Monday, March 06, 2006

Energy is the basic necessity for life. But for energy no form of life would have ever emerged. We all know energy for providing us light and comfort. It can help us to cool down during summers and feel warm during winters. It also helps us to go from one place to another. All automobiles need energy to run; but even otherwise all other means of transport need energy. But even though we use it every moment of our life and learn about it at school it often remains a riddle for many all through the life.

Do you know, whether energy is a gas, liquid or a solid? What is the origin of energy, how and when did it come about? We all talk about the energy crisis and the need to conserve it, but the textbooks say that energy is conserved in nature; it can neither be created nor destroyed. Isn’t there a contradiction here?

Obviously we need to know energy better.

First of all let us know, what is energy. Energy is not a solid, liquid or a even a gas, but it can go from anywhere to anywhere. In fact it is everywhere. We cannot make energy rather energy made us possible. Doesn’t it sound familiar? We often associate all these attributes with God. Then is energy the God?

Energy is not God; it is a concept in science just like Time. A concept is an idea. Just like the concept of God helps us to explain many phenomena around us that we cannot otherwise explain and give us direction at the time of a crisis; the concept of energy has helped us to explain and correlate various apparently unrelated natural phenomena we experience and thus helps us understand them in a logically consistent manner. One can indeed derive an analogy between the various forms of energy: electricity, chemical nuclear….. and the various Gods of Hindu religion: The Brahma, Vishnu, Mahesh, Durga etc. etc. But, an analogy is only a comparison of certain similarities between things, which are otherwise unlike.

Unlike the various incarnations of God, we can witness interconversions between various forms of energy. We all know light is a form of energy; how do we get light. From the Sun, of course; or from an electric lamp. Now, from where does electricity come from, from a power station? How is electricity produced in a power station? If it is a hydroelectric power station, it is produced using the flow of water from a height, in a dam. Water falling down from a height can move the blades of a turbine that can in turn rotate the coils of wire of an electric generator. But, not all electricity comes from hydroelectric power stations. Some, power stations, known as thermal power stations, use coal or other fuels like natural gas, to heat water to produce steam at high pressure, which can also be used to turn the blades of a turbine. Another kind of power stations are known as Nuclear power stations. In these power stations, the spontaneous fission of certain elements, like Uranium, to other elements provides energy to produce steam.

Most of us would have never visited a power station, so you might have never seen these transformations, but we can still witness them close to our home or within our home too. Most of us, often suffer power breakdowns. They have become rather common in our country. A power cut/breakdown can be very uncomfortable, so we often install alternative source of electricity in our home, like a portable generator or an inverter. How does a portable generator produce electricity? It produces electricity using petrol, diesel or kerosene. These fuels are used to run engines, similar to the automobile engines that can rotate coils of an electric generator just like in a power station. Have you ever seen a portable generator? No? Then you must have seen an inverter. An inverter supplies electricity stored in a lead acid battery, while the power supply from the power station is available certain chemical changes enable a lead acid battery to store electricity, which is made available during a power breakdown/cut to run our home appliances.

Now, let us return to our earlier discussion. We were discussing about the inter-conversions between various forms of energy and our analogy with God. Energy like God is one. So, the light that we get from an electric lamp is the same, regardless of the source of electricity. It does not matter whether the electric supply is from a hydroelectric power station, a thermal power station, a nuclear power station or from an inverter. Different forms of energy are converted into electric energy in these different sources of electricity. While it is the potential energy of water in a dam that is used to produce electricity in a hydroelectric station; it is the chemical energy in the fuels or in the lead acid battery that is converted into electrical energy in a thermal power station, a portable generator or an inverter.

That is the unity in the diversity of all forms of energy.
Now, let us return to the question of energy crisis vis a vis the conservation of energy law. The energy crisis we often talk about is not about the shortage of energy. In fact there is more than enough energy around. The “energy crisis” is because we are unable to extract sufficient fuel from the earth to satisfy our needs; or because we are not producing enough electricity using the various fuels. This results in an energy crisis in spite of abundant energy around us.