on Jan 3, 2006
A couple of years back SDB moved from writing about politics to writing about anime. This didn’t bother me much, since I love both subjects, and thinking about anime is arguably better for my blood pressure. However, the one thing I missed was these posts about why magical solutions to our power needs were preposterous.
Real engineers like SDB – as opposed to software engineers like myself – have the ability to translate the world into numbers and play with it in a way I can only envy. A real engineer can tell you why you can’t generate power using 600 million tons of turkey guts or billions of tons of corn stalks . He can tell you that to provide power for vehicles in Southern California you would need 231 square kilometers of solar panels that we can’t build. (And even that’s assuming you allow for some 2nd law of thermodynamics violations).
In a lot of ways this stuff is similar to the old, “how much would a million pennies weigh” sort of things we’d read as kids. They are fun problems that tell us more about the average person’s slippery grip on large numbers than they do about actual science.
Take a look at SDB’s answer to the great big flywheel proposal. There are a lot of serious engineering problems with it, and he outlines them in cruel, pipe-dream-killing detail. Looking at the list, most of the challenges would be mitigated by moving to many smaller flywheels. This moves the challenges from the areas of physics (how do you dissipate all that heat / maintain a huge vaccuum / keep it structurally sound / balance it / etc) to logistics (how much will all the flywheels cost, how much space will they need, and where the hell would you put them?).
If I had any grasp of it, I would work out just how many you would need and how much space they would take up. But I can’t. However, if you think about it, you can intuit that the flywheel array would need to be many, many times larger than then dam / wind turbine / solar collector / turkey gut liquifier / etc, and (unless you want to deal with a whole new set of problems) it would have to be part of or next to the existing power source.
I find this stuff to be fun to read and think about. I only wish people who advocate these pie-in-the-sky proposals felt the same way.
Shamus Young is an old-school OpenGL programmer, author, and composer. He runs this site and if anything is broken you should probably blame him.