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




[3] Recent Gartner report, see reference 1


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

book_cover_big.gifHermann von Helmholtz is a famous name in thermodynamics[1] although he also made famous inventions in the fields of ophthalmology, electrochemistry and acoustics. It was Helmholtz who formulated very clearly, using conclusions reached by Kelvin, Joule and Clausius earlier,  the existence of the law of conservation of energy or of “force” (as energy was called at that time) around 1850. In the winter of 1862, he delivered a series of lectures at Carlsruhe on the topic of the “Conservation of Force”. He started with an introduction in which he managed to elaborate on this theme without using any mathematical formula[2]. Below I will give a brief summary of the main points of this introduction (which can be found on numerous web sites[3]).

He starts of by showing that gravity, the most fundamental of all forces,  can be used to do work[4]. For instance a weight can drive a clock by sinking. Although the weight will have lost it capability to perform work when it reaches the floor, it will not loose its weight: gravity remains. The amount of work can then be determined by the weight times the distance travelled.

Heat can also produce work such as occurs in a steam engine. Here he recalls the point that heat must not be considered as a substance but merely as an movement of internal particles (realize that we are still about 50 years before atoms become widely accepted!). For quite a while it was considered that the amount of heat was constant (for instance, the required amount of heat required to melt a piece of ice is the same amount that one needs to extract when the resulting water is converted to ice again). However, he explains that as soon as heat is converted into work, that an equivalent amount of heat is destroyed. The relationship between heat and work was established by the work of Clausius and Joule. Many other examples exist where work is generated at the cost of something:

  • a raised weight can do work but while doing that it must sink and no longer do work
  • a stretched spring can do work but will become loose
  • the velocity of a mass can do work but will eventually come to rest
  • chemical forces (=energy) can do work but they will get exhausted
  • electrical force can do work but will consume chemical or mechanical forces

Helmholtz concluded that all natural forces (energy) can do work but they are at the same time exhausted to the degree of work performed. He then formulated that the total quantity of all forces capable of doing work in the whole universe remains constant. He compared this with the laws of constant mass or constant chemical elements (both were of course to be found less constant after the theory of relativity and the discovery of radioactivity!!).

Finally he touches briefly on the topic of perpetual motion and states that force cannot be produced from nothing: something must be consumed. I strongly recommend reading Helmholtz’ introduction.

See also:

Copyright © 2008 John Schmitz

[1] Hermann von Helmholtz (1821-1888) reported on July 23 in 1847 on the principle of conservation of energy and showed that he had acquired a deep understanding of this principle. He was, together with Rudolf Clausius, the founder of what was called the Berlin School of Thermodynamics where he succeeded Magnus as the director of the Physical Institute. The influence of this school on the development of thermodynamics was crucial. It is almost unbelievable how many famous scientists were connected to this school. To name a few: Walter Nernst, Max Planck, Albert Einstein, Erwin Schrödinger and Leo Szilard.

[2] Although Helmholtz himself had a very good knowledge of mathematics

[3] See for instance:

[4] Work is simply defined here as lifting a weight.

  The most recent energy outlook from the IEA is frightening[1]. If the world continues its current pace of growth of the economy, we will need 50% more energy in 2030 than today (for what is called a “Reference Scenario”). Since fossil fuels continue to play a dominant role in our economy, the level of CO2 emissions is expected to increase by at least 25% [2]. This will clearly put the world in an even more apocalyptic climate change scenario.

The main contributors to this increase are China and India. They account for 45% of the global increase. All developing countries together account for about 75% of the increase in energy demand. But it must be remarked that per capita the CO2 emissions of China in 2030 is still only 40% of that of the USA and India is even much less.[3] China and India’s energy demand will double from 2005 to 2030 [4].

The combined oil imports of China and India will increase by almost a factor of 4 from 2006 to 2030. China will already surpass the USA in 2010 as the world’s largest energy consumer. Not because that China is making no efforts to increase energy efficiency but it is simply not enough. Because China is a net producer of many goods, increasing its energy efficiency will have a direct impact on the world’s greenhouse balance. India’s energy reduction approaches are not well defined yet.

The IPPC’s scenario of about 2.5°C increase would call for a CO2 level not higher than 440 ppm. This implies that CO2 emission levels must fall somewhere between 50% to 80% of the 2000 levels by 2050. Obviously this will not come automatically and can only be accomplished when, at government level, swift and substantial actions are taken[5]. The main producers of CO2 are fossil power plants, therefore reduction of electricity demand is of prime importance here. In addition the IEA report also mentions nuclear power plants[6], renewable energy sources and clean coal technology[7] that can reduce CO2 emissions.

