Evolution of Energy-2

To read the first part of the article click here https://amenergy.solutions/2021/06/22/evolution-of-energy-1/

Recap: We saw how the evolution of humans simultaneously aided the evolution of energy. Our growth as a social being, our demand and globalization slowly transitioned us from wood to coal to steam power. After the discovery of coal, the evolution of energy was primarily based upon the technology and not so much on a newer source, until…

From the 1750s, Steam power was ruling the world and solving our needs for running large mills, factories, locomotives, steamers (even cars), heating for houses etc. It wasn’t very long though while steam ruled the earth, slowly a new form of energy started peeking up. It was something that we all had seen and observed for thousands of years but never had the potential to tap into. It was electricity. Electricity was observed in the thunderstorms (Benjamin Franklin discovered in 1752 that lightning consists of electricity) but we never could use or produce it.

There were several experiments being conducted around electricity observed by putting 2 metal electrodes in acidic solution. This form of energy was new and rapidly gaining interest. Michael Faraday, one of the most brilliant scientists who ever walked on this planet, discovered the laws of electromagnetism. Faraday never had any proper schooling and his education was restricted to basic reading, writing and math skills. He never went to college but was a brilliant scientist when it came to experiments and documentation. One of his greatest discoveries was electromagnetic induction. Faraday discovered that if you move a magnet inside a copper wire coil, a flow of current was observed. This was no less than a revolution. This led to a series of more experiments which resulted in modern day generators. Let us try to look at this discreetly.

For the first time in history, humans had discovered an energy source which can be generated as easily as just rotating a shaft, and laying some wires. The energy can be transferred to really long distances (100s of miles) with minimal loss (as compared to carrying coal or steam and boiler). This form of energy also had another way to manufacture and transport; batteries. Electromagnetic induction and batteries steered the course of human evolution and energy evolution in a direction that propelled human civilization to shape the way it is right now. Everything we see around us is the result of the work done in these 2 fields.

Electricity Generation from an electric turbine
Source: https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/electricity/how-electricity-is-generated.php

But was it just the electricity that took us to the technology we are at now? Not quite. There was another source of energy which started gaining traction around about the same time in the late 1800s. This was crude oil.

The growth of crude oil, electricity and batteries went hand in hand. With the advent of generators which worked on thermal power (coal power), motors and pumps became easy to operate and refineries started becoming easy to manage. Since we already knew fractional distillation and several other distilling techniques, we became very efficient in extracting various components of crude oil. This started a slow but steady process of what can be called as co-dependent growth of crude oil (gasoline, diesel, natural gas, kerosene, wax, heavy polymers for plastics etc.), generators, electricity, batteries. Each and every aspect of all these sources of energy has gained a paradigm altering change in the past 221years. The first battery was invented in 1800, the first oil well was dug in 1859 and electromagnetic induction was discovered in 1831.

Crude Oil: As discussed in a previous article, crude oil was not a sought after energy source up until late 1800s. With slow implementation and improvement of fractional distillation over the years, invention of internal combustion engine and telephones in 1876, invention of air conditioner in 1902, invention of Bakelite in 1907, invention of airplane in 1903, first television in 1927, and many such important inventions and discoveries crude oil slowly became an important source of fuel and resources such as plastics, grease, lubrications, etc. The first world war in 1914 accelerated the research, demand and progress for crude oil and its products. Another world war in just 17 years also boosted the demand and the Oil rigs, offshore platforms, sea vessels started emerging all over the world. The technology around us grew as did the demand and vice versa.

Batteries: A novel solution to have portable electrical energy, batteries were no short of a radical invention by Alessandro Volta in 1779. The batteries slowly evolved and took various shapes such as Voltaic Pile, Daniell Cell, lead acid, Nickel-cadmium, alkaline battery, Nickel-metal hydride, lithium ion etc and most recent (and controversial) Fuel Cells. The form of energy that batteries deliver is electricity and I am certain Mr. Volta was not aware of the potential of his invention. Go ahead, look around yourself and try to find the things that use batteries, you can understand our dependency on it. Solar power plants are also type of batteries which convert solar to electrical energy.

Generators: Generators or dynamo are a result of a single discovery, electromagnetic induction. As I stated earlier, this single discovery changed the course of human growth and development. Moving a magnet inside a coil of wire can be achieved through various methods, viz. manual (bike), steam (thermal power plants, nuclear power plants), hydel, wind, tidal, engine (portable generators) etc. The generators are usually established with a larger power supply in mind which can cater to very large areas such as a city or town or a village to the least. The generators nowadays have definitely evolved a lot from the basic magnet and copper coil experiment that Michael Faraday conducted.

