Powering the Future: A Nobel-Prize Winner Takes a Look Deep into the Future

By: Paul SanGiorgio

Have we hit peak oil? How long can we rely on cheap coal for power generation? Is hydro-fracking worth the environmental impact? To each of these pressing and controversial questions, Nobel-prize winner and Stanford physics professor Robert Laughlin would respond that, in the long run, what’s the difference?

Powering the Future: How we will (eventually) solve the energy crisis and fuel the civilization of tomorrow is Laughlin’s audacious attempt to look past the haze and uncertainty of short-term political and technical questions and predict how we’ll power our civilization in the centuries to come.

He starts with the seemingly irrefutable idea that although there are many varieties of fossil fuel, from natural gas to coal to oil, in the ground right now, eventually we will dig them all up, use them one way or another, and that’ll be that. Although whether we do this over the next 20 years or next 200 years might have important consequences for the environment, eventually the supply of fossil fuels will be exhausted and we will be left considering other options.

Given that there are more than enough problems to go around in the next 5, 10 or 20 years, why should we be particularly concerned right now with what will be happening in 200 years? Laughlin argues that although the energy future is both a political and technical question, it makes sense to attempt to separate the two issues and consider only the technical issues first. He claims, “To build a power plant, we need both enough votes and enough concrete, but if there isn’t any concrete, we’re simply not going to build the plant.”

Laughlin considers a number of different energy sources and storage technologies – some familiar (solar, nuclear, wind) and some unusual (algae farming, energy storage in compressed air tanks on the ocean floor) – and calculates the potential available amount of power, production costs, and storage densities each provides. And by calculates, I mean calculates. The book weighs in at a slim 224 pages, fully 92 of which are extensive footnotes and calculations. Not content to merely parrot official numbers or rely on sketchy internet references, Laughlin attempts to actually calculate as many of the relevant numbers as possible from primary sources. Just picking a footnote at random, one note has Laughlin calculating the power carrying capacity of a high-voltage power line. Starting with the Maxwell’s equations and going through a bit of math that will be over the head of anyone without a degree in physics, he comes up with a value of 1.4 x 10¬9 Watts. Almost offhandedly, he then mentions that Hydro Quebec quotes a value of 2.0 x 109 Watts, just in case you weren’t convinced by his calculation. Of course, the footnotes are just notes and actual math hardly makes an appearance in the main text, but in a way, it is reassuring to know that – at least when it comes to the numbers – Laughlin knows what he is talking about.

The pacing of the book is brisk and the writing is clear and interesting even if the occasional bits of humor come off a touch stale. Unable to hide the professor within, though, Laughlin’s tone can occasionally be pedantic and lecturing. Things just are what he says they are and any misconception you might have is probably due to naïve ignorance. This attitude is especially frustrating when it reflects Laughlin’s pessimism with regard to human nature, government intervention, and the possibility of socially conscious action in general, but for the most part, his authoritative tone begs the reader to argue and proceed critically, becoming an active participant in the book. Although readers might find themselves occasionally shaking their head (or fist), Laughlin does his best to be clear about his sources and calculations so readers are forced to either accept his conclusions or mentally prove him wrong. Either way, even the most knowledgeable reader will most likely both learn a great number of new things and also rethink a number of things they thought they already knew.

In a crowded idea space, Laughlin manages to look at humanity’s energy needs from a fresh and interesting perspective. He has no horse in the race and isn’t interested in lauding or burying any particular technology or fuel and, unlike many other prominent scientists-turned-authors, he isn’t desperately trying to stake out a position as a contrarian genius. Powering the Future is entertaining and informative and something that anyone interested in the long-term future of society should read.

Paul SanGiorgio is a Physicist from Oakland, CA who briefly worked with Professor Laughlin many years ago, which undoubtedly, Professor Laughlin does not remember.

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