Fuel vs. Energy

Many if not most people do not understand the difference between fuel and energy. Nearly all energy on earth (all 174 billion megajoules per second of it — energy is measured in joules, a joule is a watt-second and a joule per second is a watt) comes from the sun. Energy released from fossil fuels, from heat from inside the earth, and from heat from tides is an insignificant tiny fraction of that. A substantial fraction, at least a billion megawatts of power passes through things we have access to like the ambient air, and what we need to do is build machines big enough to grab a little of the heat and convert a little of that amount to work. Given such an enormous source of energy, making fuel, even gasoline, is obviously possible. And controlling the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere is obviously possible given enough energy.

The problem is that the blind hand of economics does not lead us to develop this source of energy, and neither does the pursuit of the Nobel prize, because everything important to be known about thermodynamics was discovered by the mid 19th century. There is no reason to operate a fusion reactor on earth — there is a perfectly good fusion reactor right in the neighborhood. But designing heat engines efficient enough to operate from low delta T heat just isn't sexy like trying to confine and ignite plasma in fusion machines.


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