What is the Question? Podcast Episode 2

What is the Question? Podcast Episode 2


In the second episode of my podcast “What is the Question”, with the help and comments of Hannes Sjoblad, I speak about Energy.

Below you can find the audio of the podcast, as well as its transcript.

David Orban:
Our global civilization is amazing. But can we count on it to continue? What are the fundamental supporting structures? What is really everything we do based on? Well, maybe a lot of things. But one of the fundamental defining factors is certainly energy. Our energy sources and the way we use energy define not only what machinery we can or cannot use, but it defines actually the shape of the society that we organize, or we can even imagine. This is episode two of the What is the Question podcast. And here we are with Hannes Sjoblad. Welcome Hannes.

Hannes Sjoblad:
Hi David, how are you today?

David Orban:
I am pretty well, with a nice cup of tea in my hand, having survived some traffic mishaps, as it happens too often to some of us. I actually don’t commute. Or rather, my commute is a bit strange. I commute every couple of weeks between New York and Europe. So when people say, “Wow, that is a big commute,” I tell them there are a lot of people who commute every day one or two hours, so mine is actually easier.

Hannes Sjoblad:
It certainly sounds so. Just in this first sentence you already touched upon energy in a couple of dimensions. I means, it’s energy that is [inaudible 00:01:50] our traffic, it’s energy that heated your tea. So energy is certainly … The easy access to energy is what enables this modern society that we engage with every day.

David Orban:
And of course, earth receives sun’s energy. I joke sometimes and say, “Well, solar energy is not renewable actually, or sustainable that much. Only four billion years, and the sun will turn into a red giant, and we’ll have to look for another source.”

Hannes Sjoblad:
Yeah, but if we speak of solar energy, I don’t think we should limit ourselves to our closest sun. So in principle I would consider solar energy, even in the longer term, to be an unlimited ultimate energy source. This is really how I would like to kick off our conversation, because we speak about all these different energy sources that we have … We have carbon and nuclear and fossil and what not … but there are the ultimate energy sources, right? Which is, in my view, solar energy, and we have geothermal energy, which is the temperature difference that our planet is warm, and that we can harvest pretty much as much energy as we want out of it, and the third is, of course, energy from the moon, the tidal energy that we will also never run out of, as long as we have oceans here that can capture this water.

David Orban:
Our knowledge increases about how the universe works, and the more we know the better we can understand and capture these energy sources. A couple of thousand years ago the only source of energy that we could really harness was burning some wood to heat and cook, and muscle energy for moving stuff around, whether through domesticated animals, horses and cattle, or human muscle energy from volunteers or slaves. It has been a couple of thousand years, so not a fast transformation, but now with we are to the point where we can actually use mechanical contractions whose energy is coming from either electricity or fossil fuels, and I think that is a pretty big deal.

Hannes Sjoblad:
Yeah, I mean, the story of human civilization is intimately tied to the energy sources that we can access. So exactly as you point out, it started out with the only energy we could have was our own muscles, right? And the food we could, this was related to how much calories we could intake, and then we could carry heavier loads. Over time, we also managed then to engage with what we could call extra sematic energy sources. Simply sources that are outside our body. Other animals’ muscles, firewood, and ultimately cracking atoms. But this is what is enabling technological process and civilization progress. It’s very much the amount of energy that we can harness for our different activities.

David Orban:
As well as the balance of energy input and energy output in a process. The measurement of the EROI, the energy return on investment, or on energy invested. When oil, fossil fuels, were discovered, whether in the Middle East or in Texas, it was pretty amazing. You just poked the sand or the fields, and oil started gushing out. You actually had to invest effort to regulate the outflow, and to make sure that only it would come out when you wanted, rather than just being flushed all over the place. The energy balance there was one to two hundred, something like that. So you invested one unit of energy, and you received two hundred units of energy out.

Hannes Sjoblad:
There is a beautiful story about how the oil industry in the western Caspian started out, in what today is Azerbaijan and Baku. Did you know, David, that it was in fact the two older brothers of the great Swedish inventor Alfred Nobel, they were traveling in the region in the middle of the 19th century, and they came upon oil literally coming out of the ground? And they saw, okay, this is very interesting. We can use it for combustion systems. They found a local land owner, some sultan, and asked him if they could buy the land. He said, “Yeah, this is terrible land. You can’t grow anything on it, and it poisons the animals, so please take it.”

