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/

book_cover_big.gifRecently a Harvard University scientist, Alex Wissner-Gross, was quoted in TimesOnLine  that each computer search of the internet could produce as much as 7 gram of CO2 (the journalists of TimesOnLine compared that to boiling a kettle of water that would produce about 15 gram of CO2).[1] Google responded that the calculation was not right as an average search would only last about 0.2 second and that that would then equate to about 0.2 gram of CO2.[2] Clarifications later on revealed that Google referred to a one time search hit whereas Wissner-Gross referred to a complete search that encompasses several hits. Further more Google pointed out that the company has several environmental footprint reducing initiatives underway.

But it remains of course interesting to know how much energy the ICT infrastructure needs. It has been suggested[3] that this could be up to 2% of the world’s total greenhouse emissions (comparable to the amount produced by air transportation).

Closer to ourselves: who knows how much energy your PC at home takes up? Well I did not know the answer and I have monitored my PC  for a week. I simply hooked up a kWh meter between the outlet and the PC/printer/external HD/scanner assembly. The lucky number is: 6.3 kWh per week. At night I switch the PC off and during day time I put the PC in standby after 20 minutes of idle time. I also compared this figure with my freezer/fridge combination:

  1.             PC                                 6.3     kWh/week              327 kWh/year
  2.             Freezer/Fridge       38.1   kWh/week           1981  kWh/year

Then also good to know is that the electricity need of an average Belgian family is about 3500kWh per year.[4]

What we conclude from this that indeed PC’s and accessories do require a substantial amount of energy that is not small compared to other household appliances. A critical look at standby regimes and shutting down overnight seems to be wise.

© Copyright John Schmitz


[1] http://technology.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/tech_and_web/article5489134.ece

[2] http://googleblog.blogspot.com/2009_01_01_googleblog_archive.html

[3] Recent Gartner report, see reference 1

[4] http://www.vreg.be/nl/04_prive/05_meteropneming/04_verbruik.asp

book_cover_big.gifIn an earlier blog I wrote that, short term, the best way to contribute to the planet’s energy issues is by reducing our energy “consumption”. We saw also that road transportation claims about 20% of the total energy bill. In addition we know that a substantial amount (about 70%) of the energy liberated from the car fuel is wasted mainly in the form of heat to the environment.[1] The power required  to move the car is substantially. Let’s take as a quite familiar reference: an incandescent lamp of 100 Watts. Only a small fraction of the 100Watts is actually converted into light (ca 10%) the rest is converted into heat. From experience everybody has a sense of how much heat a 100W bulb generates. After a few minutes the bulb is very hot and you could burn your fingers when you touch it. To compare, cars have engines of say between 50 and 150 horse power (hp). In the table below I have converted the hp’s into kW:


            50 hp   =          36 kW

            100 hp =          74 kW

            150 hp =          110 kW


Thus a 50 hp car consumes 360 times as much energy as our light bulb! And a 150 hp car even more than 1000 times. It is therefore clear that if we could save only a little bit on this waste, that we are talking immediately about large amounts of energy savings.

On top of the heat waste, cars propelled by internal combustion engines produce per km also an amount of CO2. And we all know what the impact is of CO2 on the earth ecosystem. To give you some feeling: one liter of petrol produces 2400 grams of CO2. At room temperature and one atmosphere that is about 50 liters. A typical car will burn about one liter of petrol per 20 km. Therefore, reducing CO2 will then directly reduce the energy consumption.

The European Commission and governments have from that point of view put quite strict regulations in place for CO2 emissions of cars. These regulations have a two prong approach: tax reduction for the buyer of clean cars and penalties for the car producer if the car does not meet minimum emission criteria. The criteria for the car manufacturer are: an average CO2 emission in 2012 if less than 130 gr/km. The penalty to pay by the car manufacturer is 20 E/gr in 2012 but increasing to 95 E/gr in 2015. On the other hand  car buyers can get an appreciable tax (up to 5000 Euro’s) cut when buying a new car that has a low CO2 emission rating.

Sensible measures I would say.

 ©  Copyright 2009 John Schmitz

[1] Actually less than 20% of the energy from the fuel becomes available to deliver mechanical traction of the car! Other losses are fiction, idling, standby, accessories and AC.

book_cover_big.gifCan we “save” energy? Of course not. We cannot “save” energy as the first law of thermodynamics explains: energy is conserved no matter what we do. The only thing we can do to help solve the planet’s energy problem is to reduce the speed with which we degrade the quality of the energy sources available to us. And indeed the best way to accomplish that is to “use” as less as possible of this high quality energy. Examples of high quality energy are fossil fuels, nuclear fuel, solar or PV energy, wind energy etc. The common factor in all these different sources is that the energy is concentrated in a relatively small volume. A typical example of low quality energy is heat (most of the times at least). Why? Heat is difficult to maintain and tends to leak away and thus disperses over a large volume. One joule of heat remains one joule of energy regardless whether the volume in which it is contained is one cubic cm or the entire galaxy. So where is the problem? Here is where the Second Law of thermodynamics kicks in. High quality energy conditions have a low entropy value whereas low quality energy has a high entropy value. The entropy law teaches us that with each “use” of energy the entropy increases (and thus the quality is decreasing) and that there is no recovery back from that. In other words quite a fundamental limitation and no technology can help you overcome that Second Law!

There are two ways how we can help ourselves to slow down the ever ongoing energy quality degradation.

1) The quickest one is simple: reduce the need for energy as much as you can! Let’s have a look at the energy ‘consumption” breakdown (IEA 2008):

Category Relative energy usage (%)


Road transportation


Air/sea transportation










For example, as long as the fuel “consumption” in the USA per km is still about 40% higher than that in Europe it is clear where the focus needs to be. Also, note that about 20% of the total energy needs goes into road transportation. Thus if we would start to drive energy efficient cars, it would cut 10% of the US total national energy bill! No needs for new inventions, just take what exist already today!

 Because of the high fuel prices there have been proposals from politicians and governments to reduce taxes on fuels. This is precisely the wrong measure to implement. What should be done is to lower the tax or subsidize more measures that will result in less energy needs such as home insulation, fuel efficient cars and fuel efficient heating units. The best way to solve the energy problems of the planet in short term is reducing the need for energy in the first place!

 2) The other way to mitigate the energy problems of the planet, but then more long term, is the use of renewable energy sources, basically all based on the solar energy that reaches the earth. The sun is such a rich source. Realize that the energy influx is many times higher than the world energy need. There are massive problems to overcome such as costs price and, more importantly, the capacity of our power grid that can accommodate these variable energy sources. This will ask for clever storage means that must come along with the renewable sources.

© Copyright 2009 John Schmitz

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