Let’s Talk

Complex communication is one of humanity’s fundamental capabilities. With it, we organized and vanquished other species. With it, we improved our society. By talking we convey emotional feelings as adroitly as the fundamentals of nuclear physics. All this is achieved while expanding very little energy. Making noise for communication is something people readily and effectively accomplish.

At one time, we were limited in range by the volume of our voice, the strength of our vocal chords. Then along came telecommunications. Now we effortlessly talk with other people almost anywhere on Earth. And well above our planet too. Mechanical devices aid us in this. Often it’s the mobile telephone together with all its infrastructure like cell towers and fibre optic cables. With these and very little energy, our voices get encoded into digital data which gets transported to the listener and decoded back into words. Now there is no real limit to the range of our voices.

Mechanical devices like the mobile telephone, or cellphone, appeared in about 1973. And they flourished. Current estimates are that active mobile telephones now outnumber people. And these portable phones need energy. This comes from their internal battery. Assuming each phone uses a lithium ion battery which can store 0.8MJ per kg and each battery is 2 grams then over one year all the cell phones use +2.2E15 Joules to operate. That’s a large number. Additional energy is needed to support and operate the infrastructure. Hence, like all assistive mechanical devices, these aid but at an energy cost. A cost that appeared less than a lifetime ago.

With unlimited energy cellphones are an obvious boon. Will we still want or need to increase the range of our voices when energy supplies falter? In other words is this mechanical aid a base need of humanity? Would our society continue when we could only communicate with the people that we could see around us? Time will tell.


If you don’t have enough energy near at hand then what do you do? Typically, you go get whatever’s most convenient. Primitive humans burnt nearby dead branches. Industrial humans dug coal to burn. Today, we’re getting energy from just about every source imaginable, from solar collectors to fission reactors.  We’ve learnt to satiate our ever increasing thirst for energy.

Yet energy is anything but compliant to our demands. Fission reactor accidents such as at Chernobyl and Fukushima taught us a bit of hubris. Equally, coal fogs demonstrate unpleasant consequences of our energy lust. We can also make messes when we try to transport energy as with the Exxon Valdez. We’ve learnt. But are we learning fast enough?

A liquefied natural gas (LNG) carrier can transport up to 270 000 cubic metres of cargo. That’s over 6E+12 kJ of energy in its containers. If the containers fail then quite a mess would ensue. So we put restrictions on LNG carriers. And we assume that the restrictions are followed. Then there’s the Northern Sea Route transit by the Boris Vilkitsy. A transit by a ship without the proper safety systems. Can you imagine the results if it failed and its cargo releases?

There are about 170 LNG carriers at sea at any one time. All to satisfy our energy needs. Do you wonder what’s an acceptable level of risk for having energy near at hand? Can we afford to lose more energy to accidents? Will we apply the energy needed to clean up after a disaster? The future will tell.

Boris Vilkitsky

Local VS Global

Recently North America is seeing consistently lower prices for petrol as compared to a decade earlier. The credit for this is mostly attributed to the infrastructure build-out for natural gas: its extraction, processing and delivery. I.e. the ‘fracking’ news story. This lower cost has improved the living standard for people in North America. Does this improvement extend to the world?

The answer is somewhat yes. And somewhat no. It is yes in that there are natural gas reserves constantly being discovered all over the world. With today’s technology, these reserves can be extracted economically and the resource shipped for sale throughout the world. The answer is no in that there is still a finite amount of natural gas available. Only those people in the locales getting the resource will get a boost in their standard of living. And the boost will only endure for the lifetime of the resource. From the BP analysis the ratio of primary fuel reserves to production (R/P) is:

Oil R/P is 50.6 years

Natural Gas R/P is 52.5 years

Coal R/P is 153 years

These durations represent the time to effective resource depletion. They are important as even today, with all the focus on renewable energy, 85% of energy consumption is sourced from these three primary fossil fuels.

Now we don’t know what will become of the Earth over the next 50 years.  Or the number of people that will want to live comfortably on the Earth. But projections aim at well over 11billion people. And we show few signs of reducing individual consumption. So, we can expect a rather abrupt correction when the energy resources get exhausted. Both locally and globally.



A refrain from an old song has it that ‘money makes the world go round’. There is a lot of truth to it. Many people spend their lives to obtain as much money as they can. And really, with the way our society functions, it’s hard to be a part of society without it. In result, or some say in cause, the financial institutes aid us by assigning value to money and by moving money from here to there.

While a bank as an institution may be a fairly recent construct, the concept of money is quite older. It was just so much more convenient than bartering. Yet money has changed. From commodity money, representative money and on to fiat money. What hasn’t changed was that money could be placed in the hand. Until now. Along came cryptocurrencies like bitcoin. This is valued like money. It is computer based. It requires a computer to be on so as to keep it in existence. And there’s a lot circulating about the Web. A recent debate argues that it requires too much energy. Counter to that claim is that the traditional financial institutions require more. From four times to ten times the amount. What isn’t argued is that the concept of money is very valuable and worth expending large amounts of energy. How much energy? In rough calculations the combined forms of money use 0.443 quadrillion BTUs or 4.63e17Joules each year to be in existence. And using energy may be the oldest concept known.

Cryptocurrencies use a lot of energy. Some say as much energy as Cuba does. And yes money does facilitate living in our society. Though it may not make the Earth turn. It does make for easy, fair trade. At an energy cost. Summing cryptocurrencies and financial institutes results in a usage of less than 1% of humanity’s energy expenditure. Per year. Will our future include real and virtual financial institutes no matter what their energy cost? Will we ever have to choose between energy for machines and energy for people? While the Earth keeps going round.

Middle Class

The success of modern society gets measured by the strength of the middle class. This group of people has a certain level of security where they can live for today expecting that their standard of living will continue onto the next day and the next. This security allows them to have a diet due their enabled means. That is, they can eat steak and potatoes at every meal or fish and rice at every meal. Even both. The middle class can direct the whole food industry by sheer volume purchasing.

Today we see the middle class directing the global food industry toward a diet with a higher meat content. While this may seem trivial, it’s the scale of the issue which makes this noticeable. For the last few decades over 20 million people on Earth have entered the middle class. Note that the energy production efficiency of flesh to vegetation is 25 to 1 [1]. So it takes 25 times as much effort to produce meat for eating than to produce vegetation. The middle class in 2009 was estimated at 1.8B people and may grow to 4.9B by 2030. Let’s add this up. The food industry will soon need (3.1e9people x 25times x 8700KJ/d*365days=) 2.46e17Joules more energy each year to satisfy the demands of the middle class.

The burgeoning middle class makes for a stable society and a dependable economic model. It may not make for a sustainable future if it decides to try to maintain its diet. More energy will need be allocated to food production. But energy is finite so will another industry give up energy? And what about all the land, feedstock, water, and services needed to grow the meat? Can the flesh eating middle class’s diet lead to a better, sustainable future?