Then they started literally using shovels, putting this oil into skin sacks carried on the backs of donkeys, to get it out. Then it evolved, of course, into a more industrial processing. But it was not that long ago, really, that people had this perspective on oil.

David Orban:
That is a fun story I didn’t know. I read a novel a few years called Absurdistan, that tells the story of post Soviet collapse, oil industries in those regions. It is a hilarious novel of comical corruption, and then criminal enterprises.

Hannes Sjoblad:
We’ll put that in the notes for people that want to read about the podcast, we have some book here, tapes and articles to share on these topics.

David Orban:
Talking about oil and the role of oil, there is a very interesting difference in the price of oil or gas for cars, even more, in Europe, in the U.S. I’ve been thinking about the fact that yes, fracking more recently created a larger oil supply and natural gas supply in the U.S., but still a lot of oil is imported from the Middle East, and that kind of logistical process is secured by military investment and military expense, about a trillion dollars per year. So the price of oil in the U.S. is subsidized at the tune of a trillion dollars per year, and the American tax payer believes that they are paying gas very cheaply, without taking that into consideration. So I find it pretty amusing.

Hannes Sjoblad:
Yeah, but this, David, didn’t … The oil or gas prices were different between Europe and the U.S. already when I first visited U.S. in the 1980s, I recall that the price for a gallon in the U.S. was equal to the price for a liter of oil or gas in Sweden.

David Orban:
Yeah, in Europe the taxes are explicitly accounted for, and accumulated at the gas station. This is true in many things. In the U.S. when you buy a candy or a coffee, the prices that are displayed are without taxes, while in Europe, by law, every consumer price has to include taxes.

Hannes Sjoblad:
True. But David, I would like to discuss with you really how technology and energy goes hand in hand, and how this is taking us into a different future. What are the trends you see in terms of energy usage that are enabling the next step in human evolution, and even in society and civilization?

David Orban:
Well, one of the most beautiful exponential trends that we are seeing today is the exponential decrease of the cost of solar energy per kilowatt hour produced. Since the ’70s when solar photovoltaics has been invented, this represented an ever-decreasing curve, to the point where today, without any subsidies, any incentives, solar energy is competitive compared to carbon or oil in more and more places around the world. Every week or month we hear about new long-term contracts at incredibly low wholesale prices that are guaranteed by eager industries, with respect to various bids. And it is an unstoppable trend that is going to pretty rapidly, over the course of the next couple of decades, profoundly transform transportation, agriculture, industry and society as a whole.

Hannes Sjoblad:
Yes, let me ask, so yeah, I mean these trends seen in solar energy are obvious, but what will they really enable? How will transportation be different, because we will have so much cheaper energy?

David Orban:
Together with self-driving cars … I think they would deserve an episode by themselves, and probably we will have one … I see the cost of transporting one kilo of atoms, or one pound of atoms, decreasing by something between two and three orders of magnitude. And by the very simple supply and demand balance, we will see transportation increase by two, three orders of magnitude, because we will be able to economically transport things that we wouldn’t think of moving today. Especially the fact that a human-shaped piece of meat will not need to be in the driver’s seat will change a lot of things.

Hannes Sjoblad:
At the same time, I mean, we’re going towards a more digital future, and a dematerialized future. Why would we even need to be shipping stuff in the future David, if we’re dematerializing stuff?

David Orban:
Not necessarily, and I don’t necessarily have the answer, even though, you know, some material sources will be differentiated around the planet. Going back to solar, I think this is one of the important components. Contrary to oil and carbon that are localized sources, sun is available all over the place, and it is decentralized. So people will be able, by installing solar photovoltaic panels, to become energy independent and establish a new kind of conversation. You know, in Europe, nation states try to raise their voices and say, “Hey Russia, you shouldn’t do X or Y,” and Putin says, “Oh, winter is coming. Isn’t that bad?”

Hannes Sjoblad:
Would you like some gas?

David Orban:
Would you like some gas? Yeah.

