Difficulties of Environmental Problems by Richard Bleil
Prince William and his wife Catherine (Duchess of Cambridge) announced a new environmental prize. Five winners will be selected every year for the next decade for “Action to Repair the Earth”. As I read it, the prize will be for multi-million pounds for each winner.
Okay, first of all, let me state that I find no humor in this at all. I’m very proud of Prince William and Duchess Catherine for their dedication not just to stemming environmental problems, but actually repairing the damage done. It’s marvelous to see them put their resources to address problems that they believe in. So, thank you very much to them for dedicating themselves to this concept, and I wish them the best of luck for its success.
Part of the reason that I’m discussing it at all is because I want to make people aware of it. We should all know of Greta Thunberg and her environmental awareness action. Now, Boyan Slat is cleaning up plastic in the ocean in an innovative and new project. Greta was fifteen when she began her strike alone on the steps of the Swedish Parliament, and it has grown into a global phenomenon in little more than a year. Boyan hatched his innovative plan to clean up plastics when he was just sixteen. These should be role models, not just for young people, but for all of us as a reminder that we can all make a difference regardless of age. Great ideas have no idea how old the thinker is.
Ooh, that’s a quote.
Okay, not a very good one. But ideas abound if we are willing to listen. Working in my office on a Saturday while I was teaching at a state university, a man walked off of the streets, into the building, and right into my office. He plopped down on the couch and began to speak with me about his idea for a perpetual motion machine. Now, a perpetual motion machine might strike the reader as an interesting oddity if it can be made, but actually, if one can be created, it’s possible that it could be made to produce energy forever and without the input of any form of fuel. This presupposes that if the perpetual motion machine can be made, it could be improved to produce excess energy that can somehow be “bled off” of the system. I listened to his idea and allowed him to express it as completely as he felt comfortable doing without the fear of me stealing the concept.
The thing is that you want to encourage people to dream. A lot of scientists would have decided (shamefully, in my humble opinion) that they don’t have time for that kind of “nonsense” and shut him down. Personally, I listened, asked questions, and had an open and frank conversation with him. I told him that it was an interesting idea but went on to discuss why scientists believe that perpetual motion machines cannot work. In the end, I encouraged him to try. I told him that if he succeeded, it would turn science on its ear (as it honestly would), but not to be discouraged if it fails. I hope he did try, and I hope that even if it fail (which I’m sure it did) it didn’t curb his enthusiasm to keep trying, experimenting, and dreaming.
Getting back to William and Catherine’s incentive, I want to encourage my readers to try for the prize. Go for it. If you get it and I don’t, then I’ll be the first to congratulate you. But I also want to discuss the problem with many of these innovations as I see them.
The problem is the same as this man’s; thermodynamics. There are two opposing forces behind everything that happens; enthalpy (energy) and entropy (disorder). These are the first and second laws of thermodynamics respectively. Right now, we’re circling the drain of the second law of thermodynamics.
The second law (entropy) is often described as the system’s natural tendency towards disorder (although this precise description is a bit overly simplified). But, as opposed to many people’s misunderstanding of the second law, the entropy of a system can be decreased. This is displayed by Boyan’s project. His system (the focus of his project) is the ocean. As we throw plastics into the ocean, the second law is the reason that these items will diffuse away from each other and disperse them in a manner that makes it difficult to re-collect them. Boyan has designed a manner in which plastic can be basically “scooped up”, recollecting it and decreasing the entropy of the plastic in the ocean. He is doing this in the only known thermodynamically allowed manner that it can be; he is doing work on the system. But, work costs energy.
The second law actually states that the entropy of the universe (yes, entire universe) cannot decrease. As he decreases the entropy on his system (the ocean), the work is increasing the entropy in the surroundings (the rest of the world). The second law says that the increase in the surroundings will be, in an ideal situation, at least as much as the decrease in entropy of the system. In fact, in a real system, the entropy of the surroundings increases more than that of the system. In his case, the increase in entropy of the surroundings comes from the fuel burned by the boats he is using, the manufacturing of the nets he is using, the heat generated in the work.
The trick is if we can find a way to enact these improvements without shifting the burden to another system. Well, thermodynamics says we must, but maybe if the ships use solar power it might help. Hydrogen batteries promised to be “clean energy”, but in fact, the hydrogen is produced by electrolysis of water, and the electricity for doing so comes from the central power grid (often coal and gas burning). Yes, a hydrogen battery powered vehicle might not produce any pollutants itself, but the pollutants have already been emitted in the production of the hydrogen.
Can we somehow trick our system into doing the work itself? Could we purify water by using the power of the oceans themselves so we don’t have to burn fossil fuels? This is my advice for innovators looking at this prize. Think larger than the focus of your project. What will be the source of the energy? If you purify some system, where will the impurities go?
But don’t be discouraged. I believe in human ingenuity. That means that I believe in you and your creativity and problems solving. So…ready…set…GET THAT PRIZE!!!!