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Entropy production delusion

It is common in knowledgeable circles to talk about the development of civilization in terms of entropy discussion. The term 'entropy...

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

The unwinnable war

Centuries ago, human beings declared war on the environment. They decided they would do to the enemy, Nature, what was deemed necessary to ensure that their civilization would progress. They invented weapons, artificial agriculture then industrialization leading to exponential population growth, to improve their fighting ability. They still believe they can win the war simply because of the power of their beloved weapon, fiat money.

The war has not been going well for Nature in recent times. Resource stocks that were built up over eons by hard work of numerous natural forces using energy from the Sun have been devastated by the rampant misuse by the technology devised by humans to provide energy and materials wastefully used. The emptying of the underground stocks of many minerals (including the fossil fuels), the deletion of soil fertility and groundwater, deforestation, desertification, ocean acidification go with the noticeable rapid climate change are just some of the unintended blunders of the ignorant society as it builds up a vast infrastructure that will only temporarily provide the services that humans are now so dependent on.

However, society at large has been duped by the hype of its leaders. It still has the fallacious belief that technology will enable the tackling of emerging problems with the way Nature operates. They have yet to take into account the fact that technology created these problems. Many people will be bewildered as Nature strikes back. Few, even at this stage, understand that climate change is only one of Nature's weapons. Many already have to cope with a food shortage stemming partly from devastation of the environment. They have yet to understand that Nature bats last so the Anthropocene era is drawing to a close with a major dieoff of humans and the certain demolition of the much of the infrastructure of this civilization.

Monday, July 15, 2013

The energy and material duality that invariably determines what happens

It is interesting that text book items are quoted without attempting to provide a sound contrary argument to the assertion that the systems of civilization are irreversibly using up limited natural material capital and producing material wastes. This assertion does not appear in text books because it is an innovative way of looking at the fundamental principles of what invariably happens. Leaving aside the controversial radiation (a process in which energetic particles or energetic waves travel through a vacuum) of the solar energy from the Sun, some of this incident solar energy is transformed to heat energy in air in the atmosphere. The consequences are winds (kinetic energy of air) and numerous other operations that are taken for granted. Some of the incident solar energy is used to produce chemical energy (carbohydrates) in plants (made of materials that grow and then decay). Some of this solar energy is absorbed in the oceans so affect the currents that have such an impact on other operations. Some of this solar energy is now absorbed in solar panels where it is converted to electrical energy.

A discussion of what happens in operations (processes) should also consider what happens over time to the system (made of materials) in which the process takes place. The nature of the process depends on the state of the system. If the system does not exist then the process cannot occur. There is a vast amount of heat energy in the oceans and this has an influence on many natural operations, such as currents. But only a very few technological systems have been installed to convert a very small proportion of that heat energy to electrical energy. All existing systems age due to the action of natural forces, including friction. So the nature of the processes carried out in an aging system adapts to the changing environment of the operation. The power of a petrol engine declines over time as many of its components wear.

The mathematical equation for energy = force x distance is often quoted as underpinning the process. Energy is transformed when it flows to do work. That is reality is embodied in the mathematical definition of work. Stored energy, such as the bond energy of chemical compounds, do not do work. So processes always involve the "flow of energy" and any discussion that just uses the short hand term "energy" presumes, unwisely, that the qualification is understood. That work statement is a well-recognized fundamental principle but it relates to only those circumstances where the energy associated with the material has the potential to do work by flowing, either spontaneously or when activated. That energy equation above has no relevance in energy transformation but other (thermodynamic or fluid dynamic) equations underpin these transformation processes. But all processes involve the irreversible flow of energy through a system made of materials. Some mathematical equations deal with aspects of the nature of the operation (process) but often they have to have allowance for real effects such as friction.

Some processes that have a stage which entails the transformation of energy to do work do not have an associated transformation of material. A generator does work in transforming mechanical (kinetic) energy into electrical energy with a high efficiency as only a small amount of that kinetic energy is dissipated as heat energy due to friction. The material lost in the bearings due to this wear is a long term problem for the maintenance people and those who have to pay for this dose of reality. But the generator is not transforming material in the process. Heat energy does the work to provide kinetic energy in gas turbines without a material transformation. Pressure energy does the work to provide kinetic energy in water turbines without a material transformation. The filament in a light bulb transforms electrical energy into visible light energy (and some heat energy) without transformation of the filament material although the filament will slowly degrade. 

