(Or in which I psychoanalyze myself on the subject, at least.)
This entry will be about other things, but to fill it in: So I tried the Trinidad Moruga Scorpion, on Skype simultaneously with my friend Christy. I crunched it up and swallowed it.
The difference for me between the bhut jolokias that I’d had before on a burger and the Scorpion was that the vast heat—where I’m very far from knowing or remembering whether I can tell the difference at that level—was sharper. Stabbier. The impulse to try to appear nonchalant in front of the friend on Skype did not survive to the five-second mark. Or the three-second mark. The bhut jolokia burger that I had before was a world of great heat that I forced my way out into and that evaporated my willpower in ten minutes, by mid-burger—it was like the feeling of losing an arm-wrestling contest in an empty room with no opponent. This was like buckshot through a screen door.
… I ripped the lid off the lid of the tub of strawberry ice cream the child-proofing plastic seal be damned and pausing to get an edged implement be damned.
Well, my last entry annoyed me. The annoyance was there with the whole line(s) of thought, and the annoyance was crystallized when it was all written out.
What kind of whining was this from me?
Really—what would I prefer?
If I want to refer to the value of Desperation, what would the Desperate do? And if I am unreassured by the way I see things going, what would reassure me?
(And—a note in the background: it’s not as if I’ve looked at specific information that pure natural-solar-adoption-path people have faith in and found the curve not going where it needs to go. It’s more that I haven’t seen their curve arguments and so all I can say is that they don’t seem to need to see them. But surely I can take a little of my note of righteousness out of the frustration!)
And… that reference to D-Day had reached under the table and goosed me, the upside-down aspect of it aside. Yes. We’ve done things. I grew up in a world where we definitely did things. We (it’s a cliche) went to the Moon in under ten years. After the Second World War we did the Marshall Plan, which, looking back, was rather, um, large, astoundingly so. We in the United States just up and built the Interstate Highway System, the like of which the Pharaohs never… Yes. Emotionally it got me. Things can be done!
And, of course, with those there were special circumstances… with the Moon race we were in a prestige contest with the other social system competing with us for the future of humankind… I imagine the Marshall Plan was heavily influenced by how badly the ruinous war penalties on Germany had worked out after WWI, definitely a cue to try the other way when we had a smashed Europe to deal with… And the Interstate Highway System took place in a Cold War situation in which the WWII Commander of the Allied Forces who had become President had, as a young officer, had a nightmarish experience moving a military convoy across the country…
But—the rebel feelings boil over—doesn’t EVERYTHING THAT HAPPENS happen under special circumstances?! Yes, I had been goosed, not at all reasonably.
What would I have?
I don’t like to assume that people come to their senses. Or I like to assume that as little as possible.
The same goes for assuming that people see the light. Perhaps either of these things could happen; for all I know they could possibly happen enough. But in my late teens I came up with many utopian notions that were actually good and constructive, and a large number of them took the form “if everyone did _ _ _ ”. I was often right—it would often be good if everyone did _ _ _ ”. But with very rare exceptions, only some people are going to do those things.
And it’s not just assuming probability; I don’t like to assume it’s about seeing the light if anything else is at stake. I don’t trust the way that the presumption that adoption of renewables and energy efficiency will be sufficient enough, and soon enough, to stop global warming at a level that’s low enough, is often all mixed up with a vision of the future in which people live responsibly and the world of renewables is sensible and elegant and wonderful and beautiful.
I’ve tasted that. It’s very nice. But it messes with your evaluation.
And then there is the creeping assumption that comes with that, that it’s the evil, retrograde recalcitrance that is the problem. Everyone likes to stand for good. Everyone likes to oppose immorality.
This is one mucky pool to peer through.
So, for the purposes of this exercise, let’s assume that we do, in fact, manage to claw back our CO2 emissions to the levels we’d like to reach, but that we did not rely solely on “natural” or market adoption of renewable energy and energy efficiency.
This is not to minimize it. I don’t have the information, and with market adaptation real prediction is probably impossible. The introduction of market incentives using tax policy and/or tradeable permit systems, tightened stepwise as progress is made, should be done; I’ll go ahead and say it must be done.
