Anything but what works: why atmospheric carbon is as high as it is, and what we must do about it

Heat is energy. Literally, that’s what it is. Early in the 20th Century it was discovered that what we humans feel as heat is actually the macro effect of the kinetic energy of the countless quadrillions of atoms and molecules that comprise our physical surroundings. The more energy that these atoms and molecules have, the hotter it is. On days like today, Thursday August 20 2015, in Ottawa Ontario, we are more conscious of the effects of the higher-than-“normal” kinetic energy in these countless atoms and molecules. This energy level, i.e. temperature, is so far outside of the human physical comfort zone that many of us are behaving as if it is freezing outside. That is to say, we are spending as much time as possible inside, in artificially cooled spaces. Those of us who can, anyway.

The reason the word normal is enclosed in quotes in the preceding paragraph is that the average kinetic energy in the atoms/molecules in our environment is measurably increasing, all over the world. This general level of kinetic energy, i.e., heat, is increasing because we humans, though we behave like the dominant species of organism on this planet, find it extremely difficult to deal with certain of our planet’s physical realities, namely gravity and the specific heat of water. Whatever we do on the surface of planet Earth, each of us must physically overcome a force of at least our weight times 9.8 meters per second squared; if what we are doing involves any material of any kind, then add to that basic gravitational “tax” the weight of this additional material times the same gravitational acceleration.

It doesn’t take much additional material before we naturally begin looking for a way to accomplish whatever we are trying to accomplish without paying such an oppressive tax. The human institution of slavery came into being when certain humans who were high in the social pecking order created out of thin air, by political fiat, a sub-class of other humans and got them to pay the tax. This made it possible for a small number of people to accomplish things like selling cotton and tobacco at a huge profit and becoming fabulously rich. Try growing and harvesting cotton just by yourself. You’ll never get rich that way, you’ll only wear yourself out paying the gravitational tax. Better to get a large number of other people to do the hard work, get them to pay the tax, then you can make serious money. All you have to do is organize society into masters and slaves, and make sure you’re one of the masters.

OR—you can apply a smidgen of empathy for your fellow humans, live the Golden Rule instead of just talking about it, and work with your fellow humans to find more effective and fair ways to either share the gravitational tax burden or get inanimate machines to pay it.

In the mid-1800s my American cousins came to an intractable impasse over which of these options to choose. The top dogs in the southern part of the country liked the master-slave model; the northern part had listened to its conscience and gone the machine route. The issue was resolved, in the machines’ favour, in the most horrendous and brutal war of the 19th Century.

Within a quarter century of that awful episode, the electric grid was invented. Slavery was now not just illegal; it was technologically obsolete. Most people who were fortunate enough to live in electrified countries had, for the first time in human history, access to physical power equivalent to a workforce of slaves—but without slavery. Even the most humble Canadian or American citizen today has at her disposal more physical power than the richest pre-Civil War southern planter.

The United States today, 150 years after the Civil War, is embroiled in another political debate, ironically related directly to the heat engines that made slavery obsolete. Unlike the slavery debate in the mid-1800s, today’s debate appears unlikely to lead to war. Like slavery though, this debate has enormous consequences for humankind. The debate is over how to put heat into heat engines.

Most of today’s humble citizen’s physical power comes by way of a type of machine called a heat engine. Heat engines create a difference between the average kinetic energy of the molecules inside them and that outside them; the level inside is always greater. The resulting tendency is for molecules with higher energy to impart their energy to those with lower energy, i.e. for heat to migrate from inside the engine to outside. The machine is designed to turn part of that general migration into work. And that work pays our gravitational tax for us.

How does the heat engine get hot? Either through a chemical or nuclear reaction. Most heat engines by far use the former; and all of the chemical reactions that release the needed heat involve some sort of carbon-based fuel combined with oxygen from the air. This produces carbon dioxide (CO2).

CO2 is a very interesting molecule. One of its properties is that it absorbs and emits light particles (photons) of a certain energy. We humans cannot see these photons; their energy is too low for our built in photon-detectors (eyes) to detect. But if there are enough of them, we can feel them. We feel them as heat.

Our planet’s atmosphere feels these photons too. Every time one of them strikes a CO2 molecule in the atmosphere, it is absorbed then re-emitted. If that photon was on course to escape the atmosphere into outer space, then its interaction with the CO2 molecule may change that course. It now may be emitted from the molecule in another direction: perhaps toward outer space again, or perhaps laterally or perhaps back toward the earth. This is because the CO2 molecule is constantly spinning and colliding with other molecules and atoms in the atmosphere.

Since by far most of the photons that enter earth’s atmosphere come from the sun, you can see that adding CO2 to the atmosphere will have the effect of “trapping” more of the heat-energy photons from the sun before those photons escape back into outer space. This will keep heat longer in the biosphere and oceans.

At the time that the pro-machine section of American society had won the Civil War, all heat engines in the world utilized chemical reactions to make heat; therefore all of them created CO2. In fact, every heat engine in the world did likewise until the mid-1950s, at which point another way of making heat was invented: using nuclear reactions. Nuclear reactions are just that, nuclear. Whereas chemical reactions involve the rearrangement of molecules into different electric configurations, nuclear reactions involve splitting big atoms into smaller atoms. Not only is vastly more energy (heat) released than in chemical reactions, but no CO2 is produced.

