Nova (1974–…): Season 44, Episode 7 - Treasures of the Earth: Power - full transcript

Drill down to discover the treasures beneath our feet that power our world. Fossil fuels-coal, oil, and natural gas-powered the industrial revolution and allowed us to build a way of life that many cherish today. Personal cars, planes, lights, hot showers-all of these are gifts from our fossil fuels... but they have a dirty dark side in that they are polluting the planet. What is it about these natural resources that has allowed them to fuel our civilization? What secrets are locked in their molecules? Where did that energy come from, and can we find alternative energy resources that come in a cleaner form? The hunt is on for new treasures that might allow us to power our modern way of life without damaging the environment. Join NOVA as we explore the resources that both power and pollute, from modern-day oil prospecting in California, to a mega-city utility company struggling to keep the lights on during hot summer days, to China where an engineer strives to solve one of the greatest obstacles to the success of solar power. Travel the globe to see how our energy treasures are changing-and if they can keep the lights on

Are you wondering how healthy the food you are eating is? Check it -
Gemstones, precious metals,

and power...

building blocks of civilization.

But how are they created?

Our Earth is a master chef.

She knows how to cook.

These gems are really forged

in unimaginable conditions
deep inside the planet.

How did metal shape our past?

I love steel.

It's actually the backbone
of our society.

And how will these gifts be used
to build the tools of tomorrow?

Such a simple element has
enabled all of the technology

that surrounds us today.

It is amazing that this came

from the sand in our deserts.

We're going to launch
this incredible telescope,

and we're going to send it
a million miles into space

from the Earth

to actually unlock the secrets
of the universe.

And it will all rely
on two ounces of gold.

In this episode,

we go deep into the fuels
that drive our world.

It's amazing that we can see it
with our own eyes.

What are their secrets?

Look! This is what
we've been looking for.

You're holding in your hand
huge amounts of energy.

And what are their risks?

We're affecting our planet.

Humans affect the planet.

Can we discover new treasures

to satisfy our energy needs?

In this rock,

there is an incredibly powerful
untapped force.

If we just get it right,
there's huge potential.

"Treasures of the Earth,"
right now on NOVA.

Major funding for NOVA is
provided by the following...

All around us,

Earth's spectacular riches
are on display:

mountains, oceans,

and plentiful crops.

But Earth's bounty
is not just skin deep.

Some of our most important

are forged even deeper
inside our planet.

These treasures are the fuels
we depend on.

They may not be beautiful,
but they power our modern world.

We use them to heat, to cool,

to light up our cities.

They drive our cars

and propel our planes.

They have allowed us
to build our civilization.

But what secrets are
locked inside

that give them so much power?

And today, as we learn that
some of these treasures

are affecting our climate

and pose a threat
to our survival,

can we find new treasures

and new ways
to keep the power on?

The way to start finding answers

is to trace the energy back
from the plug on your wall.

New York City,
America's largest,

and center of its corporate
and cultural power.

Keeping the bright lights
of this big city on

is this man's job.

Any outages right now?

Craig Ivey, No

president of the power utility
known as Con Ed.

Without electricity,

the subway doesn't run
and the elevators don't run.

New York is the financial center
of the world,

the media capital of the world.

We have to maintain reliability
in the city.

This is the nerve center.

I want to get that expedited.

So everything going on

within the grid
is monitored 24/7/365.

Here in Con Ed's
master control room,

experts keep a close eye
on the network of cables,

transformers, and power stations

that deliver the city's

called the grid.

As New York heads into summer,

when air conditioners run
full blast,

this nerve center gets
even busier.

This can be an exciting place.

Well, they found a defect
in the transformer.

This is a serious-minded group
all the time,

but on those peak summer days,
the intensity ratchets up.

How are they doing on the 53M?

That's when the stress level
inside this room goes up.

You can't change summer.

People want to be cool,

they want to be comfortable,
so therefore,

when customers want it,
we have to produce it.

The high demand
for electrical power

starts here, where you plug in
your coffee maker and computer,

lights, washing machine, TV,

and one of the hungriest of all,
your air conditioner.

That means Con Ed must provide
a million watts

of electricity continuously
during peak hours

every few blocks.

All that adds up
to as much electricity

as some entire countries.

There are enough
underground electrical cables

in New York City

to wrap around the Earth
almost four times.

At the end of those power lines

is the source
of all that electricity.

A power plant.

At its center is a massive,
15-story-high ball of fire.

