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Real World Physics Problems Newsletter - Climate Change, Issue #48
April 04, 2019

Climate Change

I am disappointed to say that there is a good chance that we won't avoid the worst of climate change. Despite continuous warnings given by scientists on the extreme importance of drastically cutting carbon dioxide emissions within the next 12 years, it looks like our politicians can't muster a serious enough response to combat this threat. This is so unbelievable to me. Anyone who takes facts seriously, not just on the short term but long term, is likely pulling their hair out because of this. Imagine if politicians were scientists as a rule rather than the exception - what would the response be then? The problem here, as I see it, is a COMPLETE failure of our institutions to avert what will likely be the most knowable and worst disaster facing the human race. It is one thing to face an extinction level event that we have little or no advance warning for. It is quite another to know about something for decades ahead of time and then do practically nothing to steer ourselves away from disaster.

Something on this scale should be talked about constantly in the media, with public hearings in which fossil fuel executives are getting grilled on how long they knew about this, and why they put profits above all else. Fossil fuel companies knew about climate change risks as early as the 50's or 60's. Governments came into the know in the 80's. And nothing was done all this time, for the usual reasons, such as it could hurt the economy yadda yadda, too much change yadda yadda, plus let's not forget the intense lobbying by fossil fuel companies to not have anything done. Why, according to them, should we leave trillions of dollars of oil in the ground. I can't think of a single entity that bears so much responsibility for climate change as fossil fuel companies, which includes of course oil companies, coal companies, and natural gas companies. People (consumers) sure as hell don't care about what powers their vehicles. In fact, if people had battery powered vehicles instead of gas/diesel powered vehicles, which they could charge from home, I bet you they would much prefer that over going to a gas station and possibly waiting in line to fill up. Add to that the pollution caused from using gas/diesel in vehicles, which I'm sure no one would miss if they had electric vehicles instead. Consumers are not to be blamed here. We use what is available.

Did you know that electric vehicles were around over 100 years ago and were a significant percentage of all the cars in the world. They only lost favor because they didn't travel nearly as far as gas powered vehicles, so economic forces completely crowded out electric vehicles from the market. What a different world we would live in if vehicles were powered by battery power. There would be no problems with climate change, or certainly much less than there are now. Here's a not-so-fun fact, which gets to the heart of human thinking. Given that gas- powered vehicles 100 years ago stunk a lot in terms of the pollution they emitted (no catalytic converters back then), that did not matter at all because they could travel much further than the alternative (battery powered) vehicles at the time, which did not produce hazardous fumes. What I'm saying is that health concerns had no impact, and that strict economic utility was the only deciding factor in determining who won, between gas and battery powered vehicles. The propensity for short-term expedient thinking is a serious flaw that humans have. It led us to where we are now. If only battery-powered vehicles had held their place in the market way back then, we would then be 100 years further ahead in battery technology than we are now. Think about that.

If industry had continued battery-vehicle research, battery technology and energy density would have continued to improve, and at some point parity would likely have been reached, in which battery-powered vehicles would have been as economical as gas/diesel powered vehicles, which means they cost the same to buy and they travel the same distance on a single charge. But unfortunately, because fossil fuel companies got a foothold first, they became the monopoly force in the energy source used by transportation, and they then stifled anything which would threaten that. The fact that transportation is still almost entirely based on the burning of fossil fuels, for more than 100 years, to me seems ridiculous. It's like continuing to use dial-up internet instead of broadband, or using copper cables instead of fiber optics. Sure you can incrementally improve that dial up connection or use thinner and more economical copper cables, but when there is clearly a better way to do something you embrace that.

The way I see it, battery technology is easily a superior energy storage medium for light-duty vehicles, such as the cars and trucks that people typically drive. You can go 300-400 km on a single charge, and add to that the fact that electric motors are much more efficient then gasoline/diesel engines. AND add to that the fact that an electric car has much less complicated parts than a gasoline/diesel vehicle. Maintenance costs are much lower. But unfortunately, the battery technology is still 100 years behind where it should be. It is the powerful fossil fuel industry that has forced people to use dirty fuel for their transportation needs, well beyond the reasonable time frame that it takes to move on to something better. And it's not even a question of insisting on the use of internal combustion engines (which gas/diesel vehicles use). Those are actually fine, and can be made to run on hydrogen which provides comparable driving distance to gas/diesel. And hydrogen can be produced from the electrolysis of water, and the process of electrolysis can use energy from renewable sources like solar and wind energy. And when hydrogen burns you get water vapor, which doesn't pollute or add to carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. So it isn't even a failure to move beyond those types of engines, but a failure to move beyond fossil fuels which are pumped out of the ground, and when burned, creates local ground level pollution and ultimately adds to the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere which warms the planet. Neither is a good thing. Yes, hydrogen could have been used instead of fossil fuels. All you need is lots of water and a place with lots of renewable energy. Deserts are good for that, as they get lots of sunlight, and there's plenty of water in the ocean. So the marriage of those two things I think would have been economically feasible. I am hard pressed to imagine that drilling oil from deep underground (kilometers deep), and then refining it, before using it in vehicles, is economically cheaper than producing hydrogen the way I described. I once worked out that you can use huge arrays of Stirling engines in the desert to produce hydrogen from water. Stirling engines are among the most efficient way to produce electricity from sunlight, so they would be a good candidate for this task. I also understand that certain modes of transportation, such as commercial aircraft and ships, have huge energy requirements and battery technology is not yet at the level to provide the energy for them. It comes down to the lower energy density of batteries (joules/kilogram) as opposed to liquid fuels, such as jet fuel. But hydrogen has a high enough energy density for aircraft and ships, and it can be produced cleanly, the way I described.

Fossil fuel companies will one day be the most hated entity in the world, because of the ravages of climate change, and the fact that they had an integral role to play in the limited energy options of the world, by forcing people to choose only between different types of fossil fuels (like gas, diesel, kerosene, etc), instead of fossil fuels, or electricity, or cleanly- produced hydrogen.

Maybe now is a good time to talk about what we as people can do, since it looks like a sad case of too little too late, in terms of what governments will do. I don't think that climate change will cause total extinction, but rather a seriously downsizing of the population, in addition to forced migration of people all around the world as some parts of the Earth become uninhabitable due to high heat, drought, or both.

First thing is to think about where you can live if you are in one of those areas that is at or near sea level. Due to rising sea levels, you really want to be at least 100 feet above sea level. The other issue is how hot it can get where you are. Plan for what you can do if it gets too hot. If you are on a property with a lot of land, then consider installing solar panels. It may be a good way to help you deal with high electricity costs on those really hot and sunny days when everyone is running their AC. In fact, it is a really good idea to think hard about where you live and how that will affect your ability to deal with climate change. Location is key.

My personal goal is to make a Stirling engine that is affordable and can produce electricity using solar energy or biomass (which is carbon neutral). My design is coming along nicely. If successful it will be my contribution to the toolkit that people can use for clean energy production.

This is not a feel-good newsletter. But knowing what is likely to happen can help you prepare. So much is currently being done by bright and enthusiastic people in terms of clean energy technology, and really there is not one single solution, but a bunch of partial solutions which, when added together, can make up a complete solution. I recommend paying attention to what is going on in that regard - it can only help you. A really good source for up-to-date information is

Until next time.


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