Global Warming may be Suggesting a New Course for Mankind

Two previous presentations have addressed the Global Warming situation:

Global Warming and Climate Change - The Physics examined the actual Physics and mathematics behind what is happening, specifically involving the Radiative Equilibrium temperature of the Earth as a whole.

Global Warming and Climate Change - Possible Solutions considered two possible scenarios, regarding whether the Earth is capable of naturally responding to such an extreme environmental change or if it cannot.

The research done in formulating those two presentations has given strong reason for humankind to IMMEDIATELY elect to alter our basic mind-sets, and entirely change our attitudes toward energy and specifically "fossil fuels".

It actually makes incredibly good sense!
We found that our use of fossil fuels is creating around 15 to 20 billion tons of carbon dioxide each year. And THAT is the core of the problem of Global Warming, as discussed in the Physics presentation. Remember that our use of fossil fuels is creating 15 to 20 billion tons each year.

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In our second presentation, we discussed that the existing plants on Earth presently consume around 300 billion tons of carbon dioxide each year. This situation has evolved over millions of years, in developing an equilibrium situation for the creation and consumption of carbon dioxide over those years. In other words, we now KNOW that around 300 billion tons of carbon dioxide gets created each year, NATURALLY.

There are many chemical reactions that occur that generate carbon dioxide, including oxidation of rock and mineral matter, rusting and corrosion of some metallic materials, and even normal respiration (breathing) by animals. However, the primary one is the oxidation of carbohydrates, that is, the natural decomposition of all the biological molecules that get built from the glucose that photosynthesis creates, usually when the various organisms and plants die. In fact, we found that annually, there is around 100 billion tons of carbon fixed in glucose every year, and that accounts for the formation of around 250 billion tons of glucose and around 300 billion tons of carbon dioxide is consumed in that process. In other words, biological decomposition processes necessarily account for virtually all of the SOURCE of the 300 billion tons of carbon dioxide that have to ENTER the atmosphere each year. This equilibrium situation is referred to as the Carbon Cycle, where sufficient plants live and grow on land and in the oceans to consume all the carbon dioxide released when those plants and organic materials die and decay and decompose.

These "oxidation processes" are actually the same reaction that we discussed for photosynthesis, but going the opposite direction. Instead of NEEDING solar energy to drive the formation of glucose (and oxygen), in the oxidation reactions, we are combining glucose and oxygen and RELEASING energy.

This is actually what happens when we burn any fossil fuels. It is also what happens when we burn a log. Very importantly, it is also the exact same reaction that occurs when a tree decays and rots. The only real difference is that it occurs much slower as decomposition than in combustion.

There are many variations of this reaction, specifically when the glucose has been formed into even more complex carbohydrates, such as the cellulose that most of plant structures are made of, but this situation is still essentially true. There are also situations where glucose and other carbohydrates can PARTIALLY oxidize, which breaks down the glucose molecule into simpler hydrocarbons, such as Methane (CH4) which is essentially what we call Natural Gas. Even though such simpler, partially-oxidized molecules have less energy in them than the original glucose did, they still can later be oxidized (burned, as in a natural gas furnace) to produce energy, carbon dioxide and water vapor, EXACTLY like the oxidation of glucose does!

We therefore have around 250 billion tons of glucose being created every year, in forming plants; roots, stems, leaves, fruits, seeds. Here's the important part! What HAPPENS to that 250 billion tons of vegetable matter that is created each year? A few billion tons of it is eaten by animals, to provide the energy for their bodies to live and grow, but that is actually a very small fraction.

What happens is that the plants die, either sooner or later. Even the animals die sooner or later. AND THEN THEY DECAY AND ROT.

That decaying is another application of the same oxidation we have already been talking about. It is just a lot SLOWER than most of the oxidation reactions that we are familiar with (such as fire).

We have already discussed that oxidation occurs to metallic materials such as iron in what we call rusting, and in other metals in what we call corrosion, and in some rocks and minerals, and even in animal respiration (breathing) but that those sources generate far less carbon dioxide than the natural decomposition of organic material does.

The central point here is that there are around 250 billion tons of NATURALLY ROTTING vegetation (and animals) that necessarily decompose every year! And THAT is what provides that NATURAL 300 billion tons of carbon dioxide that necessarily goes into the atmosphere every year. Roughly FORTY TIMES the total oxidation of ALL current man-made activities!

We are noting here that there is ALWAYS heat given off (it is an exothermic chemical reaction) by all those tons of naturally decaying organic material at the exact same rate as is given off by fossil fuels being burned (oxidized). This unavoidably means that there are natural energy sources from this decaying organic matter which is around forty times as great as all the fossil fuels we are currently burning world-wide.