Most people take power
for granted,

and until
it's not there for them

do they realize
how important it is.

Tommy Quartuccio is the director

of the largest power plant
in New York.

2,300 megawatts
is what we can put out,

about 22% of the power
for New York City.

So we're very important.

Ravenswood Generating Station,

nicknamed Big Allis,
was once the world's largest.

During the summer period,
the units run continuously.

The control room operators are
around the clock.

We're here 24 hours a day,

seven days a week,
365 days a year.

Despite the enormity
of the task,

supplying the electricity
New York needs

comes down to a relatively
simple machine

first invented in the 1880s:
a turbine.

At its most basic,

a turbine is something like
a fan with blades

turned by steam power.

Its shaft spins a generator
with magnets

that create a flow of electrons.

That flow of electrons
is electricity.

What generates that steam?

Well, that depends.

A steam turbine.

It swallows steam
no matter what it's made from,

any type of fuel:
coal, natural gas, or oil.

The turbine doesn't care.

It all comes down
to what is available, cheapest,

and most reliable.

Today, Big Allis burns
99% natural gas

in massive boilers.

This is where it all happens,
right inside the boiler.

The boiler, 15 stories tall

and 2,000 degrees,
is a swirling ball of fire.

This fire can consume

nine million cubic feet
of natural gas every hour,

a volume equivalent to more than
100 Olympic swimming pools.

But natural gas wasn't always
what made Big Allis run.

When it first came online,
it burned coal.

Coal has been phased out
in New York,

and its use is on the decline
across the U.S.

as its environmental and health
dangers become more apparent.

But when New York City
was built, coal was king.

It is the fuel that built
much of our country,

partly because North America

has the largest coal reserves
in the world.

In the near total darkness
of a coal mine,

you begin to understand why coal
played such an important role.

Oh, here it is!

This dark black chunk
of the wall here?

This is where the miners
would have come,

and they would have worked
in these dark and wet

and cold tunnels
to pull out this coal.

Liz Hajek,

a geologist
from Penn State University,

says today, coal produces only
a third of U.S. electricity.

But in its heyday, it was
our primary source of power,

and this Pennsylvania coal
was prized above all.

There's a bunch
of different types of coal...

there's brownish, lignite,

but this is anthracite coal.

It's dark, it's shiny,
it's almost all carbon,

and it means it would have been
really valuable

to the miners that were coming
down into the mine.

The mountains
of Ashland, Pennsylvania,

hold the world's largest known
deposits of anthracite coal.

But why?

According to Hajek, the rocks
above the mine give us a clue.

So, this is shale.

What we know,
we can look at this rock

and we can figure out
what this landscape

used to look like
over 300 million years ago.

These rocks formed long ago,
even before dinosaurs.

And in this case,

we know that this shale formed
in a swampy environment.

Look! This is what
we've been looking for.

Here, if you look closely,
you can see this is a leaf.

This leaf would have grown

in these coal swamps, so these
swamps would have looked like

the Gulf Coast
of the United States today,

or maybe the Florida Everglades.

Over millions of years,

those trees pulled carbon
out of the air

through photosynthesis...

the way plants use sunlight
and water to grow.

When the trees died,

that carbon got buried

in the wet, swampy water.

With pressure created
from layers of earth

pressing on them,
those trees turned into coal.

Anthracite coal can be
more than 90% carbon.

But what secrets are locked
inside these ancient fossils

that are the basis for so much
of our modern world's energy?

One way to see the power inside
is to burn it,

says chemist Andrea Sella
from University College London.


is one of the materials that has
really changed our world,

and that's because coal
is made of carbon,

and therefore, we can burn it.

Now, I can illustrate this

by taking a bit
of liquid oxygen.

Now, the beauty of coal is that
it doesn't react

at room temperature,
but if we start to warm it up

in the flame
until it's really glowing hot

and then drop it
into the oxygen,

immediately, it burns fiercely.

What we're seeing is the release
of energy as light and heat.

When you hold a piece of coal
in your hand,

it looks incredibly unpromising.

I mean, it's just this rough,
black rock.

And yet it's got an incredibly
complex chemical structure.

And in a sense,
what you're holding in your hand

is the equivalent
of a charged battery.

How coal acts like a battery

is revealed
in its atomic structure.

Carbon atoms form long chains
and rings

bound to other elements
like hydrogen.

These are called hydrocarbons,

remnants of those
long dead trees.

