Alternative Energy / Global warming
It seems that today were are facing terrible problems: That of energy, conservation of resources and pollution. It is widely believed that the release of carbon dioxide from burning buried fuels will lead to a catastrophe of global warming. Without an understanding of the physics of energy use and development, and without an understanding of the planet we are presumably damaging, it is impossible for the average person to develop meaningful and relevant opinions on the subject. Tragically, this poor understanding can lead to politically derived 'solutions' that threaten personal freedom in the most severe and frightening ways. In fact, most of the information that is currently passed through the popular media is politically inspired, and not based in science or understanding. It is said that Vladimir Lenin once referred to people that would champion his causes as "useful idiots", because his success in gaining power was his only objective; his fictitious concern for his 'causes' was only to attract his supporters, to be discarded once he was in power. So that history will hopefully not repeat itself in this same fashion, I offer what I hope is a meaningful, but easy to read, easy to understand set of reasoning and information, based in simple physics, that can help educate anyone on this complicated subject.
It is normally not necessary for many of us to know where electric power comes from, or just how an internal combustion engine works, but in these times, with political forces pulling us toward potentially bad decisions, such understanding may become essential. Further, we live primarily in large cities of high population density, so most of us cannot grasp how vast our planet is, and how capable the Earth is of supporting even wildly expanding human activity. As a sailor, a diver, a physicist and an electronics engineer, I have a unique perspective on these things. Believe me, living on a boat and disconnected from the dock, every day is a fight for fresh water, refrigeration, mechanical power and simple basic comforts like heat and air conditioning. For the curious, living on a boat is a constant invention process, adapting nature to suit your energy needs. I am well practiced in this process, and would like to share some of my insights here.
The following information is collected and put into a form that I surely hope is easy to digest. There are few equations, as only simple relationships are required. I will try to provide embedded examples in text form that require only simple math so that hopefully, you can make your own simple calculations from the examples provided. If you're curious, this will be easy and fun.
A force acting through a distance is an example of work. Work requires energy to perform. Let's say we lift a 1 pound weight 1 foot above the surface upon which the weight rests; we have done 1 foot-pound of work, essentially expending 1 foot-pound of energy in the process. Or, if it takes a pound of force to push an object across a resting surface (to overcome friction), and we push the object through a 1 foot distance, we have also done 1 foot-pound of work. In the first case, lifting the weight, the 1 foot-pound of work/energy is recoverable in some form; when the weight is allowed to fall to the resting surface, it is conceivable that some machine can recover the invested energy, almost completely. In the second case, sliding the weight across a surface, the energy is 'lost' as heat into the object and the surface the object was pushed across. Friction causes heat that is usually unrecoverable as useful energy, unless you're trying to start a fire with two sticks, in which case the heat of friction becomes handy!
All objects have mass, which is not exactly the same thing as what we call weight. We make a distinction between the two so that we can calculate, with simple mathematics (addition, subtraction, multiplication and division), the effects of forces acting on masses. Weight is the force of gravity acting on a mass, and is only meaningful on the Earth's surface. In the above first example, the weight of the object is one pound; actually, the pound is not a measure of mass (although we speak of it this way commonly), but a measure of force. In the English system of units (feet, inches, pounds, and so forth), the unit of mass is the slug, which weighs about 32 pounds; the pound is actually a measure of force. The distinction is so that we can compute the energy required to accelerate an object to some required velocity. The slug is defined as that mass that, when acted on with the force of one pound, will accelerate to a velocity of one foot per second, after one second of pushing. The acceleration of masses is very important in understanding energy, and is not all that complicated; a full understanding however, does require concentration and careful thought.
The units of measure we use in science today is based on the MKS system (Meter-Kilogram-Second), not the older English units or the CGS (Centimeter-Gram-Second) system. The MKS system is said to be unified, that is, equations that use these units for computations are simplified, not requiring special constants to obtain correct results. Some simple constants can be used to convert from one system to another: 1 Kilogram weighs 2.2 pounds. The Kilogram is a measure of mass. 1 Newton is a measure of force (MKS), and is equal to gravity acting on 0.103 Kilograms on the Earth's surface. 1 Meter is equal to 39.39 inches, or about 3.28 feet. 1 Kilometer is equal to about 0.62 miles. Both English, CGS and MKS systems can be used in calculations, provided measurement conversions are performed when appropriate. Here, I will use several systems, and convert between them in the process of providing examples.
If a Kilogram mass is pushed with a force of 1 Newton (in a frictionless environment), it will accelerate to a velocity of 1 meter per second, after 1 second of pushing. This is why the unit of force is specially chosen, so that such simple relationships can be quickly calculated. Notice the 'frictionless environment' caveat; it is important to recognize friction when doing experiments that reveal nature. Historically, significant scientific progress was impeded until the effect of friction was properly understood. The one Kilogram mass, pushed with a force of 1 Newton, will have traveled 1/2 Meter in the 1 second period, so the work applied in accelerating the mass will have been 0.5 Newton-Meters, or better said, there is 0.5 Newton-Meters of energy invested in the moving mass.
You might think that you should be able to drive your car on a flat road, and require zero energy to get to your destination; The energy invested in accelerating your car to the travel velocity can somehow be recovered when you decelerate to a stop. This is an excellent thought, and it may be true, but the energy to overcome the friction in the tires flexing against the road surface, the friction of the bearings within the car's machinery, and the friction of the car moving through the air will all far exceed the initial acceleration energy, provided the trip is of any useful length. Further, the trip can be more useful if it takes the shortest time, since we have limited lifetimes and much we wish to do. Since the force to move an object through the air increases with the square of velocity, if we go twice as fast, then we have to push four times as hard against the friction of air. Yes, slower cars would be more efficient, but they would also be less convenient and less useful. Smaller cars, with less weight to deform the tires, and smaller engines to scale down the machinery's friction, and smaller bodies to press against the wind would be more efficient, but less able to carry passengers or cargo.