On the other hand, as is now well known, the coal combustion work process transforms chemical energy in the coal to heat energy and transforms the material (mainly carbon) into gaseous, vapor and particulate wastes. The process of transforming (refining process) iron ore to metallic iron through the work done by the flow of the energy input produces vast amounts of waste heat. Both energy and materials are transformed in both of these processes. All natural processes also have the dual (energy and material) transformation process. The functioning (metabolism) of the human body is a classic example.

So it is only in some technological systems that the flow of energy to do work entails only the transformation of the energy. Most of the processes in these systems entail the transformation of both energy and materials. Ironically this significant difference between the operation of processes in technology systems is not covered in engineering courses at universities. Thermodynamics and fluid dynamics cover the irreversible flow of energy (increasing entropy - Second Law of Thermodynamics) in doing work in the operation of technological systems. Chemistry covers the transformation of chemical compounds (material) due to the flow of energy in (endothermic) or out (exothermic) of the reactions. Physics embraces the impact of numerous natural laws including the conservation of mass (of materials) on the operation of physical systems without taking into account that mass is transformed into waste in the aging process and often in the work process. Other subjects cover what happens (such and stresses and strains) to materials in operations.

The fundamental operational principles enunciated here are governing what is happening in current operations even though most people do not understand the nature of this irreversible process. The technological infrastructure hosting this unsustainable process is already degrading the life support system. Future widespread improved understanding of these fundamental principles can only lead to smarter decisions about how to power down.

Denis Frith

Saturday, July 13, 2013

The Waste Manifesto

The elite in global society continue to pursue their traditional dominance of the ecosystem  as well as the population at large in order to bolster their self esteem. Their manifesto has not changed in principle but the details have as civilization has developed through industrialization. The masses strive to share in this development of materialism with limited success as only some of the fruits of economic "progress" have trickled down.

This manifesto is based on the false premise that civilization can continue to ravish its life support system, the environment, without paying the ecological cost, the depreciation of natural material wealth and the transformation of natural resources into waste by using them. Natural forces takes no notice of this manifesto of parasitic Homo sapiens. They have been in control of what happens physically, geologically and biologically for eons. They continue to do so now.They will continue to do so into the far future. They will also continue to control how the temporary infrastructure of civilization operates and ages during its life time. Friction plays a major role in this irrevocable aging process.

Society enjoys the goods and services provided by the infrastructure irreversibly using some of the limited natural capital. They would feel lost without cars for transport, electricity for cooking, heating, cooling and for running all their electronic gimmicks. Most would be bewildered without shelter and sanitation. They are prepared to go along with the incredible manifesto of the elite so long as they can enjoy the benefits of industrialization without paying the ecological costs. They enjoy the free lunch that using up limited natural resources makes possible only at this stage. But what a legacy they will be leaving. Future generations will curse them for abiding the consumption manifesto.

It is ironical that society is happy for the operations they are so dependent on to produce vasts amounts of waste so long as most of it can be deposited in land fills. They have yet to accept that some of these wastes have contributed to the climate change that is becoming very worrisome. The influence of this pollution on human health is causing concern amongst medical profession although the majority of well off people continue to feast on the food that fossil fuels do so much to provide. They are content to work hard so that they can afford to consume the products made from natural wealth. Making intangible money is the driving force of these parasites.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Nuclear fission conundrum

Scientists have been pursuing the nuclear fission dream for many years. Those involved consider that it is their duty to make this process work.Vast amounts of energy, both intellectual and physical, have been spent in past decades in trying to devise a system that here on Earth can emulate the process that has been taking place on the Sun for millions of years. Some progress has been made with the JET (Joint European Torus) system in England producing a burst of 16 megawatts energy for seconds. This was only 70% of the energy pumped in to heat the plasma.

There are hopes in the scientific community that the bigger ITER International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor) system being build in southern France will do more than give a small burst of energy in response to the vast amount that powers it. Of course, the expectation that nuclear fission will eventually power the operation of the systems of civilization is adroitly promoted by the scientists who make a good living by pursuing this dream. They continue to gain support from governments and investors because the return, if it is ever realized, will enable civilization to continue to grow through the copious supply of energy.

Of course, the scientists promoting this endeavor present their understanding of the requirement. They strive to meet the challenge of understanding the complex physical forces at play. No one can doubt the integrity of these dedicated people.That is where their responsibility lies.

Their focus is on realizing a nuclear fission system that will produce more energy than is used to drive it. That is their objective. It is not for them to address two other issues that will determine the worth of the nuclear fission concept in the future operation of the systems of civilization.