When heated,
these molecules vibrate.

At low temperatures,

molecules move or vibrate
very, very sluggishly.

But as the temperature rises,
they move faster and faster

and, in a sense,
more chaotically.

The chaotic vibration
when coal burns

allows its carbon atoms
to break free

and bond with other elements,
like oxygen in the air.

Burning is one of the most
familiar chemical reactions

in our everyday life.

In many cases,

a chemical reaction will
release heat, release light,

and burning is a very fast
example of that.

Robert Hazen, director
of the Deep Carbon Observatory,

explains how the heat of a fire

results from releasing energy
stored in the bonds

between atoms
of the burned material.

Imagine you have two atoms

and they're separated.

So if you can cause them
to come together...

you may have to force them...

you can build bonds,
but those bonds have a tension.

They have an energy...
they're storing this potential.

And if you heat them up,
if you react them with oxygen,

they can break apart,

recombine, and in the process,
release that energy.

That release of energy

is related to the structure
of an atom.

At its center is a nucleus

by orbiting electrons.

These electrons are what
bond atoms together.

A hydrocarbon chain,
which has so many atoms,

is packed with electrons.

It turns out that hydrocarbons

store lots of concentrated

They're all crowded together
in these compounds,

and they really don't like that

So if you burn them,

some of the electrons go off
to this oxygen atom,

some of the electrons
go off to that oxygen atom,

and the flame that you see,
the light that you see,

the heat energy that's produced,

that's all the result
of these electrons reorganizing.

That's the process of burning.

That energy is released,

and that is how we power
our society.

Burning almost anything
releases carbon,

but carbon-dense coal and oil
release a lot.

Carbon, long buried,

combines with oxygen
in Earth's atmosphere

and acts like a blanket,
trapping heat.

The rising levels of carbon
in our atmosphere began

with the introduction of coal
in the mid-1700s.

Coal was the fuel that drove
an industrial revolution.

Coal is absolutely fundamental.

There is no question that
the Industrial Revolution

could not have happened

without coal.

We would be in a completely
different place as a species.

Starting in the mid-1700s,

engineers began creating
new coal-powered machines

that would soon change life
throughout England

and eventually around the globe.

The great majority of people
would look back

at the kind of lives
that were being lived

in the pre-urban world
with something akin to horror.

British philosopher
Thomas Hobbes

said lives were nasty,
brutish, and short.

Life was physically
really difficult

because the principal source
of energy was human power.

We had a few rudimentary

some water power,

and of course, we had wood.

And so humans looked
for something else,

and this black stuff, coal,

which they had known about
for a very long time,

they suddenly realized that

this had the concentrated energy
that they need.

And in the 19th century,

as we began really to harness
the power of coal,

what we're able to do is
to make an individual worker

not just three times
more productive,

but 20, 50, 100 times more.

One worker could make
acres of cloth,

they could produce
huge numbers of nails,

they could make beams of steel

in a way that had never been
possible before.

Coal didn't just transform
the nature of work;

it created jobs
that built our cities

and drove significant political
and social changes.

In the societies
that had gone before,

the aristocratic
landowning class

effectively owned their peasants
who were working for them.

They weren't actually slaves,

but they really had very little
freedom to do anything

because they earned
very little money.

Then when the workers moved
into the cities,

the whole political nature
of society changed

beyond all recognition.

If coal built our cities,

another fossil fuel, oil,
transformed them.

Today, oil powers our planes,

trains, and of course,

providing 40% of worldwide
energy needs.

Oil is a more concentrated form
of energy.

You could have had
a coal-fired car,

but it would have had to have
had a whole trailer of coal

being lugged on behind it.

The liquid form of the oil
is much more convenient.

In fact, you'd need more than
100 pounds of coal

to get you as far as a tank
of refined gasoline,

which is liquid,
easily transported,

and has a high energy density.

You can live for a day
without gold,

and I know you can live
for a day without gemstones,

but try living a day without oil
in our modern world

and I think you'll notice
right away how important it is.

Jan Gillespie, a geologist
at Cal State Bakersfield,

explains how oil was discovered

in places like
Belridge, California,

one of the most intensely
drilled oil fields in the world.

Hunting for oil is a lot like
hunting for treasure.

We learn to read the geology

just the way someone would learn
to read the treasure map

so that we can find the oil.

On the edge of the oil field,
Gillespie searches for clues

that reveal where oil might be
trapped close to the surface.