The expenditure of energy to perform work is not limited to moving masses around or forcing against friction. Chemicals are held together by strong forces that must be overcome to separate their atoms into more useful forms. As an example, sodium and chlorine combine to form common salt, but in doing so, release a large amount of energy in the form of heat which dissipates to the environment. To produce sodium and chlorine from salt (each being very useful materials), the energy that left the initial reaction must be put back into the salt to separate the elements. This is usually done electrically, with electrical energy being converted to chemical energy in the process. Batteries effectively work in this way, with different elements involved. The ability to use electricity to separate molecules into their constituent parts is a form of energy storage, as in the electrical separation of water into hydrogen and oxygen, which can later be re-united (burned).
The basic unit of energy in the MKS system is the watt-second, or Joule (pronounced "jewel"). 1 Newton of force, acting through a distance of 1 Meter requires the expenditure of 1 Joule of energy. Power is the rate of energy expenditure, measured in Watts. A 100 Watt light bulb consumes 100 Joules of energy each second, heating the filament to a high temperature so it can emit light and inevitably, heat. A Kilowatt hour would then equal 1000 Watts times 3600 seconds per hour, or 3.6 million joules of energy.
Heat is a form of energy that can be conducted to an object, increasing its temperature. The calorie is a unit of heat measurement, the amount of heat that is required to raise the temperature of 1 gram of water by 1°C. A calorie is also equal to about 4.18 Joules. In time, all objects within a closed system (insulated from the surroundings) will acquire the same temperature, as heat is radiated by all objects, depending on their temperature; hotter objects radiate heat more readily, cooler objects less so. All objects within a closed system are simultaneously radiating and absorbing heat until they all come into thermal equilibrium, at the same temperature. Most energy transfers, between electrical, chemical and mechanical energy sources and destinations involve some degree of energy loss, which inevitably is revealed as heat.
In the opening description of the lifting and the sliding of weights, we consider energy in two primary ways: Potential and kinetic. Potential energy is that which the lifted weight possesses; it can release it's energy as it is allowed to fall to the resting surface. Water at the edge of a fall has potential energy, only to be harnessed when falling through a turbine that is connected to say, an electric generator. The mass that was accelerated to 1 meter per second however, has kinetic energy, in that work can be done by it as it is brought to a stop (think hammering a nail).
A pendulum is an example of an oscillating motion driven by the exchange between these two types of energy. If one were to push the pendulum to one side, the pendulum's mass would be slightly raised, providing it with potential energy. As the pendulum swings down to it's resting position, the potential energy is lost to accelerating the mass, which, as the pendulum continues on it's path, transfers this kinetic energy to potential again. Such interchanges of energy form are never perfect; air friction and mechanical losses in the pendulum's support will eventually cause the initially supplied energy to be lost as heat. There are no perfect machines, and certainly no perpetual ones (machines that produce more energy than they consume).
Finally, a horsepower is equal to about 746 watts, or 550 foot-pounds per second. With the exception of a few constants concerning thermal conductivity and friction, or perhaps heats of combustion (which can be searched out), you should be able to start making energy engineering calculations.
The measurement of physical values and the according manipulation of numbers allows us to calculate the effects of energy transfer from the very small, on the atomic level, to the vast, on the scale of the entire planet. Because the numbers involved can be tiny or huge, it becomes cumbersome to use numbers like 3,600,000 Joules/Kilowatt hour. Some numbers are extremely small, for example the mass of a hydrogen atom is about 0.000000000000000000000000000016 Kilograms.
We are familiar with large numbers expressed in thousands, millions, billions or trillions, with prefixes like kilo, mega, giga, tera and so forth, and small numbers with prefixes like milli, micro, nano, and so forth, but to easily define either larger or smaller numbers, we use the system of scientific notation. We recognize that our measurements have limited accuracy, perhaps to only to 3 or 4 decimal places, and that most of a large number will be composed of following zeros, or in the case of tiny numbers, a decimal point and many leading zeros. These numbers can be expressed as a reasonably defined number that contains the value to a limited accuracy, and a multiplier which effectively shifts the decimal point of the number to get rid of the leading or following zeros. Since 10 to the power of 1 equals 10, but 10 to the power of 2 is 100 (10 squared), then 10 to the power of 0 would be 1. Using the idea of 10 to a power (effectively 10 times itself so many times..), we can expand numbers to the very large or the very small.
In scientific notation, a number like 3,600,000 is simplified to 3.6e6. The e separates the meaningful value (called the mantissa) from the multiplier, and stands for exponent. In this case, 3.6e6 expands to 3,600,000 by shifting the decimal point in the 3.6 value by 6 places to the right. Small numbers, like the mass of a hydrogen atom would be expressed with a negative exponent value, becoming 1.6e-28, meaning that the decimal point of the 1.6 value should be shifted to the left by 28 decimal places.
Scientific notation numbers are usually multiplied or divided, but rarely added or subtracted. Clearly, adding a small number, like 1e-20 to a much larger number, like 3.6e6, will not change the larger number by any meaningful amount. To add numbers in scientific notation, we need to change one of the numbers so that both have the same exponent value. 3.6e6 could also be written as 36e5 or 360e4, or for that matter, 0.36e7. To multiply numbers, we multiply the mantissa portions, and add the exponent portions. Division is similar, dividing the mantissa values, and subtracting the exponent values. As an example, 800 (8e2) divided by 20(2e1) equals 40(4e1).
