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

Robert B. Laughlin

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Powering the Future 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, a... Full description

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Amazon.com: 4.0 étoiles sur 5  16 commentaires
20 internautes sur 25 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
4.0 étoiles sur 5 Eclectic, commonsense musings on energy 1 octobre 2011
Par A. Jogalekar - Publié sur Amazon.com
Format:Relié|Achat vérifié
In the tradition of physicists writing for the layman, Robert Laughlin has emerged as a writer who pens unusually insightful and thought-provoking books. In his "A Different Universe" he explored the consequences and limitations of reductionism-based physics for our world. In this book he takes an equally fresh look at the future of energy. The book is not meant to be a comprehensive survey of existing and upcoming technologies; instead it's more like an assortment of appetizers designed to stimulate our thinking. For those who want to know more, it offers an impressive bibliography and list of calculations which is almost as long as the book itself.

Laughlin's thinking is predicated on two main premises. The first is that carbon sources are going to eventually run out or become inaccessible (either because of availability or because of legislation). However we will still largely depend on carbon because of its extraordinarily fortuitous properties like high energy density, safety and ease of transportation. But even in this scenario, simple rules of economics will trump most other considerations for a variety of different energy sources. The second premise which I found very intriguing is that we need to uncouple our thinking on climate change from that on energy instead of letting concerns about the former dictate policy about the latter. The reason is that planetary-level changes in the environment are so vast and beyond the ability of humans to control that driving a few more hybrids or curbing carbon emissions will have little effect on millennial events like the freezing or flooding of major continents. It's worth noting here that Laughlin (who has been called a climate change skeptic lately) is not denying global warming or its consequences here; it's just that he thinks that it's sort of beside the point when it comes to thinking about future energy, which will be mainly dictated by economics and prices more than anything else. I found this to be a commonsense approach based on an appreciation of human nature.

With this background Laughlin takes a sweeping and eclectic look at several interesting technologies and energy sources including nuclear energy, biofuels, energy from trash, wind and solar power and energy stored beneath the sea. In each case Laughlin explores a variety of problems and promises associated with these sources.

Because of dwindling uranium resources, the truly useful form of nuclear energy for instance will come from fast breeder reactors which produce their own plutonium fuel. However these reactors are more susceptible to concerns about proliferation and theft. Laughlin thinks that a worldwide, tightly controlled system of providing fuel rods to nations would allow us to fruitfully deploy nuclear power. One of his startling predictions is the possibility that we may put up with occasional Chernobyl-like events if nuclear power truly becomes cheap and we don't have any other alternatives. Laughlin also finds promises and pitfalls in solar energy. The basic problem with solar energy is its irregular availability and problems with storage. Backup power inevitably depends on fossil fuel sources which sort of defeats the purpose. Laughlin sees a bright future for molten salt tanks which can very efficiently store solar energy as heat and which can be used when the sun is not shining. Biofuels also get an interesting treatment in the book. One big advantage of biofuels is that they are both sources and sinks of carbon. Laughlin talks about some recent promising work with algae but cautions that meeting the sheer worldwide demand for energy with biofuels that don't divert resources away from food is very challenging. Further on there's a very intriguing chapter on energy stored under the sea. The sea provides a stupendous amount of land beneath it and could be used for energy storage through novel sources like high-density brine pools and compressed natural gas tanks. Finally, burning trash which has a lot of carbon might appear like a useful source of energy but as Laughlin explains, the actual energy in trash will provide only a fraction of our needs.

Overall the book presents a very thought-provoking treatment of the nature and economics of possible future energy sources in a carbon-strapped world. In these discussions Laughlin wisely avoids taking sides, realizing how fraught with complexity and ambiguity future energy production is. Instead he simply offers his own eclectic thoughts on the pros and cons of energy-related topics which may (or may not) prove important in the future. Of the minor gripes I have with the volume is the lack of discussion of some promising recent advances in solar cell and next generation nuclear reactor technology. Laughlin's focus is also sometimes a little odd and meandering; for instance at one point he spends an inordinate amount of time talking about interesting aspects of robotic technology that may make deep sea energy sequestration possible. But these gripes detract little from the volume which is not supposed to be an exhaustive survey of alternative energy technologies anyway.