From the road,

if you thought this was asphalt,
you'd be right.

But it's naturally occurring

This did not come
from a roadbed.

This is exactly
the kind of thing

that the early prospectors here
in this area,

the wildcatters, would look for

to determine where to drill
their oil wells.

Asphalt formed
from the same process as oil,

so it doesn't take
Gillespie long

to find what she came here for.

This is what we've
been looking for:

thick California crude.

It's the energy that powers
the modern world right here,

coming out of the ground.

Every aspect of our lives

is completely intertwined
with our use of oil and coal.

It has given us the energy
to transform our world.

And yet all of this comes
with a downside,

and that comes in the form

of this little molecule:
carbon dioxide.

The impact of this little
molecule is now global.

Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere
acts like a blanket,

trapping in heat
and increasing temperature.

This NASA map shows
global temperatures rising

over the last century.

We know that the temperature

is going to rise ever so gently.

We can anticipate
increased droughts,

increased floods.

We can expect our oceans
to slowly rise.

Now, the occasional flood,
the occasional heat wave

may not sound like much,

but what are the impacts
on our agriculture?

What happens if food supplies

become less regular,
less stable?

The changes in our atmosphere

are going to have
big consequences for us.

We're affecting our planet.

Humans affect the planet.

You can't have a society

without energy,
and you can't have energy

without consequences
and side effects.

Despite these consequences,
old habits die hard,

and our society seems addicted
to fossil fuels.

They still provide 80%
of the world's total energy,

in part because
of their versatility

and the conveniently stored

in the bonds of the carbon atom.

And there is another
refined product of oil

that is indispensable
in our modern world.

We don't use it for power,

but it's another illustration
of just how versatile carbon is:


Over the last century,
human ingenuity has figured out

how to refine oil
and drink from it,

sit on it, build with it,
and make money from it.

I just want to say
one word to you.

Just one word.

Yes, sir.

Are you listening?

Yes, I am.

Like the advice given
in the film The Graduate,i

plastic transformed
all of our lives.

There's a great future
in plastics.

Think about it.

The discovery of plastic
was revolutionary.

For the first time,

manufacturing was not limited
to products found in nature

like wood, metal, or ivory.

Animal, vegetable, or mineral.

I hadn't thought of that before.

Maybe this little thimble

belongs to a kingdom
all of its own.

The fourth kingdom.

The kingdom of plastics.


This "kingdom of plastics"

is something Rabi Musah studies.

She is an organic chemist

who investigates how chemistry
affects our culture.

Just thinking about our heavy
reliance on plastics

and the things that would be
missing from our lives

if we didn't have plastics.

So as I look around my space,
my reading glasses... gone.

Computer... not there.

The refrigerator might be
missing, the water bottle,

light fixtures.

Oh, oh, oh,
and all my makeup containers,

you know, the lipstick
and the mascara, out the window.

Toilet seat... gone.

Gosh, toilet seat.

Imagine not having
a toilet seat.

Who wears jeans
that are 100% cotton?

You gotta have spandex in there.

We can wear jeans

we're not supposed to be able
to wear, right?

It's everywhere.

It's pervasive.

So how do we get

all these useful, solid things
from soupy, smelly oil?

The answer can be found,
once again,

in the chemistry of carbon.

Most of these hydrocarbon fuels
that we use

are made of chains
of carbon atoms,

and when we burn them,

we break them apart
into smaller pieces,

or with simple chemical tricks,
you can link them together

into longer and longer

Those are polymers
or the plastics that we use.

What better way to show this
than with a plastic model

of one of these molecules,
called ethylene.

So this would be ethylene.

You can change the chemistry
of this, for example,

by replacing one
of the hydrogens...

with a different element,
like chlorine.

And so this would make this
vinyl chloride,

and you can connect many,
many of these together

to make polyvinyl chloride.

Polyvinyl chloride, or PVC,

makes atomic models
and so much more:

pipes, doors, windows, bottles,
your credit card,

even punk rock
fake leather pants.

The future will bring plastic
fabrics, wondrously fine

yet resistant to wear,
wrinkles, and stains,

even the hazards of washing.

The world quickly fell
for plastic.

Yes, this is a dream
of the future.

And while the original dream

of making useful products
cheaply has come true,

plastic, for many, is also
a symbol of careless waste

and overindulgence.

