I’m going to go out on a limb here with a prediction. The energy world will look exactly the same the day after October 28th, 2011, as it did yesterday. Why? On October 28th we’re expecting a public demonstration of a “revolutionary” new energy technology in Bologna, Italy. The magic new technology? Another too-cheap-to-meter technology called the “e-cat” machine invented and promoted by Italian Andrea Rossi. Cold fusion … again, but with an updated label; Low-Energy Nuclear Reaction. Will it change the world? No. Will it work? Doubt it.
The lust for abundant cheap energy is entirely understandable. Fellow Forbes columnist Mark Gibbs eloquently articulates the appeal in his Hello Cheap Energy, Hello Brave New World column, as well as providing helpful a overview of the Italian cold fusion guys and their claims.
But here’s the deal. There is no new physics in energy. There could be, in theory, one day. Indeed, there will almost certainly be, one day (a subject for another column in due course). But let’s sidestep the science issues – i.e., whether cold fusion is bunk or real – and just deal with reality.
Wished-for revolutions in energy technology are pervasive, and they all suffer from one or all of the following three fallacies:
First is the Magic Wand Fallacy.
You’ve heard this claim in many forms: invent a new energy source, a magically efficient or powerful machine, and it will change the world and do so overnight. Except that it won’t. Even if the new invention were real, the problem of inertia remains.
Inertia in physics is one of the most inscrutable phenomena. Not to digress, but inertia is the singularly intractable problem in the world of Star Trek; you could imagine a space ship with an anti-matter power source that could accelerate like the Enterprise, but it would require a parallel universe to imagine how to prevent inertia from resulting in all of the humans inside becoming a thin film of organic goo pasted against the bulkhead.
Inertia is universal and intransigent in economic and social systems as well. The time from discovery, to significant impact is very long. It just takes a lot of time to overcome the imbedded inertia in enormous infrastructure systems, behaviors and operations. Let’s consider two examples of truly magical changes in the long history of energy technologies. The photovoltaic effect was what gave Einstein his 1921 Nobel Prize. The first atomic chain reaction was in 1942. (Atomic fission is not just a little better than everything else, it is thousands of times better in energy density terms.) They’re both important. But the world did not change overnight. Today both solar energy and nuclear power still only contribute marginally to global energy needs.
If our Italian brethren, or anyone for that matter, do achieve the equivalent of first fission, it’ll be a long time before it matters. The scale of the global energy market is enormous. But wait, the technorati remind us, look how fast 21st century technologies virally expand, from iPhones to smart-phone apps. But in energy terms, an app is almost unimaginably ‘light’. To put it in physics terms –- a water bug’s inertia is to an iPhone app what an aircraft carrier is to a city’s energy requirements. No amount of wishing can make change that.
Second is the Helicopter Fallacy.
When practical helicopters were finally invented, a lot of people thought they would revolutionize both car and air travel. (For an excellent history of the long pursuit of the seemingly impossible feat of making a helicopter work, see The God Machine by James Chiles.) The manufacture and use of helicopters is a multi-billion-dollar industry, providing both vital and entertaining services. But one would no more use a helicopter to fly the Atlantic (it is doable … just a lot of refueling and inconvenience, and expense) than say employ a nuclear reactor to run a train, or photovoltaic systems to run a country. All have uses, all significant. But they are rarely mutually exclusive or deeply competitive uses. The range of application for energy technologies is broader and deeper than helicopters and jets.
Third is the Moon Shot Fallacy.
You’ve heard this over and over. If we can put a man on the moon, why can’t we [fill in the blank with whatever energy scheme you like]? It is true that engineers are amazing creatures, and given a task to do something or build something, they can do almost anything at least once. But the global energy challenge is not the same as putting a man on the moon. It is the same as putting every man, woman and child on the moon. Maybe in the far future that is doable, but not with anything like an Apollo program.
The aforementioned Three Fallacies are, once stated, perhaps obvious. But it is embarrassing how often they are implicitly if not explicitly ignored in the constructs and proposals from people who should know better, not mouth-breathing techno-dweebs, but adults in the policy, pundit and political world.
Still, you gotta love the Italians. Maybe they, the home of Marconi, Maserati and Fermi, will pull it off. Italy is the home of elegant engineering, from the pavement rippling Ferrari, to Fiat’s record-setting elegantly efficient new mass-market four-stroke engine. As a physicist (with some Italian roots – thanks Mom), I’m rooting for them.
The tug of magical solutions is irresistible. But what we do today is in historical context already magical. The great forecaster and author Arthur C. Clarke famously said, in one of his three laws of prediction: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” In the context of history, we are performing magic today.
Compressing fire magically produced an internal combustion engine. The venturi magically converted a stream of gas to a rocket engine. Drilling through 20,000 feet of rock from a floating platform in 10,000 feet of water –– Colonel Drake could hardly have dreamt that such magic would ensue from his 69-foot world-changing Pennsylvania oil well in 1859. Microseismic imaging and steerable robotic drilling unleashes gushers of billions of barrels of oil and gas from previously worthless shale rocks. A microscopic layer of cadmium and tellurium converts sunlight to electrons (see First Solar [see First Solar [NASDAQ:FSLR]). Atoms are transmuted –- yes alchemy is real, achieved after millennia of mythology –- and in the process of splitting unleash astronomical quantities of energy. We’ve come to take all such magic for granted.
Energy underpins everything; our food, transport, buildings, manufacturing, services and information. But it is the scale of what society requires that defies imagination. A single Google-class data center consumes as much electrical power as 500 Tesla electric cars running flat out 24 by seven. There are thousands upon thousands of such data centers. And the world’s total liquid fuel appetite? If the barrels produced were piled up, it would generate a stack that would be one mile high every three seconds. It is amazing that an infrastructure exists to find, extract and deliver such quantities – at any price.
The most magical of our current energy sources? Oil. Liquid hydrocarbon. If oil didn’t exist, we’d have to invent it. Its attributes are near magical, in terms of energy density, ease of transport, ease of storage, safety. The holy grail of any alternative to oil is to find, produce or invent a “drop-in” replacement molecule with the same properties as oil.
As for the energy future, when will we finally be able to turn the aircraft carrier in a different direction? It will happen in due course, but from a multitude of pushes, not a single inertia-defying move. There are abundant innovations in the energy pipeline; some even revolutionary. Even if the Italians are right – which I doubt – we need, to quote President Bush 41, a “thousand points of light,” not just some single magic bullet.
Let me end with two forecasts from the inimitable Scott Adams of Dilbert fame, quoting from his amusing but deeply insightful and still in print 1998 book, The Dilbert Future:
“Life in the future will not be like Star Trek”
“In the future, scientists will learn how to convert stupidity into clean fuel.”
Is there a bet here? Root for the Italians if you’re like me. Wouldn’t it be fun if they were right? But if you’re an investor, go long oil; buy Exxon [NYSE:XOM], Schlumberger [NYSE:SLB], Transocean [NYSE:RIG] … you know the list. <>