Humanity's need for additional large-scale sources of fresh water is becoming apparent. Below, I've described an idea for transporting large volumes of fresh water from desalination facilities on a coast, up hill to farms in the interior of a continent. Here's a similar idea for river-scale desalination.
As with the reverse river, I start with a square kilometer of mirrors concentrating sunlight on the barrel of a turbine. This time it's an air turbine, however. The goal is to create a fast moving jet of very hot air. Think a pipeline several feet in diameter with 600C air rushing along at several hundred miles per hour.
Now we inject sea water into the air stream, in a much larger version of the injector used in a steam locomotive. The water flashes to steam and is entrained into the jet. The salt and metals drop out.
Flushing may be enhanced by injecting too much seawater for complete conversion to steam, producing a supersaturated solution to carry away the salt.
The resulting steam / air jet becomes the input to the first turbine using concentrated sunlight to push the steam up hill.
In a further refinement, a massive solar-powered heat exchanger condenses the water once it reaches its destination. Again sunlight drives a turbine, this time blowing ambient air through small tubes interpenetrating the steam pipeline, which enlarges, reducing the pressure.
The original Hubbert extraction curve was forecast for a world in which, as one producing region was drawn down, it was possible to replace the lost production with that from more recently explored regions. Now that we're entering a period where there are no replacement regions, how might this affect the shape of the curve? What we've seen is that peak extraction has been extended as the price the world is willing to pay for oil has risen, and various technological expedients have been employed as they have become cost effective: pumping lots of water into the edges of fields to herd to oil to extraction points, horizontal drilling, fracking, deep water drilling, tar sands. However, these methods are all characterized by quickly rising extraction costs. So it's reasonable to believe that although the top of the Hubbert curve has been extended to the right, the drop-off will be steep.
As the price of oil tends to rise to the price of the most-expensive-to-extract barrel, most profits are made on oil cheaply extracted from mature fields. As these fields are drawn down their extraction costs rise, and the profit window closes. The profits on cheap oil pay for exploration, building refineries and other capital costs. Without these profits the expensive oil will have to cost even more to keep the industry alive.
The cost of coal depends to some extent on the cost of oil, as oil is used to extract coal, move it around, and build and maintain the infrastructure for using it.
Here in Canada, the Harper government has done its best to tie the Canadian economy to tar sands extraction, which will be increasingly lucrative for ten or fifteen years, until exponentially rising solar energy and electric vehicles suddenly cut oil demand. If demand for oil were to dry up, the most expensive production methods would be mothballed first. In a world in which most new vehicles are electric, only paid-down legacy equipment will need oil, the demand for which can be met from cheap mature fields: after a run up to $300, the price of oil may collapse back to $30 in the space of two or three years.
The world economy will be on shaky ground if there's a period where oil extraction is falling faster than the rise in solar energy and electric vehicles. The solar / EV rise will eventually dominate as these are on exponential curves.
Since 2005, the amount of fossil energy that humanity has been able to pull out of the ground has remained fairly constant. In years to come, peak oil theory suggests that energy extraction will decline with increasing speed, as the quantity and quality of extractable resources decline.
There are designs for efficient large-scale solar desalinators, but what if we want to move
a lot of water from the coast up to farms hundreds of miles into the interior of a continent?
No-one is doing this because the energy required could not be generated affordably with
existing fossil or nuclear energy sources.
A new approach to pumping is required, one that can lift river-scale volumes.
First, start with a strip of concentrating solar mirrors a few kilometers wide, starting at the coast and travelling up to a high reservoir in the interior from which water can flow by gravity to where it's needed.
As in concentrating solar power applications, the concentrated sunlight heats a fluid with a high boiling point. This is then piped through the expansion chamber of a steam turbine: steam enters through a "small" port (cross-section e.g. 10 m2), is superheated, expands and leaves through a large port (e.g. 30 m2), turning a rotor that draws more low-temperature steam into the expansion chamber. The superheated steam then travels through a few hundred meters of pipe that gradually gets smaller as the steam loses heat through the walls of the pipe. Every few hundred meters the steam passes through another expansion chamber powered by the next region of mirrors. This approach is similar to a line of jet engines arranged nose-to-tail, except that instead of burning hydrocarbons, the heat is provided by concentrated sunlight.