Instead it offers us a very smart scientist's miscellaneous musings on energy dictated by commonsense assumptions based on the simple laws of demand and supply and of human nature. As responsible citizens we need to be informed on our energy choices which are almost certainly going to become more difficult and constrained in the future. Laughlin's book along with others will stimulate our thinking and help us pick our options and chart our direction.
18 internautes sur 23 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
5.0 étoiles sur 5 Outstanding fact-based discussion of the future of energy 28 septembre 2011
Par Nicholas C. - Publié sur Amazon.com
I am an applied physicist actively working in the energy sector and reading energy books for the past six years, and Powering the Future was WELL WORTH the money and time spent reading it. The book is highly educational and thought provoking, with many surprising perspectives I had never considered. Laughlin's writing is easy to understand, entertaining, and fun to read. I especially appreciate that he makes clear what is known fact and what is his or others' speculations. Lastly, I loved seeing how a Nobel Prize winning physicist uses facts, physics, and reason to dissect this extremely complicated, highly interrelated set of problems into a series of solvable pieces.

Laughlin leaves political agenda behind to focus on the physics by resorting to a clever literary device: The book takes place 200 or so years in the future, after burning carbon based fossil fuels is no longer possible, either because they have been completely used up (his prediction) or because of carbon legislation. The technologies needed are the same in either case, but not necessarily what you might naively guess -- things get very different when carbon becomes expensive because it's no longer available in the concentrated underground deposits and we instead have to recover it from the air or ocean.

I rank this book amongst the most useful big picture energy books I have read, including:
The Prize by Daniel Yergin
Sustainable Energy - Without the Hot Air by David Mackay
Natural Capitalism by Paul Hawkins, Amory Lovins, and L. Hunter Lovins
10 internautes sur 13 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
1.0 étoiles sur 5 The emperor's new clothes? 11 août 2013
Par Peter Ariessohn - Publié sur Amazon.com
Having received a PhD from the institution where Prof. Laughlin teaches, I was quite dismayed and embarrassed to read his musings on our energy future. A better title for the book would be "Sophistry for dummies" as it offers examples of all forms of logical error and suggests that he thinks his readers are dummies.

Almost every page contains mistakes, half truths, unfounded conclusions, and other logical errors. Some examples of these numerous problems include the following:

1. Broad generalizations based on anecdotal evidence or on admitted fabrications:

Laughlin tells us that when he was a child, his father was fanatic about finding the cheapest gasoline for his car. He then says that when he travels abroad and talks to cab drivers, they express the same desire to find the cheapest gas they can. He tells us that this shows that economics will always trump all other considerations in people's decisions about the source of energy they choose. I guess that explains why we all heat our homes with coal.

He then goes on to say that he can just imagine some fellow in Bangladesh (or maybe it was India) who drives his new gas guzzling SUV up to the gas pump and smiles to himself as he thinks about all the people in the US who are driving fuel efficient cars since their parsimonious use of gas reduces overall demand for gas and reduces gas prices, allowing him to afford to fill up his tank. He tells us this fellow is representative of millions and millions of others just like him and that this demonstrates that environmental concerns won't make any difference in human behavior when it comes to making decisions about energy usage. Basically, he fabricates an imaginary individual, attributes attitudes to this individual, then says these attitudes are shared by millions of others, and uses these statements to justify a conclusion that he generalizes to the whole world. It's quite possible that his conclusion is correct, but his argument is laughable.

In another place he tells us: "... we might ask whether people we encounter in this distant time (200 years hence) will still drive cars. After a few moments of thought, nearly everybody answers yes to this question." ... "We can also ask whether these people of the distant future will still fly in airplanes. That's a little harder, for it's easier for us to imagine living without airplanes than without cars. However, again nearly everyone concludes that people of means living at that time will want the speed and convenience of air travel..." Then there's the question of whether the lights will come on--that is, whether electricity will be available at reasonable prices whenever users want it. Everyone answers this one yes very quickly...
He then says: "With the basic features of the future energy landscape thus determined ..."

This is pure sophistry. He provides only fabricated evidence and then says this shows how things will be in the future.

2. Technical errors:

Laughlin also offers us a number of falsehoods that, as a physicist, he should be ashamed of:

He talks about fuel cells and says they will never have a significant impact on the energy situation because they're expensive and will never be economically competitive. He says they're expensive because they use platinum as a catalyst and platinum is expensive because it's scarce. Then he says that platinum is scarce because it doesn't react with other elements. Does he really believe that the abundance of elements is dependent on their chemical reactivity? Why does he say this? It doesn't advance his argument in any way and is just a gratuitous falsehood.

