Electricity. We currently have three main methods of generating it. Through a chemical reaction with two dissimilar metals. Through mechanical means by spinning a coil of wire in a fixed magnetic field. And by photovoltaic action on some silicon substrate. All three are as old as the hills. Yes even the solar cell has a long history.
The photovoltaic effect was first recognized in 1839 by French physicist A. E. Becquerel. However, it was not until 1883 that the first photovoltaic cell was built, by Charles Fritts, who coated the semiconductor selenium with an extremely thin layer of gold to form the junctions. The device was only around 1% efficient. In 1888 Russian physicist Aleksandr Stoletov built the first photoelectric cell (based on the outer photoelectric effect discovered by Heinrich Hertz earlier in 1887). Albert Einstein explained the photoelectric effect in 1905 for which he received the Nobel prize in Physics in 1921. Russell Ohl patented the modern junction semiconductor solar cell in 1946, which was discovered while working on the series of advances that would lead to the transistor.
And none of these technologies have changed much over the years. What we call nuclear power, as most should know by now, is really just another way of generating electricity by electro-mechanical means. Instead of burning coal or oil or gas to heat water and turn it into steam, which is then used to move turbines which turn the generators – the nuclear fission, or breaking down of the radio active material into other substances is used to heat the water and turn it into stream. The problem is that nuclear fission gives off more than just heat IE infrared radiation. In fact heat is bu a small portion of the radiation that is given off. Besides heat nuclear fission gives off gamma rays and alpha rays and beta rays. All of which are deadly to all living things. The material used for nuclear fission us generally uranium 235 which is an isotope of uranium. Pure uranium has to be processed to get it. The uranium itself gives off these radiation products so has to be stored and handled with utmost care.
And when the fuel itself is nearly gone it is still dangerous. And has to be stored for thousands of years some place where it will not cause a hazard to life. And as is evident with Japan nuclear reactor, these spent fuel rods have to be kept submerged in water and kept cool or they get hot and give off radiation still.
The way we generate electricity is crude at best and I would even say primitive. Why ? For one thing nobody has seriously attempted to develop and better, more advance way of doing it. I do not know of any serious research done of generation electricity directly from the radiation given off by radioactive materials. Because such research and that which would come out of it would not make anyone rich for a long time. Maybe ever. It would most likely be something you could not continuously charge for. Think about it. If some one came up to you and told you “Hey…I discovered a way to make electricity where all you do is pass radiation through this stuff and it gives you gobs of electricity forever.” Would you really see it as a sound investment ? One that would keep you in the money for a long time ?
Of course not. And that is the problem. Our current economic system is anti-innovation unless that innovation can make rich people even richer. Edison did not make money on the electric light for a long time. Same for DeForest and his Audion. I seriously doubt that either would be invented today. And the same for a lot of inventions. This is what plagues the alternative energy market. You simply cannot get rich off of wind turbines or solar cells. You sell them and install them and that is it. They just do their thing.
In order for any real advances to take place in the generation of electricity (or any thing else for that matter), we must change and eliminate this backward attitude of “Everything must make a profit.”