With scientific notation, calculations of extreme numbers (all with limited accuracy) can be manipulated in your head, at least roughly, without the benefit of pen and paper.
As each generation passes on to the next, we become increasingly distant from our ancestors' time; imagining the rather harsh reality of living without electricity, automobiles, plastics, cheap food, medicines and so forth becomes increasingly difficult. So much of what we now consider modern living is the direct result of harnessing nature's abundant energy resources. Armed with the machines of industry, a single person can control the sawing of a tree into usable shapes, with great precision, in an extremely short time, provided the machine is powered sufficiently to overcome the friction of sawing. For individuals armed with hand saws, the job would be extremely time consuming and the quality of the resulting product would be unacceptably poor by modern standards. Also, many people would be involved in the timber industry, leaving fewer for such things as growing food or writing software.
We take automobiles for granted; perhaps a bicycle would suffice to go to the store, but wouldn't be so convenient carrying back a week's worth of food for a family of four, or making a trip to the lumber yard! In the winter, it would be an uncomfortable trip as well. Overcoming the inconveniences of life requires energy to be expended; whether we're removing the heat from the air in our homes on a summer day, or providing heat in the winter, or investing energy into minerals, overcoming the energy that holds the atoms into otherwise rather useless rocks, to provide cement for building or fertilizer with which to grow our food. Humans have only been able to develop technologically through the expenditure of energy; essentially providing the force of work against nature. Our harnessing of energy has led to a world where fewer people are required to provide the essential basics of life, like growing food, and freed a huge section of the population to forge forward with technological developments in physics, chemistry, medicine, entertainment and so forth.
For thousands of years, humans have lived in agrarian societies, with the vast majority of the population being required to work simply to supply food for themselves and their masters. Provided sufficient abundance, those few governors (kings, emperors) would be able to employ a small part of the society for defense of the nation or research into new methods of doing things. Man lived in this fashion for thousands of years, making only tiny improvements in technology. Once the technology became sufficient to produce food more efficiently, more people would dedicate themselves to improving the technology yet further. Over the last 150 years, a tiny fraction of man's recorded history, there has been an explosion of prosperity. In this context, prosperity could be defined as the number of people freed from the chore of producing food, and available to do other things.
Perhaps the most important moment in agricultural history was the invention of a process to produce ammonia (very important fertilizer component) from the nitrogen in air and the hydrogen from natural gas, performed at very high temperatures and pressures. This was done in Germany by Fritz Haber around 1910. Although excellent as a fertilizer, ammonia can also be oxidized to nitric acid, an essential component of explosives, which quickly led to WWI and WWII. Although war is not desirable, the abundance of food is. The rapid development of chemistry led to yet more effective fertilizers and insecticides and the use of the internal combustion engine allowed a single person to plow or harvest a field in a fraction of the time that would be required without these tools. The "greening of the planet" through these technologies caused an abrupt increase in human prosperity that continues today.
If the jump from agriculture to technology had failed to take place, if we lived as our great-great-great-great grandparents did, we would be born into a family of perhaps 6 children, only 3 of which survived childhood, and would expect to live to an age of perhaps 50. Our modern technology, fueled by the harnessing of energy, has completely changed the way we live.
Earth is a planet in continuous dynamic change. We often like to think of it in terms of pastoral scenes, gentle meadows with tall trees, clear skies and cool lakes, with snow-capped mountains set peacefully in the background. In fact, these are the nice days! The atmosphere about the planet, interacting with the oceans and the land areas that are heated by the sun during the day, and radiate heat out to the universe at night, causes a continuously changing, highly dynamic process. Although the atmosphere is extremely thin, compared to the dimensions of Earth, it is an enormous quantity of gas; let's work out just how much...
We know that the air pressure at sea level is 14.7 pounds per square inch, so we can imagine that a column of air rising from the earth's surface out into space, that's 1 inch square, would weigh 14.7 pounds. If we can calculate the area of the earth's surface (in square inches), we can then calculate the mass of the entire atmosphere. We know that the surface area of a sphere is the radius squared, times 4, times the number Pi. The diameter of Earth is about 8000 miles, which makes it's radius 4,000 miles (4e3 miles). The radius squared gives us 16e6, times 4 gives us 64e6, and times Pi (3.14), gives us about 200e6, or 200 million square miles. To convert to square inches, we know there are 5280 feet in a mile, and 12 inches in a foot, or 144 square inches in a square foot (12 times 12). 5.28e3 squared is about 28e6, or 28 million square feet in a square mile. This, times the 200e6 square miles of the earth's surface gives us 5.6e15 square feet of Earth-surface, and times 144 square inches per square foot gives us an Earth surface area of 805e15 square inches. This, times the atmospheric pressure finally gives us an atmospheric mass weighing about 11.85e18 pounds, or about 5.4e18 Kilograms of mass. Changing back out of scientific notation, that's about 5 million-trillion Kilograms (or 5 billion-billon, same thing).
This is an unfathomable number, useless without some comparison that brings the value into perspective. It is easy to be overwhelmed by such large numbers, as they are certainly impressive, but we can make calculations that bring the enormity of it all down to a reasonable understanding. As an example, the CO2 content of the atmosphere is about 380 parts per million, or 3.8e-4 of the atmospheric mass (0.038%). Multiplying by our calculated atmospheric mass, we get about 2e15 Kg of CO2. Since a metric ton is 1000Kg, this becomes about 2e12, or 2 trillion tons. Still an enormous number, let's compare this to the CO2 put into our atmosphere by burning buried fuels, which is estimated to be about 24e9 tons per year. Dividing by the total atmospheric content of CO2, we get about 1.2%, or 1 part in about 83, which is a number that we can grasp! We can calculate then, that our current lifestyle adds a little over 1% to the atmosphere's existing CO2 content, every year. What we cannot easily calculate however, is whether or how the Earth absorbs this CO2 over time.