One recommendation found in the report is that the western nations must help China and India in order to develop sustainable energy power plants and to conduct research that will lead to less fossil fuel dependence for overall electricity generation.

 © Copyright 2008, John E.J. Schmitz

[1]The distressing numbers in this blog come from the executive summary of the World Energy Outlook 2007 from the International Energy Agency.

[2] And this is of course where the real threat is. Even if we are able, by more efficient energy transformations, to lower the amount of kWh needed to generate a certain amount of GDP, the fact that the world’s GDP continues to increase will neutralizes the gain of better efficiencies. In other words, we must decrease the growth of the GDP such that it product of the growth in GDP times the gain in energy efficiency will decrease!

[3]It would have been better if the report had expressed the CO2 emission per capita and the GDP of these countries! See my blog on this topic of May 17, 2007: Energy “Consumption” and the GDP.

[4] And of course who are we that we can deny the people in these countries to improve their standard of living?

[5]This could be false hope, see my blog of May 5, 2007: Will Politicians Solve the Global Warming Problem?

[6]See my blog of June 17, 2007 (The Impact of Nuclear and Hydro based Electricity Generation on CO2 Emissions)  that talks about the fact that nuclear plants not always produce less CO2 per kWh if compared with a fossil fuel fired power plant

[7]Because coal remains, because of price and plenty of stocks, an attractive fuel, research has looked to methods to mitigate the environmental issues (such as SO2, Nox and CO2 emissions). One of these methods is CCS: carbon capture and storage.

Today everybody knows that energy can not be created or destroyed. We know this principle as the law of conservation of energy  (or the First Law of thermodynamics). Today we use this law in many situations perhaps without always realizing this. However, there was a time that there was great confusion about what energy, work and heat exactly was and their relation. It was the German physician Mayer who first formulated in 1842 a statement that can be considered as the predecessor of today’s energy law. At the occasion of the 100th anniversary of Mayer’s discovery, a small (91 pages) book was published in 1943 by Prof. Jacob Clay, a physics professor at the university of Amsterdam, entitled: “Onstaan en ontwikkeling van het Energie Beginsel”[1] (the book is in Dutch and the title can be translated by “Origin and Development of the Energy Principle”). The book contains some interesting historical elaborations of how the energy law developed. Because the book is not so easy to get anymore, I will summarize the chapter where Clay describes how Mayer got to his energy law.

Julius Robert Mayer, born in 1814 in Heilbronn (Germany, not too far from the French border) who, after several world voyages, became a medical doctor in 1841 also in Heilbronn. He was probably driven to understand energy issues by the question how chemical energy was transformed in living beings to do things like work[2] and generate heat. Mayer got convinced that perpetual engines did not exist (“…. das mechanische Arbeit sich nicht aus Nichts erzeugen lasse.” translated as “mechanical work can not be created from nothing”). Also, while studying processes where changes happened (such as the decrease of velocity of moving bodies and the simultaneous appearance of heat) Mayer was searching for something that would be constant. His inspiration for the existence of a  constant factor came from his colleagues in chemistry who used the law of conservation of mass (formulated in 1789 by Antoine Lavoisier) quite successfully. Mayer observed that “lebende Kraft” (literally “living force” but nowadays what we call  that kinetic energy) could be transformed into heat[3]. In addition he noted that the amount of heat needed to warm a given quantity of gas was larger at constant volume (no work from the PDV term!) than when heated at constant pressure. This led him to formulate the equivalence of work (or energy) and heat and he made a first estimate of this equivalency factor (which today is known at 1 calorie = 4.184 Joule).

The contributions by Mayer were for quite some years neglected by the scientific community. One reason was that he did not very clearly present his thoughts[4]. In addition he had competition  from an English beer brewer: John Prescot Joule who arrived  -somewhat later though- to similar conclusions but who was better connected to institutes such as the French Scientific Academy[5].

However, from 1862 onwards Mayer’s work became more and more acknowledged and he won several prestigious awards underlining the importance of his contributions. In 1847 Hermann von  Helmholtz published his famous article entitled: “Ueber die Erhaltung der Kraft” (“On the conservation of energy”) and this can be seen as an important milestone of the development of the First Law of thermodynamics. I will come back to that article soon.

See also:

Copyright © 2008  John Schmitz

[1] Prof. Dr. J. Clay, Onstaan en ontwikkeling van het energy-beginsel; N.V. Servire, The Hague (1943)

[2] With work we mean here the ability of a system to lift weights.

[3] This fact was actually already noted in 1798 by Count Rumford who observed that a lot of heat was generated in boring cannon barrels.

[4] He confused force and work for instance. Therefore, Johann Poggendorf, who was the editor of the Annalen der Physik, refused to place his article in 1841.

[5] The Academy published a letter from Joule on the energy topic in 1847 in their Comptes Rendus.

book_cover_big.gifRecently I got a few questions from Dr.  Wang who read my book. I believe that his questions are excellent and that the answers to his questions will help other readers of this blog site as well to understand entropy. I had some e-mail exchanges with Dr. Wang and I am happy that he agreed that I post parts of our conversation.

 Question: Is heat the ONLY energy form being of dispersion? In addition to heat, do we know one more energy form being of the ability to dispersion?

Answer: Heat, being fundamentally atomic or molecular in nature through vibrations, translations and rotations (remember the simple ideal gas result that 1/2 mv2 = 3/2kT), is indeed a form of energy that is very abundant. Thus in many energy transformations it is difficult to prevent that some part of the energy is transformed in heat! Once heat is generated it is difficult to prevent that part of it leaks away into the environment.

The dispersion of energy refers to the tendency of energy to spread out in space. Indeed for heat this will happen because the atoms and molecules can propagate heat their movements to their neighbors: a bar of iron will conduct the heat from the hot end to the cold end till the temperature is even across the bar. Dispersion is not limited to heat only, for example electromagnetic radiation or magnetic fields will spread out as well.

Question: Is it possible to have entropy increase during the transformation of energies without the involvement of heat, for example, between two non-heat energies?

Answer: Yes, the best example I can come up with are fuel cells. In the cell you convert chemical energy directly in electrical while the entropy of the entire system will increase. But, and that is important, because no heat is directly involved the efficiency of a fuel cell in generating electricity can be much higher then conventional power plants.

Another example can be found in my book on page 173. There you can see how the expansion or mixing of a gas in an isolated system will lead indeed to a higher entropy. Thus the entropy of a system can increase without any change in energy of that system.

A related phenomenon in this respect is the Demon of Maxwell. I have spent a few words on that extremely unraveling thought experiment in the book as well.

Question: Is entropy more fundamental than energy?

Answer: This is a real interesting question, I never thought about that. I would say that energy represents a quantity that never changes and must be therefore quite fundamental. This is basically the First Law of thermodynamics. Entropy says something about the quality of that energy quantity. As long as entropy increases (or can increase) there are gradients (of energy of temperature or of species concentrations) present. As long as gradients are present, life is possible. Thus from that point of view entropy is perhaps the more fundamental one (at least from our planet’s viewpoint) because the presence of energy alone is not enough to enable life. Life needs energy gradients.

Question: Will the increase in entropy SURELY lead to the transformation efficiency less than 100%?

Answer: Here we need to be careful how we phrase this. Since energy is constant, transformations from one form to the others must be 100%. However, if our objective is to transform a given quantity of energy fully into another single form (for instance heat into work) then the increase in entropy will certainly limit the transformation efficiency as an amount TΔS will be no longer “available” to us as that amount has become more “diffuse”.

Question: How about the transformation among energies without the involvement of heat?

Answer: See my remark above for the fuel cells.

See also: 

Copyright © 2007  John Schmitz

book_cover_big.gifThe two laws of thermodynamics (energy and entropy) have been related to the fundamental questions of the existence of life. For the finding answers to these questions several angles are possible to take. Of course we have the religious points of views. Creationists consider the First Law of thermodynamics (conservation of energy) typically as a confirmation of the ever existence of God since energy has been and will be present forever. The Second Law (increase of entropy), however, is often interpreted with a more negative flavour. The entropy law is connected to things such as decay, destruction, and chaos or disorder. There has been a lively discussion in the religious-thermodynamic realm but I prefer to come back to that discussion in another future blog. Let’s restrict ourselves for now to a more scientific treatment of the subject. For that purpose it is good to define first what the system is that we want to discuss. In thermodynamics we often work then with what is called an isolated system. Isolated means here a system that can not exchange energy, materials or anything else with its environment.


