Powering the Future

How We Will (Eventually) Solve the Energy Crisis and Fuel the Civilization of Tomorrow


By Robert B. Laughlin

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In Powering the Future, Nobel laureate Robert B. Laughlin transports us two centuries into the future, when we’ve ceased to use carbon from the ground — either because humans have banned carbon burning or because fuel has simply run out. Boldly, Laughlin predicts no earth-shattering transformations will have taken place. Six generations from now, there will still be soccer moms, shopping malls, and business trips. Firesides will still be snug and warm.

How will we do it? Not by discovering a magic bullet to slay our energy problems, but through a slew of fascinating technologies, drawing on wind, water, and fire. Powering the Future is an objective yet optimistic tour through alternative fuel sources, set in a world where we’ve burned every last drop of petroleum and every last shovelful of coal.

The Predictable:Fossil fuels will run out. The present flow of crude oil out of the ground equals in one day the average flow of the Mississippi River past New Orleans in thirteen minutes. If you add the energy equivalents of gas and coal, it’s thirty-six minutes. At the present rate of consumption, we’ll be out of fossil fuels in two centuries” time. We always choose the cheapest gas. From the nineteenth-century consolidation of the oil business to the California energy crisis of 2000-2001, the energy business has shown, time and again, how low prices dominate market share. Market forces — not green technology — will be the driver of energy innovation in the next 200 years.The laws of physics remain fixed. Energy will still be conserved, degrade entropically with use, and have to be disposed of as waste heat into outer space. How much energy a fuel can pack away in a given space is fixed by quantum mechanics — and if we want to keep flying jet planes, we will need carbon-based fuels.The Potential:Animal waste.If dried and burned, the world’s agricultural manure would supply about one-third as much energy as all the coal we presently consume.Trash. The United States disposes of 88 million tons of carbon in its trash per year. While the incineration of waste trash is not enough to contribute meaningfully to the global demand for energy, it will constrain fuel prices by providing a cheap supply of carbon.Solar energy.The power used to light all the cities around the world is only one-millionth of the total power of sunlight pouring down on earth’s daytime side. And the amount of hydropump storage required to store the world’s daily electrical surge is equal to only eight times the volume of Lake Mead.