This therefore indicates that we MUST choose to use THAT source of energy to drive all our modern lives and industry! There are actually two different wonderful reasons for doing this.

First, we could immediately and permanently stop extracting coal, natural gas and petroleum from the Earth (because we would actually have a far more plentiful supply of energy!) This stoppage would END our effects of causing Global Warming, because no new carbon dioxide would be being introduced into the environment. Second, since we would be using "natural processes" of rotting and other forms of oxidation, we would be causing ZERO alteration of the atmosphere or the environment! The rotting presently occurs all over the world in fields and forests, oxidizing the glucose and releasing carbon dioxide and water vapor AND ENERGY. If we simply arrange a way to CAPTURE THAT HEAT ENERGY GIVEN OFF, and possibly accelerate the oxidation for greater activity (and the net energy collected), then we will actually not have changed ANYTHING!

There is even a Bonus reason for doing this, in that you probably would not have to pay anything for that material. In fact, you probably are now paying to have your cut grass and raked leaves hauled away!

IF it were possible to efficiently collect ALL the decaying vegetative and animal matter, and handle them all in such ways, there would then be FORTY TIMES the total energy of all modern human activity, with NO Global Warming occurring as a result!

It is certainly impractical to collect ALL such waste. But if it is possible to collect and process even 1/40 of all that decaying matter, we would have a PERFECTLY GREEN source of ALL our current energy needs, while not consuming a drop of petroleum or a pound of coal!

The World Can Become Carbon-Neutral and end Global Warming Effects

Since there now exists enough decaying matter world-wide which naturally creates about forty times as much energy as all the energy we now get from fossil fuel burning, even if only 1/40 of that organic material were collected and the energy captured, we could operate all the things of modern society with nothing having to be ended.

This then would entirely end the world's current reliance on petroleum from potentially unstable countries and having to also capture massive amounts of natural gas from similar sources. Maybe fewer wars might occur over the supplies of such fossil-fuel energy sources.

The United States could IMMEDIATELY become Totally Energy Independent!

Many politicians give speeches about trying to get giant corporations to invest billions of dollars to increase the energy independence of the United States, and they even often give such corporations many billions of dollars of our tax dollars toward such things. However, those corporations rarely actually accomplish much with all that tax money! True, there ARE potential concepts being researched, and that is good. But we are describing a situation where INDIVIDUALS and SMALL BUSINESSES can, THIS MONTH, become nearly energy independent!

Grass Roots, and, best, NOW!

Let's consider the entire country. The United States contains around 20% arable lands (available farm crop lands), 26% meadows and pastures, and 29% forests and woodlands. This totals 75% of our total land area, which is therefore 2,713,000 square miles or 1.74 billion acres. In one of our other linked presentations, we showed that each area of land with full vegetation has around 164,000 Kcal of sunlight get converted into captured energy during photosynthesis each day, which means we have 2.85 * 1014 Kcal of stored energy captured in our nation's plants every day. This is then roughly 1.07 * 1017 Kcal of energy in a whole year. This is the same as 4.13 * 1017 Btus of energy or 1.21 * 1017 watt-hours or 1.21 * 1014 kWh of energy.

People have known this for a long time. Even that the total amount of solar energy coming in is even a hundred times larger than this, because we are talking about the 1% overall efficiency of the photosynthesis process.

We know from official government published documents that the total electricity consumption of the United States was 3.857 * 1012 kWh in 2003. In 1999, the US consumed a total of 28.3 * 1012 kWh of energy supplies (of which 11.5 * 1012 kWh was consumed to produce electricity. We can see from this that only around 33.4% of the energy consumed to make electricity actually became electricity, with the other 66.6% being wasted as heat that escaped into the environment, mostly the atmosphere.)

Notice that the plants that grow in America capture AND HAVE AVAILABLE AS ENERGY FROM THEIR DECAY, 121 * 1012 kWh of energy, while the entire consumption of all forms of energy in America is 28.3 * 1012 kWh. If we could or would use these AMERICAN supplies of energy, we would clearly NOT need any imported (fossil-fuel) energy from any other country! In fact, if we found some way to collect and capture the energy from it all, we actually have available more than four times as much energy as we currently consume!

We SHOULD learn to conserve and to not be so ridiculously wasteful of energy as we are, but we are noting here that there is an astounding energy source that no one has even NOTICED!

The point is that America really could become (1) TOTALLY independent of foreign sources of energy supplies; (2) TOTALLY independent of fossil-fuel energy sources, even American-based; (3) and absolutely carbon-neutral, ending all threats to further Global Warming!