(… But I will interrupt myself to mention before going on that the sale of “offsets” as part of a cap-and-trade system or carbon-tax system gives me great uneasy pause. If the incentives are supposed to provide balance-sheet pressure for X machine-activity to be done in a more energy-efficient and less-CO2-emitting way, I don’t like a situation in which companies can deal with it by just paying someone to … somehow… maybe… reduce CO2 somewhere else. For one thing, the cheapest way the someones can do it is by not really doing it. Tradeable financial widgets haven’t been that incorruptible the last few years. And actual machine-activity adaptation so that the need disappears is the point of the exercise, unless we’re supposed to do this by living in Offset Sales Heaven forever.)
I hope renewables and efficiency go forward naturally as far as possible—I hope a great deal.
Meanwhile we do other things.
I should also say that I have a background worry about theoretical societies that shift all the way over to a purely renewable energy system—that operate on the solar budget, essentially. Hydropower—solar—biofuels distilled from biomass from plants grown by the sun—maybe ocean thermal generation—etc. This is me being oversimple and picturing an oversimple world, but the idea is about options. I tend to think that a society will fill to its limits—that it won’t leave itself extra room. Everything has to happen within the energy budget. Which implies prices, and trade-offs.
One category of things that it is presently very easy not to do when there are so many other pressing needs is basic research—and big expensive projects that are not expected or intended to pay off right away—that sort of thing. That easy-not-to-do picture would intensify under the solar budget. Design choices are also constrained. Accordingly, if there’s reason that we need to develop in some other way, or if there’s need to do research to explore it… the future options are invisibly clipped. I don’t like this picture.
Or, the other possibility is that the society responds to the strait solar budget by at some point making exceptions. Reality is reality—and no renewables regime is going to have magically made coal and oil and natural gas unburnable, or have teleported all the fossil fuels out of the Earth’s crust into deep space. And the reasonable exceptions are then camel’s noses… while, as before, the benefits are immediate while the problems are long-term. Insofar as there will continue to be situations where concentrated sources of energy are desirable, the pure world renewables system would be unstable.
Between these two concerns above, I can be worrying that they make too many fossil-fuel exceptions or I can be worrying that they won’t make enough!
Either way, or both… I’m going to assume that ability to access concentrated sources of energy beyond the solar budget—but that aren’t fossil fuels and don’t require them—is desirable and is part of the target. (There are other reasons, too, but that’s for another entry.)
I’d really love it if carbon-capture could be magically initiated on the output/smokestack phase—if every fossil-fuel-burning engine on the planet happened to bind the exhaust CO2 into little turds of non-volatile diamond as it ran. I’m going to assume this isn’t in the picture. I’ll also leave the CCS question alone for here, although it would be great (will be great?) if we could actually be getting CO2 out of the atmosphere.
Meanwhile I’ll leave geo-engineering solutions alone… though for only half of the two reasons our two disputants mentioned.
They’d be a Band-Aid to compensate for what we’ve done, and a potential temptation to go on doing it while ramping up that compensation, while if ever the compensation activity faltered the global warming effects would crash down in full force. That’s why I’d be reluctant. We have to solve our problem.
But Klein’s fear of unintended consequences, which I’ve seen elsewhere on this subject— “it’s hard to believe that the consequences of the huge, unpredictable changes to the global climate can be safely reversed by further efforts to make huge, unpredictable changes to the climate”—seems too reflexive to me. Global warming is predictable, for one thing, in broad outlines, and, while surprises are likely, not all of them pleasant, I don’t think the consequences of geo-engineering would be that much less generally predictable just because we’re doing it and choosing a tilt. The responsible precautionary-principle fixation seems overparanoid to me if the need is great.
Tampering with the universe? Arguments in the U.N.? “We are as gods, and might as well get good at it.”
(Personally I always preferred the idea of lots of little space mirrors positioned out between us and the sun to the idea of the sulfur injections into the high atmosphere to screen out the same percentage of insolation—because we could just steer the mirrors out of the way or destroy them if anything went wrong.)
But… no. We have better business than the geo-engineering route.
So, if we are not to be limited to the solar budget, I’m going to assume that the addition to it, the non-renewables part, consists simply of electrical power coming from a CO2-clean source or sources. (This including, as a subcategory, hydrogen fuel made by electrolysis, which can certainly be powered by solar electricity, but is likely also to be powered by electricity coming from CO2-clean sources.)
So what’s at the headwaters of the stream?