The power of the sun's light falling onto the earth's surface, at the equator, at high noon, is very nearly 1,000 watts per square meter. The area of the Earth, as sunlight falls onto it, can be simplified to the area of a disk that is 8,000 miles (13,000Km) in diameter. The area of a circular disk that represents the Earth for the purpose of calculating solar heating would be the radius squared, times Pi. Squaring half of the diameter (radius = 6.5e3 Km) gives us 42.25e6, and times Pi gives us about 133e6 square Km. Since there are 1e6 square meters in a square Km, the surface of the earth exposed to solar radiation is then about 133e12 square meters, and at a solar constant of 1Kw/sq Meter, the earth is constantly receiving about 133e15 kilowatts of solar power, and simultaneously radiating that same amount back into space.
Of course, the Earth rotates on its axis, so any given point (near the equator) is heating for 12 hours and then cooling for 12 hours, each day. If the heat absorbed from the sun during the day is not radiated back out into space, then the planet will be continuously increasing in temperature. In fact, a balance is established between energy absorption during the day, and energy release at night, which stabilizes the Earth's temperature. The temperature of the Earth is that which is required for the incoming solar energy to exactly equal the continuous heat radiation back out into space. If the Earth heats up, it will radiate more heat; if it cools, then it will radiate less heat. The temperature of the Earth is therefore stable, but very much dependent on the amount of solar energy it receives from the sun, and its ability to radiate thermal energy out into space.
Certain gasses in the atmosphere have the ability to absorb certain 'colors' of heat energy, most notably CO2 and nitrogen oxides. It can be imagined that the presence of these gasses in our atmosphere could 'shield' the Earth, forming an insulating blanket that inhibits some of the outgoing heat radiation. One could also imagine that these gasses would also shield solar radiation from the sun, but this is not necessarily so: The 'colors' of energy from the sun are primarily at shorter wavelengths (light), not so much effected by CO2 and nitrogen oxides. Further, the sun illuminates only one side of the Earth at a given instant, while the radiation process that cools the planet is directed outward in all directions simultaneously. The filtering of radiated heat energy by 'greenhouse gasses' forms the basis of what we popularly refer to as the 'greenhouse' effect. Water vapor is the primary greenhouse gas, filtering a broad band of radiated energy, while carbon dioxide filters out a relatively narrow band. In fact, even small amounts of carbon dioxide filter out a specific band, almost completely; atmospheric increases in carbon dioxide only slightly widen such bands, only slightly contributing to the 'greenhouse effect'.
Most people have noticed that clear skies at night usually lead to a rapid temperature drop when the Sun sets, as though cloud cover inhibits the radiation of heat, a blanket if you will. Also, that cloudy days tend to be a bit cooler than clear-sky days. Despite the predictions about carbon dioxide and the Earth's temperature, changes in cloud cover can have a huge impact on the equilibrium, and we simply don't know the details of this dynamic yet.
By the way, the thermal radiation constant is K times 5.67e-12 Watts per square cm, per degree Kelvin to the fourth power, where K is a value between 0 (shiny metallic surface) and 1 (dull black surface). (273°K=0°C). If you work this out with K=1, the average temperature of the Earth would be about -15°C, which is about 30 degrees lower than the actual average temperature; this is because of the Earth's surface emission coefficient (K) is actually somewhat less than 1, more like 0.6, perhaps as a result of partial cloud cover or natural greenhouse gasses. Also, only solids and liquids emit heat in this way; gasses do not.
As with most things, the Earth is in a dynamic equilibrium. Some examples of static equilibrium would be the centripetal force that tends to make the Earth fly out of its solar orbit, exactly balanced by the gravitational attraction of the Sun, keeping the planet in a precise orbital equilibrium. The thermal stability of the Earth is a balance between incoming solar radiation and outgoing heat radiation, an equilibrium condition. However, on a smaller scale, simply because the earth rotates, and is constantly heating and cooling at the local level, the Earth is engaged in a set of highly dynamic processes that create weather and ocean currents that are also highly unpredictable. We may be able to make weather forecasts a day or so into the future, but past a week, the changes in weather cannot be known. This is because of the enormous energy that is absorbed and radiated on a daily basis, the effects of the Moon (tides), even tiny changes in conditions that influence ocean currents and so forth. Most of these processes are non-linear to some degree, (remember the wind resistance in our car was the square of velocity?) and are therefore subject to a strange phenomenon termed chaos. Chaotic processes (which are abundant on our planet) are only predictable to the extent that we can say things will change, but we are really helpless to determine in which way.
Chaotic processes are actually precisely predictable, but to do so, we would need to measure and quantify the system's condition, to infinite accuracy. Chaotic processes are only seen to be unpredictable because even crude measurements are difficult, and infinitely precise measurements are impossible.
To imagine the unpredictability of natural processes, think of standing a pencil on it's sharp end. You know, if you let go of it when it's obviously standing at an angle, which way it will fall. If however, it is standing just as straight up as possible (as close as you can measure), you won't be able to determine which way it will fall. Conditions like this occur every day with the weather, just like the pencil standing on end. You know something is going to happen, but you don't know if it will result in a sunny day or a hurricane!