Humanity has actually known about this and even how to do it, for a long time. Compost piles are known to generate substantial heat, which is actually used to accelerate the decay of the waste vegetative matter to produce an end result of concentrated nutrients. This occurs because the existence of bacteria and fungi enable a natural decay of the glucose. If sufficient oxygen is present, (aerobic) this results in carbon dioxide (which escapes the pile of decomposing organic material into the atmosphere) and water (which either escapes as water vapor to the atmosphere or condenses into water and drains away), by the same chemical reaction we have discussed before, which then results in the material left being highly concentrated fertilizer! If oxygen is denied, (anaerobic) this decay tends to result in the glucose molecule coming apart into three simpler Methane (CH4 molecules and three molecules of CO2). This process creates Methane gas. There are also many other foul-smelling chemicals that can be created in anaerobic decomposition of glucose.

By the way, we do not intend to present all of organic chemistry here! There are over two million different organic chemicals known, and their different methods of decay often have many variations from this great simplification we have been discussing where only glucose was involved. Those many complex organic molecules all can oxidize into then giving off either or both of water vapor and carbon dioxide, becoming simpler and simpler molecules, in all cases, being exothermic (giving off the binding energy when those decays occur).

Around 30 years ago, a few people noticed that Methane gas was often generated in compost piles and took this process one step further. They chose to do the processing inside of a sealed tank, to capture the methane gas that results from the anaerobic decay of the glucose. That then provides BOTH fertilizer AND a moderate amount of methane gas which can be compressed and stored for future heating needs. Most such installations were promoted in the 1970s and 1980s as a great source of Methane gas as a credible energy source, but few actual installations actually performed remotely near what was claimed. The farmers who bought that (expensive) equipment probably never had them every paid for themselves, much less actually gain any energy independence that they were seeking. There was massive labor involved and the small amount of Methane generated then needed a compressor to get it into storage tanks, which sometimes required more electrical power usage than was actually collected in the Methane.

We are suggesting here adding yet another feature, of surrounding that tank with thermal insulation and also providing heat-exchanger capabilities, to capture and remove the heat that is constantly generated.

We actually feel that the gas-tight tank may not even be desirable, unless there is a specific desire to generate Methane gas. Instead, we feel that it is better to provide adequate air/oxygen throughout the decomposing material so that aerobic processes can proceed, and the decay can be more completely oxidative in nature. This would more completely consume the source organic materials.

It is also important to be able to introduce a small amount of water within the decomposing material. We have been slightly simplifying the photosynthesis equation here, as the actual process (and equation) includes an additional six water molecules on both sides of the equation. We have ignored those molecules in this energy-centered discussion because those binding energies exactly cancel each other out. But the point here is that some water is actually important in enabling the oxidation (decay) process to proceed efficiently.

This new modification involves a new complication. Where natural decomposition of vegetative matter can sometimes take many years to complete, the heat that is normally generated is nearly unnoticeable. But since one of the main points of a compost pile is to accelerate that decay process, in a confined space, the created heat accumulates. Even in a conventional compost pile, it sometimes occurs that the resulting temperature inside a small central portion of the material rises above 200°F, which has a bad effect of killing the bacteria and fungi that is enabling the decomposition. Since we are now surrounding the entire mass with effective thermal insulation, excessive heating becomes a real concern. In fact, since we introduce air/oxygen, there might even seem the possible concern that the organic material could rise past the self-ignition temperature (commonly around 300°F for some organic materials) where a fire could result. This problem cannot occur, because the bacteria would have long before died from the excessive heat and the decomposing process would have entirely stopped.

Therefore, for a variety of reasons, temperature sensors are needed to continuously monitor the temperature of different areas of the organic material. Those temperature readings can also be used to know if and when augers might need to be moved to stir up the material (commonly done in standard compost piles about once per week), and to know when additional materials to decompose could be added.

This approach should generally completely oxidize the decomposing materials, in an aerobic environment, so very little Methane gas should ever become formed. Heat exchanger provisions are included within or near the organic material to capture heat to be transferred to heating domestic hot water (at up to 150°F) or the warm air or hydronic heat for heating a house or building (commonly supplied at around 125°F). These functions only require very crude heat exchangers.

We can even calculate the amount of heat that is generated and currently discarded by a conventional one-ton decomposing pile. (This size of pile is larger than common residential compost piles are. A pile around five-feet-square and four feet high can represent around one ton of initial material. Depending on the sophistication of the configuration, one ton of actual decomposing material might need a slightly larger volume, if specific layers of different materials are to be made (brown compost, green compost, manure, soil, etc). The RATE at which the decomposition occurs is dependent on many variables, and some of those are within the control of available technology.

Using numbers and calculations of our Second Page (linked above), we know that one (metric) ton is 1000 kilograms or 1,000,000 grams. In a great simplification (assuming that ALL that material can decay, and it all is simple glucose), we can first calculate that there would be 5,500 moles of glucose (atomic weight of 180) (5,500 * 180 = 1,000,000). We also discussed there that each mole of glucose involves 686 Kilocalories of energy, now being released. Therefore, our one-ton pile of organic material WILL create 5,500 * 686 or 3.8 million Kcal of energy (if it entirely decays)! We can convert this to the more familiar 15 million Btus!