Assume that ITER leads to a production system that provides a proportion of the energy requirement in some countries. This system will have to be manufactured out of materials that may well be becoming in short supply and this process will use a lot of energy currently supplied by fossil fuels and nuclear power stations. The authorities will then have to have in place a program to maintain them during their limited lifetime and to replace them subsequently. However, meeting the demand for energy to drive the infrastructure may not have a high priority for future governments as they try to cope with such developing problems as too many aging people, unemployed youngsters, workers with skills that are no longer required, environmental toxicity, climate change, ocean acidification, loss of fertile soil and potable water combined with decay of cities and the associated infrastructure. These problems cannot be addressed by the flow of intangible money, despite what people may think. Most of them are tangible operation of natural and synthetic systems. It is ironical that even the nuclear fission scientists talk about energy as though it is some quantity when, in actual fact, it is always the property of material and what happens to the material in the energy transformation process has to be taken into account if it carried out here on Earth. Astronomers understand what happens in nuclear fission on the Sun.

The scientists who have devoted their undoubted talents to produce a system that will only exacerbate the odious outlook for future generations will be no worse off than those who have worked so hard to produce the endangered species, cars, trucks, airliners and container vessels.

Friday, July 5, 2013

The power of money

Society is enraptured with the power of money. The rich know that this power is no delusion as they use money to get what they want with few exceptions, such as immortality. The poor recognize this power because they are powerless to get even sufficient food, drink, shelter and sanitation. People have good reason to put faith in this power as it has been the dominant driver of the progress of civilization - in their opinion. The creation of vast amounts of fiat money in recent times by authorities in a number of countries has done nothing to dampen the belief in the power of money. It still buys what citizens want, if they have access to enough of this intangible quantity.

The use of the term 'power' in this context is misleading as it is the consequence of  decision making by people in a position to believe actions will result from their decisions. This power is an intangible. It is not the result of a tangible, physical operation.

Consider a simple example. I have the "power" to switch on a light which then uses electrical "power". The first power is an intangible decision by me. It initiates what subsequently actually happens in a physical sense.The second power is indicative of the tangible flow of electrical energy to the light that can be measured by a meter. It is indicative of what happens.

Money is powerless on a remote island with no inhabitants. So a rich person caste ashore on the island will have to struggle to get food, drink and shelter. A poor person who is also stranded  will probably find it easier to cope because of less dependence on using money to buy the essentials. They have more personal power than the rich person.

Of course, the elite in society will continue to exercise their power without any consideration of the nuances in the meaning of the term. However, the power of natural forces have, if anything, been exacerbated by what the systems of civilization have done in recent times. Droughts, floods, storms, tsunamis, wild fires, hot spells and cold spells are examples of the power of natural forces that the powerful in society can do little about. All money can do is pay for skilled people and the required equipment to ameliorate as much as possible this impact of natural power.

Money power is bound to become impotent in coming decades as natural forces take over control from the aging infrastructure of civilization.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Carbon bubble

The possibility of what is being called the 'carbon bubble' is exciting discussion in the media because of its financial implications. The prospect that appreciable fossil fuel, oil, coal and gas, will remain underground due to the efforts to reduce emissions from their use is affecting the decisions of the oil and gas industry, so investors.

Many terms used by governments, corporations and the media are misleading, often to promote vested interests. Investors, particularly those who hope to increase their savings to enable a pleasing retirement, may be fooled by the seemingly sound comment that there is a 'carbon bubble'. However, those who have some understanding of physical science know that such a quantity cannot exist. Carbon is a solid so how can it be a bubble! They know that it really carbon dioxide that is being referred to. But a bubble! Of course, financial people often talk in terms of bubbles when they are referring to temporary inflated demand. So, does 'carbon bubble' really mean that a temporary surplus of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is causing climate change? Yes and no. It is common knowledge that animals, including humans, breathe out carbon dioxide in what is called respiration. But in one of the marvels of nature, plants take in carbon dioxide to produce carbohydrates by photosynthesis. This balanced cycling of carbon compounds has been going on for eons until clever humans derived means of disrupting the balance. Their technological systems obtain energy from fossil fuels by transforming hydrocarbons to carbon dioxide in the combustion process that emit into the atmosphere from the familiar power station chimneys. Trees also contribute to the consumption of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. So the widespread logging has also contributed to the actions decided by humans in disrupting the the cycling of carbon dioxide compounds. But society has not got away with that deleterious disruption of a long established process. It now has to cope with climate change.

As ever, however, selective arguments combined with misleading terminology leads to confusion and lack of understanding. It is a matter for speculation as to how well the oil and gas industry can manage to continue to devastate the environment in order to make money. They have on their side the desires of the populace to continue to have the energy that contributes to their well being as well as needs and wants. And, of course, governments will respond to the demand so of their voters. On the other hand, nature bats last!