Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Heat, Part 1.

There has been a lot of arguing going on lately about whether or not we are messing up the climate by dumping greenhouse gasses into it. The argument goes sort of like this:
1: The climate is changing because of our actions, and we'd better do something about it.
2: No, the climate is changing because it always changes, always has. We cannot influence something as major as the weather.
1: But we are! Ice caps are melting, glaciers are receding, the ocean level is rising, the whole planet is warming in some places and cooling in others. We're shifting the balance, and it could be catastrophic.
2: Our data are too recent to know that, the sea level is not rising, and caps and glaciers are always cyclic. This is bad science done by bad scientists.
1: Do you really want to risk that? Ever since we've been burning fossil fuels the data have changed. Whole landscapes are changing. The pine beetles are wearing earmuffs. It's bad.

...and so on. Al Gore says this, Glenn Beck says that. I don't know. I don't think it's really the right question.

(Okay, maybe it is. Maybe we on the verge of a global cataclysm, and pretty soon the only people left will be John Cusack and Jake Gyllenhaal. If so, it probably does not matter what I write into my blog and whether you continue reading it, so let's assume the opposite)

So, here's the real question. What do we need?

We need food (so we don't starve), warmth (so we don't freeze in the winter), and energy (so we can run our machines that make for a civilization).

Food we'll leave aside for the moment.

Warmth is, well, warmth, but energy is also, when all is said and done, a matter of heat.

You move your car by expanding gasses that push pistons... heat. Electricity is generated by spinning turbines, which are spun mechanically. Heat. "But wait!" I hear you cry, "What about hydroelectric power, and wind turbines! Water and air don't seem so hot to me..."

True, but:

Hydroelectric power works because the water is pulled down by gravity. How did it get "up" in the first place? The sun evaporated it from the ocean, turned it into water vapor which cooled over the mountains and rained. It was heat that put the water up there, and without heat, you have no hydroelectric plants.

And the wind? The wind is moving air. Why does it move? Heat. The sun heats the air in one place, which rises, and air from other places rushes in to fill the void. The "rushing in" is the wind that moves our big pretty white propellers. No heat, no wind.

Nuclear power is heat. Fossil fuels are heat. The sun is heat. Heat is what we need.

(There may be a wonk out there or two who will point out that there is a non-heat alternative... tidal energy, caused by the moon's gravity, which can be used to turn propellers. Gravity is not heat... I guess not, I don't really understand gravity, but if anyone has a way of powering our civilization from the moon's gravity, I am willing to listen)

So, the real question, if what we need is heat how do we get it?

The answers fall into two categories: Use heat that is already there, or make it.

The sun is heat that is already there, and it does produce a lot of our energy. Heck, you could say that fossil fuels have their origin in plant matter that was made through photosynthesis, and thus all energy is solar, but that's probably a bit too arcane. The sun shines its heat upon us, costs us nothing, and produces no waste.

The problem with the sun is two-fold. First, the sun is really far away (93 million miles, on average), and therefore a lot of its heat is lost along the way. Also, half the time we are facing the other way 'round, so, you know, there's night to deal with. Maybe we could make it work anyway. I dunno. People argue over this one.

The other way to get heat it to make it, and here again we have two basic choices: Nuclear and Chemical energy.

Nuclear, today, is fission. Unfortunately it requires fuels that are dangerous and tend to get turned by self-important crazy-ass dictators into bombs, and it produces really nasty waste. What do we do with the waste? I guess we're going to put it all into a hollowed-out mountain in Nevada or something. Is that bad? Not for me, I live in Washington state. But, frankly, I'd like to think we can come up with something better than "stick it in a hollowed out mountain in a fairly ugly state". Also, sometimes the reactors melt down and kill many people at once.

Fusion... I don't know. Maybe, we'll see.  Sounds nice.

What's left is chemical energy, which basically means burning stuff.

The problem with burning stuff is that when you burn the stuff you don't have it anymore, and then you have burnt stuff to deal with.

Coal, gas, oil, these things will eventually run out. I know, I know, we have "vast reserves" of coal, and natural gas is everywhere, and as far as oil, well, drill baby drill!

"Vast" is not "infinite". We will run out, and long before we do these things will become scarce. When there is scarcity, people really tend to misbehave, invade each others' countries, blow themselves up, all manner of horrors. Scarcity is something we'd do best to avoid.

Also, we end up with burnt stuff... carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, I dunno, Baddy Maloxide, and we have to put it somewhere. Apparently it won't fit in a hollowed-out mountain, so we pump it into the air.

Is that a bad idea? Some say yes, it's going to destroy everything and some say no, Mother Nature can handle it. I really don't know if we can just poop into the air we breathe and everything will be fine, or if the whole of mankind will end up as John and Jake on Brokeback Mountain. It just seems that, if we could avoid it, we should.

So, it would seem we're screwed. The sun is too far away and is gone half the day, nuclear is a political mess and a dangerous source of radioactive yuck, and fossil fuels are finite, and messy, and might just destroy the plant though well, probably not, we're not sure, could be maybe.


What if there was a source of heat which, like the sun, consumed no fuel (okay, the sun is consuming fuel, but come on) and produced no waste but, unlike the sun, was close by and always available? What if it was safe, here, constant, would never (essentially) run out, and clean? We'd want that, right? Seems like the best of all worlds.

There is. Stay tuned. :)

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