Sunday, June 25, 2023

Flash droughts: Are they the new normal?

The state of Illinois is suffering from its driest conditions in more than a decade. In fact, large swathes of the Midwest and Plains states are suffering from extraordinarily dry conditions according the U.S. Drought Monitor.

But a certain kind of drought is becoming more and more frequent: flash drought. The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration defines flash drought as follows:

Flash drought is simply the rapid onset or intensification of drought. It is set in motion by lower-than-normal rates of precipitation, accompanied by abnormally high temperatures, winds, and radiation. Together, these changes in weather can rapidly alter the local climate.

Illinois had been suffering from flash droughts since mid-April when virtually none of the state suffered from drought conditions.

Sunday, June 18, 2023

Fusion: It's messier and harder than you think

A friend of mine who was trained as a physicist used to joke about a future in which each of us would carry handheld fusion reactors that plug in anywhere to provide copious amounts clean energy for our homes, automobiles, offices and factories.

The reality of fusion power, however, is one of huge scale and vast obstacles according to Daniel Jassby, a former research physicist at the Princeton Plasma Physics Lab. (All of what follows assumes that the remaining obstacles to producing net energy from fusion will be overcome. Addressing that issue would require a seperate and lengthy essay.)

Perhaps the most unexpected revelation Jassby offers runs entirely contrary to the clean image that fusion energy has in the public mind. It turns out that the most feasible designs for fusion reactors will generate large amounts of radioactivity and radioactive waste.

As Jassby explains, inside the Sun, which is powered by fusion, normal hydrogen atoms, each consisting of nuclei containing one proton, are fused together and produce helium plus energy. Here on planet Earth, fusion reactors "burn neutron-rich isotopes [that] have byproducts that are anything but harmless: Energetic neutron streams comprise 80 percent of the fusion energy output of deuterium-tritium reactions and 35 percent of deuterium-deuterium reactions." (Deuterium is a hydrogen atom consisting of one proton and one electron in its nucleus. Tritium is a radioactive form of hydrogen having one proton and two neutrons.)

Jassby details the consequences:

[T]hese neutron streams lead directly to four regrettable problems with nuclear energy [both fission and fusion]: radiation damage to structures; radioactive waste; the need for biological shielding; and the potential for the production of weapons-grade plutonium 239—thus adding to the threat of nuclear weapons proliferation, not lessening it, as fusion proponents would have it.

Sunday, June 11, 2023

Are we missing something about the coming population decline?

Reactions to the now frequently predicted decline in worldwide human population range from mild celebration to panic. The mild celebration comes from those concerned about the huge environmental impacts a growing human population continues to have on the planet. The panic comes from government officials and economists who wonder how societies will support the huge number of old people (who generally work less and therefore contribute less to the economy) without a substantial influx of new, young workers. Economic growth is expected to take a large hit as population growth slows and then actual population decline sets in.

One writer ticks off the environmental benefits of a gradual population decline and actually embraces a degrowth path for the economy. The editorial board of The Deseret News in Salt Lake City tells us that "big troubles await" for a world with declining population. A staff writer for The Atlantic magazine notes the precipitously declining population growth in the United States and trots out several sources who tell readers how bad this is for economic growth and innovation.

All of these writers assume that population decline, however troubling or salutary, will be gradual. They attribute it to a series of factors such as rising education (especially of women), increasing urbanization, changing cultural attitudes and the costs of bringing of children. These scenarios of gradual, seemingly manageable decline are called into question by the work of fertility researchers who discovered that fertility rates are dropping like a stone and on present trends expect the worldwide fertility rate to reach zero by 2045. That's not a typo.

Sunday, June 04, 2023

On the emerging copper shortfall, mainstream media notices

I'm certainly not the only person who noticed before now that sustaining our increasing consumption of copper would be difficult as I suggested in my July 2022 piece entitled "Acceleration forever? The increasing momentum of mineral extraction." But the mainstream media now seems to be catching up with the story. The boom in demand for copper for electronic devices, electric vehicles, and energy infrastructure is likely to lead to shortages in the next decade.

The Reuters story cited above also tells us that mines take 10 to 20 years to develop AFTER the deposits they are based on are identified. There is, therefore, little prospect that copper production will be dramatically increased in the next decade. (I'm assuming that there are going to be no crash government-subsidized programs and waiving of environmental and permitting regulations. But, even if such programs and waivers emerge, I'm not sure they will have much effect in the next decade or so.)

Copper isn't the only critical metal of which we may not have enough. The European Commission noted in a 2020 white paper the growing list of critical minerals, the supply of which may not be adequate. Some are in demand because they are important to an increasingly electrified transportation system and the renewable energy industry. Many so-called Rare Earth Elements fall into this category. Right now those metals come primarily from China.

I summarized the mentality that has neglected what to me was an obvious emerging problem in a piece I wrote in 2009. Let me quote from that piece: