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.


Prising elements out of the Earth’s crust, purifying their essence and moulding them into crafts highlights the technical age of humanity. Steel becomes ploughshares, silicon melts into transistors and aluminium shines into pots and pans. By learning the characteristics of many elements and compounds, humans specialize material into being capable aids to our everyday existence.

Yet, no wizard’s wand transforms rock. Human labour, our sweat and skill, do it. However, somewhat magically, machines aid our tolling. Great shovels dig dirt, roaring blast furnaces separate and shape the elements. As such, aluminium requires about 200 MJ for every kilogram produced (Smil, 2008).

The world production of aluminium in 2007 was 36 000 thousand metric tons (USGS). In total then, we used about 7.2e18 joules of energy to transform the Earth’s material into our devices. That’s 1.58% of the global total of primary energy usage. In other words, we consider one element to be so precious that we allocate 1.58% of our annual supplies of non-renewable energy resources to extract it.

And, what do we do with it? In the U.S., the partition was; 38% transportation, 22% packaging, 16 % buildings, 7% electrical, 7% machinery, 7% consumer durables, and 3% others (USGS). Is this the best distribution of our energy resources? If supplies fail to meet demand, how should the partitioning change?


Photo Alupro


Library of Alexandria

Gold makes peoples’ eyes widen with desire. Platinum excites those with a richer taste. Greater than both these is knowledge. Skilled craftsmen turn metal into fiery chariots that carry humans to space. A touch on a keyboard lays before us the depths of our existence. With it, humans are the most advanced species on the planet. Without it, we suffer causal existence.

Many years ago, the Greeks extolled the value of knowledge. From this eagerness arose the Royal Library of the Ptolemies. For hundreds of years this developed and flourished to become the cornerstone of the Great Library of Alexandria. This amazing institute brought scholars and information together. Sadly, its contribution is less clear.

In its days the library usually used papyrus scrolls to record information. Assume a scroll had an area of about a metre by a metre and was about a millimetre thick. With 500 000 scrolls, the library had about 500 cubic metres of papyrus which has a mass of about 50 000kg. In burning (as was said to be the fate of the library), this releases about 5.4e10 joules of energy.

Yet, the library had about 40 full time scholars and a vast complex to record and preserve data. Their dietary energy requirements over 300 hundred years is nearly 5e13 joules. The energy costs for making the paper and ink and acquiring the information is much extra. Apparently, just recording the information cost a thousand times more energy than the storage medium. Filtering and dissemination were activities not yet accrued.

Some estimates put the information content on the Internet at a few thousand petabytes (1e18) and growing. Without electricity to maintain the Internet, what becomes of the information? How will we record our knowledge in the future? Or, must we ensure available electricity (energy) at any cost?


Photo University of Texas


Earth Hour

A hectic rush becomes synonymous with our daily passage through another day. We allocate less time to enjoy simple pleasures and more time to complete the to-do list. Recover a sense of balance by stepping away from the treadmill. On a personal scale, we close our eyes and meditate. On a global scale, there’s Earth Hour.

The simple act of darkening a light bulb has many consequences. If we let darkness envelope us then we can’t be distracted by reading or watching television. Extending our senses, we can envision the consequences of everyday energy shortfalls. Work and entertainment would get limited to daylights hours. Nightfall could bring on quiet reflection.

According to British Petroleum’s statistical review, in 2006 we used about 4.6e20 joules of primary energy (oil, coal, gas, nuclear, hydro). There are 8760 hours in a year. Assume we use the same amount of energy in 2008. And, assume humans use no energy for one hour. Then, we would relinquish 5.2e16 joules of energy. This is the typical wood harvest from 4e9 acres of woodlot (assuming 5 cords of wood each acre every ten years). The province of Ontario, larger than France and Spain combined, has 2e8 acres of forest. Hence, one hour of humanity’s energy consumption is equal to the energy from forests 20 times larger than the one covering most of this province.

Perhaps, taking an hour to think about this situation may set people’s minds to thinking about energy sources that will continue long after the fossil fuels have been consumed. This eventuality may come sooner than we expect.

Earth Hour


Photo from Massachusetts.gov

Niagara Falls

A wonder of the natural world amazes us as 5796 cubic metres of water each second drop 99 metres along the length of the Niagara River. Before 1896, this huge release of energy had the minimal effect of slightly warming the water. However, with the diversion of water, humans now use some of the river to generate 1.4e17 Joules of electrical potential each year at Niagara Falls.

Humans with a standard of living that consumes large amounts of current technology, like North America and Europe, use about 3.4e11 Joules of energy per person each year, not including dietary needs. Thus, the energy from Niagara Falls could maintain about half a million people at this life styles.

It is with no surprise that people flocked to the Niagara Falls area to take advantage of this free energy. Yet, over 2 million people now live within 50 kilometres of the falls. That is, four times the number of people live in the immediate vicinity of the falls than can be supported by the energy derived from the falls.

Though Niagara Falls should continue providing energy for a long time into the future, it is insufficient on its own to meet current demands. Should alternative energy supplies be no longer forth coming, e.g. petroleum supplies cease, then either the number of people in the area must decrease or the living standard must decrease. Should plans be formulated for this or should we wait and see?

Niagara Falls nearly frozen dry in 1912;

Frozen Niagara.

Photo from the Niagara Falls Public Library