Sunday, March 21, 2010

Hope & Fear: Climate Change Fact and Fiction

There's a lot of talk about hope and fear. Do we need to be saved?
Saved from what? From people telling us what to do? From cops and robber?
From catastrophic climate?

My personal belief is that's there's no right answer to the questions of strong or weak government, or to the questions of personal liberty vs. obligations to the state. I believe that societal questions have no right or wrong answers because we can't predict the future and we can not retro-actively determine the cause of a certain effect when the size of the system is as large as the earth.

The questions of climate change are quite complicated as well. The processes between the earth's atmosphere and its surface are non-linear and extraordinarily complex. I think that it's so complex that's it may be irreducibly complex, and by that, I mean that the only way to figure out what will happen is to let it happen, i.e. there is no way to accurately model the interplay between the earth's atmosphere and its surface.

If there was no life on the planet, the model would be non-linear & quite complex, though maybe we could model it to some extent. But with life processes, the non-linear processes are of a different degree. There are biological feedback mechanisms that make cloud-formation feedback look like middle-school mathematics.

I don't want to take a particular side on the debate surrounding global climate change, but what I want to do is calm the waters. I'd like to differentiate between global climate change and catastrophic climate change. (By catastrophic climate change, I mean the idea that human CO2 emissions will cause the earth's climate to radically change inducing billions of people to have to find new places to live.)

I'd like to set a tone that is without the hope or fear seen so often in newspapers, TV and the web.

I am not afraid of catastrophic climate change because of the following basic physics principles:
1) The forcing function for the effect of CO2 in the atmosphere is logarithmic
This means that the change in the forcing function is the same for a change from 200 ppm CO2 to 400 ppm as would the the change from 400 ppm to 800 ppm of CO2.

2) Total radiation is proportional to T^4 (temperature to the fourth power.)
In the IPCC report, they approximate the change in the radiative forcing function with a linear increase in temperature.

So, here's some simple math:

The earth receives light from the sun at an average power of 1366 Watts per meter squared. This number varies between 1412 W/m2 in the Northern Winter and 1321 W/m2 in the Northern Summer. In order to compare this number with the IPCC's definition of radiative forcing, I believe that there is a difference of (1-alpha)/4. The (1-alpha) corrects for the actual amount of sunlight absorbed by the earth, and the 1/4 factor converts the circular area(pi*r^2) of sunlight hitting the earth with the surface area (4*pi*r^2) used in the definition of GHG forcing function.
The CO2 forcing function looks like:
delta Radiative Forcing (in units of W/m2) = 5.35 * ln (C/Co)
where C is the current concentration of CO2 in ppm and Co is a set value of 280 ppm.
The current value of delta RF is roughly 1.66 W/m2.
That's on the order of 0.6% of the equivalent total radiative forcing from the sun. Even if the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere were to double to 560 ppm. The change in radiative forcing would only be 3.7 W/m2, which is still only ~1.4% of the total equivalent sunlight absorbed the earth.

To first order, I get a temperature change of ~1.2 deg C for a CO2 doubling. This ignores secondary effects (which definitely can be important), but I think that it points out that it will take a while before we get to large increases in temperature (~5 deg C.)

Since we have some time before drastic action is required, I suggest that more research be done in the area of understanding the actions of proposals to change the status quo.

For example, how many people will be saved by a policy and how many will die because of the policy? People will die under the status quo and people will die under any new policy. The question is: will there be any net saving of life? For example, will warmer weather save lives in the winter? Will a new policy cause economic difficulty such that more people will starve than under current policy?

Since we have some time, I'd like to really know what the net effect is of the various policies I've seen presented in IPCC reports.

