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.