TCS Daily


Unsustainable Climate Research

By Roy Spencer - December 16, 2005 12:00 AM

The environmental debate in recent years has centered on the concept of 'sustainability'. The basic idea is that our use of natural resources (or the production of greenhouse gases that are infamously blamed for global warming) should be at a slower rate, one that is sustainable.

There are two main shortcomings I see with 'sustainability' arguments. First, for a truly irreplaceable resource (lets say petroleum) for which there is only a finite supply, any rate of use will be unsustainable. Eventually, we will run out. Similarly, if indeed global warming turns out to be a real problem, no rate of increase in atmospheric greenhouse gases is sustainable. Second, the sustainability argument neglects the proven role of technological advances that, historically, make sustainability a moot point.

Nevertheless, there are a few areas where sustainability looks like a useful concept. For instance, assuming humans will always need food, the organic matter that is removed from the ground to make food should be replaced with compost, to rebuild the soil. This practice is now widespread, especially in the U.S.

But quite often, worries over sustainability end up being unfounded. At the turn of the twentieth century, the United States had a major pollution problem in its cities -- horse manure. An estimated 175,000 horses in New York City caused such a stinking mess (especially in summer) and threat to human health that even the daily removal and disposal of hundreds of tons of manure could not fix the problem. I'm sure that, if the government had funded research into the horse manure problem back then, environmental researchers would have predicted that by the year 1930, New York City streets would be covered to a depth of six feet in manure on a daily basis. For a very real problem that citizens actually experienced on a daily basis, this must have seemed like an inescapable fate for society. Yet, the automobile came along, solving the horse manure problem.

Fifty years ago we had enough known petroleum reserves to last about another thirty years. I remember in the early 1970's there was widespread concern, made worse by the oil embargo, that the world was running out of oil. Yet, fifty years later, we still have thirty years supply left. How can this be? The reason, of course, is that it costs money to discover new oil, and there is no economic incentive for the petroleum industry to find more than is necessary. Surely there is only so much oil left to be found, though, and so our use of petroleum is, ultimately, unsustainable. But does this mean we should worry about running out of oil?

It is more than a little ironic in this era of environmental sustainability issues that environmental researchers in the United Kingdom have recently found their jobs to be unsustainable. The Centre for Ecology and Hydrology is slated to close four research centers, consolidating operations at four remaining centers, with up to 200 of 600 researchers losing their jobs. A spokeswoman for the Centre explained, "The council has recognized for some time that the current structure of the center is unsustainable....". While I'm sure that this development holds no humor for those affected, couching the problem in terms of sustainability sure brought a smile to my face.

The United States government has spent over $18 billion since 1990 on climate change research. Since zero research dollars would have led to zero environmental problems to report in scientific journals, it is easy to see that the number of sustainability issues we face is roughly proportional to how much money we put into finding them. Not that I'm against climate research, since that's how I make a living. I sure don't want my job to be declared unsustainable.

And yet, some day my job will be gone, and a new societal issue will arise that requires different research skills to tackle. Global warming is the current fashion, leading to dire predictions about what will happen 50 or 100 years down the road. In science, it is a truism that it is dangerous to extrapolate a current trend far into the future. Similarly, we continue to ignore the historical evidence that beyond 20 or 30 years, we really can't know what the future holds, simply because we can't predict the technological advances that will eventually make the old problems evaporate.

But lessons from history don't keep professional hand-wringers from predicting gloom and doom, and the media from reporting the same. (I sometimes wonder, if there were no bad news to report, would the media still exist in order to report good news? Or would their jobs be found unsustainable as well?)

Entire organizations have been renamed to include 'Sustainable' as part of their title. For instance, the United Nations Division for Sustainable Development; the Sustainable Development Networking Programme; the U.S. Department of Energy's Center of Excellence for Sustainable Development; the International Institute for Sustainable Development; and so on. I predict that the use of the word 'sustainable' in the names of organizations will soon be found to be unsustainable.

Just as the deepening horse manure crisis was alleviated by the introduction of the automobile over a century ago, I suspect that our current worries over global warming will evaporate in the coming decades. Of course, it will be in part the concern over global warming that will help to usher in new energy technologies, and so the tension created by environmental problems helps to motivate eventual solutions.

