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Same Old Song -- Energy
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Political turmoil spiked energy prices again last week -- I assume everyone saw this news. Energy has been an issue throughout almost my entire career, an issue that appears no closer to being solved today than it was in 1973.

The causes of energy shortages are political, as are most of the solutions to the problem. In the long term, and I mean 300 to 500 years, assuming we do not annihilate ourselves before then, we must reach a state of equilibrium with the energy supplied by the sun. This is a scientific condition and has nothing to do with politics.

In the meantime, we have managed to twist and turn energy consumption, environmental purity, greed, and economic status (haves and have nots) into a grand mess no one can solve. Indeed, it may not be solvable if the track record of the past 38 years is any indication.

The holy grail is a quick and highly efficient conversion of sunlight into a usable source of energy for transportation and stationary use on the Earth's surface. The problems seem intractable. For instance, this can be achieved in space, above the atmosphere, but then getting the energy back to Earth becomes a problem. On Earth, efficiency is a problem.

Take biomass, for instance. Every unit operation inserted in a conversion process represents a loss of efficiency. So do all logistics operations involved in getting the energy from where it is captured from the sun to the point where it is consumed. And when we speak of every unit operation, we must speak broadly, counting its own cost of manufacture as well as its ongoing operating cost, where "cost" means energy consumption in each case.

We have a hard time becoming more efficient than mother nature. A grain of wheat, using water, nutrients, and sunlight, replicates itself 20 times over; a grain of corn, 150 times over. These are the standards we must think about when we think of sunlight conversion. It is humbling to realize humans are not as smart as the programmed DNA in these two species.

There is probably no better way to pursue the aforementioned holy grail than the path we are on. It is one of our failings (and often a strength) to fumble along in a disorganized fashion until we hit on a solution. Given the energy reserves left, I expect the fumbling to continue through 10 or more generations of humans.

A Consultant Connection Member at your service: HurterConsult Inc. - Consulting Engineers for Pulp, Paper, Fiberboard & Cellulosic Biofuels from Nonwood Fibers, Wood, Wastepaper & Purchased Pulp | Resource, Market & Feasibility Studies, Engineering Solutions & Technical Advisory Services | Bob Hurter (613) 749-2181


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