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5 films we learn from (or not) about energy

Often the cinema goes into the difficult terrain of science. There is a bit of everything: from wonderful energy ideas to tremendous “kicks” at the principles of physics. Let’s go over some moments where the celluloid filled with watts.

The seventh art is an inexhaustible source of imagination. These stories that entertain us on Sunday afternoons dare to take on science and, more specifically, energy. Many anecdotes have come about from this cross, some with a certain technological basis and others that are directly ludicrous. Here are a few examples.


Matrix: short-battery humans

Directed by the Wachowski brothers -now Wachowski sisters-, this is the first part of a science fiction trilogy that mixes religion, aesthetics and computers.

The energy ingredient could not be missing from this amalgam: machines as evil as they are intelligent have seized the entire human race to use us as if we were removable batteries. In Matrix, the machines are powered from what we call bioelectricity. In other words, lots of encapsulated human beings used as natural sources of energy.

This theory hobbles, since it is calculated that a human body can generate around 100 or 200 watts per day, of which a large part are necessary for the body to continue living. If we do the maths, we get that the simplest computer needs 300 watts a day for basic operation. Choosing us as a battery would definitely be a bad business.

Iron Man: reality is more useful than sci-fi

Premiered in 2008 and based on the Marvel comics, it has Jon Favreau behind the camera and Robert Downey Jr. in front. The hero is Tony Stark, a sarcastic multimillionaire who invests a small reactor capable of preventing that the shards of shrapnel that he has in his chest from reaching the heart.

This reactor manages to generate 3 GJ/s (=3,000 megawatts per second), sufficient to power three million homes, but Tony Stark decides to use it as the engine of a futuristic armour that allows him to fly, launch lightning rays and other minor details such as repeatedly save the world. Iron Man has been born.

The most incredible thing about this story is that the artefact created by Iron Man could exist in reality. Scientists throughout the world are developing various types of mini-reactors. Their aim is not to create a superhero but to resolve much more practical problems. For example: improve the efficiency of antibiotics and allow surgical operations today impossible.

Or find an inexhaustible source of energy: The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) is researching a new fusion technology that uses rare-earth barium copper oxide (REBCO) superconductors and could provide unlimited energy.


Monstruos S.A: voices that illuminate

The background idea is truly interesting: sound as a source of energy. The main characters belong to Monsters Inc., a company that scares children so that, from their screams, they can obtain energy to power the city of Monstropolis.

In real life, this could be achieved with thermo-acoustic engines. The research in that respect is still too recent but projects have been patented that generate electricity with the same efficiency as a fuel cell.

The process is quite complicated, but to simplify we could say that it is based on the use of heat to produce sound which in turn are used to generate more heat, cooling or power.

Within this initiative we can find Thatea, a European project financed by EU funds the aim of which is to assess the different processes of thermo-acoustic inversion and lead this emerging technology.


Race to the Sun: 1.000 km of solar autonomy

Everybody knows Halle Berry. But only a few people remember that in 1996, together with the comedian James Belushi, she starred in the true story of the Konawaena Institute in Hawaii. Its students won the student category of the Race of the Sun, a solar-powered car competition that every two years travels across Australia from north to south (from Darwin to Adelaide = 3,000 km).

The Race to the Sun continues to be staged nowadays and the latest edition was one by a Dutch team that has patented el Stella Lux, a solar car with autonomy of 1,000 km. It is made from carbon fibre and aluminium, with solar panels on the roof. It has four places, Internet connection and a navigation system that allows the driver to select the most energy efficient route.


The Saint: cold fusion continues to be a hoax

The latest cinematic adaptation of the adventures of the British thief Simon Templar does not come into the category of memorable… although I am sure that Val Kilmer remembers the Razzie Award for the worst actor he won in 1997 for this film.

In it, Templar is hired by a Russian magnate to steal the cold fusion formula, a technique that will allow him to obtain abundant energy at a very low cost, saving Russia from a serious energy crisis.

Does cold fusion really exist? Not at present. Why? Because nuclear power plants and atomic bombs work with fission reactions: uranium or plutonium nuclei which are split to form other smaller nuclei.

The drawback of fusion reactions (not to be confused with fission) is that which occur at very high temperatures (one million degrees) and we still do not have the necessary technology to standardize this procedure safely. So, when the chemists Martin Fleischmann y Stanley Pons announced in 1989 that they had produced cold fusion reactions, the scientific world went crazy.

Like in "The Saint", its discovery opened to door to inexhaustible, clean and very cheap. But after the initial problem, nobody was capable of replicating the process. Fleischmann and Pons disappeared from the map and little more was known about them. It is not known if they wanted to deceive the world or, simply, they deceived themselves.


Bonus Track: "Revolution" and the world without electricity

A bonus for film lovers: "Revolution". This series, produced by J. J. Abrams (creator of “LOST” and the director of the new instalments of “Star Wars”) is set in a post-apocalyptic future. The story starts with these words:

"We lived in an electric world. We relied on it for everything. And then the power went out. Everything stopped working. We weren't prepared. Fear and confusion led to panic. The lucky ones made it out of the cities. The government collapsed. Militias took over, controlling the food supply and stockpiling weapons. We still don't know why the power went out. But we're hopeful someone will come and light the way".

Luckily, the real world is not as dark. If you hate it when the electricity goes out or you have no wifi… forget about science fiction and contract Endesa's OK Luz Maintenance Service. Don’t make up movies in your head, better just to enjoy them.

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