I won’t be too coy here—I like the fusion objective; I already gave that away. But since we would have to catch a few really good hands of cards, which is not guaranteed to happen, before we got there—and more hands, to get where I really would like us to be—I won’t go straight to it.
Nuclear power cannot be rejected for its warts if reducing CO2 emissions is so urgent. The Green total rejection of nukes is a “yuk!” matter that is, in this context, crazy. We must succeed in saving the world even if the way we do so is unattractive.
But bad old fission power cannot do the job. Not as it is or alone, it can’t. If we tried to use it absolutely as much as we could … we’d use up the world’s reserves of atomic fuel surprisingly fast. REALLY surprisingly fast—if fission reactors were producing 10 terawatts of power, that Science article estimated that fission-fuel reserves would be exhausted in 6 to 30 years.
That sounds more like propping up a sand castle for a while—and building all the nuclear power plants is a huge weary investment if that’s all we’re going to be doing.
(The article gives around 12 TW as the amount of power the world used yearly as of 2002, and says of the scale of the problem-set, “Stabilization at 550, 450, and 350 ppm CO 2 by Wigley et al. scenarios require emission-free power by mid-century of 15, 25, and >30 TW, respectively.”)
Breeder reactors would help this situation, turning nonfissionable uranium isotopes and thorium into reactor fuel. So breeder reactors would be absolutely necessary for fission power to be really helpful.
But there are proliferation and waste issues. And we don’t have a time machine to go back and start hardballing development of breeder technology 30 years ago.
And, realistically, breeder reactors as a centerpiece is a step or two further in wishing away political opposition than I can do. The problem with “If everyone did _ _ _ _” applies here too.
Completely different is a rather neat idea, almost super-Green in fact: we actually increase the solar budget, directly into our power grid!
We start putting solar-power arrays in orbit, or on the surface of the Moon. They then beam the power down to collectors on Earth. This can be done using harmless wavelengths (though I very much doubt that paranoia about “death beams going off target” wouldn’t be a factor).
What with losses in beam transmission and the expense of placing the solar arrays, it is unlikely that the expense of getting X amount of electricity from a solar panel in space or on the Moon could ever beat the low cost of placing the same solar panel on Earth and getting that much electricity. That’s a usual, accurate objection. BUT—at the extreme end—you can potentially end up putting a whale of a lot more panels in space and/or on the Moon, with more collection area, than you might ever be practically able to put around on Earth—and they could collect energy not limited to what falls on Earth. This could genuinely enlarge the world we’re talking about, and could progressively get rid of the problems I mentioned with living within the solar budget.
I’d absolutely love to see us moving on this one! If we don’t get fusion power, or don’t get a really helpful manifestation of it, this would be my major pick.
(Come to that, we could get rolling on implementation of it sooner—and we could really use sooner at this point. So maybe it shouldn’t really be my second choice at all. More like co-first. And chronologically first—I’d love to see a big speech about starting this right now.)
But if we do get fusion power…
(And why did Lockheed Martin say that about having a prototype fusion generator by 2017? Was it just a think-tank engineer mouthing off? Darn it darn it darn it…) (please please please please please please…)
If we get fusion power we’ll have much less of a radioactive-waste problem than with fission (not zero, neutrons bombard walls particularly with D-T fusion, but much less waste—and we can choose what to line the walls with and so choose what kind of radioactive material is made). If fusion reactors fail completely the reaction simply ends when the magnetic containment stops. And we will have high-concentration clean power for as long as we can get fuel for it.
So what are the prospects for the fuel supply?
Enormous —but in a way that varies, depending. I should say from just large to incredible.
The easiest kind of fusion to make happen, and the first one we’ll make work if we do make it work, is D-T fusion: deuterium or D, hydrogen with one neutron, fusing with tritium or T, which is hydrogen with two neutrons (and radioactive).
(Radioactive light elements are weird. Radioactive heavy elements split understandably into two smaller clumps of protons. But what the radioactive one-proton tritium atoms do when they break down my engineer father didn’t believe me about until I printed out the thing I’d been reading for him.)
Deuterium can be found in the oceans along with the regular hydrogen in the water. (And elsewhere—but I’ll get to that.) Tritium we have to make, by bombarding lithium with neutrons. We presently do this in fission reactors, but D-T fusion actually gives off even more neutrons, so it’s better for doing this. (That’s also why it would help breed more fission fuel; the most advanced designs for breeder reactors involve teaming with fusion reactors.) So we’d line the chamber with lithium, and fusion reactors would make their own tritium for later use.