But current policy proposals that create economic harm and do little to solve the problem (for instance, the Kyoto Protocol) don't help to facilitate this process. Even though the United States' position that technological advancement should be the focus of global warming solutions, much of the rest of the world considers the U.S. to be obstructing progress on the global warming issue. The insistence that command-and-control approaches like Kyoto must be adopted are starting to sound suspiciously like excuses for wealth redistribution, increasing control over countries by the UN, and increased tax rates.

Even though it is fashionable for now, 'sustainability' is not a very useful concept. In the final analysis, only change is sustainable. I just hope that, in the climate research arena, my job remains sustainable until I retire.

Categories:

12 Comments

Sustainable Energy Research
The Dutch Centre for Sustainable Water Technology or Wetsus, and Norways independent research organisation SINTEF, working with power company Statkraft, have invented devices that GENERATE ELECTRICITY BY MIXING SEA AND RIVER WATER. Wetsus managing director Johannes Boonstra said "Its basically harvesting the energy that comes free from a natural process. You have the fuel for free and its very sustainable -- no greenhouse gas emissions."
http://www.alertnet.org/thenews/newsdesk/L07646936.htm

For how long?
Energy is not free. What will be the effects on the river or on the salinity or on the local plankton or....? (Hands wringing.)
Seriously, these technologies are great for labs to test and prove theories. It will up to free enterprise and engineers to make it cost effective.
Artificial price conrols of petrol in Europe won't help the innovative process.
Neccesity is the mother of invention.

Carbon Cycle
What happens to all the carbon that winds up in the mantle?
Where does all the methane around the Atlantic rift come from? Recycled carbon?
Maybe there will always be oil production by the earth.

Horse Sense
Arriving at the authors first quantitaive hyothesis, that a horse 19 hands tall is capable of buring iteself in 24 hours, I decided to invest a minute in dimensional analysis. Since a well fed horse emits less than 10kg of former fodder a day, the correct order of magnitude time constant for horse gridlock self-interrment is not 1 day but more than 1000.

That he could be so cavalier as to induge a three order of magnitude exaggeration left me fearing a blizzard of horse feathers to follow, and I departed the page at once.

Horse Sense of Humor
Russell,

I do believe that Roy was using a little satire. Have you no sense of humor?

His exaggeration, however, is not dissimilar from the many claims of the global warming doom and gloomers, which I find equally non-sensical and amusing.

The difference is that Roy was trying to be funny.

Oil Age has peaked
Energy may not be free, but the unimaginably vast supply offered by the sun, the tides, etc. is free to use and monopoly-proof. Furthermore, nanocarbon materials will lead the transition away from oil/gas electrical generation to non-traditional sources.

research is finished just like
The free marketeers dream of global recognized and enforced intellectual property rights. If you are concerned about sustaining employment than you should invest some time, research and effort into garnering new skills for the jobs you recognize might replace your own. It is possible that in many instances, warnings of impending job obsolescence in a particular field may be exaggerated, so you should probably spend the money to research whether or not your job is going to be replaced, and how soon that might happen in a worst case scenario. Once you have determined with some measure of scientific certainty (a vast scientific major opinion) that your job is about to run out, than it would be impudent not to seek alternative employment options. Or maybe just imprudent. In the meantime I hope that you can use your skills more efficiently so that the axe might fall a little later than sooner, thereby sustaining your employment until you have developed the production skills to replace your obsolete intellectual ones. I hope that I have helped you somewhat in your quandary since greater recognition of a problem by a greater percentage of the people tends to lead to a greater chance of solving the problem; at least much more so than denial of a problems existence.

99 A New Manhattan Project for Clean Energy
7800A New Manhattan Project for Clean Energy

Over the past year many luminaries have made clarion calls for a concerted effort to solve the energy crisis. It is a crisis, with 300 million middle class Chinese determined to attain the unsustainable lifestyle we have sold them. Their thirst for oil is growing at 30% a year, and can do nothing but heat the earth and spark political conflict.

We have been heating the earth since the agricultural revolution with the positive result of providing 10,000 years of warm stability. But since the Industrial revolution we have been pushing the biosphere over the brink. Life forces have done this before -- during the snowball earth period ( Cryogenian Period ) in the Neoproterozoic toward the end of the Precambrian - but that life force was not sentient!