One of the challenges
with plastics

is that the very attributes
that make it so useful...

it doesn't degrade;

if you put it outside
in the elements,

nothing happens to it,

it just sits there forever
looking at you...

these are the very things
that make it problematic

when it's out in nature,

because generally speaking,
it's not biodegradable.

Waste plastic could be burned
for energy,

but like coal, oil, and gas,

it too would release its carbon
back into the atmosphere.

Throughout history,

humanity has drawn upon
the resources Earth provides.

The discovery of bronze
built empires,

and steel changed our cities.

But as with all treasures,
they come with a price,

and the environmental
consequences of fossil fuels

and their products
have become unacceptable.

there is one fossil fuel

that is seen as a way
to mitigate

some of the negative effects
of other fossil fuels.

Natural gas is the cheapest fuel

and it's also the cleanest fuel.

It's the fuel
we like to burn the most.

Natural gas is found deep
in the ground

or distilled from oil

and is seen by many as a bridge
to a cleaner environment.

It is cheap and it puts
50% less carbon dioxide

into our atmosphere than coal.

That is why it is
the primary energy treasure

used today
at the Ravenswood power plant.

Natural gas is very important
to New York City.

It burns cleaner,

keeps the unit cleaner,
the environment cleaner.

Natural gas, oil, and coal

hold power
in their chemical bonds,

but where did it originate?

The origin of all
this fossil fuel power

is found millions of miles away

in the greatest power source
in our solar system:

the Sun,
a ball of superheated gas.

Within the Sun, energy is born

in an amazing reaction
called nuclear fusion,

a process where hydrogen atoms
are forced or fused together.

Fusion is taking
two smaller atoms

and ramming them together
to create a bigger one,

and that's a difficult process.

If you consider, for instance,
two magnets, and you say,

"All right, I'd like to take
these two north poles

and put them together,"

those two north poles
will repel.

Dwight Williams,
a nuclear physicist

from the University of Maryland,

explains the key
to overcoming that resistance

is heat and intense pressure.

You have to overcome

a lot of force.

So the way you overcome
the force of the atoms,

you get an extremely
energetic environment,

a very hot environment.

The temperature
at the core of our Sun

can reach an astonishing
27 million degrees.

This process of fusion
within the Sun's core

releases vast amounts of energy

that we see and feel
as sunlight,

but does much more.

Sunlight comes in.

It streams down,
it forms plants.

Layers and layers of them
are buried.

They're transformed into very
chemically reactive bonds...

bonds that burn.

And so you produce flame,
you produce heat, light,

the kinds of energy
that we can then transform

to power our society.

The bizarre thing is, of course,
that we can never see energy,

we can never taste energy,
we can't feel it.

The only thing is that
when it is transformed,

it manifests itself
and we see its effects.

The ability to transform
this long-stored energy

is why fossil fuels are
so dominant in our world.

But it is also why
they are a problem

responsible for environmental
degradation and climate change.

And some of our treasures are
also finite and will run out.

So the essential
question today is,

can we find new treasures...

or new ways to use old ones...

so we can continue
to build our world,

but one that will be
cleaner and safer

for future generations?

That is now a key scientific
challenge our world faces.

The good news is that there are
many possible solutions.

First up on everyone's list
is the Sun.

Could it be our greatest
energy treasure?

There's huge potential.

If you look at the numbers,
the amount of solar energy

reaching the surface
of the Earth

is 100,000 terawatts.

And the amount of energy
that civilization is using

for all of its purposes today
is 17 or 18 terawatts.

This makes solar energy
enormously attractive.

Tapping into this attractive
energy source cheaply

is now the goal.

And there is
an unlikely resource

now taking its place
on our list of energy treasures:


Sand is an extremely
unassuming material.

After all, we played with it
as children.

And yet within it is a substance

which has changed
all our lives: silicon.

Sand is silicon and oxygen.

Sella can free the silicon
by putting it in combat

with the element magnesium
that wants oxygen even more.

He then adds heat.

And after a few seconds,

the magnesium becomes hot enough
to react,

and the reaction begins
to spread

all the way through the mixture.

Here it goes.

What we've done is we've freed
the silicon of the oxygen.

Once the test tube is cooled,

what we're left with is
no longer the sand,

but instead a dark and rather
shiny reflective material.

This is the silicon itself.

In its pure crystalline form,

silicon looks more like
a treasure,

but its real value comes
when you shine light on it.

Silicon is what we call

a semiconductor,

and semiconductors don't conduct
electricity all that well

until you shine light on them,

and suddenly the electrons
can move.