I’ve been trying to look up how big lithium supplies and anticipated reserves are, but I’m not getting anywhere very quickly. Even if I found a number, I’d then have to know what that number means.
(One thing that briefly had me gnashing my teeth was that lithium is presently indispensable for electric cars, for the lithium-ion batteries. There have been industry rumors of impending shortages, and prices of lithium have gone up. The rumors of shortages are a matter of production rather than of actual available reserves, but I was briefly staring at a cartoon picture where the oncoming millions or billions of electric cars would have eaten up the lithium that would have been used to power those cars in the future… Not true, and if it had been true it would have been a muddle-through case where cars gradually transitioned away from electric designs to burning hydrogen fuels and biofuels.)
But let’s go with what the blurb on the ITER website says:
“Lithium is plentiful in the Earth’s crust: if fusion were to provide electricity for the entire world, known reserves of lithium would last for at least one thousand years.”
That’s pretty good! A thousand years, if it was doing the whole schmeer?
But you know, I’d like to do better than a thousand years (or whichever real number). I’d like even more time and breathing room. It would be nice if we didn’t have to make tritium.
But the other fusion reactions, that don’t use tritium, are harder. I wish I were a physicist to be able to say all of why. But part of the reason is BREHMSTRALLUNG radiation!
This was easy to memorize because it’s so fun to say. I roar it at the ceiling whenever I write it. Try it: BREHMSTRALLUNG!!!
It means “braking rays.” What happens is that, in the ultra-hot plasma where all the electron shells have broken down, every now and then a proton and an electron will collide. When this happens they slow down or change course—and they lose energy, in the form of a photon in the X-ray range.
Inside the sun, this doesn’t matter. The core of the sun is so dense that it’s opaque to X-rays; when one proton-electron collision gives off an X-ray photon it’s immediately absorbed by something else, so there’s no net energy loss and no cooling. (Plus the pressure and density inside the sun is so great that the temperature needed isn’t anywhere near as high anyway—which is where all our troubles with fusion come from.)
But any fusion reactor we build is going to be transparent to an X-ray; the X-ray will shine right out of the plasma and out of the chamber. We can absorb that X-ray in shielding, but that’s not the problem—the plasma we’re trying to make superhot has lost energy.
I have no idea why, but with the D-T reaction the brehmstrallung problem is minor.
But with other reactions it’s worse. The next most difficult reaction, the D-He-3 reaction—with deuterium, D, fusing with helium-3 or He-3, helium with one neutron—for this reason requires much higher temperatures to be maintained than with D-T.
And the other kinds of fusion (deuterium-deuterium next, then hydrogen-lithium, hydrogen-boron, etc.) have so much of an issue with brehmstrallung losses that fusion reactors using them may be forever impossible unless some other entirely different approach to doing it works out.
(Ugh. Good grief, I wish I were qualified to talk about any of this stuff. I have to make my eyes bleed to try to research it!)
Deuterium/helium-3 fusion reactors may also turn out to be impossible—the temperatures needed and control of the plasma under those temperatures may be unmanageable. But they may not be.
If they aren’t—(for one thing, if we don’t stupidly iris down the research funding after we get D-T fusion ; if we keep going until we get there)—if we can make D-He-3 fusion work… Well.
We do not need to make helium-3. We can make it—or really we make tritium and tritium decays into helium-3. (Yes, an atom with one proton and two neutrons decays to become an atom with two protons and one neutron… I told you it was weird.) But helium-3 is found in nature.
It’s rare on Earth—it’s a very rare atom among lots and lots of helium-4 atoms in helium gas, because radioactive decay inside the Earth has been making more helium-4 for ages, and helium gas is pretty rare on Earth in the first place.
But helium-3 is available in higher concentrations in the lunar regolith, having been embedded there by the solar wind over the billions of years since the Moon’s beginning. And there’s lots of helium-3 in the atmospheres of the gas giants. (Where there’s also lots of deuterium.)