The actual numbers are actually close to this but slightly different. First, most plant structure is made of cellulose, a more complex combination of stringing together glucose molecules that contain even more binding energy, so there is even more energy available. Second, the reality of this process is that it never works completely perfectly, so there are always some carbohydrates that do not get completely decomposed during this process, so we have some energy that never gets released. These two effects are opposite and generally relatively similar in size, and we are assuming here that the two effects generally cancel out, such that we can simply consider the whole pile as being glucose and that it entirely decomposes.

It turns out that there would be heat losses through the surrounding insulation, and some of the oxidation will not be complete (creating a small amount of that methane) and that the heat-exchange process cannot be 100% efficient. So it is more realistic to conservatively think of getting maybe 5 million Btus of capturable energy from that ton of decaying organic material (while most of the energy will still escape naturally!)

Notice that this can STILL capture some desired fertilizer from the organic material, and it does not adversely affect anything. The ONLY difference is that we have captured a lot of heat that is currently simply wasted. (The later-discussed HG system and especially the HG3a version are an advance of this, where the process is completed with such great efficiency that there is often NO organic material left which was not decomposed. From a farmer's or gardener's viewpoint, this might not be as desirable, but regarding being an energy source, it is wonderful!)

Since a medium-sized home in a temperate climate like Chicago generally requires around 40 million Btus of actual heating for an entire winter, we would then only need a larger installation of this concept to provide ALL the heating the house would need! Specifically, if we considered a chamber about the size of a small bedroom, ten feet square and eight feet high, we would have around eight times as much material to decompose, or about eight tons to begin with. Given our conservative estimate of 5 million Btus per ton (where around 18 million is scientifically more accurate), we would then have the 40 million Btus actually needed for the complete heating of that house! WITHOUT any furnace, and without any heating oil or natural gas or electric heating! NO FOSSIL FUELS AT ALL! Pretty much unlimited domestic hot water would also be generated! (See the links below to learn how to build the needed items!)

That home would then no longer contribute ANYTHING toward Global Warming! And there would also be zero winter heating bills! And not even any cost to be producing domestic hot water!

We currently ignore and discard immense amounts of heat energy like that. True, it is "low-grade" heat, meaning that the temperatures created are relatively low, apparently necessarily below 160°F, to avoid killing the bacteria and fungi that drive the process. We have become very spoiled by our dependence on "fossil fuels" because they happen to be able to oxidize (burn) very rapidly, and at very high temperatures (natural gas burns at around 3,800°F), which is very convenient for driving nearly all modern industrial processes. But that very high temperature is also very wasteful of energy. Witness that automobiles of the 1970s were generally around 15% efficient, which has been improved to around 21% today. Witness that a coal-powered electric power plant is only around 31% efficient (and after the electricity has to go many miles to get to you, the net overall efficiency is generally around 13%).

(People have ripped into me for many years regarding this statement, that 60% of the electricity put INTO the power-grid at the power plants, is LOST, and that only 40% of the electricity makes it through the power-grid. So it is refreshing to see that IBM has started running TV commercials in Jan 2009 that start off announcing that "more than half" of electricity is lost in the power-grid! Maybe people will be willing to believe IBM about such statements!)

If we can now develop many new technologies that can be driven by low-grade heat, we will be able to use natural biological decay, as in the special decomposition piles described above, and thereby eliminate the need for ANY fossil fuels at all!

The available sources of such decomposition energy are amazing. When a diseased cow dies somewhere, the meat cannot be used for any normal purposes. But it seems to be completely ignored that the decomposition of that 1,000-pound cow (half a ton) will certainly produce the same exothermic energy as half of our one-ton organic material pile discussed above, or around 7.5 million Btus of heat energy. That energy all is presently simply wasted. So is the energy from the decomposition of millions of tons of farm crop discards, of forest deadfall decomposition and endless other sources of such large energy sources. Ditto regarding the leaves and cut grass on your lawn! Just one acre of lawn (or even weeds) can produce enough organic material to decompose to entirely heat an average house for an entire winter!

Designs are presented for an efficient and economical system to effectively retain and collect such heat from natural decomposition and to include control systems to possibly even adjust the heating output. It is an entirely new field of technology!

Here is a simplified presentation of the biochemistry in both photosynthesis (right to left) and respiration or decomposition (left to right).

graphic from John W Kimball

This presentation was first placed on the Internet in March 2007.

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C Johnson, Theoretical Physicist, Physics Degree from Univ of Chicago