The Crime of Reason
A Different Universe

To my sons—and others of future generations whose problem this will be

Armchair Journey
A few hundred years from now, human beings won't burn coal, oil, and natural gas any more. This might be because they've adopted laws that keep supplies in the ground for environmental reasons, or it might be because supplies are all used up, but this distinction is a detail. The amount of fossil fuel in the earth is finite, so people eventually won't be able to burn it any more.1 We don't have to analyze contemporary energy struggles and pilot our way through the many minefields and crossfires to see the energy future in this respect. We can skip over all that and simply transport ourselves mentally to a time when fossil fuels are gone.
Let us therefore take an armchair journey into the distant future, when coal, oil, and natural gas are things of the past. There's a slight possibility that the trip will fail because the entire human race got wiped out in an earlier environmental catastrophe or war, so we find no people, but that's extremely unlikely. Humans are very adaptive and prolific creatures, and every last one of us would have to be eliminated to prevent us from repopulating. So let's assume this didn't happen, and that we encounter some people not so different from ourselves, for they're carbon copies of us, literally.
Partisans in modern energy wars are quick to point out how irresponsible such thinking is. The final demise of carbon burning is so far away, perhaps ten generations, that it's quite irrelevant to energy problems of today.2 They say that by focusing on the distant future, we only encourage apathy.
However, transporting ourselves mentally beyond any living person's selfinterest has the great advantage of separating technical matters from political ones. Modern energy concerns are inherently political, of course, so divorcing the two completely makes no sense. But we save ourselves much time and vexation if we deal with the much simpler technical issues first. Think of it this way: To build a power plant, we need both enough votes and enough concrete, but if there isn't any concrete, we're simply not going to build the plant.
Moreover there's more benefit than usual in seeking clarity in this case because the very large stakes involved encourage people to misunderstand each other and, dare we say it, make a statement or two now and then that they know to be untrue. For instance, we don't need alternative fuels because the world isn't running out of oil, oil is plentiful right now, we're making new discoveries all the time, and there are forty-two years' worth left.3 Or, we do need alternative fuels because the world is running out of oil, it will happen in a decade or two, and we need to invest in green technologies and distance ourselves from coal. Or, we need fast trains because the world is running out of oil, big cars are wasteful, the trains will go everywhere we want, and taxing truckers is good. All sides in such arguments tend to represent that science is on their side and that theirs is the only logically sound position. Logic has nothing to do with it, of course.
The issues of energy turn out to be especially easy to think through in hindsight. For example, we might ask whether the people we encounter in this distant time will still drive cars. After a few moments of thought, nearly everybody answers yes to this question, even though they're not quite sure where the energy would come from. The reason, they say, is that cars will be things that people desperately want, if only because they're status symbols, and they'll therefore pay any price, whereupon entrepreneurs will step forward to find a way to make the cars available. We can also ask whether these people of the distant future will still fly in airplanes. That's a little harder, for it's easier for us to imagine living without airplanes than without cars. However, again nearly everyone concludes that people of means living at that time will want the speed and convenience of air travel, and thus that ordinary folk will be able to fly too, although not necessarily cheaply. Then there's the question of whether the lights will come on—that is, whether electricity will be available at reasonable prices whenever users want it. Everyone answers this one yes very quickly, reasoning that governments foolish enough to let the lights go out will not be in office for long.
With the basic features of the future energy landscape thus determined, important technical details now fill in easily. If people are flying in airplanes, they must have something to power those planes. It can't be petroleum distillates because there isn't any petroleum. The fuel, whatever it is, has to be light, compact, and safe because otherwise the airplanes won't fly—or will blow up occasionally if they do fly. The only such substance elementary chemistry allows is the very jet fuel we use today, so these people must be synthesizing jet fuel from raw materials, presumably with help from an outside energy supply of some kind. Likewise, if people are driving cars, they must be powering them somehow. The power source might also be synthetic fuel, or it might be something else, such as batteries or third rails, but it will definitely be the least expensive option. These people won't like wasting money any more than we do, and they especially won't like wasting it on energy companies. If people's lights come on when they flip the switch, then the power again must come from somewhere. It could be from the sun, the wind, or nuclear reactors, but where it will actually come from is the producer with the lowest delivery price.
We might worry at this point that these people fibbed to us about their world having sufficient energy resources to cover their needs, but a quick check dispels that worry. There is more than enough supply by a wide margin, notably from the sun and its proxy, the wind. It's just a matter of what has the lowest cost. Not only have these folks not fibbed, but in fact they seem to be stuck in exactly the same rat race of production and delivery cost minimization that we are in today, only with different details.
The nature of the future energy enterprise our armchair journey reveals isn't directly relevant to any present-day energy controversy, for we live in a time when fossil fuels dominate prices. It matters peripherally, however, because the seeds of what we should do now are contained in what will be. If, for example, we think that carbon is destined to play a central role in energy long after fossil fuels are gone because it's indispensable for air travel, we might want to start being nicer to our carbon industries. If we think that synthetic fuel manufacture is destined to materialize no matter what, we might want to encourage its creation now, so that we don't have to build plants in a panic when the crisis is upon us. If we think that nuclear power is destined to impose a price ceiling on electricity no matter what, we might want to develop it properly and keep it standing by, whether we deploy it or not. If we think solar and wind power are destined to be a central energy source no matter what, we might want to develop ways to bank the energy they produce in extremely large quantities, even though doing so is expensive.
