Friday, May 28, 2010

Entropy and Energy

This morning, 50 miles off the Louisiana coastline and a mile below the surface, a rising plume of petroleum continues, unabated by technology. The ghosts of long-dead sea life haunt us. The second law of thermodynamics has sent us a wake-up call.

While thermodynamics seems like a complicated and very scientific item, it is really about the simple laws of how and why things happen. The first law, conservation of energy, is that energy can be transformed, but cannot be created or destroyed. So when I apply energy to the keyboard, I transform that into heat and electrical pulses, which produce letters on the screen, (and more heat). The energy of these keystrokes does not end when I type. It's transformed into other pulses and waves. In extreme cases, as Dr. Einstein found, energy may be transformed into matter--and vice-versa.

Then there's the Second Law -- that the disorganization (entropy) of an isolated system, with no addition of energy, increases over time. Without the input of energy to maintain organization, disorganization increases and ultimately, chaos reigns. Any mother of toddlers or teenagers knows this intuitively. The rest of us seen to need to re-learn the principal from time to time.

The Third Law of Thermodynamics basically says that we can never achieve a state where there is no entropy--that all systems have some degree of disorganization, and some amount of energy--that, essentially, we can never achieve a blissful state of energy-less, perfect organization. (This is known to physicists as absolute zero. Note that this is not your Zen meditation class--this a a very, very cold state, -451 degrees Kelvin.) So, despite Martha Stewart's well-intentioned efforts, we will never be perfectly organized. There is always some force that perturbs things.

It's the second law which is most widely applied and has the greatest import. Without the input of energy, things tend to come unglued. Fall apart. Become more chaotic. Life seems to work toward greater organization, complex systems seem to break down less readily and hence are more sustainable. But overall, unless energy is invested, things come apart.

The Deepwater Horizon comes to mind. Slack off on maintenance, try too many short-cuts, fail to put energy into the system, and chaos ensues. Energy from a different source pushes the entire process in a different direction until an even greater effort (and more energy and more money) begins to change things. Not back to where they were (See the First Law) but toward a new equilibrium.

Just how far away from chaos we move, what kind of new equilibrium we establish, and how much energy we will have to invest continually to maintain that "equilibrium" depends upon how much energy we invest into the system--and how complex a system we weave in its place.

We can re-order things now by plugging the well. Period. And we can continue the rest of the system pretty much as-is. Not a lot of energy. Not much change. But also, according to thermodynamics, it will take a minimal amount of energy dysfunction to once again slip into chaos. If we continue offshore drilling without re-ordering our processes and priorities, if we invest minimal political and physical energy in fixing the system, then we will live with chaos on our doorstep. That's not my opinion. It's thermodynamics.

Or we can truly change the system. Energize a whole new order to energy and our use of it. It is in these convective overturns of an existing system where new orders are established and, for a time, entropy is driven back. This is an opportune moment to demonstrate mastery of the Second Law.

Building the more complex and redundant system of multiple energy sources, including solar, wind, and wave is one option. More complex and redundant systems prove more resistant and resilient to entropy's siren call to chaos.

There is one more element that we should include. In all the cries for energy independence, new drilling, wind turbines, and coastal tide-driven generators, a call for conservation is missing. We seem addicted to growth--growth of population and consumption, the increase of people and stuff, world without end. We are blissfully unaware of thermodynamics--that all this lends itself to greater disorder and greater chaos, unless we apply greater energy to maintaining it. The planet has finite energy resources. Without significant energy inputs to its systems form external sources, even the Earth has, during the past 4.6 billion years, slowed its rotation and cooled considerably. The second law rules.

So if we are to restore order in a post-Deepwater world, perhaps we should push the reset button with vigor. Whatever system of energy regulation and "renewable"/green energy production we establish will tend toward disequilibrium and chaos. Better to push reset firmly and establish a policy system that codifies and rewards energy conservation and grows a resilient and respectful web of green alternatives than one which merely pledges to "meet the energy demands of the future". Entropy is out to get us. We should warily and courageously prepare to battle our foe. As David Brooks noted in the New York Times last week, "This isn’t just about oil. It’s a challenge for people living in an imponderably complex technical society."

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