Brainy Quote of the Day

Monday, July 11, 2016

Fuels and Futures...

Figure 1. The correlation between hydrocarbon-based power consumption and economic output for most countries on Earth. A power-law fit finds that annual GDP per person is G = $10 500 (C/kW)0.64, where C is hydrocarbon-based energy consumption per second per person. The tight power-law relationship indicates that economic prosperity is not currently feasible without consumption of hydrocarbon fuels. The power law is reminiscent of scaling laws in biology; 15 the flow of petroleum through economies resembles the flow of blood in mammals. On average, the hydrocarbon power consumed in the US is 8 kW per person, the same as 80 incandescent 100 W bulbs burning continuously. If the US were to rely only on its currently available renewables—biomass cogeneration, wood, hydropower, geothermal, wind, passive solar, and photovoltaics—power consumption would drop to four bulbs per person; eliminating hydropower and biofuels would reduce the number to one or two. The reduction would entail such a change in lifestyle as to make the US unrecognizable. 16 (Data source: Central Intelligence Agency, World Factbook, 2015; DOE/Energy Information Administration, 2015.)

Citation: Phys. Today 69, 7, 46 (2016);

Topics: Alternative Energy, Economy, Green Energy, Green Tech, Politics

President George W. Bush famously said: "we're addicted to oil." That's an understatement, as it is evident this is the underpinning of the planetary economy.

The sad part is, without physics to give an intervention of sorts, the kind of utopia envisioned by Gene Roddenberry in Star Trek is highly unlikely. We're already showing the strains of automation, globalization and trade deals without a forethought on the impacts with populations at the bottom of societal ladders. It makes way for demagogues in the US, the UK and elsewhere that don't quite have a clue how to solve the problem, but play into xenophobic fears (as evidenced) to their advantage.

To contend with the challenges of fueling modern society, the physics community must collaborate with other disciplines and remain broadly engaged in research and education on energy.

For how long and in what ways can humans sustain the energy-intensive way of life we take for granted? That consequential question is one that physicists must help answer. As we pass the middle of 2016, oil prices are at a 10-year low, partly because of the surge in production of oil and natural gas from fracking. The current fracking boom may ease the transition to a new mix of energy resources. Conversely, it may make us complacent and delay the transition or incite popular resentment and impede the transition.

The physics community must participate in shaping how energy issues play out over the coming decades. The development of fusion reactors, photovoltaic cells, and other potential energy sources clearly requires contributions from physicists. As educators, many of us occupy the central position of teaching students the very definition of energy and the fundamental limits on extraction of free energy from heat. Beyond the classroom, we should all be concerned with the public’s understanding of what energy means. Even in the specific case of fossil fuels, there is room for our increased technical engagement through collaboration.

Physics Today: Physics, fracking, fuel, and the future
Michael Marder, Tadeusz Patzek and Scott W. Tinker

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