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Powering the Future: How We Will (Eventually) Solve the Energy Crisis and Fuel the Civilization of Tomorrow (Anglais) Broché – 1 septembre 2012

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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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21 internautes sur 26 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
Eclectic, commonsense musings on energy 1 octobre 2011
Par Curious Wavefunction - 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.
19 internautes sur 24 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
Outstanding fact-based discussion of the future of energy 28 septembre 2011
Par Nicholas C. - Publié sur Amazon.com
Format: Relié
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
6 internautes sur 7 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
Delightful insights mixed with scientific satire? 2 septembre 2012
Par Stefan Thiesen - Publié sur Amazon.com
Format: Relié
The book clearly is the product of a highly intelligent mind, and Prof. Laughlin presents many aspects of the energy/environment complex from an angle that I find truly refreshing, although they often are on a direct collision course with my own views. As a physicist his approach to the topic is not openly ideological. He instead attempts to describe what WILL happen rather than what is desirable. But I do see a few flaws that render the book less useful for the uninformed lay person as it could - and should - be. Since the topic is global in nature, the description should be global as well, spanning history and continents. Laughlin does not do this. He does not question our current economic paradigm and he acts as if "American Nature" is identical to "Human Nature". It isn't. Cultures differ greatly. And it has become clear, too, that the homo economicus is a myth in itself. In reality people do donate money to charity without benefiting. In reality many people do spend more money for products that are (or are perceived as) more environmentally benign. Many people in Europe subscribed to green energy despite higher prices. People do not behave in strictly economic terms. That, like the origin of economics as "barter", and many other aspects of "modern" economics was fantasized up by Adam Smith. Humans simply are not like that. And "reason" does not only refer to economic behavior. Do we sell our children because it might be economically beneficial? Humans never did that throughout history except in life and death situations.

But there is another flaw that I cannot forgive Prof. Laughlin on cultural grounds. On the one hand he clearly states that economic growth and energy consumption are strongly coupled. I fully agree. There is no sign that they could ever be substantially de-coupled. On the contrary: as Laughlin himself emphasizes over and again our energy future will be less efficient. We are not interested in Oil and coal per-se, but in the energy they contain, so what counts ultimately is the amount of energy harvested and not the tons of coal or oil. This is already becoming a significant issue for tar sands and shale oil: the energy balance is lousy compared to conventional crude. So lets see: it is not likely that we will see much of an efficiency revolution over the time span Laughlin covers. But, given the economic system we have, we might see at least 2% of annual economic growth (everything else is, as we know, a "crisis" in this sick system). This means, since the coupling of energy consumption and economy will roughly remain on the same level, we will also see a growth of energy consumption on at least that level - and that's extremely conservative. But it is enough to get ridiculous numbers: over 200 years we'd already have an energy demand approximately 32 times that of todays. Now Laughlin suggests we will end up in a fully fledged Plutonium breeding economy (and accept the price of sacrificing a major city every decade - is he being satirical?). He also estimates somewhere that the Plutonium economy could cover our energy demand for about 15,000 years. In words: fifteen thousand. Okay... let's go for only 1000. At 2% growth the doubling time would be approx. 35 years, i.e. 28 doublings. I arrive at 2.7 * 10E8, in other words 270 million times the energy consumption we have today. For 15.000 years we have 428 doublings... Anyone remember the old story about the rice grains and the chess board? So - 1500 major cities blown up over the 15,000 years to keep our aircons and TVs running? He MUST be satirical!

So - what I want to say is that the main issue is growth. Population grows exponentially as well, following the same rules. Over historical time spans - and here Laughlin set the stage - exponential growth is not possible anymore, since we already operate at - or near - many limits: Water, food, industrial resources, ecosystem stabilities, financial systems (a far reaching virtualization of the economy where money is not anymore backed by any real products or values). Ever higher risks in every arena are the result. It turns out that, surprise, other than economics the economy is indeed connected with the real world. Laughlin shows that in many ways and destroys some of many environmentalists pet dreams (e.g. the illusion of the clean electric car). But he misses the main point, the main cause; the flawed economic system. And the very, very simple fact that this product of human imagination will collide with the very real laws of physics - a paper boat in a Hurricane. But - did Laughlin miss this simple math? Hard to believe. Maybe he wants us to think for ourselves? I would surely hope so...
9 internautes sur 12 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
Powering the Future 23 octobre 2011
Par STEPHEN W TOBEY - Publié sur Amazon.com
Format: Relié
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 
How Much Time Have We Got? 17 novembre 2013
Par D. Wayne Dworsky - Publié sur Amazon.com
Format: Format Kindle
How Much Time Have We Got?

While politicians dazzle you with a promise of endless supplies of fossil fuel energy, Robert Laughlin lays out a sober outline of powering the future. The clock began winding down since the discovery of giant caches of crude oil, natural gas and coal. Now that the end of such caches nears Laughlin hopes to prepare the political arena for the wake-up call. This, he eloquently explains, is how we will rescue ourselves from the disaster that will follow from the last drops of oil, the final puff of gas and the end of the endless bricks of coal.

Already in the making are the many sources of renewable energy, including: solar, wind, bio-diesel, manure gas, and nuclear power. In addition, Laughlin sees how we can stave off energy starvation by investing in alternate fuel sources before the real crisis begins. These are in addition to the already huge investment many countries have made in nuclear energy plants. Laughlin feels that all sources of energy must be exploited in order for sovereignties to exist. Even though many of these ambitious programs are only in the formulary stages, he claims that we are heading in the right direction thanks to government-driven incentives and the feasibility of profit among private enterprises.

He seems to think that nuclear plants have the most promise. At the same time our concerns of disposal of spent nuclear waste disposals pile up, Laughlin sees how we can recycle it. Building scrubbing plants that will utilize the heat cast off by spent power modules can be used for steam powered plants to generate electricity.

Laughlin paints a picture of the golden age of energy. He reflects assuredly on the promise of a new age. An invigorating and inspiring read that will propel your thoughts to our future.

QUOTE: “…unless the world rids itself of nuclear technology altogether…nuclear power will remain in the background, disavowed by elected governments but nonetheless standing by, ready to expand into the economic vacuum left as coal and oil retreat.”
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