For a great demonstration of chaos, done with a simple pocket calculator, click here.
So, we have a situation on Earth that is a background of a basically stable equilibrium, on top of which is laid a chaotic, dynamic turbulence on a much smaller scale. To us, we expect the Sun to rise every day, and set every night, but are surprised when a tornado strikes. In fact, on our scale of size, the tornado is monstrously powerful, but only because it is local and obvious; in fact, the energy of the tornado is a tiny fraction of the dynamic energy exchange that goes on every day without notice!
It is interesting to consider the extremely small amount of CO2 in our atmosphere. At 0.038%, CO2 is far less prevalent than oxygen at some 20%; this is a ratio of some 526 to 1. Why would a gas that is naturally given off from living animals and decaying life matter be so scarce? With a high proportion of oxygen in the atmosphere, and flammable materials abundant in nature, why wouldn't forest fires turn the atmosphere to nitrogen and CO2, greatly reducing the oxygen level, in a very short time? Why does the equilibrium of oxygen, carbon and CO2 so heavily favor oxygen? It would appear that this is because the CO2 is constantly being used by plants, that rely on CO2 for their livelihood, and give off oxygen in the process! In fact, plants are so adapted to such low levels of CO2 that they will compete to absorb the gas until it is at such low levels that it is extremely scarce. It is not known the effects plant life will have on making use of the CO2 that industry produces. It may be (but is not known as a certainty), that our planet may become yet 'greener' as a result of our freeing carbon from the Earth, putting it back into the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide is commonly referred to (accurately) as plant food!
Although we may calculate the mass of our atmosphere easily, simply because we have measured the air pressure at sea level and we know the rough dimensions of the planet, measuring the oceans is a very different matter. For this, we must carefully map out the ocean depths at each point around the globe, and add up all of the measurements. The oceans are vast, unimaginably so to the city-dweller. You go to the beach and admire the waves, look off into the distance, imagine what's beyond the horizon; in fact, in most cases, it's just a lot more ocean.
Measurements indicate that the Earth's oceans constitute about 1.4e21 Kg of salt water. This makes the oceans of the world (our hydrosphere) some 260 times the mass of the atmosphere (1.4e21 / 5.4e18). Carbon dioxide is quite soluble in water, depending on temperature. At 20°C, 1 Kg of saltwater can contain about 1.8 grams (0.0018Kg) of CO2, while at freezing temperatures, the amount is about twice this value, about 3.6g/Kg. It is also thought that the deepest parts of the ocean, under high pressure, have yet a higher capacity to dissolve CO2, as a hydrate (combined with water into a solid). The total amount of CO2 in our oceans can be approximated to be about 1.4e17 Kg. With the atmospheric CO2 at approximately 2e15 Kg, the oceans contain the bulk of free CO2, some 70 times as much as the atmosphere, but possibly much more, depending on the presence of undiscovered hydrates.
The oceans can contain much more carbon dioxide, and if fully saturated, would hold about twenty times as much as today, but this will mean the oceans would become more acidic, potentially affecting ocean life. Further, carbon dioxide, disolved in water, form carbonic acid, which can combine with certain natural metal oxides to form carbonates, like the carbonate rock limestone. The oceans constitute a huge 'sink' for carbon dioxide, but surely ocean changes will occur in the process; the small changes that would affect ocean life forms in the process is simply not known. Surely, if we are to consider the effects of CO2 on the dynamics of the planet, we must consider the oceans.
Because CO2 solubility in water is very much dependent on temperature, if the oceans warm, they will release carbon dioxide, as it is no longer soluble at higher temperatures. Since the oceans contain such a vast amount of CO2, it puts our contribution from the burning of buried fuels into perspective: If man is producing 24e12 Kg of CO2 every year, this is only about 56 parts of man-generated CO2 for every million parts of CO2 in the ocean. Anyone that has been far offshore on a small boat knows intuitively how dramatic the seas are, how vast, powerful and deep. It is no surprise to me that, despite what would seem to be a terrible pollution problem (while stuck in traffic on the freeway), is but a drop in a bucket on a global scale. We would have to burn fossil fuels for 20,000 years to generate as much free carbon dioxide as is currently contained in the oceans, from what we know of the oceans today.
With the vast majority of CO2 dissolved in our oceans, and recognizing that the solubility of CO2 is very much dependent on ocean temperature, one potential threat to humanity may be the warming of the oceans, which would lead to a potentially drastic increase in atmospheric CO2 levels. Further, the amount of CO2 at the very deepest parts of the ocean are difficult to assay; we simply don't know how much could be there, in hydrate form. Further, it is not known whether increased levels of CO2 actually pose a threat to anyone; it may be that plants will thrive and provide a more available food supply! On the other hand, a brief temperature rise, or a drastic change in ocean currents could cause a release of CO2 that would cause atmospheric levels to be extremely high, but by the look of it, would have little to do with man's contribution. We live on a dynamic planet that is involved in an energy exchange far beyond that of human activities.
One interesting thing appears from the historical record: That increases in global temperature are responsible for increases in CO2 concentration, not the other way around. That is, the oceans seem to release CO2 when the planet warms, but there is no direct evidence that the planet warms from increased CO2 levels, only a theory that this could be so to some extent. If the latter were true, then the planet would be critically unstable. If a slight increase in temperature led to increased CO2 levels, and the increased CO2 levels led to further temperature rise, then there would be an historical record of extreme variations in planet temperature, an entirely natural consequence of the Earth's dynamism. There are in fact, such historical records, as the planet seems to go through cycles of ice ages and drought spells, indicating a longer-term weather variation pattern that we do not see in our relatively short lives.
