Although the current 413 ppm CO2 in our atmosphere may have been experienced as recently as the Miocene ten to fifteen million years ago, we have yet to see some of the radical effects of such a CO2 level. Seas were a hundred feet higher, and average surface temperatures were 11 degrees Fahrenheit hotter in the Miocene. One explanation may be that nowhere can we find a rate of change (upper 200s ppm to lower 400s ppm of CO2 over a period of a couple hundred years) as rapid as this, as far as we know, in the past three and a half billion years that life has been present on planet Earth.
Because of this blink-of-the-eye rise (geologically speaking), there may be a significant lag time before the Earth starts to once again look like the Miocene. Because we are so short-lived, we scoff at people that warn us of these future changes. Yet, when these changes come along we think of them as normal because that’s the way it’s been most of our lives. This life span problem is a major disadvantage to our species. It ranks up there with greed and stupidity.
If we do manage to transition to lower CO2 levels and successfully reverse climate change, we should then be ever vigilant of our greenhouse gas outputs and our use, or misuse, of energy.
Surviving climate change will result in a massive change in how we think about energy and its uses. For our civilization to survive intact and recognizable, a political upheaval will have to take place, replacing our leaders with people concerned about the planet we live on and not some special interest group that gives them money. A social and technological upheaval will have to follow in which we become good stewards of the Earth. This doesn’t necessarily mean eating vegan and riding a bike to work, but we will think differently about energy.
In the future, not only will we be avoiding the combustion of fossil fuels but the burning of solid fuels such as wood, peat, and grain pellets as well. Industrial processes will be switched from fossil fuels to electricity. Wind, tidal, hydro, solar, and even nuclear will power our industrial future. Electrical power, however, can be inherently “dirty” by having spikes and dips in voltage, current, and frequencies. This dirty power causes inefficiencies in transmission and usage. Filters, surge protectors, and line reactors can mediate these problems, but it is an area ripe for innovation, especially software controlling these solutions as a package. Clean power will be a mantra of the future.
Even if we are producing and using only “clean” power generated without fossil fuels, there is still a lot of heat generated and wasted by the end devices using electricity. If a waste heat source is hot enough, it is sometimes used to make steam and turn generators in a process called cogeneration, but this is not the norm with our current use of fossil fuels. Waste heat sources below the boiling point of water are generally ignored or underutilized.
Climate change is going to force the human race to look at waste heat in a different light. We need to put it to work. This low grade energy will, in the future, be looked at similar to the way we look at geothermal locations now. These waste heat hot spots generated by industry, however, are much more widespread. This is a technology that needs to be developed.
Industries such as cement and steel will have to switch to completely electric or solar energy. It will not be as hard for steel since a quarter of it is already made with electric arc furnaces. There may need to be some technology development and tweaking to make that work for all types of steel, but it certainly seems possible, and it will need to be done.
The cement industry is one of the biggest emitters of CO2 after the fossil fuel power industry. The reduction of limestone (CaCO3) to lime (CaO) involves getting rid of a carbon atom and two oxygen atoms in the form of CO2. Also, a lot of fossil fuel is burned to produce the heat required for this reaction to take place — a dual production of CO2. Fortunately, we may get to make our cement and use it too, if researchers from George Washington University in Ashbury, Virginia have their way. They use solar energy directly to melt the limestone and heat it greater than 800 degrees Centigrade. Then it is electrolyzed to produce lime with byproducts of carbon monoxide and oxygen. There is still a lot of heat sloughed off from this process that simply goes into the atmosphere. If we put that to use, this would be even more Earth friendly.
It is not just big, fossil-fuel-fired industries that are sources of waste heat. Data centers, server farms, and digital currency factories are sucking up energy and pouring heat into the atmosphere. According to an article by the New York Times, data centers waste up to 90% of the electricity they use because all servers are on all the time whether they are being used or not, just in case they are needed.
First, someone needs to figure out how to cut down on the wasted electricity. That would almost certainly be a software solution. Secondly, ways to scavenge that heat and turn it back into useful electricity must be found and implemented throughout this industry.
But how can we make these low grade heat sources useable? One possibility is some iteration of the sterling engine. Another is pentane. Pentane is a hydrocarbon similar to butane, but pentane boils at 98 degrees Fahrenheit. Even sources of low grade heat are usually much greater than 98 degrees Fahrenheit. Perhaps a way can be found to use this component of natural gas to generate electricity at lower temperatures the way water is used at higher temperatures. It would certainly require a good containment system because pentane, besides being highly flammable, is likely to be a more potent greenhouse gas than CO2. This may be yet another nascent energy company of the future.
We are currently drunken sailors when it comes to spending energy. In the future we will be soberly searching out waste heat sources to halt their entropic dissolution with ways to snatch that energy back. We will design things with efficiency in mind. We will innovate to make more with less. C’mon, it’ll be fun. It certainly beats the alternative of letting the planet heat up to disastrous levels.