Lack of Environment

A blog on the politics and psychology underlying the denial of all our environmental problems

Entropy – an unauthorised biography

with 12 comments

The energetic formative years
In the past, I have proven quite fond of mentioning both the Second Law of Thermodynamics and the concept of Entropy.  However, I suspect that my doing so may have left quite a few people a bit cold…  For those that know what I mean that was a pretty lame joke.  For those that do not, let’s just say that our problem with energy is that there is only a finite amount of it in the Universe; and trying to stop it being converted into progressively less useful forms is like trying to prevent water flowing to the sea.  Leaving aside the questions of how or why, the Universe appears to have had a beginning; and it appears to be perpetually expanding towards a dark state where everything reaches a uniform minimum temperature (i.e. so called Heat Death).  Here too, it seems to me, the Second Law of Thermodynamics appears to be in danger of failing but, hey, take it up with the experts…

On Monday, I highlighted the fact that the Earth receives an enormous amount of energy from the Sun.  Then, on Wednesday, I highlighted how fortunate we are that plants convert this energy into sugar, which forms the basis of all food chains on the planet.  This is why fossil fuels are sometimes described as fossilised sunlight – with coal being derived from dead plants and oil; and gas being derived (predominantly) from dead sea creatures.  As such, fossil fuels appear to violate the entropic principle, which dictates that things go from order to disorder (i.e. low entropy to high entropy).  However, even though they take millions of years to be created, fossil fuels defiance of entropy can only be temporary; and they can only be burnt once.  Thus, they contain an enormous amount of energy captured from the Sun and packaged into a very condensed form over unimaginably long periods of time.  However, we are no more likely to come up with a method of doing this artificially than we are likely to genetically modify cells in the human body so that they can extract energy from sunlight.

In short, we are currently burning fossil fuels many times faster than they are being created, which is polluting our environment:  The burning of fossilised carbon adds carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and oceans many times faster than it can be removed.  We have known for decades that this would almost certainly cause problems but, for a variety of reasons, we have done very little to prevent those problems now becoming a reality.

A life of Dissipation
The Second Law of Thermodynamics tells us that energy cannot be created or destroyed; it can only be changed from one form to another.  The only thing that appears to contravene this Law is the creation of the Universe itself.  The Sun is not creating any energy; it is just a giant nuclear fusion reactor taking advantage of the fact that E=mc2.

The principle of Entropy implies that Energy is generally transformed from more to less useful forms. The formation of fossil fuels may appear to contravene this principle; but only when you look at them and the Carbon Cycle (as it is on Earth) in isolation.  When you consider the journey that the Universe is on – from the Big Bang to its ultimate Heat Death – this act of defiance is only temporary.  Therefore, just as it would seem unwise to deny that fossil fuels are a non-renewable source of energy that will run out one day, I think it is unwise for anyone to pick a fight with the way the Universe works.

However, our greatest problem is not that the Universe may well be on a one-way entropic journey to a cold dark future state of nothingness; it is that fossil fuels are going to run out much faster than the fusion reaction in the Sun.  Furthermore, just as the Earth will become uninhabitable long before the Sun runs out of fusion energy to dissipate; so the Earth will become uninhabitable long before we humans run out of fossil fuels to burn.  That being the case, I think we should stop doing it:  Relying on the Sun (for heat, light, and – albeit indirectly – winds and waves) would seem like the better option; and don’t forget all that geothermal energy beneath our feet as well.  Speaking of which, entropy dictates that it must all escape eventually but not in any timescale relevant to us; and – in the meantime – it is a shame to let it go to waste.

The inevitable conclusion
The post-carbon era is coming; and we cannot stop it:  The only question that remains is are we going to embrace that future; or cling to the past?  One thing is for certain; both choices have consequences:  If we plan for a sustainable future then we have a chance of making an organised transition to it.  However, if we do not plan for it, it will still arrive; and it is unlikely to be pleasant.

Here are two videos from the Post Carbon Institute (PCI) that are well worth watching (depending on the time you have available to ponder these issues).

A 300-year history of fossil fuels use told in about 300 seconds (narrated by Richard Heinberg – as in the PCI’s excellent ‘Addicted to Growth’ video):

A 30-minute video on the consequences (both good and bad) of our comparatively recent access to cheap energy (narrated by Peter Coyote):

A more positive post-script
People say that nothing lasts forever and, certainly, that applies to fossil fuels.  They may have taken 300 million years to form but, from start to finish, we humans will have burnt them all in little more than 300 years.  That means we will have burnt them 1 million times faster than they took to form; a definition of unsustainable development if ever there was one.

However, the post-Carbon era may well be inevitable but it does not have to be dark.  It could be very bright indeed; all we need to do create a star here on Earth (see video embedded below):  If we can build a nuclear fusion reactor that does not consume more energy than it produces, our energy problems will be effectively over.

Thanks to E= mc2, the mass converted to energy in an atomic bomb explosion is approximately 1 gram.  Compare this to the nuclear fusion reaction going on in the Sun. Because the Sun is so massive, it can burn for billions of years by converting 4 million tonnes of mass to energy every second – equivalent to 4 million million (4 x 1012) atomic bomb blasts per second. Almost incredible; but true nonetheless.

