Natural oil (petroleum) is a mixture of many components. A well-known component of course is the gas or diesel used in our cars. A less well known component is naphtha. Naphtha is a mixture of hydrocarbon molecules that can be saturated (only single bonds between the carbon atoms) or unsaturated (double or even triple bonds between the carbon atoms. Naphtha is used as a precursor for plastics. For example the plastic poly-ethylene is a plastics that is formed when the naphtha mixture is subjected to a process called cracking (breaking up the larger molecules in smaller ones). This gives in first instance the molecule ethane that can subsequently be polymerized under formation of poly-ethylene, a plastic used in an almost endless variety range of products such as in toys, plastic garbage sacs and electrical isolation of wires. 


Because plastic is so widely used it leads at the same time also to a lot of plastic waste (plastic packaging materials, plastic bottles, toys etc). A Swiss company, Innovation Solar/Diesoil, is now doing exactly the opposite as the process described above: they have developed a process that will convert plastic waste materials into diesel fuel. 1000 kilograms of plastic will yield about 850 liter of diesel and all this at a cost price of only 26 Eurocents per liter. Recently a Dutch company (Petrogas) announced a big order to build 15 units that can turn plastic into diesel oil based on this chemical process.  


Is this not something? Sounds almost like a perpetual process…….

My question to the reader is: how will the thermodynamic balance (both energy and entropy) be for this reaction: 

Petroleum —> Plastic —>  Diesel oil

book_cover_big.gifRecently the European Commission  (EC) has released a green paper on how to accelerate innovative lighting technologies (http://ec.europa.eu/information_society/digital-agenda/actions/ssl-consultation/index_en.htm). The focus in the entire document is on solid state lighting (SSL) only. About 20% of the world wide total electrical energy generated  is used to generate light. SSL is expected to play a substantial role in an energy efficiency improvement of 20% (EC ambition versus 1990). It is anticipated that SSL (which can be either LED or OLED based technology) can save in combination with smart lighting management systems up to 70% of required electrical energy today. LED’s are expected to convert electrical energy  at an efficiency of about 60%, compare that to incandescent bulbs of only 2% and CFL’s of about 25%.

Looks OK at first sight isn’t ? But it totally overlooks that these new light sources will create new applications and therefore a possible risk that the net result is that we save much less or, even worse, spent even more of our electricity bill on lighting than today. This is comparable to the anticipated reduction in paper use with the arrival of the PC and high quality monitor screens. Well we know how that ended….. look for instance to the amount of junk mail that you find almost daily in your mailbox. Thus we will need to be careful how we apply SSL.

The EC is worried about Europe’s competitive position (quote from the report):

“The USA in 2009 put in place a long-term SSL strategy (from research to commercialisation). China is implementing a municipal showcase programme for LED street lighting involving more than 21 cities; it is granting significant subsidies to LED manufacturing plants and aims to create 1 million related jobs in the next 3 years. South Korea has defined a national LED strategy with the goal to become a top-3 world player in the LED business by 2012”

Two linked objectives are mentioned by the EC: 1) Develop the demand side (European users) and 2) Develop the supply side (role of  the European industry)

One of the problems to overcome is the high price of SSL: a 60W incandescent bulb cost about 1 Euro, a CFL about 5 Euro and a LED about 30 Euro. It is expected that by continuous price erosion in 2015 market share of CFL and SSL will be balanced. Not so far away!

book_cover_big.gifIn the economics literature, one can find two opposing points of view: mainstream economists who believe that technological innovation will solve the degradation in quality of both energy and materials and that therefore growth can go on forever; and biophysical economists, who use the thermodynamic laws to argue that mainstream economists do not incorporate long-term sustainability in their models. For instance, the costs to repair the ozone hole or to mitigate increasing pollution are not accounted for in mainstream economic assessments. Industrial and agricultural processes accelerate the entropy production in our world. Entropy production can only go on until we reach the point where all available energy is transformed into non-available energy. The faster we go toward this end, the less freedom we leave for future generations. If entropy production were included in all economic models, the efficiency of standard industrial processes would show quite different results……..

Even if there were no humans on this planet, there would be continuous entropy production. So from that point of view the ecological system is not perfect, either; even the sun has a limited lifespan. The real problem for us is that, in our relentless effort to speed things up, we increase the entropy production process tremendously. In fact, you can see some similarity between economic systems and organisms: both take in low entropy resources and produce high entropy waste. This leaves fewer resources for future generations.