When the sun is shining, a gigawatt of kinetic energy could be deployed every few hundred meters which should be enough to lift several olympic swimming pools per second up a moderate grade.
Added an article on Home Energy Management Systems.
It looks as though replacing fossil fuels with wind and solar is quite do-able, the main obstacle being the political power of the entrenched fossil fuel players.
Things become interesting when humanity goes beyond merely replacing fossil energy and starts dialing up our energy usage beyond 10. My favourite project given increasing use of solar energy is turning the Sahara into a forest, which could be done by desalinating a few cubic kilometers of seawater every year and pumping it up to the center of the desert. Much of it will evaporate, but given practically limitless energy we can just pump more.
Over the last couple of years I've become interested in the interplay between peak oil, global warming and renewable energy. My current best guesses are: Peak convential oil happened around 2005. Fossil hydrocarbons are becoming more expensive to extract, and the increase in price will itself increase as the purchasing power of people in the developing world increases. At the same time, the price of renewable (mainly solar and wind) energy and the energy storage technologies required to connect it to the grid is falling fast. Economic growth has slowed in the developed world as we shift to cheaper renewable power. As this shift appears to be happening with increasing speed, humanity and many of the world's ecosystems may escape catastrophe.
Now that my younger son is partway through his second year, it's possible to think about getting back in shape. Jogging can be a quick way to drop a few pounds, but I had to stop jogging and rollerblading years ago because of knee problems. Now, however, I'm having success jogging on our treadmill without shoes.
At first this seems counterintuitive, insofar as shoes provide padding that should cushion the knees. However, jogging with shoes promotes a style of running in which one lands on the heel, while barefoot jogging enforces landing on the mid- to forefoot. This is desirable as the landing forces are absorbed by tendon and muscle rather than the knee.
Although it's taking a long time to build up my foot pads and leg muscles to a point where jogging burns significant calories, I have a sense that my knees are improving with each session, instead of getting shredded.
Back in June I suggested that if we return the Earth to something like the state in which we found it, species like many of the ones we've killed off will speedily re-evolve to fill the specialist niches destroyed by humanity's spread.
Two further points: humans as we now exist tend to collapse the world's separate ecosystems into a single big one by travelling about and transporting flora and fauna from everywhere to everywhere else. Part of returning the world to its pre-human state means adopting rigorous controls to keep environments separate, allowing locally specialized species to win over generalists.
Also, let's imagine that we fail to halt global warming, and that the Earth's climate is kicked irreversibly into a warmer regime. Under these conditions reptiles will be favoured, and the few generalist reptile species that now eke out a marginal existence will start to diversify. It would make sense if the DNA of the gecko and the crocodile harboured unexpressed code that could quickly reveal itself in new races of dinosaur-like creatures.
Evolution appears to select for traits that promote the survival and propagation of communities rather than of individuals. Sneezing, for instance, was likely evolved to propagate diseases at a certain rate through the members of a community. If a population can adapt to a new disease while it's still similar to a disease for which the population has some immunity, this is preferable to waiting until the disease has mutated into something unfamiliar and lethal. Populations that share their diseases survive better than populations that don't, even if the cost of a new immunity is the loss of a fraction of the sharing population. Note that sneezing transfers small doses of a virus to others, to give the receiving individuals an opportunity to develop an immune response.
Other traits, such as gambling tells and our propensity for following leaders into danger also work against the individual.
Much effort has been spent defeating or managing such traits, and achieving the desired evolutionary results by other means: immunization, anti-viral face masks, etc.
Salmon stocks in the Pacific northwest increased recently when iron-rich ash from a volcano fertilized plankton in the sea. Feeding extra iron to plankton has been suggested as a way to soak up some of the carbon humanity has added to the atmosphere. Now governments can justify this as a way to support their fisheries.
What is the best way to dissolve a lot of iron into the sea? Perhaps this might be combined with two other proposed solutions for excess CO2: nuclear dimming and deacidification of the oceans. Nuclear dimming aims to create a small nuclear winter, using atomic bombs to loft enough dust into the atmosphere to reflect a small but significant fraction of the sun's light. Instead of using this approach exclusively to drive sulphur particles into the upper atmosphere, it could also be used to lift and disperse large masses of iron ore and limestone into the lower atmosphere, where it would fall into the sea. One has arrived at a sorry pass when atomic explosions start looking attractive.