There are a lot of heat engines in the world today. This is good, because the alternative to heat engines is slavery, and slavery, in most countries, is a monstrous relic of the past that belongs in the past. However, because most heat engines in operation on planet Earth today utilize chemical and not nuclear reactions, the amount of CO2 has been dramatically increasing. Its concentration in the atmosphere today is about 400 parts per million (see Item A1 for the most up-to-date level), whereas at the time of the Civil War it was around 270 ppm. The additional CO2 molecules are, as described above, trapping heat in the atmosphere. More heat means more energy, and more energy means stronger winds, therefore more violent storms.

The United States today, 150 years after the Civil War, is embroiled in another political debate, ironically related directly to the heat engines that made slavery obsolete. Unlike the slavery debate in the mid-1800s, today’s debate appears unlikely to lead to war. Like slavery though, this debate has enormous consequences for humankind. The debate is over how to put heat into heat engines.

As I mentioned above, there are only two ways. We either burn carbon-based fuel, or we burn nuclear fuel.

But an objective observer would be struck by the degree to which the debate excludes the second of these two options. Rather the debate has centred around fantasies of allegedly new ways to make the power that ordinary citizens can enjoy without having to resort to slavery. One of these allegedly new ways is to use wind to make electricity.

That has been tried before. For all of human history up to the mid-1800s, almost all marine shipping was wind powered. Within half a century of the first steam powered ship, wind-powered shipping, after ruling for thousands of years, was obsolete. Like slavery.

And, as I mentioned in “Alberta and its new premier,” the landlocked Canadian province of Alberta tried one hundred years ago to power itself with wind. Today, Alberta is powered with heat engines that burn coal. Wind didn’t work. It won’t work.

But nuclear heat engines do work. In my home province of Ontario, nuclear powered heat engines have for five decades produced most of the electricity. In every hour of every day of every year since the 1980s, nuclear has been the single biggest contributor to Ontario’s electricity. In most of those hours, nuclear has made more electricity than all the other heat engines, and hydro turbines, combined.

Clearly, nuclear heat engines are the only way humankind will survive and thrive, free of the scourge of slavery, on the surface of our home planet—without making the surface of our planet too hot and violent.

The objective observer to the debate over how to put the heat into heat engines without CO2 would wonder why we spend so much time discussing everything except what works.

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martin burkle
8 years ago

Your linking of the Civil War to the effort to reduce CO2 in the atmosphere causes me to think about a time in the future when a portion of the population has come to believe that dumping CO2 into the atmosphere is immoral. Just as slavery was believed to be immoral by a portion of the population and not by others.

The historical resolution to the US slavery dispute was a war followed by technical innovation. One can always hope that history does not repeat itself in this case.

8 years ago

OT:  this blog looks a HECK of a lot better if you change the width specified for “div#primary.c6” from 50% to 75%.  The two sidebars stack on top of each other and you get a lot more content in each screen.

8 years ago
Reply to  Engineer-Poet

Yay readability!

8 years ago

I am not sure if you have already discussed a thought process such as the following, in your earlier blog posts. If so, my apologies.

Conversion of heat energy into electricity via a heat-engine [even if the heat is supplied by a nuclear reactor/steam turbine combination] rejects nearly two-thirds of the input energy to the environment/atmosphere as mainly irrecoverable low grade heat and only about one-third is converted into electricity. From this point of view, it is not desirable to use the electricity produced by a heat-engine to run a device that converts electrical energy back to heat energy, be it for heating or for cooling. Keeping in view that energy in the form of electricity is most easily transportable from place of generation to place of usage, I would suggest that ways should be devised to enable a User to distinguish between electricity generated from different sources, especially heat-engine based and non-heat-engine based. For example, if heat-based devices such as heaters, refrigerators, electrical cooking ovens, air conditioners etc are designed to operate at a frequency (or voltage) which is not one that is used for, say running a locomotive or a machine shop, perhaps there will be better utilization of resources all-round. We could have “splitters” such as the ones we have in Telephone/Internet Modem connections or in TV Set-top-boxes (but obviously with much higher power ratings) to differentiate between alternating current cycles at different frequencies to run these devices, the advantage being we can use the existing wire/cable system to reach the electricity to the User. Heating and cooling may then be exclusively left to be obtained by using electricity generated by solar (Photo Voltaic), wind, hydro, tidal etc. Nevertheless an exception or two may need to be made to the above: where heat energy is required in large quantities such as in a metallurgical factory (say steel making) or in large chemical plants (say petrochemical industries), bulk electrical input may be an unavoidable issue unless large capacity grids of non-heat-engine-generated-electricity are built up providing 24×7 supply.

8 years ago
Reply to  Sanatanan

If you had any knowledge about the problems that harmonics cause for the grid, and how many limits there are related to instantaneous peak voltages (e.g. insulation breakdown) you’d realize how bad your idea of trying to transmit multiple frequencies is.  Here’s a dollar, buy a clue.

The solution to polluting power on the grid isn’t to have two segregated virtual grids; the solution is replacing the polluting energy.