Although recycling will help a lot to slow down the depletion of the earth’s stocks of materials, it will only partly diminish the entropy production process. So whenever we design or develop economic or industrial processes, we should also have a look at the associated rate of entropy production compared to the natural “background” entropy production. We have seen that for reversible processes, the increase in entropy is always less than for irreversible processes. The practical translation of this is that high-speed processes always accelerate the rate of entropy production in the world. Going shopping on your bike is clearly a much better entropy choice than using your car.

Conclusion: the entropy clock is ticking, and can only go forward!

From:  The Second Law of Life

An interesting article in Electronic Design News on SSL and CFL. Follow this link:


The article deals about a new proposed energy efficiency standard but has some real interesting quotes about CFL (compact fluorescense lamps). Read also the comments!

See also my earlier blog on CFL’s: https://secondlawoflife.wordpress.com/2010/04/06/reliability-of-compact-fluorescence-lamps/

book_cover_big.gifSome time ago I wrote about the advantages of compact fluorescence lamps (CFL) and a life cycle analysis (LCA) of these devices described in the literature[1]. Basic outcome was that CFL’s indeed do give overall resource savings[2]. In an LCA you have of course to assume an average lifetime of the CFL, typically taken as 5 times[3] that of a regular incandescent lamp (ICL). Because CFL’s are  so much more complex to make than ICL’s,  the resource savings benefit would fall apart if the CFL does deviate substantially from the assumed lifetime.

The  positive LCA outcome convinced me to replace many of the ICL’s in my house by CFL’s and accept the high upfront cost (which is easily 5 times as expensive as ICL’s). I bought about 15 lamps. Much to my surprise and frustration within a year I had 3 failures. Note that I bought the CFL’s from a top brand but  that the manufacturer gives no guarantee whatsoever in case of an early failure.

Therefore, I did a quick and dirty web search to see what one can find about reliability of CFL’s. Well not too much. Two interesting leads I found though.

The first one is a study from the Energy Federation Inc., published in 2002[4]. Over the period 1994-2001 four big brand and four little brand manufacturers were tracked for sales and returns. The big brands had a return rate of 1.4%[5]. Much more detail is in this report such as relation between return rate and wattage of the lamp so I recommend you go to their website and read the report [6].

Based on this you can expect on average one early failure out of 70 CFL’s that you will buy[7]. Clearly, my failure rate (3 out of 15) is much higher. And what is most frustrating is that there is no warranty on these lamps. If they fail after 6 months or so what can you prove? Nothing.

But I am not the only on suffering from this problem. See the kiloxray.com blog (http://www.kiloxray.com/blog/?page_id=8). The author is actually logging the number of failures (there are many!!) he is experiencing and has a good tip: note down on the lamp the date that you put the CFL in operation and……. hold on to the original receipt. You may have a chance to get your money back from the manufacturer although don’t have to high expectations on this. If you have similar experiences or recommendations to share please put in a comment.

© Copyright 2010 John Schmitz

[1] https://secondlawoflife.wordpress.com/2008/10/05/compact-fluorescence-lamps/

[2] Parsons, David. “The Environmental Impact of Compact Fluorescent Lamps and Incandescent Lamps for Australian Conditions”, The Environmental Engineer 7(2): 8-14 (2006).

[3] Actually numbers vary, you can find numbers as high as 10!

[4] Bradley Steele, The Performance and Acceptance of Compact Fluorescent Lighting Products in the Residential Market; Energy Federation, Inc

[5] Little brands were running slightly higher at 1.5%

[6] http://www.lrc.rpi.edu/programs/lightingTransformation/pdf/bradSteele.pdf

[7] This should be a worse case return rate as you may expect that the CFL manufacturers would have improved the reliability of their products since 2002

book_cover_big.gifIn an earlier blog[1] I wrote about the connection between the Second Law, the economy  and the problem of a sustainable society. Of course the most important inputs on this topic were provided by Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen is his book  in 1971 entitled: The Entropy law and the Economic Process[2]. Georgescu-Roegen stated that the entropy law applies to everything we do, and that with every action that degrades energy (it is never really “used up”) entropy is produced, leaving a smaller entropy budget for future generations. In other words, he made us aware of the entropic constraint on all economic activity. The entropy law simply prevents us from creating a kind of perpetual cycle that would miraculously restore natural resources. Georgescu-Roegen’s main complaint about  economists is that they ignore this fact, and assume that everything in the economic process is cyclic in nature, and that in any case technology will provide us with solutions. However, it can be shown that often each new technology tends to accelerate the entropy production even more.