We can predict the energy situation so far in the future reasonably reliably because it's circumscribed by elementary things. In this it's different from, say, the weather or an election return. We know that the laws of economics will still hold, even if the direst predictions of global warming come true, and even if there is serious military conflict between now and then. The people of that time will be just as selfish as we are, just as ambitious, just as motivated to protect the children, and just as clever, thanks to the magic of genetics. Also, energy differs from other aspects of human economic life, such as market presence or stock value, in being extremely primal and ruled by simple, powerful physical law. We know that this law has been in force since long before humans walked the earth, and we're reasonably confident that it will never change or be overturned by future discoveries or technical innovations. The equations of quantum mechanics will be exactly the same centuries from now as they are today, regardless of what happens, as will the rules of chemistry and engineering that flow from them, as will the equations of heat, light, electricity, and radiation. Energy will still be conserved and will still have to come from somewhere. Its possible sources will be the same as they are today in every detail. It will still degrade entropically with use and have to be thrown away into outer space as waste heat when its work is done. People of that day will still need a steady supply of it to live.
However, the simplicity of this energy calculation is a double-edged sword, for it obligates us to check our facts carefully. We need to verify that present-day energy economics really is as cutthroat as everyone says it is. We need to verify that quantum mechanics really does prevent stressed matter from ever matching chemical fuels as energy storage media. We need to check that ordinary jet fuel really does have the optimal energy density allowed by physical law and that the carbon it contains is essential. We need to verify that electricity and magnetism are unsurpassed for transmitting energy but useless for storing it. We need to scrutinize the costs of batteries, including the hidden costs associated with the environmentally unfriendly metal ions they contain. We need to recheck our nuclear facts, particularly as regards supply, costs, and the burdens of radioactive waste disposal and antiterrorism security. We need to scrutinize biological processing costs and make sure they're compared properly with those of conventional chemical processing. And finally, we need to review and pin down, as best we can, the supply and cost numbers of solar energy in its various forms.
Thinking about the end of fossil fuels futuristically also makes painfully clear that climate and energy are very different things. The people working in the twilight of the fossil fuel era will care about the earth as much as we do, but they'll be struggling to live by tasking earth's resources in new ways and will have to make that struggle their first priority. Their cost constraints will also be especially severe because they won't have cheap fossil fuel to fall back on anymore. They'll have to pay out of pocket for expensive decisions favoring the environment. The effect that has on behavior is unhappily familiar. Individuals passionate about improving the state of the world centuries in the future usually lose interest the moment one begins enumerating specific sacrifices they should make to accomplish the improvement, especially if those sacrifices involve disadvantaging their own children. It turns out that they were only interested in saving the world with someone else's money. Such attitudes, common now, will only become more common as fossil fuel supplies wane and competition for the necessities of life intensifies. We can thus expect the move to secure adequate energy supplies, when it eventually occurs, to be largely divorced from environmental concerns or even at odds with them, because people will be putting their own needs first. Alternate energy, when it finally arrives, will not be green.
Climate and the environment will thus continue to be problematic through the transition away from fossil fuels, notwithstanding the cessation of carbon dioxide buildup in the air and the plateauing of global temperature increases. The core problem, ever-increasing human demands on the earth's resources, will still be present and may even have worsened. People of this future time will still want clean air and water, natural surroundings, large tracts of land kept wild, fisheries and forests kept healthy, and factories somewhere other than their back yards. They might not be able to have all these things, however, perhaps because the earth is warmer, but mostly because these things will come at a cost in economic well-being (for some) and because they'll be incompatible with large populations. Human burdens on the earth are a specific case of burdens that plants and animals impose generally on their respective ecological niches. The earth's limited ability to sustain such burdens is a major factor in the fight for survival and thus the rise and fall as species over the span of geologic time.
Even though the final outcome of the transition away from fossil fuels is likely to be positive, the transition itself could be terrible. It will be a major global event, like an ice age or a comet impact, not a mere budgeting shortfall or overcrowded highway that an act of Congress can whisk away.4 The present flow of crude oil out of the ground, the greatest since the oil age began, equals in one day the average flow of the Mississippi River past New Orleans in thirteen minutes.5 If we add the energy equivalents of gas and coal to the calculation, it's thirty-six minutes. Although daring use of capital was essential for harvesting this abundance, it didn't put the abundance there in the first place and won't make the abundance reappear once it runs out. When it does, people won't merely be inconvenienced. Rather, the earth's capacity to render up unimaginably large amounts of oil, gas, and coal on demand is a fundamental premise of modern industrial civilization. Without exception, all major cities in the world are too large to feed without the use of machines. Were energy supplies to fail catastrophically tomorrow, the great city as we know it would cease to exist, and most of us would starve. The decline and eventual exhaustion of fossil fuels is thus like the coming of winter to a people who have known only summer.
What often occurs when humans compete for diminishing resources is military conflict. However, it's best not to dwell on that.6