I've been living cable-free for over ten years. My older son is 3 1/2 now and he seldom sees broadcast TV, which is a small victory I hope to extend, gradually phasing in purchased commercial-free quality video. There's lots of worthwhile video experiences out there to share with the kids, from Bambi Meets Godzilla to Bugs Bunny to WKRP in Cincinatti - but I reserve the right to choose how my kids consciousness is altered in their early years. The best solution to TV is to accept the challenge of finding interesting things for the kids to do with their time.
Migraine / Headache Remedy
Since my '20's I've had occasional migraine headaches, and while Fiorinal has been an effective remedy it takes an hour or two to kick in, is habit-forming and requires a prescription. An ER nurse neighbor observed that headaches are often the result of low blood pressure, so I've been experimenting successfully with caffeine. So far a 200 milligram dose has worked well, and it's fast - relief is usually obtained within 30 minutes.
Stir Fried Beef with Vegetables and Rotini
Warm a cheap frozen steak-shaped beef block over low.
Boil and drain rotini.
Slice red peppers, zucchini and straw mushrooms
Slice steak finely, stir fry briefly over high heat to brown, then set aside
Stir fry vegetables for five minutes in butter.
Add milk and kraft dinner cheese.
Combine with rotini and steak, warm and serve.
I toy with the idea of drawing together the various musings here on managing the climate.
Currently things look bleak: we know that unless greenhouse gas emissions are reined in, Earth's climate is going to become less suitable for human and other life. I advance a theory that, just as the USSR looked permanent until the communism actually fell, there's going to be a sudden change to a lower-emission regime in world affairs, possibly spurred by rising oil prices.
The energy industry is allowed to pursue fossil fuels to the ends of the Earth because no-one really believes that the status quo can be changed.
I'm currently reading Why Your World is About to Get a Whole Lot Smaller, by Jeff Rubin. He believes that as the supply of cheap oil comes to an end, shipping goods and food around the world will become less affordable, so local labour will be needed to produce food and goods. My theory is that as cheap developing-world labour becomes unavailable due to increasing fuel costs it will be replaced not by local human workers, but by small local robotic production facilities. Design and intellectual property will still be globalized, but physical objects will travel less. Innovations in this field have been held back for two or three decades by the availability of cheap human labour, but as the Chinese workers who currently debone atlantic salmon are priced out of the market, there'll be a stronger case for relacing them with a machine that accepts whole fish in one side and tosses out attractively deboned fillets on the other, or that goes a little farther and produces sushi.
Once the task of, e.g. deboning a fish, has been studied in detail, it should be possible for machinery to do a more consistent job. You only have to develop the software once, and machines everywhere can do the job. Once tasks of this delicacy and precision become possible, other traditional sweat shop tasks will be mechanized, such as garment assembly.
By using high speed computer controlled valves, it's possible to replace the drive train in a car with a more efficient hydraulic CVT.
Let's say that we arrive at a managed end state in which the atmosphere's composition is clamped within defined limits and humanity's other impacts are equally well regulated. Under these conditions, how long will it take the world to recover from the current extinction event? Although tens of thousands of species will have been lost, it's likely that the remaining generalist species will, given the chance, diversify to fill the extinct species' niches, and do so in only a few tens of thousands of years. It seems reasonable that the DNA of living species encodes not only the features expressed in extant individuals of that species, but also a range of non-expressed features from which a wide range of life forms could rapidly be selected, given the appropriate evolutionary pressure. That is, natural selection is often selection among predefined and well-developed alternatives, as opposed to a random accretion of transcription errors. I would even go so far as to predict that selection has a purposive component, in that if an individual finds itself in conditions for which it is ill-fitted, its offspring are likely to be better suited to that environment, because of environment-sensitive switches that have been set in the parents' bodies.
A Bell salesman called around dinner time. I devoted five minutes to explaining that we weren't interested in Bell's internet service because our current provider offers North American tech support. It took three iterations, but the sales guy terminated the call - victory!
