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Thursday, February 12, 2015

The Dream of Free Energy

As a follow-up to last month’s satirical entry here at Kyotomotors on the fantasy for free energy, I thought I’d offer some further reflection as to why I suspect we tend to believe that free energy is a realistic objective, despite what science tells us. Somewhat paradoxically I’d like to add to that train of thought, an explanation as to why I actually consider that there is good reason to believe perpetual motion will be at our disposal in the future.
But let’s start at the beginning.
Like the protagonist in my satire from last month, when I was young, I convinced myself at one point that I had invented perpetual motion. I was hopeful that it could save my parents a whole lot of money, if we could only convert our Plymouth Fury according to my specifications. What happened next I don’t recall exactly, but needless to say, my invention never quite made it off the drawing board, even though, to the twelve-year old mind, it involved the seemingly air-tight logic of cause and effect where the forward motion of the car would capture wind power, and in turn, power the forward motion of the car!
It wasn’t until high-school physics class that I learned about entropy, and why the invention would never work. The truth of the matter is summed up in the second law of thermodynamics, which essentially states that (in this case kinetic) energy eventually dissipates across the board, and that my invention, no matter how well-intentioned, or well-engineered, would inevitably come to a stand-still.
It turns out that I, and the countless other young would-be inventors were not the first to dream of free-energy machines, but rather, we were participating in a fantasy that goes back at least four hundred years, when inventors were thinking of how best to grind their corn.
Work, work, work…
I’ve always found it curious that Science, in all its abstract and theoretical magnificence, defines energy as “the ability to do work”. It’s a definition so rooted in the real world of material things and human needs that it seems almost out of place next to theories of space time continuums and multiplicities of dimensions. To be sure, science’s cousin, technology has ensured that the former’s discoveries have been doing useful work for a long time now. I suppose ever since humans have made things to do work for them, we’ve extrapolated with the Faustian dream of not having to do any work ourselves whatsoever. From a purely lazy point of view, it seems reasonable to dream of free energy.
Similarly, from a business standpoint, where labour is expensive, and energy costs are on the rise, the incentive is there to come up with the holy grail of thermodynamics: perpetual motion.
In actual fact, we have had to settle for the next best thing, which is to say, we’ve come pretty close. I’d even go so far as to say we’ve been experiencing the illusion of free energy for at least a couple of generations now. I’m not talking about high-tech megaprojects like nuclear energy, which never lived up to the promise of being too cheap to meter, nor the perpetually-beyond-reach technology of nuclear fusion, (with its legacy price tag already spent, it can never be free). No, I am talking about an invention that came along quite some time ago, and has transformed the present civilisation so astoundingly by delivering amplified energy to the masses with the turn of a key.
Okay, so I’m simplifying here, but as you’ve probably guessed I’m talking about that regular object of extensive scrutiny here at Kyotomotors: the combustion engine. And of course I’m not just talking about the personal car, here: more broadly, I’m talking petroleum. Considering the present high price of gasoline (which despite the recent plunge, is still pretty high in historical context), most readers would probably protest at this statement. But take a step back and consider the bigger picture: have a look at the Twentieth Century, and you’ll see the story of cheap and abundant and accessible energy for pretty much all of the West, and even much of the developing world where industry has made its inroads on the path toward globalisation of the modern economy.

Think of the few short decades from the time of the first long distance automobile trip in 1888, to the business model and assembly line production by Henry Ford in 1913, to the ramping-up of production in the post war era. Sure there were a few kinks, and quite a lot of room for improvement, but the basic technology, (and more importantly the nature of the energy source) was rapidly perfected, and profoundly unprecedented.
Unlike subsequent attempts, such as nuclear fusion, and even nuclear fission, not to mention the suite of green technologies from hydrogen fuel cells to PV solar, the combustion engine was never anything like “rocket science”. From the start, there was an immediate return on investments, and a widespread suite of supporting technologies emerged: Mechanics and gas stations, highways and drive-thrus all cropped up in lock-step with the production of crude oil.
Never before was the ability to do work so amplified, and so accessible – as in, available to just about any working participant in the modern economy.
The phenomenon can be measured in terms of Energy Returned on Energy Invested; it can be described metaphorically in terms of harnessing “horse-power”(an industry standard) , or as some commentators have chosen to do, in terms of having “energy slaves” at your disposal. No matter how you slice it, gasoline’s “bang for the buck” is beyond considerable; it’s mind blowing.
It’s as close as we’ll ever come to having free energy.
But I should qualify this last statement, for it is only true if your idea of free energy is trapped by an especially Cartesian way of thinking about perpetual motion machines and the like. If free energy has to serve the modern industrial paradigm, then, well then yes, this is as good as it gets. If on the other hand you have different expectations about how and why humans might want to harness energy, then the possibilities open up enormously. But perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself.
First, you might ask, what does it matter if the combustion engine is an almost-half-decent, but not-quite-really, perpetual motion machine? It has served quite well, you say? Or maybe you’re of the mind that it’ll just have to do.
Well of course regular readers of this blog will know where I stand on that, which could be summed up by saying the combustion engine has already done quite enough, thank you very much.
What’s more, the joke is on us. It turns out that petroleum is cheap and ever-abundant no more. And with enormous and profound investments in all things petroleum, our dependence has slowly transformed into a great albatross around our neck. In other words, after being hooked on almost free energy, we are now stuck with much more expensive energy, and the spectre of global economic contraction. In the meantime, we have developed such a culture of entitlement combined with a collective faith in technology that our expectations speak more of our wishes and our emotions, than they do of any great understanding about how energy is concentrated to do work on an industrial scale. Of course we hope that something will come along to sustain and maintain what we’ve come to take as normal.
A lengthy discussion as to why this hope is likely to be met with  disappointment belongs to another series of posts, which I am happy to mention exists already in the ongoing blog of John Michael Greer, The Archdruid Report [why not start here!].
For here and now, at the risk of over simplifying, I’ll just sum it up by suggesting that technology in the advanced stages of the petro-modern industrial civilisation that we know, is subject to a heavy dose of the law of diminishing returns; that even industrial society is subject to ecological cycles and therefore limits, and that while we may have limitless imagination, Nature is by no means obliged to provide us with the means to realise every fantasy we come up with.
Fortunately for those of us who are willing to look outside the industrial model for the future of human existence, there is reason to believe in perpetual motion. If you are willing to accept continued production should adopt a human-scale, that economic activity should operate within the limits of Nature, and that, in the big picture you’re willing to accept a few billion years as approaching infinity, well, then you can confidently assert that the much sought-after perpetual motion machine already exists in the form of the solar system we happen to live in.
Each and every day we can count on the rising sun, the tides, prevailing winds and the changing seasons. We know how these cycles can work in our favour. We know what these cycles will always demand of us. These cycles of nature are the closest thing to constant we can possibly know. Once our attempts at perpetual motion and incessant motoring slowly fades into the history of the future, we can possibly put the fantasy of triumph over Nature where it belongs, roll up our sleeves and get to working with the only perpetual motion machine we could ever know.
Between the here and now, and that point in the distant future, there is a lot of ground to cover. I suspect it will be a bumpy ride…

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