We’d need space infrastructure/capability. We’d need to be able to mine the Moon’s surface and sort out the helium-3 from the regolith. And, for the larger source…
It’s likely that we’ll be able to build fusion spacedrives. Until we have those, we’d be using nuclear fission drives, which have to a great extent already been developed and some ground-tested. (Once we have the fusion drives, everyone will be able to worry a bit less about launching nuclear materials from Earth; if/once we have D-He-3 drives, with no radioactive tritium, the rest of that worry can go away. In the meantime we can launch the fissionables in super-tough safety containers and fuel up in orbit.)
The reason those spacedrives are important is that we’ll need to be able to haul cargoes out of the atmospheres of Saturn and Uranus. (Jupiter will probably stay impossible; its gravity is too great.) The actual transits back to Earth should be made by solar sails, assuming we can learn to build good and very big ones—they will be the best freight solution because of the lack of need for fuel and the constant acceleration, bigger masses just moved with bigger sails —but we’ll need powerful, long-lasting reaction drives to bring the harvest up and out to orbit before it begins its journey.
(The collection processes themselves may also be the greatest niche for the blimp.)
If we can get to where we’re doing this… burning D and He-3 and gathering them from the gas giants…
… then we should have quite a while until we will need to figure out something else. :-)
Or: we’ll have quite a while to spend time putting more solar power stations in space or on the Moon so that we’ll be able to use our vast fusion reserves even more slowly!
Or also: quite a while to build starships. Because… incidentally… D-He-3 fusion drives, if they can be built as expected once we have D-He-3 fusion, would give us the ability to build spacecraft with the necessary total “delta-V” in a full fuel tank to get to a range of the nearest stars in 40-50 years.
(Which, well, gives us a shot at seeding human beings around other stars, so that some of us, or some of whatever might follow us, might be elsewhere when our own star runs out of fuel. Which… we were talking about fusion giving us “more time and breathing room”… Maybe. Maybe we get out of the Erlenmeyer flask completely. But that’s for later.)
That’s where I’d like to see us trying to go, to see us committed. To fusion power, or to solar power stations off Earth. Really both, likely with the space solar thing most visible first.
In addition to our energy conservation and renewables development. And, yes, probably development of nuclear (fission) power in the meantime.
Surely this is possible? Surely a unitary discussion of how we get there is possible?
I worry that our expectations are low (while, apparently, we should be confident)… I worry that we’re used to long-term “drip, drip, drip” unsolved problems. As if the global warming problem, as with other ecological problems, has become like the description of the case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce in the first chapter of Bleak House. And I’ve already voiced my problem with that “confident” business.
(And with glibness. The other day I had another encounter with it, that struck me in territory that I’ve touched on in here; there was a fairly intelligent comment thread about space in which someone mentioned NERVA, a nuclear-thermal drive design that was ground-tested and worked great, with characteristics no chemical rocket could match. It was cancelled for rather peculiar strategic political reasons, which are fascinating enough that I’m having trouble resisting putting them in; anyway, not for any technical problems. A couple of other people in the thread mentioned the dangers of launches with potentially spillable nuclear fuel, and one person said breezily—italics mine:
“Ugh, terrible idea. Not because I’m anti-nuke but because the launch risk of sending a reactor into orbit is just too great. There are far, far better ideas out there than recycling 20th Century misfires.”
… “Far, far better ideas out there” like what? You know about-the limits of chemical rockets? Or do you mean ion drives—with advantages but their own limits? “Misfires”? NERVA didn’t misfire. Better ideas for doing what? In what context are you speaking?? —Oh well.)
At the very least we can have some version of the total problem laid out in front of us, so that we can look at it! Like, if it’s 15 or 20 or 30+ terawatts of carbon-free power we need—how much of that from where, from what range of things, and how much from each?
We can have terrible arguments about it, and we should have them. We should get into it. THAT’S WHERE EVERYTHING BEGINS.
(It would be better than this situation where the progressives speak generalities and the conservatives say that, whatever the progressives are talking about, it will destroy the economy like the Luftwaffe.)
That’s what I would prefer. That’s what would reassure me.
It is within our capacity to make a play for this thing.
You know, the optimists—or the “optimism-ists”, would be more precise—were perhaps half right.
We do have to expect to solve it.
But not “expect” in the sense of “it’s fine, we’re going to solve it” that they seem to suggest.
“Expect” in the sense of, “England expects every man to do his duty.”
“I think we have the option to make it, and that’s very different from being an optimist.”—R. Buckminster Fuller
Last updated October 20, 2014