And that opens up a whole
universe of possibilities.

These possibilities are now
being mined around the world.

And one of the best places

to see this new treasure
in action is in China

at one of the leading

of silicon-based solar panels:
Trina Solar.

The challenge with solar energy
is bringing down costs,

which is done in part
by increasing the efficiency

of each silicon cell.

The technical innovations here

are focused on increasing
the amount of energy we get

out of the light that hits
a photovoltaic cell.

Zhiqiang Feng, the chief
scientist at Trina Solar,

says over the last five years,
the number of solar panels

has increased globally
on average of 25% a year.

Our main goal is to lower costs
so that we can be competitive

with traditional sources
of energy, like fossil fuels...

maybe become even cheaper.

Only in that way can
photovoltaics become widespread.

The basic science
of photovoltaic technology

is straightforward.

It's been around
since the 1950s.

"Photo" means "light,"

and so when a photon of light
hits a silicon atom,

its energy knocks
an electron loose,

which is then directed
through the silicon

to the thin wires on the cell.

That stream of electrons
is electricity

that can power anything
from your toaster to your TV.

Until recently,

solar energy could not compete
with fossil fuels

because it was expensive.

But that is changing quickly.

There are many ways solar power
is being made more efficient.

Feng gives one example
of how that is happening.

During the manufacturing

metal lines that work as wires

are printed on the surface
of the silicon.

But those metal lines
cannot be made very narrow,

which ends up shading
quite a bit of the solar cells.

So scientists are working

to make the wires thinner
and closer together.

New designs like this make
tiny increases in efficiency

that have a big impact
on lowering costs.

But there is a fundamental
problem with solar energy:

what happens when the sun
doesn't shine?

One of the ironies of energy
is that

it's not so much we're running
out of sources of energy.

We have huge sources of energy.

The Sun is an amazing
source of energy.

But you have to be able
to store it

so that you can use it.

So something like coal
stores chemical energy,

and you can burn it
when you need it.

But what about solar energy?

How do you store that?

In Zhangbei, China, a site
of the 2022 Winter Olympics,

there is
an Olympian effort underway

to address this problem.

This is our Smart Transformer

We make electricity from wind
and from solar energy

on a very large scale.

What is different
about this power station

is that we then store

the excess power in batteries.

It's a simple idea,

but figuring out the best way
to do that is important.

Hanmin Liu is in charge
of this ambitious project,

building the world's largest
rechargeable battery,

not unlike the one
in your cellphone.

In fact, this massive
grid-level technology

comes down to a lot of little
batteries all strung together.

This is one
of our battery panels.

It's made up of a series
of smaller batteries.

We connect all of them together

in order to get a higher voltage
and a higher power.

Here is a sample of one
of the battery packs.

It's the equivalent
to 500 iPhone batteries.

Oh, and it's very heavy!

This one locker contains
21 battery packs,

which is repeated
locker after locker,

row upon row.

And that is just
in this one room.

There are rooms
full of batteries

in all five of these warehouses.

Altogether, right now,

we have 20 megawatts
of battery storage.

20 megawatts is enough to power
7,000 homes for a day.

The idea behind

the Zhangbei National Wind
and Solar Energy Storage Project

is to harness solar
and wind power

and then use this massive array
of batteries

to make up for the periods when
there's no sunshine or wind.

This steady output can be seen
in the Master Control Room.

This is a chart
of our total energy output.

The yellow line shows
the power we generate

from the solar panels,

which of course goes up
during the day.

As you can see here, when
the sun goes behind a cloud,

our power drops up to 20%.

But with the battery on standby,
it can fill those gaps.

So the total output,
which you see

in the top green line,
remains relatively steady.

What we are finding is that
the battery power

needs to be only
a small percentage

of the total output
of the power plant

in order to be effective.

A battery is an amazing device
because what it does,

it provides a source
of electrons.

That's electricity, and it's
just sitting there ready to use.

The way a battery works
is through a chemical reaction.

At its simplest,

a charged battery has one side
crowded with electrons.

The other side
is short of electrons

with a barrier between them.

If you connect a wire
between the two sides,

electrons will flow along it.

That flow of electrons
is electricity.

Now, to make the battery

like the ones here in China,

you need to be able to run
the chemical reaction in reverse

to start the process
all over again.

The reaction can't be reversed
in just any type of battery.

That's where the element lithium
comes in.

You're probably
carrying it around

in your cell phone battery.