Hannes Sjoblad:
True. So, but ultimately yes, we are seeing a future where energy production is becoming distributed. It’s definitely a paradigm on the network society. At the same time, I’m sitting here in Sweden, it’s in the afternoon, and it’s pitch dark, and certain places in the world do not have the same capacity to generate solar energy, of course, as do others.

David Orban:
I think that digitization of energy transfer, coupled with the blockchain, is going to be amazingly interesting. With my investment firm, Network Society Ventures, we just recently closed an investment in a South African firm called The Sun Exchange, which has a crowd funding platform that enables anybody to own the title to a single solar cell for $10 or so, or multiple cells, and to gain the advantage of these being put in a plant, that when installed together with a smart meter, enables the measurement of the local energy use to be paid to the owner of the cell, as a ten-year yield of that asset with a direct bitcoin payment. So you can be literally sitting in Sweden where it’s dark now, and be streaming African sunshine in your digital wallet.

Hannes Sjoblad:
That sounds like a beautiful vision. Now I can wish to stream it on my pale arms as well. I guess I have to wait with that until summer comes. But David, I’m also interested in hearing how this approaching energy abundance will affect how we also transport those cells out of the planet, because that is definitely a restricting factor to the development of the space industry today, the fact that it costs so much energy to lift matter out of our planet’s gravity well, and out into space.

David Orban:
Definitely the energies that we are looking at, when we look at not only the very small steps that are making just a few hundred kilometers to reach the orbit of the International Space Station, more energy is required to go into lunar orbits, interplanetary orbits require even more. If you look at SpaceX, Elon Musk actually is in the position to know, better than anybody, whether you can electrify rocket launches. And he believes that still, the best solution we have is to fire our rockets with old style chemical explosions.

Now once you are in orbit, solar and thermal nuclear, rather than thermal nuclear, becomes a possible source if you are patient. So maybe not for humans, but for robots, propulsion with solar sails and the way that our probes provide energy to their communication systems from very small amounts of radioactive isotopes generating the thermal energy that they need to then harvest, these are things that we already know how to do.

Hannes Sjoblad:
Interesting. I love this idea that you just put into my head of not firing rockets by the use of chemical reactions, but ultimately to have electrical rockets. Wouldn’t that be nice? They would be absolutely quiet, there would be no huge cloud, and so sound booms, and the acceleration could be controlled in a different way. Especially if you go for a more horizontal takeoff, and not the vertical ones that we use for rockets today.

David Orban:
Yeah, there is a DARPA project called A 100 Year Starship, that I am part of. Actually, the project is not to design a star ship. It’s to design an organization that can stay in mission for the hundreds of years that would be required to reach the stars, even the closest ones. Because, as an administration changes after an election, you cannot just write them off and say, “Oh, that was a project that the previous guys wanted, so I’m not gonna look at it anymore.” You have to be on mission, and you cannot forget about them. I had the chance of speaking with some professionals in the field, a former director of the European space agency, and he was telling me that the energy equation of accelerating to speeds close to the speed of light, which would be necessary, the ecosystem that can support the life of, let’s say a dozen people, if you think of accelerations that are compatible with humans … So one or two G, not much more … In order to reach those speeds with those masses, we would need to harvest the entire energy budget of the planet for several years, and then spend that energy just in the acceleration of that single star ship.

So that shows you that we still need to work on a lot of engineering, and a lot of inventions in order to be able to aim for those exciting missions.

Hannes Sjoblad:
I would agree, and that would be as part of the equation. Yes, we know that the energy we need to spend in order to accelerate decreases exponentially, the closer we get to light speed. But for me, the obvious part of that work is to reduce the mass part of the equation. So ultimately, if we can travel the universe immaterially, as for example, in the shape of information, or electro magnetic radiation, or photons, like a radio signal, that is, for me, the only feasible way for us to really become a space-faring civilization. The idea of monkeys in team counts is humorous in comparison.

David Orban:
It’s kind of naïve, absolutely. We will look back to the Hollywood movies, and our beloved science fiction novels, and smile condescendingly while being encoded as [neltrino 00:21:58] radiation, just traversing the universe, and knowing everything, not just from the outside, but from the inside as well. Because, as you may know, neltrinos do not interact with much. So as long as you can do all that magic, or that we are alluding to, being included in neltrino radiation is one of the best ways to travel in the universe.