Interesting in this respect is a very recent publication by the Economics Web Institute: Innovative Economical Policies for Climate Change Mitigation[3]. About 30 economists, managers, consultants and technologists have gathered to describe 20 approaches to mitigate the climate change. Three key transitions (as they coin it) are needed: 

1) Transitions in market structures and firm behaviour

2) Transitions in consumer lifestyles and purchasing rules

3) Transition in government policy making

They argue that economical aspects must play a much stronger role climate change mitigation and that the neoclassical economical model (that reduces all entities to prices and quantities but neglects for instances the extinction of the human race) needs a major revision. Instead they believe that climate mitigation not necessarily must be considered as just a cost factor but merely as an opportunity for innovation, business growth, profit and employment.

The entire book counts more than 350 pages, I will in upcoming blogs zoom in on a few of the articles. In the mean time have a look at the web site of the Economics Web Institute (www.economicswebinstitute.org) as it contains tons of interesting articles, data and tables.

@ 2009 Copyright John Schmitz

[1] https://secondlawoflife.wordpress.com/category/entropy-and-economy/

                   [2] Georgescu-Roegen, Nicolas, The Entropy Law and the Economic Process, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts (1971)

[3] Innovative Economic Policies for Climate Change Mitigation

Piana V. (ed.), Aliyev S., Andersen M. M., Banaszak I., Beim M., Kannan B., Kalita B., Bullywon L., Caniëls M., Doon H., Gaurav J., Karbasi A.,  Komalirani Y., Kua H. W., Hussey K., Lee J., Masinde J., Matczak P., Mathew P. , Moghadam Z.  G., Mozafary M. M., Rafieirad S., Romijn H., Oltra V., Schram A., Malik V. S., Stewart G.,  Wagner Z., Weiler R. (2009), www.economicswebinstitute.org/innopolicymitigation.htm,  Economics Web Institute, Lulu.com.

book_cover_big.gifA few blogs ago,  I wrote about the life cycle analysis (LCA) of Compact Fluorescence Lamps (CFL’s,)[1]. CFL’s do “consume” during their life indeed about 5 times less electricity than incandescent light bulbs (and CFL’s live about 4 times longer). However, the manufacturing of CFL’s is much more complicated and therefore environmentally more demanding than classical bulbs and rightfully the question was raised that when you sum it all up would the environmental advantage still hold? After a careful and detailed LCA, a team of Australian researchers came with the answer: a big yes!

However,  it was pointed out by the researchers at the University of Ghent[2], Belgium, that one needs to look not just at the environmental impact (for  factors such as global warming, ozone depletion, toxics emission, acidification, etc.) of a certain product but also need to take into account  resources such as organic and inorganic, fuel and feedstock, renewable and non-renewable, energy and materials. It is here where thermodynamics kicks in using the concept of entropy[3] (as already suggested by Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen[4] quite a while ago). Entropy, can be used to describe the degradation of resources during the manufacturing and actually usage of products. One can say, very roughly, that the faster and further away from equilibrium a certain production process is done, the more energy is degraded and made not-available anymore to do further work. This is described by an increase in entropy and is non-reversible, i.o.w. high quality energy (such as energy contained in fossil fuels for that matter) is turned into low quality energy (heat).

This sort of analysis is then used to study the environmental impact of bio-foods versus large scale agriculture produced foods. And sure enough you can find situations where bio-foods (because of their poor yields or their transport over large distances) have more negative impact on the environment than have traditional produced foods. It was found[5] that if bio-beans are locally produced they are environmentally better than conventional produced beans. But when the beans needed to get transported from other areas to make it to our stores the balance can easily change and even reverse the situation! Bio-potatoes are always worse than conventional potatoes because they have such a lower yield per surface area land[6].

Therefore, before drawing conclusions on the impact of a given process or product on the environment or resources a careful evaluation (LCA) needs to be done. Such an evaluation is not a trivial matter at all and can only be done by qualified people.


© Copyright 2009, John Schmitz


[1] https://secondlawoflife.wordpress.com/2008/10/05/compact-fluorescence-lamps/

[2] http://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/es071719a

[3] As a matter of fact a concept of « exergy » is used but it has a very close relationship to entropy

[4] https://secondlawoflife.wordpress.com/2007/04/28/nicholas-georgescu-roegen/

[5] http://www.standaard.be/Artikel/Detail.aspx?artikelId=4I2B40SO

[6] See also: https://secondlawoflife.wordpress.com/2007/07/28/entropy-and-the-food-chain-part-i/ and https://secondlawoflife.wordpress.com/2007/08/22/entropy-and-the-foodchain-part-ii/

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