I, Not Robot

Humans are tough. Slow to start. But when we get going; we keep going. In an endurance race, we can outrun horses. And most other land animals. We can do this regularly, often ably winning one day after another for a very long time. It seems that the human body has wonderfully adapted to the Earth in a way that makes us so successful.

And humans are great thinkers. We’ve invented and promoted machines. Using controlled sources of energy, we control machines to our great advantage. They carry us in the air, drill us holes through mountains and provide us views of the surface of other planets. But they, like humans, need energy.

Will robots replace humans? Or do we still have the advantage? A small, wheeled robot used to explore a room might start with an energy content of 10Wh/kg. A purpose built electric car begins with an energy content of about 2500Wh/kg. An adult human with an energy usage of 10.5MJ/day and the ability to live for 30 days without eating has an energy content of about 1500Wh/kg. From this, it seems that humans are closing in upon a mechanical replacement.

However, the biggest difference is that humans can obtain energy from a vast assortment of readily available foodstuffs. As long as the food remains available, humans can function. Robots on the other hand require very clean potential power. Usually in the form of electric current from batteries. If humans maintain control over this power then we won’t be replaced by robots. In the future, if there’s a shortage of mechanical energy, will humans still be tough enough for whatever opponent  they encounter?


Wind Farms

Have you seen the wind? It pushes, slides or slams bye. Or it’s absent. A weightiness. Expecting. A potential. And what a potential it is.

Take a properly tuned set of blades and you can translate wind into electrical energy. To some profit. Wind farms feature tens to hundreds of wind turbines. All waiting. Waiting for the breath. A breath that pushes on their blades, turns their windings and sends electrical current into the waiting power distribution network.

Just a fad you think. The current largest farm in Cambria features 189 turbines. Each well spaced. Across a breadth of 145 square kilometres. Waiting in calmness. Or spinning frenetically when the wind blows. We can’t see the wind. But we can see the blades spin.

The world has some swell sites for these farms. Need Class 3 winds. And perhaps an energy storage medium. Like man-made petroleum. Is this your idea of the future?


Traffic Lights

The ubiquitous traffic light. Synonymous with cars. With over half the human population living in cities, traffic lights have become part of life. We allow them to tell us when to start, when to stop and when things are to change. Without them, chaos would permeate the transportation industry and bring grid-lock to every city dweller. So, yes, we need these red, yellow and green lights to control our lives.

Traffic lights are simple. Yet telling. A tall post keeps the lights above traffic. Wires in the post provide the lights with electricity. And control wires in the post may influence the light’s activation. Yes, simple. Telling is that their installation can cost $2million for one intersection. Typical incandescent lights use 2.4 kilowatt hours a day. Never stopping. The city of Toronto has 2346 lights. Suggestions are that the USA has over 300,000 lights. Would a global count of one million be reasonable? That’s 3.2E15 Joules/yr of energy to keep them turning on and off for every moment of every day.

And if you’re in a car waiting at the lights, your car is idling. Burning petrol to no avail. Say on average there are two cars waiting at every stop light. Every day. That’s 1.2E18 J/yr. A huge amount just to keep order within our transportation industry. Which doesn’t take into account energy lost in braking the cars and accelerating the cars. Cars and traffic lights make for quite a combination in terms of energy consumption.

Are traffic lights relevant? They don’t use a lot of energy Are they symptomatic? Their effect, cars waiting at lights, has a high energy usage. And traffic lights are essential for our transportation industry. So we will keep using traffic lights. And cars. But, for how long? Until all the gasoline is spent? Is this the best way to use the finite resource of utile energy stores on Earth? Blinking on and off.


City Planning

Let’s plan a new city. First, what’s its purpose? A city is for people to live and enjoy life. It’s easy to plan just for this. Also we want to be safe. Safe from flood, fire and each other. Further, we want a similar or better life for our children. We see that adding needs makes for a more complex city. Yet we do continue to build cities where none were before. We bring order into our random lives.

Typically, we expect cities to endure for a long time. After all, we invested lots of material and energy into their construction. And while new cities pop up all over the Earth, we also maintain the existing cities. In result, there are more and more cities. On a finite Earth. Thus, by design and perhaps inclination, we and our cities continue to reduce the wilds of the Earth’s surface. Cities reduce the local randomness, the entropy.

Yet the acts of planning, building and maintaining orderly cities come at a cost. The cost is energy. We must apply energy to install and operate all the infrastructure that makes up a city. And we keep adding energy for the city to endure. Otherwise the city fails. As did Rome in the first millennium. Ever wonder what happened to its million residents during their exodus? Ever wonder what would happen if Tokyo fails with its 38million residents? Should we plan for the future as adroitly as we plan cities?

There are lots of cities. Over half the human population lives in large cities. And we’re making more. And cities, by design, rely upon imports. Imports of food, raw materials and energy. As long as the imports continue then so do the new and old cities. And order reigns over chaos. But what happens if the demand for imports like energy exceeds supply. Will cities have been planned to deal with this?


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