Powering the Future

by Gilbert Keith

Just today, I finished reading Powering The Future


Image courtesy of Dr. Laughlin’s Website:

The book is written by Dr. Robert Laughlin, winner of a Nobel Prize in Physics for the discovery and elucidation of the fractional quantum Hall effect.

The book essentially imagines what a future will be like a couple of centuries from now, after we have exhausted the current supply of petroleum and coal. He assumes certain behavioral tendencies of human beings as given (eg. NIMBY-ism; propensity to adopt a solution but leave future generations to address any consequences; the drive for lowest-cost solutions; the desire for having energy more-or-less on-demand as it is now, etc.) He then uses his knowledge of the various forms of energy production, the laws of physics, and the limitations of engineering, to paint an energy landscape that seems surprisingly well thought out.

There is one very interesting thing about this book which I’ll leave to Dr. Laughlin’s own words, his main approach is:

…[T]o divorce energy from climate. This decision outraged a lot of people, for climate is obviously more important than energy in the very long run, and it seems morally reprehensible to separate out the more important thing and discuss it later. However, energy is a much simpler matter to deal with than climate and, perhaps more to the point, a more imminent trouble. The end of fossil fuel – and the terrible warfare that might accompany it – is an event only a few generations away, whereas the climate is a matter of eternity. It is my experience that you solve big problems by dividing them into smaller ones and dealing with the most urgent first.

This was a little difficult to digest at first, but I think it might be worth considering this position. Dr. Laughlin makes the case that entire seas and oceans have been dried up and re-filled in a timescale (a few tens of thousands of years) which is really a blip in the overall geological timescale of the earth. To quote the book again:

Common sense tells us that damaging a thing this old is somewhat easier said than it is to accomplish […] The earth has suffered mass volcanic explosions, floodings, meteor impacts, mountain building,[…] and it’s still here. It’s a survivor.

I won’t give too many details on the future he imagines. A good “big-picture” summary is:

  • For quantum-mechanical reasons, carbon is an ideal element for storing energy
    • It is difficult to imagine a future where “on-demand” energy does not involve carbon in some way, shape or form
  • For other technologies to start making sense from a pure market-costs perspective, they’ll have to start competing with carbon.
  • For uses-cases like transportation, we’ll continue to rely primarily on carbon-based fuels for the compactness/delivery networks reason. Syn-gas/syn-fuel industries might come of age. However, fuels will be expensive, just because there will be little of it.
  • Electricity will become more prominent. We’ll have figured out a lot more on how to address the issues of base-line generation and the surges in demand that can occur. Non-battery storage technologies will come of age.
  • The most readily available non-carbon source we have (and already use) which is cost-effective is nuclear
    • But nuclear also has its limitations with fuel, as well as safety concerns. (Chernobyl / Three Mile Island / Fukushima)
    • It’s difficult to win votes right now, but when we do inch towards the carbon crunch, perhaps we’ll start reconsidering these.
  • Biomass might become an important source of carbon… but we obviously don’t want to overuse it is needed to re-fertilize the soil.
    • If we can get to producing cellulases cheaply (i.e without it requiring more glucose to produce cellulases than we can potentially get from digesting cellulose) this might be a game-changer.
  • Trash from landfills can deliver another source of energy. Again, main problems are health/pollution.
    • He imagines a world with no batteries. A lot of the toxic metal wastes associated with landfills come from batteries (lead, ni-cad, lithium, etc.) and no matter which way you try processing the waste, the toxicity will remains. Dr. Laughlin says large batteries (i.e. electric cars) will cease to exist.
  • Solar and Wind are relatively nascent and cannot yet fully compete with coal.
    • If the costs for solar/wind can be brought down to compete with coal (without govt. subsidies, etc.) This will be a game changer. I think we’re getting there more quickly than Dr. Laughlin gives the industry credit for [just try searching for the solar industry in the news and you’ll see the enormous gains in efficiency that are being made]
    • Energy storage will come of age in the form of molten solar salts.
  • The earth’s oceans might play a bigger role in our future energy landscape.
    • As a source of deep-sea oil drilling [this already sounds scary, what with the BP spill issues in the gulf of Mexico.]
    • As a medium for laying cables to transport electricity from continent to continent (this still sounds a little outlandish)
    • As a place to store some excess capacity (eg. in the form of compressed air) or it use in density-gradient driven electricity-generation (also seems a little outlandish)

Some good things about the book:

* It is written to an audience that is relatively well-versed in the technicalities; or if the reader doesn’t exactly know, can presumably figure out by reading the citations.

* Citations, Citations, Citations. Nearly half the book is citations; Dr. Laughlin fairly clearly presents how he arrived at his estimates… or if someone else arrived at those estimates, then the work is cited.

* Very clear analogies between various physical phenomena. I think physicists are relatively gifted in this ability, because they notice it every (eg. how the gravitational field and the electric field behave according to similar inverse square laws.)

Interesting note:

* There is not a single mention of geothermal. Have we already relegated this to obscurity? I saw this in action at Epic. And, needless to say, I thought it was pretty cool.