Finally, such drastic temperature changes are, from the records we have been able to develop, entirely natural. It my be that we have, in very recent history, seen relatively calm conditions, which is not the natural norm for living on this dynamic planet Earth. Does anyone remember the 'dust bowl' of extreme drought in the 1930s? -Probably not, for only the oldest in our population lived through it. Most of us haven't even learned about it.
The really terrible part of the 'global climate change' hoax is that carbon dioxide is really not a greenhouse gas. The truth is that CO2 in the atmosphere does absorb and therefore keep heat from radiating into space, but the terrible secret is that even the amount in our atmosphere 1000 years ago had that virtually identical property, and additional amounts have caused little additional 'greenhouse' effect.
So, you really can say that CO2 is a greenhouse gas, but you can't say that more CO2 will lead to greater 'global warming'. Unfortunately, This little detail is lost on those not curious enough to grasp the details.
Further, water vapor is a powerful 'global warmer', but we are hardly in a position to legislate changes in that. In fact, we can easily imagine that variations in water vapor cause temperature changes, albeit slight. Heating of the planet probably causes a greater amount of water in the atmosphere, which leads to slightly greater warming, but this does not mean we can see huge temperature changes as a result. We are given to believe that slight changes in atmospheric content lead to disastrous climate changes, but that's just not the case. Our planet is constantly changed by instabilities like this; we call it the weather!
The real 'heavy lifting' in our industrialized societies is done by the burning of petroleum and coal, supplemented by nuclear reactors. These are entirely adequate fuel sources, provided the raw materials continue to be available, and that byproducts of their use (pollution) do not present a problem. In addition, we have hydroelectric power, perhaps the only clean and renewable source in the bunch. So, one may ask: "Why do we need alternatives?".
50 years ago, it was predicted that the world would have run completely out of petroleum reserves by now, and we all would be in desperate chaos. Today, we say exactly the same thing. As technology becomes available to find new petroleum reserves, and to drill to yet greater depths to tap them, there is no realistic end in sight for petroleum as a fuel; at least, we have no way to even roughly predict when such a time would come. On top of this, there are huge coal reserves throughout the world that far exceed petroleum as a fuel source, available for a very long time into the future. All of this is of course provided that it is politically feasible to continue drilling for oil or mining and burning coal...
I like to think of alternative energy sources as a technological challenge (purely for the sport of it), or perhaps to discover a means of powering my laptop without a charger. In other words, I don't take it very seriously... But, it can be a source of fun thinking.
For me, I was the kid being told in school that our oil reserves would run out by 2000, which seemed at the time to be a very long way off into the distant future. I wasn't so concerned about not having fuel for a car, probably because I was just a kid, far from getting my driver's license; no, I was worried about the loss of petrochemical feedstock for the production of plastics and chemicals. With microbiology as one of my hobbies, I would dream of huge 'plankton farms', plastic covered troughs that would cover square miles of well-lit desert, through which a carefully controlled stream of water would flow; the organisms would multiply, and be filtered out to be 'refined' into useful stuff. I would consider how to control saprophytic organisms that would threaten the desired population, and nutrients that could be recycled. My biggest problem was getting carbon dioxide out of the air, and into the water, as this precious, rare substance was the essence of life for my slave organisms!
The basic fact of the matter is that alternative energy, in the form of wind power or solar power, is really alternative lifestyle instead. On the scale that these power sources are suggested, it is not possible to continue our way of life, as all of these technologies (as practiced today) are 'puny-lifters' at best. The notion of a solar powered car is beyond absurd. For an average sized car, in full sunlight, high noon, at the equator, not a cloud in the sky, completely covered in solar cells, all running at 100% efficiency, would deliver no more than about 12 horsepower, which would limit the top speed to maybe 35MPH (with a tailwind). It would have a really hard time climbing a hill, and when the sun goes down? Yes, there are examples of solar powered experiments, aren't they cute? Hardly a practical machine, even if the technology could run at 100% efficiency, and so far, 10% is about the best we can get from commercial solar cells.
Hydrogen power sounds great, but hydrogen does not free itself from oxygen without putting in at least as much energy as you get out when you burn it. The cheapest hydrogen comes from decomposing oil or coal with water, which produces hydrogen and carbon dioxide, essentially taking half of the energy out of the fuel before using it in your car, and putting all of the CO2 of the fuel into the atmosphere. If the hydrogen plan is to electrolyze water at a nuclear reactor site, then I'm all for it, but do you believe there will be many more nuclear plants built? The hydrogen idea is one that simply redirects your thinking, grabs your attention and is intended to gather poorly informed 'believers', not to actually solve a problem.
With the exception of those that dream of fusion power, I'd say that most alternative energy advocates are confused and angry, or perhaps so angry that they are confused by their anger. Some feel left behind, technologically or financially, and would love to see the rest of the world simply slow down, or stop, or even go backwards, with no understanding of what the modern world has put forward to offer them. Nonetheless, alternative energy is an interesting subject, so let's give it a whirl:
The Earth is a gigantic dynamo in terms of energy flow. The Sun is delivering to our planet some 133e15 Kilowatts of power, continuously, which is then radiated out into space; gone. That is one enormous amount of power; hey, how do we get in on the action? Well, surely hydroelectric power is a start: Sun heats ocean, water evaporates, vapor condenses over mountain, rain falls, collects in high lake, falls over dam through electric generators. Result: abundant power for all. Problem is, you have to take real control of the planet to make that happen. Very large hydroelectric projects are expensive, both financially and politically. Huge populations must be displaced to create an artificial lake; this can only happen in a place like Mainland China, where folks don't get to complain, or at least effectively so. In a 'free' country (now defined as one where the most aggrieved complainer gets to limit other's freedoms), such a project is flatly impossible. OK, there must be other ways...
