This is a piece I wrote for my senior thesis in the theme of a magazine column. Every month, a different science-fiction book/show/film/video game would be analyzed and given a letter grade for energy efficiency. The articles would occasionally relate technology/practices from the sci-fi universes with current or forthcoming technology in ours.
Joss Whedon‘s beloved, if tragically short-lived, series about cowboy-esque space pioneers has a way of seeming pretty believable, even now, nine years after its demise. Firefly is that rare science fiction universe that is new without being unrecognizable. The featured spaceship is populated by people who lack teleportation decks and personal androids. Their technology is futuristic, but not alien, which makes Firefly the perfect show to start our list with.
Serenity, the ship featured on the show, has an engine room that looks like it could belong to a cargo boat a little past its prime (fitting, since that’s exactly what she is…in space). Whedon started with the idea of a rough-and-tumble world on the edge of the galaxy, and he stuck with it. “I seldom come up with any cool inventions,” He said in a Q&A with fans a few years back, “Which is very good for a guy who stopped taking science when he was fifteen.”
We don’t really find out what exactly is getting poured into Serenity’s engine on a regular basis, but we do know what kind of engine she has: A fuel cell. If that sounds familiar, it’s because they already exist.
In the most basic terms, a fuel cell consists of an anode (a negative side) a cathode (a positive side) and an electrolyte (a substance that can conduct electricity) between the two. In general terms, hydrogen atoms enter a fuel cell at the anode. Here, a chemical reaction strips away their electrons, which leaves the hydrogen atoms positively charged. The lost electrons, which carry a negative charge, provide the current that produces work. The electrolyte only allows the positive hydrogen ions through, forcing the electrons through the attached electrical circuit. On the other side (the cathode), the electrons, positive ions, and outside oxygen combine to form water, which drains out of the fuel cell. With a constant source of oxygen and hydrogen, a fuel cell will produce electrical energy with only water as a waste product.
Here’s a tidbit for diehard Browncoats: Fuel cells differ from batteries in that they can only produce electricity as long as they have a constant source of fuel. They can’t store what they produce. Remember “Out of Gas”? In this harrowing episode, a piece of Serenity’s engine breaks. Not a rare occurrence, but for once in the series the mechanic can’t fix it with duct tape and moxie. Captain Mal Reynolds has to send his crew out in shuttles and hope they find help before everyone runs out of power and air. If Serenity is running on a fuel cell, it would make perfect sense that engine trouble would kill the ship’s systems dead within a few hours. Unless they were dragging along some kind of battery, the crew wouldn’t have any way to save up power.
Hydrogen fuel cells are available in cars now, but they only have about 20% efficiency, and prices for the technology are still pretty high. Fuel cells using fuel like diesel can have up to 40% efficiency, but their waste products aren’t as neat and tidy as hydrogen cells.
As for the rest of Firefly’s energy use, it seems to be pretty efficient. In the universe of the show, the known galaxy is divided
between “core planets”, members of the bureaucratic Alliance (a sort of conglomeration between the US and the People’s Republic of China, except with lasers) clustered together, and border or rim planets. The core planets have a suggestion of extremely advanced technology and seem to be free of pollution. Conversely, the border planets are so poor that they have to be conservative, basically living like spaghetti-western cowboys and pioneers. People live off blocks of compressed protein powder and ride horses, so it’s probably safe to say that their energy consumption is pretty low.
What we see in the Border and Rim planets is a great example of forced localization. When resources dwindle (on account of Earth-That-Was getting “used up”), people have to find new resources or just use less of what they’ve already got. One of the easiest ways to accomplish the latter is to downsize, and not just on the individual or household level. By building smaller communities and making work, play, and home very close together, people can redesign modern civilization to allow foot (or horse) travel instead of cars and planes. Space travel exists in Firefly, but most Border planet children have never used it. They live in small, simple communities that can sustain themselves through farming. We’re a long way off from being able to terraform a cluster of solar systems to our liking, but the basic system of Firefly, a few rich cities using alternative energy and many small communities living on small quantities of what we already have, isn’t an unlikely future.