Freitag, 10. Juli 2015

The End of Fire

The End of the Fire Era

About half a million years ago, mankind started to manage the energy of fire. The first use of open fire was for heat production and cooking. Since three thousand years fire could be kept in a stove to use the energy more efficiently. During the 17 Century, the incredible story of mechanical energy production by the use of fire within steam engines and internal combustion machines began.
This glorious historical period will come to an end, very soon!

What is wrong with fire

There are at least three big problems when we use fire to generate useful energy.
  1. The fuel is expensive and not sustainable
  2. The conversion into useful energy is dirty and has high losses
  3. The atmosphere can't absorb infinite amounts of carbon
All these disadvantages are a good reason to extinguish the fire forever. But is this possible and is this part of a long-term trend?

Have a look at the flames. 

To ignite a fire without tools is one of the most demanding tasks man can solve and only very few of us did this ever complete. On the other side, it is the process that happens more often than any medium scale process we can think about. After some calculation* we find:

 mankind ignites 7 Billion  fires every second 

With other words, for every person on the planet earth, we ignite every second a fire and extinguish it within a fraction of a second again. And none of this fires is seen because it happens within the engines of our cars.
Other fires burn in large power plants and in the heating system of our home, we don't see them even. The fire has lost its visibility. And this might be the first signal, that fire is disappearing.
Another place where flames appeared was the ignition of cigarettes, even this type of fire seems to disappear, no smoking in restaurants, in an office building, in airplanes and only some lost desperadoes at the entrance of some buildings remind us of the old days.

Why fire

All the little and large fires in our engines have only one reason, they should generate mechanical energy and this energy is sometimes converted to electrical energy. This is possible due to the thermodynamic law of physics. But this law tells us, that the efficiency is always low and needs always a cold reservoir like a river or fresh air. This is the reason, that most of the energy is lost in heat, leaving the car through the exhaust pipe or the radiator. The situation in large conventional power plants is similar.
The famous Durango Silverton narrow gauge steam train.
Since Benjamin Franklins work in the 19. Century, we are aware, that electricity is the ultimate useful medium for energy. We can convert electricity in just any service we can imagine. About 60% of the electrical energy ends up in an electric motor to move people, cool air, transport stuff and cut wood.
Not one of this tasks requests a fire, but we had no other solution till now, so we used a fire to solve the problem.

Fire is Unhealthy

There is just no single technology that produces many unhealthy substances as fire. There exist people who inhale the smoke intentional, but most of us try hard to avoid the smoke. We have these smoke detectors on the ceiling and we have different filters in our cars and in coal power plants.
Smoke detector, we try to avoid smoke
When we look to China, a day in Peking is like smoking a packet of cigarettes. But even if we live in modern industrialized countries we have to inhale nanoparticles of all kind due to the burning of gas, oil, and coal. To give an exact value of lost lives due to fire is very difficult, but it surpasses nuclear power by many orders of magnitude.

No fire no harm

If we extinguish all the fires and even the nuclear type of fire that feeds less than three percent of our global energy demand, we can save the planet and the people.
World energy consumption
World energy consumption, only hydro and renewables
don't burn and generate smoke of different kinds. Source Wikimedia

Although it seems impossible to expand the small renewable branch in the picture above, it could get real, because this branch is growing exponential:
growth of PV
The blue dots show the installed PV in the world, the dotted line is a 25% growth
Exponential means, the growth rate is constant and the growth rate of PV is about 25% per year. If this continues for another 15 years, the whole earth can be powered by solar energy. Today we have installed 5000 GW of fire powered power stations, within 20 years we have more than 10000 GW of PV on earth. Read this: Is 100% PV possible?

A second trend is, that electricity is stored in batteries. We are used to mobile phones which need every night a charging. Many of our appliances like screwdriver and toothbrush use batteries.
The next big step is the electric car, the definite way to extinguish the fire. The visionary Elon Musk built a car with batteries from the laptop. Today Tesla sells the Model S at an ever-growing rate.
More batteries will come. As far as I know, no other factory-type expands faster than the battery production plants with the Giga Factory on top. Read also: Storage Maters.
Largest production site ever for a small product! Source TESLA
More than 50 GWh of batteries should leave the Giga Factory every year. But this is not sufficient to meet the demand of 90 000 GWh of storage for a clean future. Complete new technologies like the Hydraulic Rock Storage are invented, which can store many GWh in one site with very low environmental impact.

Will fire stay  

We will never extinguish the fire forever because people like fire.
We love fire

But hidden fire for old machinery invented in the 19. Century will go forever, even hydrogen. It was a fun time of smoking stem engines and high factory chimneys. A world of dark snow in the winter and dirty ash.

Have a clean time.


* How we calculate the number of ignitions in combustion machines. There is only a rough approximation possible. The amount of fuel that goes every year into combustion machines is 2 Billion tonnes. Within a combustion machine, about 10 Milligram of fuel is burned during a "standard" cycle within one cylinder. Dividing the two numbers results in 2*10E17 ignitions per year or about 7 Billion per second.

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