No, in fact, there aren't. Come to think of it, to tap into the dynamo of Earth will, in every case, require significant engineering, on a very large scale, and the 'free' societies, the very ones that demand such things so loudly, will not permit it... Huh.
Ok, let's go the 'renewable' route: Grow stuff, and process it into fuel. No, not corn into ethanol, that's way too expensive. Traditional, but inefficient, as much of the energy is lost in the process, and ethanol is poisonous to drink (but I rather like it), and its too soluble in water (won't burn if it gets wet). A better solution would be an oilseed bearing plant, easily harvested, or a process for dehydrating the sugars and starches of plant material into more carbonaceous material (higher energy content per weight), but this will require a hydrogen source. This may be an excellent application of emerging technology in gene splicing; a plant that is easily harvested, grows all year long (in tropical climates), and is rich in fatty triglycerides. Franken-fuel. (Keep the farm fire extinguishers at the ready).
It is instructive to tour an old sugar plantation. Locomotive tracks are laid through the field so that harvesting can be done most easily. At the end of the tracks is the processing plant. I'll bet there are many places in the world where this kind of thing could be done, and the local population would be very appreciative, at least until they reach the status of being truly 'free'.
The problem with growing plants is that it takes time. Carbon dioxide is scarce, and plants take a long time to acquire it, and mix it with the sun's energy to synthesize useful materials. We're in too much of a hurry to wait around. Anyhow, it just seems too agrarian, too much like an old technology, retro if you will; we need something more 'pop', modern, advanced, technological. After all, this new energy problem needs to be marketed to the population without objection, it needs a fashion component for everyone to get behind...
Which leads me to:
A magic solution is one that really doesn't solve a problem, but does pretend to, or is a proposed solution to an invented, non-existent problem, otherwise called a condition. It is an illusion put forward by any number of participants; those in search of ignorant investors, of ignorant supporters, or just ignorant believers for the purpose of self-aggrandizement. Notice the common element in this short list. Magic is the promise, strongly depending on man's inevitable tendency toward belief.
Belief is knowledge that cannot be proven.
The strength of a belief varies in direct proportion with its absurdity.
Those that hold strong beliefs will avoid information that would conflict with their beliefs, as this has become a part of their self identity.
This is a dangerous combination of the nature of man and the nature of other men. When it comes to alternative energy, or conservation, or greenhouse gasses or global warming, belief is at the heart of the issue, because most of the ideas involved cannot be proven, one way or the other, and may not ever be proven. Normally, when we cannot say with certainty what something really is, we investigate further and refrain from making any decision until we can prove that an action will lead to a desired outcome, particularly if the stakes are high. Notice however, that this is not the case when it comes to the alternative energy/global warming debate (as though debate is more valuable than research), which for many is a closed case, not requiring further inquiry; in fact, denying further inquiry. Witch-burning comes to mind, but also monkeys in control of a nuclear reactor...
The tragedy is that tremendous political power can be derived from this mechanism. For Lenin's useful idiots, I wonder how long it took for them to realize that it was all a sham... Perhaps they were able to carry their belief with them to their graves. For their sake, I can only hope so. Mao did it similarly; 15 years after the Communist Revolution, with China in terrible shape from the new Communist system, it was decided that China wasn't Communist enough, which brought on the devastating Cultural Revolution.
Belief is necessary, as there are few things that can be really known with high certainty, but blind belief can be a very scary thing.
So far, we have only heard voices of dissent, decrying the use of energy that is not 'renewable', and demanding that something be done about it. The fact is, the only things that can be done will either destroy our way of life, or harshly limit our freedoms. In any case, any changes in our lifestyle will not be welcomed by the population, and will require the iron-fisted force of not just local governments, but to truly be effective, a one-world totalitarian state. Which is just fine, if that's to your liking, and especially if you're invited to be one of the 'masters'!
The prosperity known to the western world is, through the benefit of free trade and significant energy utilization, spreading around the globe. Where once only a few countries were the primary users of energy, we are now coming upon a time when energy use will increase dramatically, bringing potentially billions of people out of poverty. Where this was once every humanitarian's dream, it has become a potential global warming catastrophe.
There is perhaps some value in reducing one's use of energy, if for no reason other than to feel like a better 'global citizen', which is a popular notion, but rarely practiced. And for good reason: reductions in energy use are painful, and if not significant, are of no real value. There is no end to the government imposed restrictions that are possible, all with the good intention of reducing energy usage, all restricting our freedom, forcefully distributing inconvenience into our lives, with no effect but to only slightly slow the rate of increase of carbon dioxide production. As the world develops, anything short of the complete annihilation of the world's populations will have little effect globally.
Those brave scientists that pursue cold fusion (or hey, even HOT fusion for all I care!), this may hold promise for the future, but we will need to dig yet deeper into science to crack that nut. I cannot even begin to comment on the subject, other than to say that if it can be done efficiently, we will have a yet more wonderful world to argue about!
Global warming though, now there's something to think about...
What do we know? The global temperature has risen, slightly, less than a degree in the last century, and that CO2 in the atmosphere has increased an impressing 40% over that same time. There is no way of proving that man is responsible for this, and yet further, would we abandon our living standard because of an unproven possibility? Should we abandon our comforts and conveniences even if it could be proved that man's activities were entirely responsible? I would like to suggest that for freedom loving people, well, ...no. It really doesn't matter if the Earth is warming, or carbon dioxide levels are rising, or whether man is the cause. In any case, we will have to adapt to the situation, as humans always have. After all, we survived through an ice age...