He talks about nuclear energy and says that one of its big problems is that the waste products are radioactive and emit alpha and beta particles, gamma rays, and an occasional neutron. He says that all of these can pass through walls and irradiate people on the other side and cause biological damage without them knowing about it. It's true that betas, gammas and neutrons can pass through walls, but alphas are stopped by a sheet of paper. Why does he make this statement that he must know to be false? Is he just sloppy or is he trying to mislead the inattentive reader? Why does he bother to make this false statement since it doesn't advance his argument in any way?

A large part of his discussion focuses on economics, but he makes statements that make no economic sense, e.g. He says that biomass will be an important source of carbon when fossil carbon sources exhaust (sic). He says that one scenario we might consider would be to take the entire corn production of the Midwest and burn it all (corn, husks, stalks, etc.) to extract the energy and that would provide about one fourth of the energy derived from petroleum in the US in a year. But this would be a bad idea because it would "zero out the economy of the entire Midwest". Excuse me. Does he think that if farmers don't sell their corn to grocery chains and feedlots, that their only alternative will be to give the corn away to energy companies? Does he think that the increased demand for corn as energy companies compete with groceries and feedlots will cause the price of corn to plummet? Just how does he imagine that using corn for fuel would "zero out" the economy of the Midwest?

3. Misleading statements:

He also demonstrates a curious degree of ignorance about thermodynamics and technology. He talks about the economic and technical advantages of solar thermal over photovoltaic energy generation. "... it is theoretically possible to store electricity as heat without any loss. It requires only something called a heat pump--basically, an engine so well constructed that it will run backward and function as a refrigerator." Excuse me, again; the ability of a heat pump to run backwards has nothing to do with how well it's constructed, but everything to do with its design. Also, heat pumps consist of a collection of very mundane components (a compressor, an expansion valve, a couple of heat exchangers, plumbing, fans, and pumps. None of these require exceptionally high precision in their manufacture.

According to Laughlin: "We don't routinely encounter such engines because market considerations usually require manufacturers to optimize for one task or the other. Thus, we find lots of machines that extract energy by moving heat from hot to cold (an automobile motor) and lots of machines that use energy to force heat from cold to hot (a refrigeration unit), but almost never do we find machines that will do both.
What planet is he living on? What about the 12.3 million heat pumps in service in the US alone (like the one I've been using to heat my house for the last 25 years)?

Then, he goes on to tell us that he's revoked the second law of thermodynamics: " ... it is possible, say, with turbo machinery, to pump heat from a low temperature thermal reservoir (for example a water tank) up into a hot salt bath, thus depositing more energy into the salt than was consumed in electricity. The same machine working in reverse then extracts the energy back out, necessarily dumping much of it as heat back down into the lower reservoir. This is fine, however, because the dumped part exactly equals the amount pumped uphill in the first step. No entropy is created and all the energy put into the bank comes back out."

He seems to imply that the heat pump will convert the stored energy back into electricity with 100% efficiency, which is nonsense. Heat pumps only pump energy from low temperature to high temperature and consume electricity. They run in "reverse" only when the temperatures of the two reservoirs switch places (i.e. the hot reservoir changes to being the cold reservoir as when the temperature outside goes from being hotter than the inside of the house (in the summer) to being colder (in the winter)). Is he just ignorant, or is he trying to mislead us?

These are only a few examples of the barrage of glib (and snarky) statements and falsehoods the reader is subjected to. Nevertheless, the book is thought provoking and offers a wealth of references (although most are from the popular press and very few from refereed journals).
9 internautes sur 12 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
4.0 étoiles sur 5 Powering the Future 23 octobre 2011
Par STEPHEN W TOBEY - Publié sur Amazon.com
This book represents a speculative energy future from one of the leading minds in solid state physics. Professor Laughlin takes the long view (two hundred years in the future) on the socio-economic pressures surrounding humanity's consumption of fossil carbon fuel. His well supported hypothesis is; we will do nothing important regarding energy dependance on fossil fuels until we have to, because we will have burned it all up. Unfortunately for us and the planet, this means that most, if not all, of the available sequestered carbon will be oxidized to carbon dioxide (CO2) and dumped into the atmosphere. His pessimism is bolstered by an optimistic view of human ingenuity and our demonstrated ability to solve large engineering problems when we have to.

