Monday, June 30, 2008

Energy Review

First Law of Thermodynamics:
Energy can neither be created nor destroyed.

The internal combustion engine changed the world, starting around one hundred years ago. It has increased the human population four-fold by giving us things like factories and motorized transport. But the internal combustion engine is really just a method to burn through millions of years of solar power, as collected by chorophyll and retained in dead biomass. All that energy waited all that time for us to come and take it. Solar power-turned-oil is easy to harvest, as you just pump and burn it.

Boiling solar power down further brings us to the bedrock of life; the binding energy between nucleons. Binding energy is the energy that holds neutrons and protons together, creating atoms. Very light (Hydrogen, Helium) and very heavy (Uranium, Plutonium) atoms contain high levels of binding energy per nucleon per nucleon*. This binding energy can be released, creating a lower energy, more stable, mid-weight atom.

Ahmedinejad wants to release the energy from heavy Uranium atoms in the form of a 15,000 tons-of-TNT-equivalent bomb. Two generations ago, us Infidels figured out how to release the greater potential from hydrogen in the form of a 60,000,000 tons-of-TNT equivalent bomb. Sixty megatons is a lot of energy. That energy comes from stuff like water. This is what the sun does.

The only substitute for millions of years worth of a tiny sliver of the sun’s energy is to create solar power on earth, in the form of nuclear power. But sustaining our life expectations with nuclear power is much more technically challenging than simply burning oil. I don’t think that we’ll be able to pull it off before panic sets in, in large part due to environmental regulations.

Add Al Gore’s name to the list.

* This differs from my education, which taught that light and heavy atoms had low binding energy per nucleon per nucleon. But this doesn’t make sense to me now. If a nuclear event raises binding energy per nucleon per nucleon, then where does the heat come from? It seems to me that mid-weight atoms are inherently more stable, and require less binding energy. Maybe there is an energy other than binding energy that is released in a nuclear event. If anyone can provide an explanation, I’ll buy them a pizza.

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