If we can imagine terraforming Mars, completely changing an entire planet from it's 'pristine' present condition, why can't we accept that changes to our planet are inevitable, and simply choose to cope with the situation? A hurricane wipes out an entire city, and we rebuild it. We think of this as a natural event with no one to blame; I suggest the city was a natural event too, built by humans in not so much a different way than beavers build a dam. I am struck by how we can live in a dynamic world, constantly changing, and yet believe that a static and unchanging environment, untouched by man, is somehow 'natural'.
It is however, the responsibility of the governments of free people to provide services that individuals cannot, like a military defensive force, a sensible, uniform and effective legal system, a trash collection service, the regulation of critical utilities and so forth, leaving people to do what they wish. In a free and rational society, the government is empowered by the people to serve the people, not tell them how to change their behavior for their own good. People decide what is good or bad for themselves, and outside of outright coercion or fraud between citizens, do not need help in managing their free will. With this in mind, I have a few suggestions about government involvement, but first, a necessary side-note:
Idealism is a well-intentioned but unrealistic worldview.
If people enjoy the freedom of driving their own automobiles, then build more freeways. That is one of the the government's responsibilities. People cannot do this for themselves. Telling them to change their thinking, perhaps to make use of an inconvenient mass-transit system will not do. Such suggestions however, are always welcomed, for they can be easily ignored.
If petroleum is a required resource to satisfy the society's needs, then do not stand in the way of exploration and drilling, it should be the government's responsibility to actually help in the process, or at least get out of the way of companies that can do these things well.
If garbage disposal is a problem, then fix it. If it is decided that trash must be recycled, then the government should create special facilities to do exactly that, professionally; distributing the responsibility of trash separation to each individual is a ridiculous waste of time, never done well, and extremely inefficient in general. If the population wants to throw stuff away, then find a way to accommodate them without simultaneously inconveniencing them. And please, stop that crap about not throwing away a dead computer, deal with it, it's your job. Government is the servant, remember?
Water is a completely renewable resource, and technology exists for extracting it, even from seawater at a reasonable cost to any modern society. Do not tell people how much water to use, but of course charge them for every drop they do use. Let them decide if lowering their water usage is in their best interest. The cost should be exactly equal to the production and distribution cost, no more and no less. Governments are non-profit organizations that have as their only mission to serve the people. If huge desalination plants are required to meet the need, then build them.
The same goes for the sewer system. If sewage treatment for an industrial company is burdensome for the sewage treatment plant, then arrive at a reasonable surcharge for difficult-to-treat wastewater, do not simply, out of convenience, place strict and unreasonable rules universally on wastewater discharge. Work with businesses, they are engaged in commerce that is your primary lifeblood! I only mention this because at present, local governments treat businesses as some kind of enemy... Weird.
Allow citizens to be responsible for their own safety, but thank you for your concern. You have no business telling adults to wear seat belts while driving their cars or kids to wear helmets while riding their bikes. Pay for (or even steal if you must) media airtime to warn us of these dangers we are already aware of, because government public service announcements (PSA) are always good for a laugh, and I miss them.
Please get out of the charity business, because, quite honestly, you're not so good at it. Most of us recognize that the severely disadvantaged are in fact, like our children, and we really are willing to help. And when it comes to able bodied people, please stop giving them money, and find a way to help them find jobs. If you can't, we will, but not when you're standing in the way. I know you mean well, but you do it so poorly. Sorry, but that's a fact.
As for homeless drug addicts, stop giving them our money, which only prolongs their misery. Help them with their problem, or work with private charitable organizations to take your place in the mess.
Finally, stop trying to divide us for political gain. You may think this approach to your business is fruitful, but it's making a mess of us as a society. Try to imagine how to unite us with a common purpose, but only sufficient for us to get along once again; don't get the idea that we need magnificent leaders to show us the way, as we're quite capable on our own, and quite frankly, we'll throw your butts out if you try to overstep your bounds. (Although sadly, there's no sign yet that we actually would).
OK, enough of that, on to global warming, and how this 'new and improved' government can help:
- Advise people that rising sea levels will make beachfront property less valuable (maybe in the next, say, 100 years). Can't wait for the PSAs, they're such a hoot. We will already know this before you do the first take in the video, but it's still fun to watch!
- Inform us that a full 10°C global temperature rise would be like an individual in Los Angeles moving to Singapore, or moving from Detroit to Los Angeles. Remind us that humans can thrive in a wide variety of climates. Now THAT will be one funny PSA!
- Hire some really smart scientists to devise a chemical that once sprayed into the air, will block out the shorter wavelengths from the Sun (but please don't make the sky look like fluorescent lighting), to knock the temperature down to springtime levels, year 'round. However, this project must be monitored by an independent audit group, because quite frankly, we don't trust you to do this without outrageous corruption and kickbacks that only Capitol Hill would understand. Really. Oh, and you must do something about the lawsuits that will surely claim the chemical is carcinogenic. Fix that. Thanks.
- Arrange gigantic mirrors, probably in the desert, that will reflect sunlight away. Or, start painting empty spaces a really bright white, you know, like in the deserts, or maybe the roofs of all government buildings. I know it's just a small part of the Earth's surface, but it could be much more significant than the effects of carbon dioxide, and an easy trick. Oh, and be sensitive to opinion polls about temperature, because you will effectively be in control of the Earth's thermostat. Tough job, but you wanted it!
- Finally, don't ignore these responsibilities... We have become masters of the planet, and this is no time to suddenly go wobbly.