Wash and dry lots of red lettuce
Add red or yellow pepper, tomato wedges, green onions, crumbled feta cheese and chopped craisins.
Dressing: red wine vinegar, rice vinegar, olive oil, walnut oil, worcester sauce, pepper
Use iceberg lettuce, soak a diced cooking onion in hot tap water for a couple of minutes, add the diced white part of a peeled cucumber, kalamata olives, oregano and more feta cheese.
Preheat oven to 450 F
Fill a large loaf pan 3 kernels deep with dried quinoa.
Fill pan 3/4" deep with no-salt-added chicken stock
Add 1/4 cup of olive oil
Add white Highliner frozen fish block, e.g. Cod or Haddock
Add sliced sun-dried tomatoes, tomatoes, red peppers, green onions, pepper
Cover with foil and bake for 50 minutes.
An article in The Economist suggests that after some years of borrowing, individuals,
corporations and governments will now have to rein in spending and pay down debt, leading
to a time of austerity.
Is this necessary? I've observed before that as mechanization of the support systems of human life is
proceeding apace, the challenge is to divide up the spoils. Food production, shelter
building, resource extraction, transportation, heating and cooling, all are accomplished with less
human toil each year. The developing world is indeed developing. The sea of
consumer products arriving from China are produced in modern factories. The labour inputs are
indeed cheap over there, but they are multiplied by increasingly capable material handling
systems and robotics.
Of course, it's challenging to divide up the spoils in such a way that effort is rewarded, while ensuring that everyone has enough to survive on. I'm just saying that scarcity of resources is no longer the absolute constraint it once was.
Can humanity survive the coming food and oil shortages? I'm optimistic. Lots of techniques for harvesting sunlight and geothermal energy exist and are affordable. As fossil sources become scarcer and their environmental cost is internalized, renewables will replace them with surprising speed. Malthusians of whatever age love to extrapolate trends in the direction of doom, which is part of humanity's way of recognizing challenges that need solving. As environmentalists untiringly point out, we are part of Gaia, although they often fail to recognize that in so being we inherit the ability of other natural systems to react to the conditions in which we find ourselves.
Currently one of the greatest challenges for African farmers is the dumping on world markets of excess food by rich countries. As food becomes more expensive to transport, local producers will become more competitive, and poor farmers the world over will become increasingly wealthy, leading to increased farming in the third world.
First world farmers are a large part of the problem facing humanity.
Technologies for sucking the excess greenhouse gases out of the air are being investigated. The cost of removing a ton of CO2 from the atmosphere turns out not to be that great, but someone must nonetheless be induced to pay it. As usual I'm optimistic that a civilization capable of supporting a public library system can also devise a way to fund atmospheric composition management. And the atmosphere should be managed, as opposed to returning it to its pre-human state, which would lead to another ice age. Rather we should take control of the substances we add and subtract from the air, aiming to create optimal conditions.
An article on the fragility of the world's food supply provokes thought about how it might be made more secure. Peak Oil will encourage local production. First shipping food by air will become uneconomical, then meat and corn become more expensive due to their energy inputs. The cost of food will rise, taking an increasing share of people's income. People will leave remote areas to which it's expensive to deliver food. A greater variety of crops will be grown near each city, as it will no longer be economic to ship each crop from its most efficient source. A certain amount of inefficiency is desirable to add resilience to the food supply.
Refined an idea I had back in 2005. While shopping, a heads-up image projected onto the inner surface of the shopper's glasses would deliver various organizations' views on the products on offer. It would now be possible to use a smartphone with barcode reading software to achieve much of the same effect. The challenge is to come up with a common format in which organizations from Greenpeace to Cigar Fancier's Monthly could expose their opinions databases so that wandering users could access them.
Internal combustion / battery hybrid vehicles are expensive and heavy. Gas turbine / battery hybrids might be less so. Gas turbines are less complicated than piston engines, and can be lighter while generating the same amount of power, although their poor performance at idle has prevented their adoption in cars. A turbine driving a generator that powered an electric motor at each wheel and charged a battery could be turned off completely while the car was at rest, then restarted by the battery as needed.