The amount of progress in technology from 1800 to the present day (221 years) is exponentially larger than the progress since the evolution of homo sapiens. In a matter of less than 3 generations we got ourselves bulbs, fans, cars, refrigerators, air conditioning, aeroplanes, cruise ships, rockets, space travel, cloud computing etc. Crude Oil, batteries and generators play a very critical role in it.

So what is wrong in this scenario?

With the growth of technology we have increased our understanding of the environment, economics, efficiency and mathematics. After steam power, electrical power is the next biggest discovery and will remain so for the next several centuries. The 2 biggest questions that arise always are how do we get the energy and how efficiently can we use it.

There are some key factors we identified in the past 221 years, more accurately in the past 100 years.

  1. Laws of thermodynamics indicate that energy is neither created nor destroyed, it just is transformed from one form to another. This transformation is always accompanied with a permanent loss which means this process is irreversible. To understand let us take a simple example of a dynamo on a bike. 

As the dynamo is rotated, the magnet inside the coil is also rotated. The kinetic energy of the bike is converted to kinetic energy of the small roller leading to the magnet. There is a loss associated with friction between the wheel and the roller. This friction converts the kinetic energy into heat which gets dissipated and can never be brought back to kinetic energy. The magnet rotates on a shaft which itself has a friction associated with it. Due to electromagnetic induction the coil generates electrical energy but efficiency is never 100% as there are magnetic fields of the magnet which extend beyond the coil and they do not contribute to the transformation. The copper coil has current generated in it but due to heat generated with this current, there is a loss of energy (eddy currents, Lenz law). Hence by the time the kinetic energy of the bike creates electrical energy, it goes through several losses and these losses eventually cause this process to be irreversible. In simple terms, this electrical energy can never be converted back to the exact same amount of kinetic energy.

Four Laws of thermodynamics
Source: https://lawofthermodynamicsinfo.com/laws-of-thermodynamics/
  1. All energy conversion processes have a byproduct: With every conversion of energy, there is a byproduct which may or may not be harmful. This byproduct can be a direct outcome of the process or an indirect impact. Nevertheless, there will always be a byproduct to every energy conversion. Some direct byproducts are smoke (CO2, CO, SO2, etc.) created from burning of coal or gasoline or diesel or any other fossil fuel and radioactive waste from nuclear fission. Indirect byproducts are hard to explain. There are renewable sources of energy (naturally occurring and seemingly limitless sources of energy) which apparently do not produce any harmful bioproduct. But like I said, there is always a by-product. So what is the by-product created from wind or solar energy use? We will look into it later.
  1. Environment Impact: We as humans have evolved into a dominant species on this planet. We are not even close to being the largest populated species nor are the strongest or fastest or most adaptable. The sole reason that we were able to be dominant and be an important part in impacting the natural ways of this planet was our cerebral lobe. We have caused changes in the way animals and plants evolve (called as artificial selection) and have in way also impacted the climate. However, it is incorrect of me to say that we caused a change in the climate, the climate actually adapts to maintain a balance. If the balance is tipped, the heat or pressure moves as per the laws of physics. Correct statement will be to say that we have caused some changes in the climate which led to phenomena that were not observed previously and we are not ready for this.
  1. Health and Safety: The health and safety concerns are equally paramounting. A simple thing such as burning wood also has its own safety concerns. Touching the fire, choking to smoke, standing downwind from the smoke, burning inside a closed space etc. As we developed information about other energy sources there have been associated health and safety concerns to us and other plants/ animals.

Understanding our need, finding new sources of energy and understanding its side effects equally is like a delicate balance which is very hard to achieve. We had not been concerned with this balance up until the late 1900s, not until we started seeing some changes.

Delicate balance defining energy source performance

The tipping of this balance can sometimes happen very fast causing a disaster such as listed below:

Oil and gas disasters: Piper Alpha, BP Horizon

Nuclear Disasters: Chernobyl, Three Mile Island

Hydel Disaster: Southfork Dam, Tigra Dam, Mohne Dam

Irrespective of the reason why the disaster happened let us keep in mind that the primary reason for these disasters was our hunger for energy which is deep rooted in our genes. We understood that we definitely need to have a source of energy but now we understand that we need to do it safely. Very strict guidelines, standard operating procedures and protocols are updated and enforced every time such a disaster happens( or even a tiny little incident happens on energy producing sites). This is what keeps us, the environment and the flora & fauna safe.

Another way that this balance can tip to the Health, Safety and Environment side is slowly and often in an invisible manner. This can be equally dangerous, if not less, than a disaster. It acts like a slow poison that infects us or the climate around us, keeping us in the dark. It is really hard to explain these scenarios but I will try my best in the next article.

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