The thing that's so neat
about lithium is it's so small.

It's element three.

It's one of the smallest
of all elements.

And so it can move through
channels that other atoms can't.

That gives lithium
a special advantage

in the lithium-ion battery.

This is lithium,

an important treasure
in our modern world.

The reason lithium works so well

is in part because it has
only three electrons.

Its small size
is what we exploit

in a lithium-ion battery.

And then you can recharge it

because the lithium ions
are still there.

You just move them back over
and start over.

This one cabinet
of lithium batteries

could power about one home
for one day.

Then we can recharge it.

This large battery
storage facility,

made up of so many
little batteries,

is now only in its first phase.

The plan is to keep building
until it can store 70 megawatts,

enough to power
tens of thousands of homes

when the sun does not shine.

But Liu says

one of the most important
aspects of this project

is that they are trying out
different types of batteries.

They have old-fashioned ones:

heavy and cheap lead-acid
batteries, like in your car,

two megawatts of more
complicated liquid batteries,

and room after room of small
lithium-ion batteries.

Liu is particularly interested
in trying to figure out

which of these batteries are
cheapest and most reliable...

important considerations,
he says,

if grid-level batteries
are to become

a new storage treasure.

We've spent a lot of money
and a lot of time

building this
battery power station

because we want to use it
as an example

to give society a solution.

You can think of it as a very
big experiment for our future.

All around China today,

there are experiments like
the Zhangbei battery.

One reason is
a critical problem here:

air pollution.

Well, it's a pretty smoggy day
today in Beijing.

You still see these kinds
of days pretty often.

There's really severe
air pollution.

Alvin Lin is a climate
and energy expert in China.

He says that years
of burning coal

have been the major culprit
behind China's bad air,

with devastating consequences.

In China, there's roughly
about 1.6 million

premature deaths per year
caused by air pollution.

China today is a paradox.

It is the world's biggest
carbon polluter,

but at the same time,

China is making
a major investment

in developing non-carbon
energy alternatives.

It now has the largest
domestic capacity

of wind and solar power
of any country.

China's very willing
to try and find solutions.

It looks like they're actually
going to double

their solar capacity
in one single year,

which is a huge amount
of new solar coming online.

Around the world,

new technologies
are being explored

and new energy treasures
are coming online.

Along with solar,

wind power is now the fastest
growing energy source.

Biofuels distilled
from algae and plants

are even beginning to power
some commercial airlines.

But in the global effort
to limit carbon pollution,

there is one treasure
already in use

that is getting a new look.

Nuclear energy,

which supplies about 15%
of worldwide electricity,

does not contribute carbon
to the atmosphere.

It's expensive to build
nuclear power,

and safety issues have made it

But there is a new generation
of nuclear plants

under construction today
that are engineered to be safer.

At its core,

nuclear power simply generates
heat that drives a turbine.

But the source of energy
that drives most nuclear plants

is one of the universe's
most ancient,

stored in the element uranium.

Uranium is one of the oldest
of Earth's treasures,

created in the death of a star,
or a supernova.

Remarkably, that power
can still be seen today

with the naked eye
if you have the right light.

Let's turn the lights off

and take a look
with the backlight here.

Oh, wow!

Look at that!

Taylor Wilson is on the hunt
to find uranium.

Wilson, a nuclear physicist
from the University of Nevada,

designed his first nuclear
reactor at only 14 years old.

So what I'm holding in my hand
is pretty incredible.

This is the uranium ore...
this is the uranium mineral.

And what's happening is

the UV light
from this black light

is exciting the electrons
in the mineral

to give off this beautiful,
beautiful yellow-green color.

Uranium is the most massive
atom found in nature,

containing 92 protons.

As Earth formed,
those heavy atoms

sank deep into the crust
and mantle, out of reach.

Unearthing uranium took
a colossal, earth-shaking event.

23 million years ago,
traces of these atoms

were blown into the atmosphere
and onto this landscape

from a massive super volcano.

This massive amount of hot ash
was deposited on top of bedrock

and completely decimated
the terrain,

and that ash flow
had uranium in it.

Over time,

groundwater concentrated
the uranium into these rocks.

The power that was stored
in the uranium

is what we now unlock
for nuclear energy.

Only a fraction of this rock
is uranium,

but in those uranium nuclei,

there is an incredibly powerful
untapped force.

Radiation emitted from uranium
is what Taylor is measuring.

