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Energy is Key to the Continuance or Collapse of Civilization

Recently I was reading Andrew Revkin’s “DOT EARTH BLOG” on the NYT web site dated 18 February 2013 and came across a link to a remarkable lecture by the late Dr. Richard Smalley, physicist, chemist, and winner of the Nobel Prize in chemistry. Smalley’s talk, titled “Our Energy Challenge,” was presented by him at Columbia University in 2003, apparently having been delivered on multiple occasions around that time, as Smalley struggled with the cancer that ended his life in 2005.

SmalleyTopTen-rHis thesis was very interesting. He began by showing a slide on “Humanity’s Top Ten Problems for the next 50 years” and explained that during the Q & A at his previous Lectures, he had asked his audiences to contribute their suggestions for the list and wrote them down.

He explained that the huge and rapid acceleration in fossil fuel energy use—from small to gargantuan—which took place over the last couple of centuries was largely responsible for the huge technological innovations humanity experienced. This “technological revolution” enhanced the quality of life for the approximately one-third of world population who enjoy the fruits of that development. It also was responsible for the four most serious problems at the top of his list.

He then proposed that a “solution” to the first problem on the list, energy, could first of all give humanity time to deal with the remaining problems, presuming, of course, that the energy “solution” also reverses global warming. Then the new cheap, abundant, and safe energy source or sources could fuel the actions needed to deal with the remaining problems. I seem to remember that the ordering of that list came from his audience’s “votes” rather than his own rational assessment of the seriousness of each one.

The remainder of his presentation is a tour de force summary of humanity’s current predicament and the suggestion of a comprehensive solution. Look and listen inside the brain of one of our greatest thinkers. After viewing the entire lecture, my main reactions are these:

Smalley Makes Sense

He goes through the possible solution strategies to our global energy problem logically and clearly. He identifies the options that are just not possible, technically or otherwise, those that are just not practical, and those that are just not economical. Then he describes a few that might be able to work, if we collectively have the vision, see a way, and figure out how to work together to get it done.

Along the way, we need miracles of ingenuity. We need for humanity, and especially the United States, to invest huge funding and work to try and make a couple of the possible approaches work.

Then he suggests one path where everyone can play, each can invest in it and enjoy the rewards of success. He calls it the “distributed solar gen grid,” a logical idea and approach for getting huge quantities of solar electricity generated in both large, desert-located collection sites and at a large number of homes, offices, government buildings, and other private and public sites around each continent and connecting them with a modern super-efficient, very low energy loss, computer-controlled intelligent network. This makes sense technologically and economically. There would be hundreds of millions of nodes on the grid, perhaps at your home. You generate power, store some of it, and then sell it when the price is high enough or when you need to send it out, and you could purchase it when it is cheap. All the other nodes do the same. In today’s parlance, it might be called an instantaneous continental market, with buys and sells of power taking place continuously around the clock, with nearly instantaneous transactions occuring in response to market demand and the availability of power plus your own buy/sell preferences. This approach would make the grid incredibly robust and anybody can join it and play the game who is producing primary power.

One of the miracles needed to bring such a vision to reality is a moderately inexpensive and very efficient, nearly zero loss, electric transport mechanism based on one or many true technological and engineering breakthroughs, whereby it costs little to transport power over both large and small distances. Smalley points out that technological miracles of this sort do happen. Just look at what the latest iPhone can do. Even in 2003, Smalley had seen many of these major breakthroughs. There is a huge list of available technologies, but in many cases we need to improve them significantly and/or drop their prices by factors of from ten to a hundred. High temperature superconductors, for example, might be the breakthrough we need.

Looking at the situation in 2003, Smalley pointed out the biggest problem he saw for that time: Getting the pool of talent plus the resources needed to put them to work making the needed miracles. He showed plots of the number of Ph.D. degrees in physics awarded n the U.S. from 1900 to 1998 or s (his slide 16). There were big increases following World War II and Sputnik. I was in the latter. Then there was a decline until about 1980, when the number began increasing again, fueled mostly by students on temporary or permanent visas, then a general decline starting in the mid-1990s. I haven’t seen the figures, but I believe it has continued to decline, at least the number of U.S. citizens entering that profession has declined.

Of course it is way more than the decline of physics Ph.D.s that we have to worry about. In the years since Smalley’s lecture, there has been a huge decline in the U.S. in the interest and even in the belief in science. This is not a situation where we can expect major governmental action to increase U.S. science, engineering, and practice of technological breakthroughs in the energy sector.

I encourage you to click on the links below and watch the brilliant exposition by Dr. Smalley I have just outlined.

I have been unable to find a transcript of Smalley’s oral presentation on the web. Below are the links to a set of facebook videos containing the entire lecture as posted by Chad Smalley, presumably a relative of Richard. I strongly encourage interested readers to watch at least the first few videos of the Smalley lecture, the concluding one (Part 5), and the fascinating Q&A at the end (Parts 6 and 7). They present a very rational, clear, and intelligent assessment of the current human predicament and several excellent approaches to overcoming the worst of the problems.

You can download his Power Point slide show from the bottom of the web page at this link: http://www.americanenergyindependence.com/energychallenge.aspx or you can click on these links to download it directly:

Our Energy Challenge (Powerpoint slides) size: 1 Mb – 21 pages
Our Energy Challenge (Adobe PDF format)   size: 2.3 Mb – 21 pages

Here are the YouTube Videos:

Part 1:   http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CpYTVMhPUz

Part 2:   http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UneGxX0YJRI

Part 3:   http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aXBvV4dC9ck

Part 4:   http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dJgRrWsv0NE

Part 5:   http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8UDWmoH3oEg

Part 6:   http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tqxV0JO6rLU

Part 7:   http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8J3f2G3v0QA

I hope you find this lecture as impressive as I did.

Posted 28 February 2013. Updated 7 March 2013

One Response to Energy is Key to the Continuance or Collapse of Civilization

  • I disagree with placing “population” at the bottom of the list in the graphic above. Unfortunately, the author of that slide and lecture is dead, so not available to argue the point with me. Many believe that population should be at the top of the list, myself included. Overpopulation, plus the discovery and increasing use of fossil fuels, is what has led to the current crisis.

    Stopping population growth and reducing the worldwide population, slowly over time, would take much of the pressure off Earth’s ecosystems and food systems, and fresh water supplies, and so much else. “Solving” the energy problem, however, must stay right up there with population.

    “Solving” in this context, as explained by Dr. Smalley, means replace all forms of energy that contribute (both directly and indirectly) to greenhouse gas emissions with alternate sources of supplemental energy which do not produce global warming. Along with that must go efforts to help all the remaining humans live well within the new energy limitations, variabilities, and geographic distribution variations.

    I think we can also give Smalley a bit of a break, by understanding that he was living and thinking about all this in an earlier time and had an important, though possibly somewhat naive, idea for efforts that might possibly produce great minds with sufficient resources to discover or invent the needed new energy sources. He used his position to describe some of his favorites. For this I was grateful enough to publicize some of his ideas and provide the links to his lecture.

    I can recommend an anthology of essays in the recent book Life on the Brink: Environmentalists Confront Overpopulation edited by Philip Cafaro and Eileen Crist (published 2012) which indicates that a number of leading environmentalists/essayists, including Dave Foreman, William Ryerson, Capt. Paul Watson, and Richard Lamm, list overpopulation as humanity’s #1 problem.

    Updated 21 March 2013

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