We know from the inequality of Clausius (see earlier blogs) that for an isolated system the entropy can only increase over time[1]. This is a real important statement and should be kept in the mind for the remaining part of the discussion. Have a look at the figure above. For our isolated system (the big grey box) we have, after Clausius,  ΔS >0. But for the living organism, represented by the box “Life”, we have the peculiar situation that this organism is able to keep its entropy low as is visible from the tremendous degree of order present in a living organism.

How is that done? Well the organism feeds itself on low entropy food (or energy if you wish), see also below. However, this consumption of low entropy food and from that food to built or maintain the organism structure comes with waste production (like CO2 and faeces) and also dissipation of energy into work (by the muscles) or heat (our body is able to keep us at 37°C). This is causing an entropy increase in the habitat of the organism (represented by ΔShabitat ) such that the total entropy (=ΔSlife + ΔShabitat ) ) of the isolated system increases as a whole! Erwin Schrödinger has described the feeding on low entropy energy by a living organism in his famous little book “What’s Life”[2], I can recommend to read this work. We can take this even one step further. As long as the organism is alive it is able to keep its entropy low, but when it dies this will no longer be possible and the decay and associated entropy increase starts[3]. Thus, perhaps we have here an alternative definition of living organism:

a structure that is able to keep its entropy artificially low by an intake of low entropy energy from its habitat.

If we can relate the thermodynamic laws to the fundamentals of organic life, is there then also a role for them to play in the process of natural selection? This intriguing question has been posed quite some years ago already by Alfred Lotka (1880-1949), a scientist who studied topics in the fields of popular dynamics and energetics. In 1922 he published two early articles on the relation between energy and natural selection[4],[5]. I would like to take a few interesting thoughts from his articles. Lotka regards the driving force behind natural selection as the maximization of the energy flux through the organism provided that there is still a not used residue of energy left in the system (habitat). Two, fundamentally different, categories of living species can be seen: plants which are energy accumulators (they can convert sun light into chemical energy) and animals which are basically energy engines meaning that they convert low entropy energy (stored in their food such as the plants or other animals) into high entropy (low quality) energy. According to the energy flux definition of natural selection, one could consider man as the most successful species as humans have (unconsciousness???) really mastered the “art” of maximizing or accelerating the circulation of energy and matter. However, this is only possible because of the existence of the energy accumulators, the plants!

Copyright © 2007 John E.J. Schmitz

[1] See for a more detailed discussion of this principle The Second Law of Life

[2] Erwin Schrödinger, What is life?, Cambridge University Press, London, (1951)

[3] A slightly alternative formulation of this was offered in 1921 by J. Johnstone in The Mechanism of Life: in living mechanisms the increase in entropy is retarted, see also the articles from Lotka here below

[4] A.J. Lotka, Contribution to the energetics of evolution, Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci., 8, pp 147-151 (1922)

[5] A.J. Lotka, Natural selection as a physical principle, Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci., 8, pp 151-154 (1922)

book_cover_big.gifThe Second Law of Life: Energy, Technology, and the Future of Earth As We Know It
Author: John E.J. Schmitz
Foreword: Dr. Gerald Kitzmann

It isn’t that they can’t see the solution.
It is that they can’t see the problem.
– G.K. Chesterton

In this compelling, and important book, John Schmitz brings order to the world of chaos that surrounds us. The Second Law of Life refers to the second law of thermodynamics, entropy, which is an omnipresent force that quietly and crucially determines every aspect of our society, culture and daily lives. Unless we come to understand entropy, future generations will face consequences of the unstoppable laws of physics.

Entropy explains the amount of energy no longer capable of doing work; in other words, wasted energy or heat loss. Each moment of every day, we lose irreplaceable energy and “modern” technology is not helping. In fact, it is accelerating the problem at a catastrophic rate. – And we will ultimately face a heat death crisis and utter destruction of the Earth.

Even actions we take to improve the environment may actually do more damage than good. For example, recycling is considered environmentally, socially and politically correct. Under the influence of entropy, however, it is a prolific waster of energy; we must look at entire systems, not just parts.

It is critical that we find ways to reduce energy loss. Seeing the problems with greater clarity will lead to solutions. This fascinating and accessible journey through the second law of thermodynamics is a step in the right direction.

Read More | Buy The Book | Read the First Chapter