Ultimately, the 7 billion people living on this planet will need to come to some agreement about what level to cap greenhouse gas emissions, and we can make a more informed decision if we have the data in front of us to determine which policy can save the more lives.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Return on Investment

The more I think about it, the most important variable in economics, as well as in life, is return on investment (ROI.) You can't predict ROI accurately because the world is not predictable, but it should be the goal that one strives for.
Ultimately, the life processes on earth are trying to increase the production rate of entropy. I see life as one big machine trying to turn UV/visible sunlight into light at as low a frequency as possible. The lower the better. We are all just busy-bees trying to increase the production of entropy. And we shouldn't fight against it.
If we take this to its logical conclusion, humans should be producing entropy here on earth as fast as possible and we should be populating other planets so that we can produce entropy there as well.
Does this mean that we should waste energy? No! There is a difference between producing entropy during wasteful processes and producing entropy during productive processes.
For example, if we were all to stop working and just jog or drive our cars, we could produce a lot of entropy. However, we'd eventually just stop running or driving when we run out of food/fuel. We shouldn't waste energy (work) because we need energy (work) to produce the things that keep us alive. (Along the way, there's entropy production, but the goal should be maximizing the amount of work produced because entropy maximizing will follow behind.)
So, in the end, we need to find ways to produce more work (~energy.) We need to explore other planets. We need to populate other planets.
How do we do that? We need to create greater return on work (energy) investment. We need to increase the ROI of farming. We need to increase the ROI of electrical energy production. We need to decrease the price of transportation oil. All so that we can have more people focused on producing work (and generating entropy) on other planets.
As simple as this seems, it's not an easy task at all.
Decreasing the cost of electricity and food production is not an easy task right now.

My goal is to remind people not to conserve energy!!!
Productive uses of electrical energy are good!!! Yes, spending energy can be good, especially when spending energy produces more energy.
We need to expand to other planets and we need energy to expand.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Money = Work

Like most of you, I feel like I've been taken on a gut-wrenching roller coaster of financial boom & bust.
I'm sick to my stomach some days with the lack of stability in the markets over the last decade. It also drives me crazy that countries can print money and take other measures to inflate/deflate their monetary supply. It's crazy to think that hard earned work can be devalued at the whims of leaders (either elected or not-elected.)
I'm so angry that there doesn't seem to be a rational underpinning for our current economic models. This idea of markets and equilibrium is ridiculous. It should be immediately be thrown out and buried very deep underground.
So, one of my goals of this blog is to start over and see if it's possible to derive some sort of economic model that is grounded in physics. In fact, I'm hoping to start with the laws of non-equilibrium thermodynamics and see if it's possible to work out a sensible economic model. (I'll need help along the way, so please point me in the right direction and send me links to any papers already written on this subject. I've been doing some searching already and found a few interesting ones, especially a few by R. Ayers.)

So, here's the start:
I've been wondering recently whether it is possible to equate money with work. And I mean work in the physics definition of the word, which has units of kW*hr. This could be mechanical work (force*distance), electrical work (charge*voltage), gravitational (gravitational force*distance) or chemical work (negative of the change in Gibbs free energy).
What if we had a currency that was linked directly to how much work (kW*hrs) you could purchase? For example, when I go to the store and buy a box of oranges, the price of the box would say "2.50 kW*hrs."
I've thought about this for a while and it gets a little confusing, but I think that it straightens out in the end. The work is the amount of work needed to create the product, and this can vary because it includes the work (money) that the employees of the company get to make the product, which allows them to spend their work (money) on products.
Another source of confusion (and a very important one) is that the work you pay for is the work that goes into the product, not the work that comes out. The ratio of output work to input work is proportional to the return on investment.
For example, if I were to buy electricity, I would spend 10 kW*hr of money, but I may get 100 kW*hr of electricity (electrical work.) This means that the return on investment (work out vs. work in) for the power plant supplying me electricity is ten (10). I think that the work out to work in the past was closer to 50 for coal power plants. Wind power today is roughly 20, and I believe that solar PV is less than 10. When you buy electricity (work) in units of electricity (work), then it's really easy to see if you are getting a good return on investment.