Hannes Sjoblad:
Indeed, and then, since neutrinos, they normally don’t, exactly, they don’t interact with almost any other matter. We don’t need that much energy to accelerate them for long distances.

David Orban:
Or to protect it. Because, you know, if you are on a ray of light, or if you are a ray of light, anything that you smash against will kind of kill you, whatever killing means at that point. But neltrinos travel unimpeded. Interestingly, this line of reasoning is being explored as we speak. Yuri Milner, a Russian investor who also invested in Twitter and Facebook and other startups, announced last year a project to send a minuscule, a microscopical probe that would be accelerated with a laser beam, and exactly because it is so small, and its mass is so small, a reasonably large, but still manageable amount of energy would be needed to achieve that kind of acceleration and final speeds close to the speed of light, and then aim for Proxima Centauri, and see what would happen, what we could do.

Hannes Sjoblad:
I like that latest part. Let’s see what will happen. I would love for … Just as we see the democratization in biotechnology, in energy production, we also want to democratize space travel and the excess to shooting whatever we want out into space. That will be a new era for humanity when we can completely democratize this. And everyone, everything, a school kid can send out their own atomic little space probes in all kinds of directions.

David Orban:
Yes, and then pretty fast we will discover if the [inaudible 00:24:24] silence of the universe is due to the fact that everybody’s afraid, and whoever is irresponsibly shouting as a young child is being disciplined by whoever is waiting out there.

Hannes Sjoblad:
Right. We’ll just spam the universe and see how it reacts.

David Orban:
Exactly, exactly. This is the theme of another wonderful book, a Chinese science fiction novel that has been translated into English recently, entitled The Three Body Problem. Greatly recommended as well.

Hannes Sjoblad:
Right, yes, it is. We’ll post that in the notes after the pod.

David Orban:
Now back to earth. I wonder, what do you think about nuclear energy? Do you think that we should use it, we shouldn’t use it? Nuclear fission, nuclear fusion?

Hannes Sjoblad:
I think that it’s most unfortunate that we have had very much a moratorium on further nuclear research here in Sweden. Sweden was very early out in the atomic age, but since the 1980s the government completely halted any research in nuclear technology, which means that, at least here locally, we have missed out on later generations of much smarter nuclear systems. Principally, I am not particularly fond of the nuclear reactors that we use today. Yes, the energy is excellent, and we can generate lots of it in a single location, but the problem is the waste. Because of the very long timelines of nuclear waste, I mean, it will be absolutely lethal for humans and other biological life over hundreds of thousands of years. Both you and I who are working to understand the future of what’s going to happen, I think this is in unfathomable time horizons. So I want us to discover some smarter ways to generate energy. Potentially fusion, before I can give my thumbs up to nuclear energy.

David Orban:
Three observations there. One, an alternative timeline, an alternative history, does not have a single design being favored to be adopted by the U.S., and as a consequence, being almost automatically adopted worldwide. The reason why the current reactors are the way they are is because the side effect of the reactors of producing nuclear material was desirable by the U.S. military. That is the reason their design is like that. There are alternative designs that haven’t been industrialized, the thorium cycle reactor, for example, that, very simple, doesn’t produce the fissile materials that can be used in bombs. So why don’t we help the Iranians develop the thorium nuclear reactor if they want nuclear energy? Even though they have plenty of oil. They could get a lot of funding and invest in becoming the leader in a kind of nuclear reactor that inherently cannot be used for building atomic bombs.

Hannes Sjoblad:
Brilliant idea, David. We should press it on and upwards, right?

David Orban:
The second observation is around fusion. We know fusion works, just look at the sun. But we are accustomed to very quick breakthroughs. When, in the middle ages, people were building cathedrals, they were more patient, you know? Four, five hundred years would go by, and they would keep building the cathedral until they were ready. Here we are now with the joint European fusion reactor, and ITER, the next generation fusion reactor, 20, 30, 40 billion euros of investment and 20, 30 years of project, to achieve energy parody of input versus output, maybe a little bit of surplus. Certainly not industrialization, where once you are done you can just build dozens or hundreds of these, and you know what that would mean for the world’s energy. People are saying, “Wow, is this really useful? Can we really afford this?” Obviously we must.

