Energy Doesn't Grow on Trees

By Sean Carroll | April 10, 2008 12:07 pm

Funny thing about energy: it’s conserved! At least when the spacetime background is time-translation invariant, which is a very good approximation here in the Solar System. We bring you this reminder because a knowledge of basic physics can occasionally be helpful when formulating public policy.

ethanol.jpg In particular, biofuels (such as ethanol) and hydrogen are not actually sources of energy — given the vagaries of thermodynamics, it costs more energy to create them than we can get by actually using them, as there will inevitably be some waste heat and entropy produced. Almost all of the useful energy we have here on Earth comes ultimately from nuclear reactions of one form or another — either directly, from nuclear power plants, or indirectly from fusion in the Sun. There is of course direct solar power, but even fossil fuels and biofuels are simply storage systems for energy that can be traced eventually back to sunlight. The question is, what is the best way of capturing and using that sunlight — where “best” is going to be some interesting function of cheapest, cleanest, most easily transportable, and most sustainable.

People seem to be gradually catching on to the fact that biofuels are an especially wasteful and dirty energy storage system. Paul Krugman devoted a column the other day to how ethanol is a boon to Archer Daniels Midland, but terrible for the world’s food supply. (We told you the Farm Bill was a travesty.) And Time has published a cover story on the “Clean-Energy Scam.”

Propelled by mounting anxieties over soaring oil costs and climate change, biofuels have become the vanguard of the green-tech revolution, the trendy way for politicians and corporations to show they’re serious about finding alternative sources of energy and in the process slowing global warming. The U.S. quintupled its production of ethanol–ethyl alcohol, a fuel distilled from plant matter–in the past decade, and Washington has just mandated another fivefold increase in renewable fuels over the next decade…

But several new studies show the biofuel boom is doing exactly the opposite of what its proponents intended: it’s dramatically accelerating global warming, imperiling the planet in the name of saving it. Corn ethanol, always environmentally suspect, turns out to be environmentally disastrous. Even cellulosic ethanol made from switchgrass, which has been promoted by eco-activists and eco-investors as well as by President Bush as the fuel of the future, looks less green than oil-derived gasoline.

As an uneducated guess, I would imagine that in the medium run the world will have to turn to (Earth-based!) nuclear power for its energy needs. In the longer run, solar will be the way to go, although the amount of solar power we can reasonably collect here on Earth is somewhat limited. We’ll likely have to solve the problem of how to efficiently beam power down from orbit, after which we can build big million-square-kilometer solar power collectors in space. Not in my lifetime, I would bet.

Eventually the Sun will run out, of course. But there are other Suns. In the even longer run, once all of the stars have run out and we are all virtual processes running on a computer, perhaps we can tap into the Hawking radiation from the supermassive black hole at the galactic center. Once that is gone and the universe has settled into empty de Sitter space, we’ll be in thermal equilibrium. At that point there’s probably little hope, no matter what optimists like Freeman Dyson might tell you.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Science and Society

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About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] .


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