an amazing place but we are doomed to cycles because of greed and control which prevents concepts like these ever fully being adopted and developed

  2. I was initially drawn to your site because I was sear machine for “Natural geological battery”. My hope was to find an actual battery that exists in nature due to layers of substances which react to produce voltage in the manner of a conventional battery you can buy in any store — to see one one already exists. My next step was then to find if the concept of a terra formed battery had ever been conceived of. I had never heard of this Belgian concept and have to admit it wasn’t quite what I expected nonetheless extremely fascinating!
    Have you ever heard of a natural existing or engineered geological terra formed battery that generates power due the proximity of surrounding earth and its chemical composition.
    Having said all this… it occurs to me that this sort of battery existing in nature would have long ago exhausted its power much like an actual battery.
    The thought of an engineered battery still is intriguing if there is a way to replies is its supply. Natural batteries may still exist in nature but are not generating power due to reactive strata in close proximity but separated by other strata. It would only take an engineered conduit between these 2 layers to allow for the reaction to take place.
    It’s a theory.
    I’d love if someone in the geological field could consider it and debunk it or comment on its validity.

    • Thanks for your comments, Miles! I too, would be interested in hearing about any naturally occurring “geological batteries” as you have described. The closest thing I can think of is the Oklo nuclear reactor (which I wrote a post about).

      Best of luck on your search!

  3. if you look up “Petro Voltaic” you will find some interesting concepts expounded by
    T.T. Brown. Also, some researchers claim to have tapped into “Telluric Electrical
    Currents”.

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