We cannot give up, we must keep trying. The third observation that I want to make is a dark horse. In 1989, the two leading electro chemists of the time, Fleischmann and Pons, announced that they found an inexplicable reaction in a little amount of heavy water, deuterium rich water, with a palladium catalyst. And they called that reaction cold fusion, because they couldn’t explain the amount of thermal energy generated in the reaction, basically the heating of the water, with any chemical source. The energy was so much that the only way they could explain it is that atomic nuclei were being transformed, were refusing. Contrary to the official scientific experiments that I just mentioned, which happened at a million degrees or more, this was going on at room temperature. They made a big –

Hannes Sjoblad:
So what happened with cold fusion? Yes, we’ve heard the term spun around, but we still haven’t seen it being used in real life settings.

David Orban:
Well, they made a big press event and they were on the cover of every newspaper and magazine around the world, and then scientists very excitedly, in many different places, tried to reproduce their results and they were unable to do so. So the enthusiasm turned to skepticism very rapidly, and for the past 30 years nobody can get funding to understand whether there’s anything going on, or Fleischmann and Pons were mistaken for some reason, even though they were the leading experts of their field. With the exception of a few dozen crazy people that all around the world, from Russia to Japan to Italy to the United States and, interestingly, to Sweden, kept working at it.

Hannes Sjoblad:
But there is also an Italian scientist, if I’m not mistaken, who is working on cold fusion, who published some things quite recently. Andrea Rossi, is that the guy?

David Orban:
Correct. He’s an engineer, and he’s a very controversial figure because he has been claiming many kinds of breakthroughs without independent analysis.

Hannes Sjoblad:
Yes, he doesn’t share his data, right?

David Orban:
Only to specific people under specific conditions. There is a Swedish journalist called Mats Leven –

Hannes Sjoblad:
Mats Leven wrote a book, yes, about this.

David Orban:
Who, originally with a new technique, and then in a book, reported a lot about Andrea Rossi’s adventures. The title of his book is The Impossible Invention. Actually, November 24, in a few days, as we record this episode, November 24, 2017 is when Andrea Rossi is planning his next demonstration. So maybe in a month’s time we will know that the future of the planet is …

Hannes Sjoblad:
Most exciting.

David Orban:
… going to be a little different, because cold fusion, or as it is now called, low energy nuclear reactions, LENR, promised the type of energy density and energy return on energy invested of nuclear fusion without the complications of a harmful side effect of a very complex high temperature engineering huge investments, these –

Hannes Sjoblad:
And dangerous radiation, yeah.

David Orban:
These could be tabletop devices, or even microscopic devices. And if we are able to make them real, the future of the world, and possibly the universe, will be very different.

Hannes Sjoblad:
Okay, let’s keep our fingers crossed for Andrea Rossi, and let’s see what happens.

David Orban:
Well, and many others. You know, he’s one of the most visible figures in the field. There are many, many other people who are also looking at this, and I am following some groups, maybe in a few weeks or months we will make some other announcements around this theme as well, as well as reporting on how Andrea Rossi’s demonstration went. Energy is going to be a defining factor in the future of human civilization, and I’m actually optimistic about the fact that we are not gonna run out of energy. You know, that fuel our dreams and that we will be able to find sources that are compatible with the biosphere, that are respectful of the environment, and that human communities are going to be able to leverage to achieve their goals.

Hannes Sjoblad:
Exactly. And this comes back to where we started. There are, indeed, pretty much infinite, even mid-term and long-term energy resources that are available to us. And as the old saying goes, it’s the fisherman with the small rod can only catch small fish close to the shore, but we know that the great fish are out there, and with just better fishing equipment we can catch them. So the only thing we really have to do is to build a little bit better solar panels, a little bit better geothermal capturing devices, and a little bit better nuclear or nuclear energy harvesting devices. And then yes, we are breaking into a new era in human civilization where we can access these pretty much unlimited energy sources.

David Orban:
Hannes, thank you very much for the conversation. We will make the various notes of the books we mentioned, and we will take note of coming back and say, “Hey, how was the demo that we were planning to look at on November 24?” And I’m looking forward for the next episode, and the next conversation with you.

Hannes Sjoblad:
Thank you David, and thanks everyone who’s listening. We’ll be in touch again soon.