It results from the large size

and the inherent instability
of the atom.

The unstable atom
releases subatomic particles

from its nucleus,
which you cannot see,

but they are literally leaking
out of this rock right now.

With a little bit of help
from a nuclear physicist,

that invisible reaction
can be revealed.

We're going to start
with some uranium ore,

and we're going to place
this uranium

inside of our cloud chamber

I'm going to pour some methanol
inside the chamber.

Williams uses dry ice and a gas

to create a dense, cold vapor
inside the chamber.

That vapor is just on the edge
of condensing...

so close, in fact,

that any radioactive particles
passing through that vapor

should trigger condensation.

Let's hope this works.

Can we see?


We can actually see tracks
of radiation.

What we're looking at here
are the particles

as they're being emitted
from the uranium as it decays.

Each particle has
what looks like

a white, tiny, fizzing cloud
as its trail,

just like the trail
behind an airplane

that's flying through the sky,

and it's amazing that
we can see it with our own eyes.

Uranium releases energy
slowly and steadily,

like we see in this rock.

This is considered to be benign,
natural radiation.

But the powerful stored energy,

the energy that goes all the way
back to a supernova,

gets released in large amounts

when we split a uranium atom
at a nuclear power plant.

Inside the reactor's core,
a neutron is smashed

into the nucleus
of an unstable uranium atom,

splitting it in two
and triggering a chain reaction.

Successive controlled reactions

unleash the power
long stored in uranium

and generate the heat

in a reactor we use
to make steam.

That steam just turns a turbine
that generates electricity.

The potential of nuclear power
is enormous.

One pound of enriched uranium

has more power than
three million pounds of coal,

and it does not release carbon
dioxide into the atmosphere.

Statistically, nuclear power is
far safer than power from coal.

But it has a big image problem.

It was born
out of weapons research,

and when it goes wrong,
it's on a frightening scale.

A hydrogen explosion
has occurred at unit three

of Japan's stricken
Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant.

But despite the risks

that Fukushima and similar
accidents have revealed,

there's optimism that
nuclear power can become

a safe and environmentally sound
energy treasure.

Certainly Fukushima, Chernobyl,
and of course nuclear weapons

have indicated that nuclear
energy is a bit of a genie

that we've let out
of the bottle.

But if we continue to develop
the energy source,

hopefully... it's my hope...
that we can develop one

that will save us from some big
problems, like climate change.

Considering the implications

of coal and carbon-based fuels,

nuclear energy is
an amazing option.

So as we have a push
for green energy,

nuclear is going to have
a much greater role

than it has in times past.

Our demand for energy
appears unstoppable.

In fact, energy demand

is predicted to triple
by the end of the century.

So there is a desperate need
to explore

all of Earth's treasures
to help find the solutions.

People always are looking

for the technological
magic bullet,

the one thing that if we just
get it right will save us.

There probably is
no silver bullet.

There may be a silver shotgun

in the sense of a wide variety
of advances

which together will solve
a large part of this problem.

Our society fails

without a reliable source
of energy or sources of energy.

We need to find new ways
of doing it.

This is a great opportunity
and challenge for our society.

Across the globe,

the race to find those solutions
is accelerating.

Along with solar, wind,
and new types of nuclear power,

there are many new initiatives.

Off the coast of Denmark,

energy is being captured
from ocean waves.

In Algeria, carbon dioxide

from a natural gas plant
is buried underground

to find ways to clean up
fossil fuels.

And in New York City,
Craig Ivey and his team

are working to change
the electrical grid

by increasing the use
of renewables

and making
a multimillion-dollar investment

in energy conservation.

This is all part
of a global effort

to decrease the use
of carbon-emitting fuels

that are changing our climate

and to find new treasures
of the Earth

to provide the energy
we need going forward.

In the end,

those treasures will help define
who we are as a civilization.

The Bronze Age

is called "the Bronze Age"

because it was the time
in human history

when people discovered
how to use bronze.

As soon as we worked out
how to use coal,

it became one
of Earth's treasures.

When you think about the ages
of human society...

Stone Age, Iron Age, Bronze Age,

Plastic Age...
what are we now?

I'm not sure that
there's going to be a material

where people say that
the modern age

is the "something" age.

We're in the era

of incredible diversity
of materials,

hundreds of thousands
of different materials,

all with their specialized

I think that's what defines
who we are today.

This NOVA program is
available on DVD.

NOVA is also available
for download on iTunes.