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Friday, May 24, 2013

I want more calories not fewer



Nature has a thousand ways to kill, from the fearsome violence of tigers and bears to the painful death of venom. There is starvation and heat stroke plus the catastrophes of earthquakes and floods and volcanoes, just a few of the many methods by which nature can kill. Image you are a predatory bug, born with hundreds of siblings, the stronger, faster baby bugs immediately set about feasting on their weaker, slower siblings. You manage to eat one or two of your brothers and then escape before you become lunch. You were all born starving, and a third of the hatchlings are gone in a few minutes. You scatter with the rest and start to hunt other bugs. You have passed the first test. You grow bigger and stronger; what once preyed on you now becomes your prey. With time you become an adult and now seek a mate, out of a hundred that were born only you survived. Finally you spot a possible mate, you’re hungry, and he looks very tasty, but the drive to mate is strong. You are not going to eat the potential mate, at least not yet, instead you are going to continue the species and now start the mating dance. Then a bird swops down and eats both of you. Nature moves on and so have humans, we are far more complex than this simple existence.
This is a story about calories, each actor needs enough calories to live one more day, and those that do not collect enough calories perish. It starts with sunlight striking a green leaf, and then the plant converts the energy of a single photon of light into chemical energy making tasty proteins. Bugs eat the leaf and concentrate the energy into better proteins, this continues up the food chain always concentrating more energy, which we can measure as calories. Humans are near, or at the top of this food chain. We need about 2,000 calories per day for good health, calories are a measure of energy, and for a typical individual of a technically advanced nation the total energy used is about 250,000 calories per day. That is the total when we add up all the gasoline, air conditioning, purified water, laptops, clothing, and all the other stuff we consume daily. All of these calories started with sunlight, plants converting photons into chemical energy. Many of the calories we consume today were created milieu pass and buried deep underground.
250,000 calories per day may seem a lot. Personally I would prefer a cool million calories per day. With one million calories per day I could live on the moon, I could probably live for 200 years. I can barely image living on one million calories per day, but it would be really cool. The big problem is the terrible inefficiency and waste currently needed to generate 250,000 calories per day. Our fossil fuel route just will not last, that is a race between destroying the environment or using up all the available fossil fuel, which ever wins, we lose.
Since all the calories started as sunlight why not skip the middlemen (the grass, the bug, the bird, my dinner plate), and go with solar energy directly? We use only a small fraction of the sunlight energy currently falling on our planet. Our planet receives one half of one billionth of the energy produced by the sun. What I am proposing is an orbital solar power plant.
We have reached the technological point, with the large scale organizational abilities and resources to actually do this. The science is understood and the basic engineering is done, we only lack the vision. I do not feel that America’s political leadership is capable of thinking this big, but China, Russia and Europe are thinking about it. Once other nation’s start we will suddenly find American politicians jumping on the band wagon, most likely touting orbital solar energy as a national security issue. That’s fine with me, as long as we do it. I want my one million calories per day.

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