Geologic Time
Ironically, a proper mental journey into the energy future must begin with a backward look at geologic time. The reason for this is that the way forward is fogged by misunderstandings about the earth, the starting point for any serious conversation about energy supply or climate. We're constantly struggling to separate myth from reality when thinking about these things. Experts are little help, for they have the same difficulty, which they routinely demonstrate by talking past each other. Respected scientists warn of imminent energy shortages as geologic fuel supplies run out. Wall Street executives dismiss their predictions as myths and call for more drilling. Environmentalists describe the destruction to the earth from burning coal, oil, and natural gas. Economists describe the danger to the earth of failing to burn coal, oil, and natural gas. Geology researchers report fresh findings about what the earth was like millions of years ago. Creationist researchers report fresh findings that the earth didn't exist millions of years ago. The only way not to get lost in this awful swamp is to review the basics and decide for yourself what you believe and what you don't.
Geologic time is such a vast concept that converting it to something more pedestrian, just to get oriented, can be helpful for our understanding. I like rainfall. The total precipitation that falls on the world in one year is about one meter of rain, the height of a golden retriever.7 The total amount of rain that has fallen on the world since the industrial revolution began is about two hundred meters, the height of Hoover Dam. The amount of rain that has fallen on the world since the time of Moses is enough to fill up all the oceans. The amount of rain that has fallen on the world since the ice age ended is enough to fill up all the oceans four times. The amount of rain that has fallen on the world since the dinosaurs died is enough to fill up all the oceans twenty thousand times—or the entire volume of the earth thirty times. The amount of rain that has fallen on the world since coal formed is enough to fill up the earth one hundred and forty times. The amount of rain that has fallen on the world since oxygen formed is enough to fill the earth one thousand times.8
Common sense tells us that damaging a thing this old is somewhat easier to imagine than it is to accomplish—like invading Russia. The earth has suffered mass volcanic explosions, floodings, meteor impacts, mountain building, and all manner of other abuses greater than anything people could inflict, and it's still here. It's a survivor. We don't know exactly how the earth recovered from these devastations, for the rocks don't say very much about that, but we do know that it did recover, the proof being that we are here.
Nonetheless, damaging the earth is precisely what's concerning a lot of responsible people at the moment. Carbon dioxide from human fossil fuel burning is presently building up in the atmosphere at a frightening pace, enough to double the present concentration in a century. Some people predict that this buildup will raise average temperatures on earth several degrees centigrade, enough to modify the weather and accelerate the melting of the polar ice sheets.9 Governments around the world have become so alarmed at this prospect that they've taken significant (although ineffective) steps to slow the warming. These actions include legislating carbon caps, funding carbon sequestration research, subsidizing alternate energy technologies, and initiating at least one serious international treaty process to balance the necessary economic sacrifices across borders.10
Unfortunately, this concern isn't reciprocated. On the scales of time relevant to itself, the earth doesn't care about any of these governments or their legislation. It doesn't care whether we turn off our air conditioners, refrigerators, and television sets. It doesn't notice when we turn down our thermostats and drive hybrid cars. These actions simply spread the pain over a few centuries, the bat of an eyelash as far as the earth is concerned, and leave the end result exactly the same: All the fossil fuel that used to be in the ground is now in the air, and none is left to burn.11 The earth plans to dissolve the bulk of this carbon dioxide into its oceans in about a millennium, leaving the concentration in the atmosphere slightly higher than today's. Over tens of millennia after that, or perhaps hundreds, it will then slowly transfer the excess carbon dioxide into its rocks, eventually returning levels in the sea and air to what they were before humans arrived on the scene. The process will take an eternity from the human perspective, but it will nonetheless be only a brief instant of geologic time.
Some details of this particular carbon dioxide scenario are controversial, of course, because all forecasts are partly subjective, including those made by computer. We have to extrapolate from present-day facts and principles, and there are varying opinions about these. The time scale for the ocean to absorb man-made carbon dioxide is set by the mixing rate of surface water with deep water in the sea, which is known only indirectly and might conceivably change during the thousand-year heating transient.12 The amount of carbon dioxide left in the atmosphere after equilibration varies from tolerable to alarming depending on how much industrial burning you assume in your model.13 No one knows for sure how long it will take the excess carbon dioxide to disappear into the rocks or even the specific chemistry involved. The main reason for thinking it will disappear is that something, presumably a geologic regulatory process, fixed the world's carbon dioxide levels before humans arrived on the scene. Some people even argue that carbon dioxide has been fixed at these values for millions of years, the grounds being that the photosynthetic machinery of plants seems optimized to them.14 But the overall picture of a thousand-year carbon dioxide pulse followed by glacially slow decay back to the precivilization situation is common to most models, even very pessimistic ones.
Global warming forecasts have the further difficulty that one can't find much actual global warming in present-day weather observations. In principle, changes in climate should show up in rainfall statistics, hurricane frequencies, temperature records, and so forth. As a practical matter they don't (yet) because weather patterns are dominated by large multiyear events in the oceans, such as the El Niño Southern Oscillation and the North Pacific Gyre Oscillation, that have nothing to do with climate change.15 In order to test the predictions we'd have to separate these big effects from subtle, inexorable changes on scales of centuries, and nobody knows how to do that at the moment.
