Powering the Future: How We Will (Eventually) Solve the Energy Crisis and Fuel the Civilization of Tomorrow

Powering the Future: How We Will (Eventually) Solve the Energy Crisis and Fuel the Civilization of Tomorrow

by Robert B. Laughlin
     
 

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In Powering the Future, Nobel laureate Robert B. Laughlin transports us two centuries into the future, when we’ve ceased to use carbon from the ground—either because humans have banned carbon burning or because fuel has simply run out. Boldly, Laughlin predicts no earth-shattering transformations will have taken place. Six generations from now,See more details below

Overview


In Powering the Future, Nobel laureate Robert B. Laughlin transports us two centuries into the future, when we’ve ceased to use carbon from the ground—either because humans have banned carbon burning or because fuel has simply run out. Boldly, Laughlin predicts no earth-shattering transformations will have taken place. Six generations from now, there will still be soccer moms, shopping malls, and business trips. Firesides will still be snug and warm.

How will we do it? Not by discovering a magic bullet to slay our energy problems, but through a slew of fascinating technologies, drawing on wind, water, and fire. Powering the Future is an objective yet optimistic tour through alternative fuel sources, set in a world where we’ve burned every last drop of petroleum and every last shovelful of coal.

The Predictable:
 
Fossil fuels will run out. The present flow of crude oil out of the ground equals in one day the average flow of the Mississippi River past New Orleans in thirteen minutes. If you add the energy equivalents of gas and coal, it’s thirty-six minutes. At the present rate of consumption, we’ll be out of fossil fuels in two centuries’ time.
 
We always choose the cheapest gas. From the nineteenth-century consolidation of the oil business to the California energy crisis of 2000-2001, the energy business has shown, time and again, how low prices dominate market share. Market forces—not green technology—will be the driver of energy innovation in the next 200 years.
 
The laws of physics remain fixed. Energy will still be conserved, degrade entropically with use, and have to be disposed of as waste heat into outer space. How much energy a fuel can pack away in a given space is fixed by quantum mechanics—and if we want to keep flying jet planes, we will need carbon-based fuels.
 
The Potential:
 
Animal waste.If dried and burned, the world’s agricultural manure would supply about one-third as much energy as all the coal we presently consume.
 
Trash. The United States disposes of 88 million tons of carbon in its trash per year. While the incineration of waste trash is not enough to contribute meaningfully to the global demand for energy, it will constrain fuel prices by providing a cheap supply of carbon.
 
Solar energy.The power used to light all the cities around the world is only one-millionth of the total power of sunlight pouring down on earth’s daytime side. And the amount of hydropump storage required to store the world’s daily electrical surge is equal to only eight times the volume of Lake Mead.
 
PRAISE FOR ROBERT B. LAUGHLIN
 
“Perhaps the most brilliant theoretical physicist since Richard Feynman”
—George Chapline, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory
 
“Powerful but controversial.”
Financial Times
 
“[Laughlin’s] company … is inspirational.” —New Scientist

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

Kirkus Reviews
“A work of intricate research free of hype, offering serious pros and cons with a sometimes whimsical flourish.”

Booklist
“An illuminating, ultimately hopeful perspective on energy policy.”
 
Library Journal
“A pragmatic, authoritative look into energy alternatives for general readers.”

Matt Ridley, Wall Street Journal
“[Powering the Future] is written with cheerfully can-do brio and is full of fascinating calculations.... Mr. Laughlin brings a refreshing, upbeat outlook for our energy future.”

Discover
“[A] sardonic and vivid exercise in futurology.”

New Scientist
“Laughlin says many useful things with a pleasing directness.”

Library Journal
It's a matter of interpretation whether this book is ultimately optimistic, pessimistic, or just honest. In his "armchair journey" into Earth's energy future, physicist and Nobel laureate Laughlin transports readers to a hypothetical age, some 200 years from now, when every last lump of coal and drop of oil has been extracted from the planet. Some may be unwilling to accept this proposed future, especially in light of the inevitable environmental wreckage it would cause. Laughlin, however, assumes that human nature is such that we will demand energy first and seek to manage the consequences second. Even so, he believes that we could continue to power our machines with a combination of natural, synthetic, and alternative energy sources. Many will cheer his endorsement of biofuels; not so many his assertions that nuclear power will be essential. Solar energy, too, would be a necessity, although environmentalists may cringe at the idea of deserts shaded by a canopy of solar collectors. His proposal that colonies of robots will manage energy-transport systems on the ocean floor isn't likely to win anybody's green seal of approval either. Laughlin contends that any technology that can be economically developed will be. The easy flow of the text masks the book's erudition (there are over 450 detailed notes). VERDICT A pragmatic, authoritative look into energy alternatives for general readers. Another perspective is Robert and Edward Ayres's Crossing the Energy Divide: Moving from Fossil Fuel Dependence to a Clean-Energy Future.—Gregg Sapp, Olympia, WA
Kirkus Reviews

Nobel Prize winner Laughlin (Physics/Stanford Univ.; The Crime of Reason: And the Closing of the Scientific Mind, 2008, etc.) invites readers on an "armchair journey" to a future devoid of petroleum, coal and natural gas, proposing alternative resources.

Beginning with a 23rd-century scenario, the author explains how several concerns, including climate change and fossil-fuel dependency, are important yet not as critical as they seem when viewed in geologic time. The earth, with its capacity for renewal and patterned routines, will continue on its course long after the energy crisis has peaked. Instead of panicking and engaging in political debates over the hot-button issues of today, it is a more useful starter for change to consider the logical ramifications of particular decisions. What could happen if society converted to synthetic fuels, biofuels, hydropumping as an energy-storing technology, fast-breeder nuclear reactors, manure power, algae farming, trash as a carbon source, solar power and deep-sea exploitation, among other ideas? Laughlin presents hypothetical cases, supplementing them with clear, personable analogies as well as explanations of quantum mechanics. The result is a work of moderately accessible science that strikes a cautionary note. For all that the future may hold in regards to innovations or improvements on current technologies, an essential, increasing greed for cheap energy and a focus on economic and governmental factors will determine which solutions take precedence. The book should not be seen as a speculative exercise, which Laughlin considers "foolish," since "how history will play out thousands of years from now is anyone's guess"; the value of the book rests in the author's thought-provoking assessment and his relentless faith in the earth. Humans may be resourceful, but the planet itself is more so.

A work of intricate research free of hype, offering serious pros and cons with a sometimes whimsical flourish.

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780465022205
Publisher:
Basic Books
Publication date:
04/23/2013
Edition description:
First Trade Paper Edition
Pages:
240
Sales rank:
1,442,507
Product dimensions:
5.70(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.60(d)
Age Range:
18 Years

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