Predicting the future with any sort of reliability requires a solid understanding of the present. Professor Laughlin is intimately aware of our convoluted political infrastructure and its ineptitude at solving any real big problems. His discussion of energy futures trading in light of California's rolling black-outs of 2000-2001 and the concurrent implosion of Enron makes for entertaining reading, but provides a sobering forecast. The book is a scholarly treatise on the possible Plutonium economy and a discussion of the human factors involved in a post-Fukushima nuclear world. The physical fact is that liquid hydrocarbon fuels are reasonably close to optimal in terms of their energy yield per pint/pound. We can supplement our fuel stocks with microbial syngas generated alcohol or methane generation from fecal matter, but we cannot replace the sheer magnitude of the river of oil being consumed daily.

There are highly obfuscated discussions on whether the peak extraction rate of the world's oil reserves has already occurred (or not). There is little doubt that the easy-to-access immense underground oil reserves have already been tapped. There are potentially large untapped reservoirs which reside in difficult to extract locations as well as a significant presence of coal and tar sands which are on the cusp of exploitation. The world's current thirst for liquid fuels is being met, although most of us have some experience with what happens when there is a shortage. The inherent situation with energy supply and demand manifests itself in; whomever has the most money has access to the most fuel.

The First World consumes petrochemical products at an alarming rate and most of it eventually ends up in a landfill. Dr. Laughlin looks at these burial grounds as being the future's big thing in resource recovery. The problem with coal, oil and natural gas is that most of it gets burned in electrical generation or transportation. The access to electricity, which is the purest form of energy, is the civilizing element in global lifestyles. The abundance of electrical energy coupled with low cost per kilowatt is what powers all First World economies. The generation of electrical power is one of those aspects of modern life which virtually everyone takes for granted, until the lights go out. It is hard to imagine what most of our lives would look like if there was no electricity. The answer is simple: We would look like the Third World.

Electricity has completely transformed our lives and it has the power to do exactly the same thing for the underprivileged. As a physicist, Professor Laughlin helps readers understand the transient reality of electrical distribution networks and the inherent difficulty with handling peak loads and the inability to store electrons until we want them. Most of the peak electrical load is being handled by natural gas powered turbines. Coal burning and Nuclear power plants supply most of the world's baseline electrical needs, but are not very efficient at handling transient load conditions. Professor Laughlin provides readers with an understanding of the emerging technologies in solar (photovoltaic and thermal) and wind electrical energy generation. These technologies require gargantuan real estate tracts to actualize in addition to rare (emphasis needed) earth metals. Therefore, the short-term prospects for both solar and wind are economically and socially constrained.

Dr. Laughlin proposes some significant energy storage and recovery technologies based on abysmal ocean floor hyper-pressurized air tank farms and continental shelf saturated brine weirs with turbine pumps all manned by remotely controlled robots. Looking two hundred years into the future allows blurring the line between science fiction and fact, and this book does an excellent job of suspending disbelief. If you are interested in understanding what is both reasonably possible and willing to be constrained to the facts which modern physics dictate, this book about powering the future is well worth reading.
2 internautes sur 2 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
5.0 étoiles sur 5 An in-depth picture of how the world's infrastructure can and will run without fossil fuels, and the gains and losses that ensue 22 novembre 2013
Par Chad M - Publié sur Amazon.com
Format:Relié|Achat vérifié
This book has the rare combination of being very readable yet highly detailed. The author begins with the premise that in about two hundred years (or earlier) civilization will either choose to phase out fossil fuels or will exhaust the supply of fossil fuels. Prof. Laughlin then accounts for various alternative energies: renewables, nuclear, biomass, etc., and the means of generation, transmission, and storage. The book is written in an engaging and insightful narrative format, and in this way Prof. Laughlin acts as a successful intermediary between the world of Ph.D.s in science and engineering and the general college educated public.

After I finished this book and looked at the detailed and high quality bibliography of thirty pages or so, I realized this book presented in short form what a treatise would do in five hundred pages. The book is sufficiently knowledge dense to merit a second reading, and the audiobook version is excellent as well. "Powering the Future" is a relief from overly politicized writings on sustainable energy. For a straight answer on energy, based on virtually indisputable facts from a leading scientist, this book is essential reading.
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