Thomas Freedman of the New York Times has called for a Manhattan Project for clean energy The New York Times> Search> Abstract. Richard Smalley, one of the fathers of nanotechnology, has made a similar plea http://news.uns.purdue.edu/html3month/2004/040902.Smalley.energy.html.
We are at the cusp in several technologies to fulfilling this clean energy dream. All that we need is the political leadership to shift our fiscal priorities.

I feel our resources should be focused in three promising technologies:

1. Nanotechnology: The exploitation of quantum effects is finally being seen in these new materials. Photovoltaics (PV) are at last going beyond silicon, with many companies promising near-term breakthroughs in efficiencies and lower cost. Even silicon is gaining new efficienies from nano-tech: Researchers develop technique to use dirty silicon, could pave way for cheaper solar energy http://www.physorg.com/news5831.html
New work on diodes also has great implications for PV, LEDs and micro-electronics Nanotubes make perfect diodes (August 2005) - News - PhysicsWeb http://physicsweb.org/articles/news/9/8/11
And direct solar to hydrogen, I was told they have hit 10% efficiency and solved mass production problems: Hydrogen Solar home http://www.hydrogensolar.com/index.html
And just coming out of the lab, this looks very strong, it brings full spectrum efficiencies to PVs: UB News Services-solar nano-dots
http://www.buffalo.edu/news/fast-execute.cgi/article-page.html?article=75000009

1a. Thermionics: The direct conversion of heat to electricity has been at best only 5% efficient. Now with quantum tunneling chips we are talking 80% of carnot efficiency. A good example is the proposed thermionic car design of Borealis. ( http://www.borealis.gi/press/NEW-GOLDEN-AGE-IBM.Speech.6=04.pdf ) . The estimated well-to-wheel efficiency is over 50%. This compares to 13% for internal combustion and 27% for hydrogen fuel cells. This means a car that has a range of 1500 miles on one fill up. Rodney T. Cox, president of Borealis, has told me that he plans to have this car developed within two years. Boeing has already used his Chorus motor drives http://www.chorusmotors.gi/.
on the nose gear of it's 767. (Boeing Demonstrates New Technology for Moving Airplanes on the Ground http://www.boeing.com/news/releases/2005/q3/nr_050801a.html )
The Borealis thermocouple power chips http://www.powerchips.gi/index.shtml (and cool chips) applied to all the waste heat in our economy would make our unsustainable lifestyle more than sustainable.
You may find an extensive discussion on thermo electric patents at: Nanalyze Forums - Direct conversion of heat to electricity http://www.nanalyze.com/forums/topic.asp?TOPIC_ID=1006੾

2. Biotechnology: Since his revolutionary work on the human genome project, Craig Venter has been finding thousands of previously unknown life forms in the sea and air. His goal is to use these creatures to develop the ultimate energy bug to produce hydrogen and or use of their photoreceptor genes for solar energy. http://www.venterscience.org/ Imagine a bioreactor in your home taking all your waste, adding some solar energy, and your electric and transportation needs are fulfilled.

3. Fusion: Here I am not talking about the big science ITER project taking thirty years, but the several small alternative plasma fusion efforts and maybe bubble fusion - Is bubble fusion back? (July 2005) - News - PhysicsWeb
http://physicsweb.org/articles/news/9/7/8 )

On the big science side I do have hopes for the LDX : http://psfcwww2.psfc.mit.edu/ldx/.

.
There are three companies pursuing hydrogen-boron plasma toroid fusion, Paul Koloc, Prometheus II, Eric Lerner, Focus Fusion and Clint Seward of Electron Power Systems http://www.electronpowersystems.com/ . A resent DOD review of EPS technology reads as follows:

"MIT considers these plasmas a revolutionary breakthrough, with Delphi's
chief scientist and senior manager for advanced technology both agreeing
that EST/SPT physics are repeatable and theoretically explainable. MIT and
EPS have jointly aut****d numerous professional papers describing their
work. (Delphi is a $33B company, the spun off Delco Division of General
Motors)."
and
"Cost: no cost data available. The complexity of reliable mini-toroid
formation and acceleration with compact, relatively low-cost equipment
remains to be determined. Yet the fact that the EPS/MIT STTR work this
technology has attracted interest from Delphi is very significant, as the
automotive electronics industry is considered to be extremely demanding of
functionality per dollar and pound (e.g., mil-spec performance at
Wal-Mart-class 'commodity' prices)."