Scientists are working on this right now but, it will take time to make it work – and time is a luxury we no longer have.  Even though we may have to continue to use hydrocarbons to make plastics and to fly our aeroplanes, we must substitute their use where ever we can; and minimise our use of them because once they are gone they are gone.  We cannot manufacture them in a laboratory; and even if we could… burning them would still be a problem. Basically:

If you think fossil fuels are the answer, you are asking the wrong question!

12 Responses

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  1. Nice essay. Please notice that Venus has its carbon up in the air. In other words, we are would be Venusians.

    Aside from solar energy and thermonuclear fusion, there is the nuclear fission provided by Thorium. Differently from U235 fission, it does not produce Plutonium. Plutonium has a half life 25,000 years and is ideal for weapons.

    Thorium cannot be weaponized and the actinids it produces have a half life of only 300 years.

    Differently from Thermonuclear, Thorium works (Thorium reactors were made in 1950s and 1960s; it was abandonned, because… it could not be weaponized.)

    Patrice Ayme

    8 September 2012 at 04:14

    • Many thanks for visiting, Patrice. As I am sure you are aware, James Hansen is equally convinced we should not have given up on nuclear fission. Even before reading his Storms of my Grandchildren book, I had become aware of the fact that thermonuclear plants can only use less than 1% or the Earth’s uranium… Hence I posted this on my blog 10 months ago:
      Fast neutron reactor (FNR) programmes (cancelled in the UK and US in 1989 and 1994 respectively) should be re-instated because FNRs can be fuelled by:
      – (1) the 99% of the Earth’s uranium that thermal reactors cannot use;
      – (2) our existing legacy of long-lived high-level radioactive waste (producing a much smaller volume of shorter-lived, less-radioactive waste); and
      – (3) uranium extracted from seawater (where it is universally present at greater concentration than its average crustal abundance).

      However, your assertion that the Thorium option was abandoned because it could not be weaponized is a new one to me (but makes sense given that civil nuclear power arose out of a military research).

      In 2011, the UK government undertook a consultation exercise, asking people what should be done with their stockpile of plutonium (i.e. vitrification awaiting disposal, conversion to MOX fuel, or nothing [awaiting FNR use]). Thankfully, they have chosen not to put it beyond use; but they are still refusing to re-start work on FNR… So, just as it did before, short-term political cowardice has trumped long-term strategic thinking.

      Martin Lack

      8 September 2012 at 10:56

  2. I was stridently against fast breeders such a (Plutonium based) Super Phoenix. Way way way too dangerous and demented. The Thorium system is completely different. A crash program is needed to see which high temps salts exactly to use, economically. After that, it’s a go. The maximum dangers imaginable are very low. The reactors are known to work. But a whole industry has to be created, spearheaded by government.

    No industry, no lobby, though. The plutonium boys cannot be very favorable, neither is the military.

    Patrice Ayme

    9 September 2012 at 06:58

    • It would seem more appropriate to have this discussion on one of my other posts. However, suffice it to say that Thorium is yet another finite resource. FNR held out the prospect of an end to mining; and of being able to recycle our stockpiled weapons and waste as fuel. Does the Thorium system have any of these advantages?.

      Martin Lack

      9 September 2012 at 08:27

      • There are enormous reserves of thorium, worldwide, much larger than uranium. At least an order of magnitude of throrium in Thor’s land than it has oil and gas. India has mostly thorium, very little uranium, etc…

        Funny when comments turn into posts of their own. Maybe we should make a common thorium post. You post on your site and me on mine, an interesting alliance of fantical atheism with Xtianism under the aegis of Gaia…

        Patrice Ayme

        10 September 2012 at 18:48

        • You may caricature yourself as fanatical atheist, Patrice; but all I have seen is someone who consistently blames “Anglo-Saxons”, Muslims and Christians for things. You repeatedly bring Hitler into discussions without any justifiable reason (that I can see) and, because I dare to object to this, you seem to want to label me as a Christian apologist for Hitler…! However, all I believe I have ever done is try to point out that it was not Christianity that drove the genocidal madness of the Nazis (although I accept that the Church did not protest enough at the time). Therefore, I am not an apologist for anything – not even the British Empire (which was built on the riches derived from piracy and slavery); and and I do not believe in Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis in any kind of pantheistic or animistic way – I simply accept the reality that humans have exceeded the ecological carrying capacity of the planet.

          Wow! There is enough material in there for a whole week of posts (but not on my blog).

          Martin Lack

          12 September 2012 at 10:34

  3. […] will not just do what is easy and politically convenient…”  As I wrote on my blog last Friday, this is because: The post-carbon era is coming; and we cannot stop it:  The only question that […]

  4. […] have picked a fight with history and science – primarily with the concept of Entropy – and they will lose. The only question that remains is this: Are we going to let them put us […]

  5. […] picked a fight with history and science – primarily with the concept of Entropy – and they will lose. The only question that remains is this: Are we going to let them put us all […]

  6. […] history; they have picked a fight with science – the Laws of Conservation of Energy and Mass and the concept of Entropy in particular. Defeat is therefore inevitable. The only question that remains is how bad do things […]

  7. […] history; they have picked a fight with science – the Laws of Conservation of Energy and Mass and the concept of Entropy in particular. Defeat is therefore inevitable. The only question that remains is how bad do things […]

  8. […] Entropy – an unauthorised biography (7 September 2012). […]

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