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Everyone’s looking for energy fixes in all the wrong places.
On December 29, 1959, on the threshold of the 1960s, Richard Feynman, “the best mind since Einstein” and interpreter of quantum mechanics, gave a lecture at the California Institute of Technology that is generally regarded to be the opening bell of the Information Age. It was titled, “There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom.”
“There is a device on the market, they tell me, that can write the Lord’s Prayer on the head of a pin,” Feynman began. “But that’s nothing.…It is a staggeringly small world below. In the year 2000, when they look back at this age, they will wonder why it was not until the year 1960 that anybody began seriously to move in this direction.”
Feynman was talking about the storage of information. The smallest dot in a half-tone photo in the encyclopedia, he noted, if reduced by a factor of 25,000, would still contain in its area 1,000 atoms. Since electron microscopes could already scan pictures this small, why not store information at this level? Switching to the digital language of computers— 1s and 0s—only made the possibilities even greater.
It turns out that all of the information that man has carefully accumulated in all the books in the world can be written in this form in a cube of material one two-hundredth of an inch wide— which is the barest piece of dust that can be made out by the human eye. So there is plenty of room at the bottom! Don’t tell me about microfilm!
It wasn’t long, of course, before we began to fulfill this vision. In 1965, Gordon Moore, one of the founders of Intel, noted that the number of transistors that could be packed into an integrated circuit was doubling approximately every two years. This principle became “Moore’s Law,” which still holds to this day. Ultra-dense optical storage disks now hold 120 gigabytes, enough to hold an entire library floor of academic journals. In 2007, the world stored 161 exabytes, enough to pile twelve stacks of books reaching the sun. There is no indication that this revolution is slowing down. As we enter the quantum world, it may become possible to store a 1 or a 0 in the energy state of a single electron. There is still plenty of room at the bottom.
SPURRED BY THIS historical accomplishment, however, Silicon Valley has now decided to tackle the energy problem. Energy has become the “next big thing” in the land of information technology, with entrepreneurs who made their fortunes in computers now moving their investments into solar cells, biofuels-improved efficiency, and all forms of “renewable” and “alternate” energy. “My greatest hope is that Silicon Valley will solve the current energy problem with the same genius that it has solved the problems of commercializing the integrated circuit, biotechnology and the Internet,” says T. J. Rodgers, founder of Cypress Semiconductor, who has now funded SunPower, a photovoltaics start-up. Legendary Silicon Valley investor John Doerr has hired Nobel Prize winner Al Gore to help select a number of wind and solar startups that he calls “cleantech.” Adds Vinod Khosla, a co-founder of Sun Microsystems who has become the most active energy venture capitalist in California, “A crisis is a terrible thing to waste.”
All this has raised great expectations among alternative energy enthusiasts of a world marriage between environmentalism and high tech. As Fred Krupp, CEO of the Environmental Defense Fund, says in his book, Earth: The Sequel:
For investors who made their first fortunes from semiconductors and the Internet, the learning curve on photovoltaics is not terribly steep. Solar power has grown up alongside the chip industry, borrowing its materials and processes and, increasingly, its talent. The geographies of the two industries overlap. Many of the solar startups are in California’s Silicon Valley, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in Phoenix, Arizona, and in Austin, Texas. And many have close relations with the same universities: Stanford; University of California, Berkeley; the California Institute of Technology; and MIT.
The holy grail of this venture would be a new Moore’s Law discovered in the field of energy. As reporter G. Pascal Zachary wrote in the New York Times in February 2008:
There is, after all, a precedent for how the Valley tried to approach such tasks, and it’s embodied in Moore’s Law….A link between Moore’s Law and solar technology reflects the engineering reality that computer chips and solar cells have a lot in common.
Or as Oliver Morton, chief news and features editor of Nature, has expressed it, “If Silicon Valley can apply Moore’s Law to the capture of sunshine, it could change the world again.”
Unfortunately, we can say with absolute certainty: “It ain’t never gonna happen.” There is absolutely no chance that all the money in Silicon Valley is ever going to discover a “Moore’s Law” that will allow us to miniaturize the generation of energy the way it has miniaturized the storage of information. Why? The answer is simple: energy and information are not the same thing.
The marvelous miniaturization embodied in Moore’s Law was accomplished by using less and less energy to store each individual bit of information. Think of an abacus. The position of each bead represents a 1 or a 0, and the amount of energy required to move the bead across the wire frame is the cost of storing that information. If we move down into the microcosm so we are storing information by the energy used to change the state of a logic gate or a group of molecules or a single molecule or even a single electron, we are using less and less energy at every level. That is the essence of Moore’s Law.
BUT WHAT IF WE ARE SEEKING TO generate energy? We cannot move down the molecular scale in the same way. At each and every stage we will encounter less energy. There is only so much energy stored in a chemical bond or in a flow of photons or electrons. This is easy enough to calculate. The amount of energy stored in a single carbon-hydrogen bond in a fossil fuel is about 1 electron volt (eV). The amount of energy in a photon of visible light is in the range of 1.7–3.3 eV. When we break one of those chemical bonds—through the process of “combustion”—or capture a photon in a photovoltaic cell, we can generate about 1 to 3.3 eV of energy. In fact, we already do a pretty efficient job of capturing and converting these sources of energy. A liter of gasoline, for example, can produce 9.7 kilowatt- hours (kWh) of power—probably the densest form of chemical energy we will ever encounter. Anthracite coal produces 9.4 kWh, liquid natural gas 7.2 kWh, methanol 4.6 kWh, and wood around .5–.9 kWh, depending on its moisture content. “Biofuels”—crops that are less dense and more saturated than wood—produce even fewer kilowatthours per liter.
Sunup to sundown, the sun’s rays shed about 400 watts per square meter of ground in the United States. By theoretical limits, only about 25 percent of this can be converted into electricity. This means that solar electricity can light one 100-watt bulb for every card table. Covering every square foot of every building in the country with solar panels would be enough to provide our indoor lighting—about 4 percent of our total electrical consumption—during the daytime. Other forms of solar energy flows—wind, hydroelectricity, or biofuels—are more dilute.
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