EPS, Electron Power Systems seems the strongest and most advanced, and I love the scalability, They propose applications as varied as home power generation@ .ooo5 cents/KWhr, cars, distributed power, airplanes, space propulsion , power storage and kinetic weapons.

It also provides a theoretic base for ball lighting : Ball Lightning Explained as a Stable Plasma Toroid http://www.electronpowersystems.com/Images/Ball%20Lightning%20Explained.pdf
The theoretics are all there in peer reviewed papers. It does sound to good to be true however with names like MIT, Delphi, STTR grants, NIST grants , etc., popping up all over, I have to keep investigating.

Recent support has also come from one of the top lightning researcher in the world, Joe Dwyer at FIT, when he got his Y-ray and X-ray research published in the May issue of Scientific American,
http://www.sciam.com/article.cfm?chanID=sa006&colID=1&articleID=00032CE5-13B7-1264-8F9683414B7FFE9F
Dwyer's paper:
http://www.lightning.ece.ufl.edu/PDF/Gammarays.pdf

and according to Clint Seward it supports his lightning models and fusion work at Electron Power Systems

Clint sent Joe and I his new paper on a lightning charge transport model of cloud to ground lightning (he did not want me to post it to the web yet). Joe was supportive and suggested some other papers to consider and Clint is now in re-write.

It may also explain Elves, blue jets, sprites and red sprites, plasmas that appear above thunder storms. After a little searching, this seemed to have the best hard numbers on the observations of sprites.

Dr. Mark A. Stanley's Dissertation
http://nis-www.lanl.gov/~stanleym/dissertation/main.html

And may also explain the spiral twist of some fulgurites, hollow fused sand tubes found in sandy ground at lightning strikes.


lightning produces thermonuclear reaction
This new work By Dr.Kuzhevsky on neutrons in lightning: Russian Science

Oil Age has peaked
"Energy may not be free, but the unimaginably vast supply offered by the sun, the tides, etc. is free to use and monopoly-proof."

Why do you think automakers build cars to run on gasoline, when they could make more money selling you a car that runs for free on sunshine or tides? Why do electric companies spend money to burn coal/oil or use nuclear power when they could get their product free from the sun?

free energy
The energy may be free, but collecting it and converting it into a useable form is hideously expensive.

Stop with the bromides and try thinking for yourself.

free energy
I would imagine that if this invention were as fantastic as R wants to believe, companies would be falling over themselves to market it.

Common R, try thinking these things through before you post them.

Horses and 19th Century Scaremongering
What is more amusing than what he article says, is that back in 1880, there was a report called Global 1900 inspired by New Yorker Elbert James (Henry James’ brother) that was the first American scaremonger known. He had been figuring out for years that because the horse population explosion, by 1900 the amount of horse dung in America would easily fill the entire Grand Canyon. He didn’t have much hope in the new Daimler motorcars from Europe.

Then he warned the government and the people about an impending energy crisis due to the shortage of wax for candles, and urged the US authorities to create a corps of inspector that would search inside every citizen ears, so nothing would be wasted. Meanwhile, he scorned the news about a young man’s invention of an electric bulb (Edison).

What else? He also warned about the future floods that were threatening the USA because elegant gentlemen along the country had adopted the fashion of Davy Crocket beaver fur caps. He organized demonstration with little girls in front of the NY Metropolitan Opera to protest against gentlemen using those fur caps, with the enthusiastic support of guess who? The New York Times.

Elbert James hadn’t heard about Portland cement, the new techniques for building dams. Actually, James didn’t have any faith on man’s ingenuity and inventiveness, nor the ability of science to provide progress and development. He was the first Green Man.

History keeps repeating itself in a very ridicule way. Back in 1980, Jimmy Carter published another similar piece of scaremongering: the Global 2000 Report –that seems to be repeated every year since by the Worldwatch Institute. The IPCC also keeps giving away foolish, unscientific documents, but the press seems to be delighted with fairy tales.

TCS Daily Archives