Thursday, December 4, 2008

Hey! Spread Out!

An oil company recently took out a full-page ad in the New York Times pointing out that the sunlight hitting Earth in one second could provide humans with enough energy to last many years.

And that, in a nutshell, is the whole problem.

There's no efficient way to capture the energy of the sunlight, or to convert the energy into work.  Instead what the sunlight does is increase entropy. That is, it turns liquid water into water vapor, or ice into water. 
Entropy is a complicated concept with a technical meaning. To simplify, entropy is the amount of energy "lost" in a system doing work.  For example, gasoline is burned in a cylinder to make a car move. Some of the energy is translated into motion (work) while much is released as heat. 

The heat is absorbed by air, and other objects, and cannot be recaptured.  Almost everything humans do increases entropy: generating and transmitting energy, extracting and burning fossil fuels, cooking, blowing things up, heating our homes, going shopping.

Another way of thinking about entropy is the tendency of system to evolve from order into disorder.  Which brings us back to sunshine.

Some things on Earth progress from disorder to order. That list includes giving birth, making chocolate, growing watermelons, and evolution. All of these activities that seem to be making order from disorder, are doing so at the expense of the sun.

The sun, and other stars, ultimately provide the energy that drives everything, either directly or through creation of  heavy elements like uranium, which are cast off in supernovae and incorporated into planets.

The furiously turns order into chaos as it converts hydrogen into helium, sending radiation in every direction.  No matter how we harness sunlight, the disorder of the sun increases. In fact, the disorder of this entire universe is also decreasing, as new stars are born and burn out.

Burning fossil fuels, fissioning uranium, or finding alternate energy sources are our  relatively puny way of interrupting the grand flow of entropy. 

Current cosmology suggests that the universe will ultimately turn into a cold, dark empty place. But that won't happen for a long, long time.

Still, it's something to look forward to.

1 comment:

  1. Hey, Abram:

    True, most solar panels even at their peak efficiency can only transfer about 20% of the potential particle electricity in photons into DC. We have the potential to improve on this technology.

    Sometimes I feel like the world is like a worn-in apartment, that got haywire because it became slightly outgrown; that it can't be cleaned enough to feel like a new apartment again, and the only solution seems like it should be to not renew the lease and pack up to move across town.

    Of course, that's kind of like the premise for the movie "Wall-E" (and maybe Planet of the Apes)...

    Here's a thought, though-

    Oil companies have been buying (and primarily snuffing) solar companies for maybe a decade or more. They see solar as competition and they bought developing companies for cheap (BP Solar, Exxon had a solar branch), subsequently decreasing development below the benchmarks they set to advertise their dedication to clean technology.

    Funny, though- here's my question du jour: Why is gas now below two dollars a gallon???

    This is my answer. The only congruent path to the decline in gas prices is to the inauguration of president obama.

    drop the consumer oil prices, and leave behind the political will to achieve (or strive towards) energy independence. They want people to not be interested in changing things because all of a sudden, gas is cheap again! bring baack the SUV's!!!

    I know it's price gauging. We're not sure if we should get away from it because we might run out, or we may ruin our climate. Either way, i'd rather not care to find out which would happen first.

    I remember reading countless articles you wrote in the register, ever since high school. I think you're great. Maybe you can move into a different media market. I think you could newscast with local channel 8 news. Seriously, i think that's a good direction.