UPDATED 19 OCT 12019 (WIP)
Out of every single promising technology out there on the cusp of human grasp today, there is one single innovation which, in my genuine belief, surpasses all else in terms of the problems it will solve and the great good it stands to deliver upon humanity and the Earth at large. Of course, such a revolutionary change can only take place in a sector which is absolutely core to human civilization and intertwined with every other branch of the global economy without exception – energy. Allow me to explain.
Energy is at the heart of everything that matters in the universe. Life is ultimately a delicately organized system of particles which will fall apart sooner than one might expect if it cannot harness the energy it needs to maintain itself. The way in which an unwatered plant will die in days or weeks is an apt analogy for the entirety of life on Earth. With the right amount of energy, you can do anything. You can build a house, feed your family, power a computer, or even launch a rocket to land on the moon. It's not inaccurate to create an equivalence relation between money and energy – anything that costs money is either an object or a service, a physical action, both of which consume some energy to create and/or deliver.
Therefore it is not unreasonable to claim that every major advancement in our history to the quality of life of the average person resulted from either an increase in the efficiency of energy generation (be it electric, photosynthetic, or kinetic), or an increase in the efficiency of the everyday processes which utilise that energy. The agricultural revolution some ten thousand years ago was an increase in our efficiency of securing the caloric intake of our people – it was then, when the amount of energy a tribe needed to expend in order to feed its members decreased significantly, that society was truly born. Human specialization was only possible when a small part of the tribe could provide all the food for the whole tribe.
The industrial revolution is the same thing again – as we moved through wood burning; whale oil and coal; oil and natural gas; and finally to the fission of the uranium atom, we in each step of the way multiplied our energy return on investment, and the rate of production, by usually several orders of magnitude. This is not to forget fertilizer and modern farming, which once again increased our photosynthetic efficiency.
What will never work
Note, however, the absence of mention with regards to the "renewables" – photovoltaic solar panels, the modern wind turbine, and the like. These inventions do not fit in with the trend of progress in this overarching story, in fact, they represent a decrease in the efficiency of energy generation, and I would argue an overall pathological viewpoint on energy generation. Not to mention the obvious ethical problems with these technologies, which are every day slaughtering rare bird species and tearing apart natural animal habitats to extract and dump countless tonnes of toxic waste, which, unlike spent nuclear fuel: does not decay; and is not contained.
That’s not all, either – the primary problem with renewables is that they only operate sometimes, usually averaging somewhere between twenty-five and fifty per cent, thus requiring an extensive battery grid to be constructed if we are to continue twenty-four hour power consumption. (Spoiler alert: we are.) This is even more awful because batteries have an energy density over an order of magnitude below even animal fat or coal – it will take ripping apart the Earth on a scale we have never seen before, destroying upwards of a quarter of the world’s habitats, in order to even extract the resources to build these batteries. Elon, whom I deeply trust and respect (which is why I have been generally supportive and not sold my shares in his companies), has a good point about this: the metal resources of Earth are much greater than the hydrocarbons, so battery production doesn’t really threaten the planet’s lithium reserves or anything like that. Despite the validity of that argument, it does not mean that extractive industries including the lithium mining industry don’t pose massive threats to the environment and local populations – they do. This photo is just a single lithium plant in Chile, and we will need literally thousands on this scale if we move to a strictly renewables energy economy.
CR: EDWARD BURTYNSKY, ANTHROPOCENE
I don’t mean to sound pessimistic – the renewables have their place, just as chemical fuels and hydrocarbons do, but they do not represent a realistic global energy solution. Even disregarding all their detriments to life, it is probably impossible to even build enough of them to keep the global economy flowing and support a growing human population. I’d much rather save that quarter of the world’s land area for natural habitats and reforestation.
As a finishing thought, it’s always good to go back to a first principles viewpoint and look at the physics. These technologies are fundamentally, and will always be, limited by their surface area based consumption of a tiny fraction of a finite natural resource – be it the sun or the wind.
My team and I always look to a brighter future for humanity, not just maintenance of the status quo, and of course that leads us to Mars and our interstellar horizon. Not only would we like to guide the Earth into a period of revitalization for our natural forests and oceans, while providing a high quality of life and plentiful opportunity to every single human, but we want more. We yearn for the next great frontier. Life and humanity have always been curious. We are explorers, and we ought to be out there among the stars – finding another home on Mars, flying in wingsuits on Titan, floating along the clouds of Saturn in a zeppelin.
I refuse to believe our story ends on Earth, and I refuse a bad ending for humanity.
Unfortunately, in order to colonize most planets, we have a severely limited subset of energy technologies to choose from, and even less which are viable. For example, on Mars, the same solar panels generate almost three times less power per unit area than on Earth, due to the inverse square law on solar radiation. This amplifies to over twenty five times less once you get to the outer solar system. Basically, the further you are from the sun, the less sunlight you get for the same area.
There are also long dust storms on Mars which threaten solar-dependent mechanisms, which caused for example the unfortunate loss of our Spirit rover around Sol 2200. On the other hand, the primary technologies we currently use on Earth also cannot work because of their reliance on air or water. We can’t burn coal on Mars, and we can’t use low enriched uranium fueled light water reactors.
There are, naturally, countless new technologies and strategies yet to be developed in order for us to achieve this starbound trajectory. I feel obligated to thank the invaluable contributions of the great people at NASA, the ESA, CNSA, Roscosmos, SpaceX, ISRO, and the many other individuals and teams like Eckersley O’Callaghan, Rocket Lab, and HASSELL, of which I cannot hope to mention all. It will of course take the intersection of many hundreds of industries to succeed in establishing permanent settlements on Mars and the rest of the solar system.
Beckoning back to our premise, however, my team and I firmly hold that energy is that most important substrate upon which all else must be built, and we need to find a solution that will not only deliver reliability for our Martian children at a feasible cost, supporting them to expand their numbers and make their own progress towards a better future; but also which will make the rest of the job more affordable and allow humanity to launch ever more ambitious enterprises both looking outwards and in improving life on Earth.
As humanity strives to be better, our restrictions when deciding on such a solution grow harder. This technology must be clean and sustainable in its effects on nature, contributing either net zero or removing pollution from the atmosphere, while also not requiring the destruction of vast natural habitats to construct, and allowing us to return to nature much of the land we have already taken in the past. In that sense it must take up less surface area and minimize natural resource extraction. It must adhere to a higher standard of safety in its implementation and maintenance, as to eliminate the millions of deaths we currently face every year in fossil fuel and renewable energy accidents and side effects. It must be highly efficient and economically viable, providing a pathway towards a brighter future that is beneficial to all parties involved, and all sects of our global society. It must be scalable and deliverable all around the world, as to spread these benefits everywhere, and solve the whole of these problems we face, not just their western or urban components.
Finally, it must absolutely be something which can support significant growth in our total primary energy supply, up to and beyond, we hope, two exawatt hours (2 EWh), within a handful of decades and reasonable expenses. This is to accommodate the total elimination of global poverty and raising the standard of living to a level where every single human born on Earth will have plentiful access to opportunities and a chance to participate in the advancement of our future for centuries to come. I believe this is not only possible but absolutely necessary – we cannot accept poverty, hunger, or any form of privation as a reality any longer. It is an unnecessary suffering, and we have the tools to solve it.
@jwmza · August 4, 12019