Wildfires

The human control of fire is often mentioned as the progenitor to civilization. Fire, as we’ve already noted, is the chemical release of energy. Typically it requires three things; fuel, oxygen and an ignition source. When these combine then there’s a release of energy. Wilderness fires are natural and can lead to a huge, acute release of energy. Humans changed this to a slow, chronic, controlled release such as when we chop wood and burn it in a wood stove. And our civilizations thus prospered with this skill.

The current firestorm in Australia vividly demonstrates the natural release that wild bush fires can engender. At least 11 million hectares have released their latent energy stores(about 2.4e19 Joules); that is, the fires have burnt all the plants. The plants are the primary producers as shown in the trophic pyramid. Current estimates arrive at over 480 million primary, secondary and tertiary consumers of the pyramid as being affected by the fire and will likely die. They will starve due to the fire burning all the primary producers.

Consider the consequence. An area about the size of New York state has just lost all its stores of energy. Lack of water means that regrowth may be long in coming or may never come. What does this mean for the future? As more and more regions of the Earth’s surface become barren then there is less for all consumers of the trophic pyramid, including humans. Thus, as the human population continues to grow, they will have less stores of energy from which to draw. And the Earth will have a simpler and simpler ecosystem. Is this the goal of civilization? Can our civilization continue to exist without fire?

Bushfire January 2020
Australia – Bushfire

Propane at the Table

The over-abundance of consumer outlets has made us complacent and, worse, dependent. With just-in-time management then consumers only acquire what they need at the moment that they need it. This is fine as long as the producer always ships their product and the supply line never fails. Given the current strength of the system then it’s no wonder that we’ve assumed a continual supply.

Yet, how about when it fails? For instance, a recent labour issue prevented the supply of propane to farms. Perhaps you didn’t know that farmers needed propane to dry their crop. So, when trains stopped and the shipments of propane failed, only days later the farmers worried about the loss of their harvest. Turns out that over 27 rail cars, or 9e13Joules of energy were needed every day for one large region affected by the strike. While the strike was resolved before the crops were ruined, this example does highlight the potential severe effects when the supply line fails.

Let’s now consider the other failure. The failure of the production. With this, then no matter how strong a supply line, there will be a failure of delivery by the consumer outlet. And all downstream producers will be negatively affected. And consumers will be without. This image not to your liking? Contact me and I can optimize your potential.

Lunch in the sun
Porcupine

Energy to Share

Our Sun is a great, big fusion reactor that combines atoms and strews out radiation in all directions. The radiation amounts to about 172 petawatts or about 5.4E24 Joules of energy at Earth’s upper atmosphere. While this is a huge amount, most of it gets re-radiated back into space. Luckily for life on Earth, the amount coming in usually equals the amount going back out; that is, there is energy balance so the Sun doesn’t fry the Earth.

Life makes the Earth unique from Mars, Venus and other worlds of our Solar System. Life has learned to absorb the energy from the Sun and use it to its own advantage. Photosynthesis gets credit for absorbing about 3E21 Joules a year. This is a tiny amount given the total. But a very important amount given the need to maintain a balance.

Over the last couple of hundred years, humans learnt to use a lot of energy. Almost a fifth that of all the plants or 5.4E20 Joules a year.  This is a chronic change that has put energy out of balance.  We’re using stores of energy in oil, coal and natural gas. Once they’re gone then what? Do we take the energy from the plants in some contrived sharing arrangement? Do we use less? Or do we take all? What’s your preference?

Photosynthesis
Along the river

Homes

A fundamental expectation for a family is to live in their own home. People want and need a safe, secure place to raise their young, as with most animals. Often one hears the phrase ‘four walls and a roof’ as the mantra for starting families.

While a home can consist of a huge variety of shapes and forms, one thing is common; the starting family prefers a brand new home. This is quite reasonable as often their parents live in their birth home and often with other family members. Let’s consider the consequences. The starting family’s new home obviously entails a large amount of energy and material to construct. Once constructed, it requires energy and material to maintain. Globally about 36% of a $17T construction industry is residential. Assume that the global GDP is on the order of $80T. Thus homes or residences contribute almost 8% to this; a strong indicator of the effort going into homes. And with the human population ever increasing then the number of homes also continues to increase.

How will this desire for a new home play out? There are over 7 billion people on Earth. And many more to come. If on average a family has 6 people in a home then this population needs over 1 billion homes. A current estimate puts the value at 1.6 billion households. A well maintained home can last for 50 years. Thus, every 50 years we will need to expand energy and resources, i.e. maintain the construction industry to rebuild 1.6 billion homes. And make and maintain new ones for the ever expanding population. Can the Earth support this? Will there be enough energy available to maintain and grow this?

Energy poor
Treeless

Akademik Lomonosov

Fire! Controlling this wonderful, exothermic, chemical reaction enabled humans to vault over all lifeforms and become dominant on planet Earth. Some argue that our ancestors had control of fire over a million years ago. Not quite as long ago, we learned to use similar chemical reactions to access the energy stored in fossil fuels like petroleum. Very recently, we learned to split large atoms into smaller ones via controlled nuclear reactions. And we used the resulting energy release to further our domination on Earth.

With nuclear energy, we have controlled, ready access to very, very large amounts of energy. We’ve built large nuclear power reactors beside many population centres for this very reason. We also build floating reactors to bring accessible energy to demanding places. For almost ten years MH-1A supplied 10MWe to the Panama Canal Zone. Now, the floating Akademik Lomonosov ($232M), a brand new endeavour, will provide a similar service in that it can use nuclear fission to provide 70MWe to whichever port it is alongside. Currently it’s slated to replace the Bilibino nuclear reactor (164.8GW.h) nearby Pevek (65°N,170°E).

We recognize that our civilization needs energy to progress. Actually, we need very large amounts of readily accessible energy simply to sustain ourselves as the Akademik Lomonosov demonstrates. Over the last few decades, and centuries, we’ve become accustomed to consuming ever more readily accessible and cost efficient energy. But quantities of fossil fuels and of nuclear fuel are limited on Earth. What becomes of our civilization if the consumption trend continues but the energy supplies fail? Can we rely upon fire to maintain our civilization?

Moscow Times
Akademik Lomonosov