Here are the reasons why I think that a work-based currency is particularly advantageous.

1) The government can't change the value of your money. You can always purchase 500 kW*hrs of work if you have a 500 kW*hr in the bank. (Remember that the 500 kW*hrs in the bank might be able to be invested so that it increases in value. For example, the bank may give you an interest rate of 4% per year because the bank takes your money and invests it on something that increases the amount of work (money) in the world.)
2) If the amount of work available in the world decreases (if for example OPEC lowers output of oil), it'll be obvious because there will be less money floating around. The connection between energy (work) and the economy will be obvious. You won't have people blaming recessions on the housing market when the real culprit is the diminished supply of oil (which lowers the work output to work input of so many processes, such as agriculture and transportation.)
3) Measuring the amount of work (money) per person is a sure-fire way of determining whether a country is growing economically. There's no fudge factors.
4) There would be no currency exchange between countries. You can't have a country messing around with their monetary supply to increase exports. A 5 kW*hr bill will buy 5kW*hr of work in Europe just as it will in the U.S. (Though, a 5 kW*hr bill will not buy the same amount of electricity in Europe as it will in the U.S. A 5 kW*hr bill in Europe may only buy you 50 kW*hr of electricity in Paris whereas it may buy you 150 kW*hrs in West Virgina because of the higher return on investment from coal power plants than solar/wind/nuclear/etc...)

So, those are the reasons why I'm in favor of a currency with the units of work (kW*hrs). Let me know if you can think of any disadvantages of using a work-based currency.


p.s. this blog should not be construed to be either for or against any particular source of energy. The actual energy return on energy investment (EROEI) for a given source of electricity changes daily. Also, it may not be fair to compare coal power plants with wind power plants on just EROEI unless we find a way to convert the externalities (pollution) from a power plant into units of work. For example, people talk about a CO2 market in which the externality (pollution) is given units of money (such as $20 / ton of CO2.) In the new currency, this might look like: XXX kW*hrs / ton of CO2. This amount of work / ton of CO2 would lower the net output of work from the power plant and would in turn lower the EROEI of the power plant.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Theme of this Blog

I'm hoping to use this site to start some discussions on topics that excite me: mainly physics and alternative energy generation. This blog will be a little bit of musing on where we're headed as a species and a little bit of asking some "why is it that" questions.

So enough with the formality: Let's get right to it.

What is the cause of the irreversibility in the universe?
I've been reading a little bit about quantum entanglement, and I'm trying to find out what's the connection between quantum entanglement and the production of entropy.
My understanding is that there are two requirements for the production (increase) in entropy of an isolated system: 1) a probabilistic/stochastic/non-deterministic process and 2) a gradient in some variable (such as concentration, temperature, etc...) .
It seems to me that the source of the stochastic processes is quantum mechanics, and this is why I'm trying to learn more about this quantum entanglement idea. (Let me know if there's a connection here.)

But even with a stochastic process, there needs to be a gradient, perhaps a gradient in concentration of species or temperature. For example, when an isolated system reaches equilibrium, it stops generating entropy because there's no longer a gradient. So, what's the source of a gradient in the universe? i.e. why is the universe not in equilibrium?

Physicists talk about fluctuations in the cosmic microwave background as the cause of non-equilibrium in the universe, but this argument is a little bit misleading. Some times, when I read articles about fluctuations in the cosmic background, the articles make it sound as if the universe was in equilibrium and the somehow fluctuations pushed it out of equilibrium. But this is not the case. The universe was not in equilibrium to start: not anywhere near equilibrium. It was a lot hotter and a lot denser than the surroundings.

There's diffusion occurring along with expansion of time itself.
The occurrence of irreversible processes, like diffusion, require that, even if the universe were to contract, it would not follow the same path backwards as it went forwards. The universe will not contact back to the same state as the Big Bang.

Let me know what you think.