Humans can unquestionably do damage persisting for geologic time if one counts their contribution to biodiversity loss. There is considerable evidence that humans are presently causing something biologists call the "sixth mass extinction," an allusion to the five previous cases in the rocks in which huge numbers of species died out mysteriously in a flash of geologic time.16 A popular—and plausible—explanation for the last of these events, the one when the dinosaurs disappeared, is that an asteroid ten kilometers in diameter struck the earth traveling fifteen kilometers per second and exploded with the power of a million 100-megaton hydrogen warheads.17 Many say that the damage that human activity presently inflicts is comparable to this. Extinctions, unlike carbon dioxide excesses, are permanent. The earth didn't replace the dinosaurs after they died, notwithstanding the improved weather conditions and twenty thousand ages of Moses to make repairs. It just moved on and became something different than it had been before.
However, carbon dioxide per se is not responsible for most of this extinction stress. There are a handful of potential counterexamples, such as corals,18 which seem especially sensitive to acidification of the ocean surface, and amphibians, which have been declining noticeably for unknown reasons.19 But except in these few isolated cases, keeping carbon-based fuels in the ground a while longer won't do much to mitigate the loss of biodiversity. The real problem is human population pressure generally—overharvesting, habitat destruction, pesticide abuse, species invasion, and so forth. Slowing man-made extinction in a meaningful way would require drastically reducing the world's human population.20 For better or worse, that is unlikely to happen.
It's a mistake to suspend judgment on questions of population, climate, carbon use, and so forth just because they're sensitive. If you do, you'll become incapacitated by confusion. Earth scientists tend to be ultra-conservative when it comes to the future, presumably to avoid getting tarred as mythmongers, and they go to extraordinary lengths to prove that the globe is warming now, the ocean is acidifying now, fossil fuel is exhausting now, and so forth, by means of measurement, even though these things are self-evident in geologic time. The unhappy result is that we get more and more data but less and less understanding—a common problem in science but an especially acute problem in climatology. In such situations it's essential to weigh facts more strongly if they are simple and use this practice to sweep away confusion whenever (and if) we can.
The sea's immense capacity to store carbon dioxide is one of the simple things with which we can reliably orient ourselves. It's a junior high school science fair project. If you leave a glass of distilled water on the counter overnight, you will find the next morning that it has become slightly acid, due to absorbing carbon dioxide from the air.21 It hasn't absorbed much—about the amount stored in an equal volume of air—so this effect alone will not sequester much carbon. But if you now drop a piece of limestone in the water, thereby emulating the presence of carbonate rocks at the bottom of the sea, and repeat the experiment, you will find that the water has become slightly alkaline and that the amount of carbon dissolved in the water is now sixty times greater than it was before.22 You have to tinker a bit to figure out where this carbon came from, but you eventually discover that half came from the limestone and half came from the air. It all has to do with the marvelous (and elementary) chemistry of bicarbonate salts. You also find that the alkalinity matches that of seawater, as does the carbon dioxide carrying capacity. Thus we learn that the oceans presently have dissolved in them, in the form of bicarbonate ion, forty times more carbon than the atmosphere contains, a total of thirty trillion tons, or thirty times the world's coal reserves.23
The experiments that constrain geologic time scales are almost as simple as this science fair project, although not quite, and they orient us just as reliably. Not everyone agrees with this assessment, of course.24 Geologic time does contravene religious beliefs, a difficulty with this subject that is very regrettable because it doesn't contravene the religious beliefs that count. But it's probably more significant that the experiments, simple though they may be, involve obscure facts about rocks, a knowledge of physical law, and the assumption that this law was the same in the ancient past as it is now, none of which is obvious, much less interesting, to the average person. If you go to the supermarket and engage the checkout clerk in a conversation about the Paleozoic era, radioactivity, or the disappearance of the megafauna, you'll be met with a smile and then probably escorted from the building as a lunatic. However, the time scales do come from somewhere concrete that can be explained simply.
We get a long way toward understanding geologic time by just disciplining ourselves not to dismiss things around us that seem to make no sense. For instance, a local beach a short drive from my home is backed by cliffs about one hundred feet high that expose alternating layers of sandstone, mudstone, and aggregate, perhaps seven in all.25 One can tell without having attended a single geology class that these layers were formed by the action of water, the most likely candidate being the nearby ocean, especially in light of the fossilized clams entombed in some of them. Yet there they are high and dry, integrated into the rolling hills beyond, as though they were the sliced edge of a huge layer cake. The layers are also tilted, sometimes up and sometimes down, as though giants had sat down on them in some places but not others. The tilt is large enough that some clifftop planes continue downward to the beach and disappear into the ground. The cliffs are eroding. The rocks are noticeably crumbly in places, and one can see little landslides high up on the face as well as shelves and caves at the bottom where waves wash at high tide.


On Sale
Sep 27, 2011
Page Count
240 pages
Basic Books

Robert B. Laughlin

About the Author

Robert B. Laughlin is the Robert M. and Anne Bass Professor of Physics at Stanford University, where he has taught since 1985. In 1998 he shared the Nobel Prize in Physics for his work on the fractional quantum Hall effect. He is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and a member of the National Academy of Sciences. He lives in Palo Alto, California.

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