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Vitality! How Life Makes the Best of the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics

“There is no wealth but life.”

John Ruskin

The magic of life

There is much we do not know about how life works to transform the basics of matter and energy into complex materials and massively diverse interdependent systems.

Despite many miraculous advances in science and technology, our manufacturing and production is often shamed by the scale, simplicity and systemic safety of life.

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Arthur C Clarke’s famous quote — “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” — applies just as much to the wondrous technology of life as it does to as yet only imagined technology of a myriad science fictions.

Learning from life

Our species faces ever-increasing challenges of ecosystem damage, pollution and inequity, against a background of rising demand and emerging scarcity. In parallel, efforts to understand and include the value of Natural Capital in economics, accounting and business are gaining momentum.

Given this, the very foundations of humanity’s technology and industrial production must be reshaped to become capable of delivering goods and services with radically different energetic and material efficiency performance.

To do this we must learn from the ways by which life does it: cleanly, safely and abundantly.

Life’s mysterious mechanics issue a challenge for the development of truly sustainable technologies. They have also led to a number of misapprehensions about how this aspect of life works, especially when related to the framing rules of physical existence, the Laws of Thermodynamics.

Life and entropy

The most significant of these misapprehensions is the belief that, uniquely in the known universe, life is anti-entropic, disobeying the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics. This Law states that energy inexorably disperses or spreads out from higher concentrations to lower concentrations if not hindered (by the need to overcome chemical activation energies) from doing so.

This has often been described as a flow or change from an ordered state to a disordered state. However, this is scientifically incorrect and works at best as a metaphor, albeit a misleading one. Because the disorder meme is so embedded in our culture, life is seen by many as anti-entropic because it provides high levels of ‘order’ through complex structures.

The energetics of life

I stand squarely in favour of life....I have a decided personal aversion to death, I find entropy distasteful, and if invited to the heat death of the universe, I would most certainly make other plans.

Haviland Tuf (George R.R. Martin)

Life, like everything else, doesn’t break the 2nd Law, it is just good at making the most of the energy available in the environment. This happens via photosynthesis by primary producers (photoautotrophs — mainly plants) or through the eating of plants by primary consumers (herbivores), or the eating of herbivores by secondary consumers (carnivores).

While life has no magical powers, it has a magic all the same. Virtually all known life on earth is driven by solar energy and is phenomenally good at diverting a proportion of available energy to drive photosynthesis. Only around 0.02 percent of the sun's energy that reaches the Earth is captured for photosynthesis, yet these “scraps” are still more than enough to fuel stunning complexity and diversity across the globe.

Photosynthesis is not anti-entropic. Plants intercept around 30 percent of the energy available from solar radiation and use it in incredibly complicated biochemical processes to store smaller amounts of concentrated energy. The 70 percent not used in photosynthesis results in an increase in entropy through heating the plant and the atmosphere. This process results in lower entropy in the short term than if 100 percent of the energy hit bare rock or soil.

As organisms of the natural world, humans are innately good at making productive use of the 2nd Law. However, our industrial production systems and technology are woefully poor at harvesting energy in any but the most ham-fisted of ways.

Our use of fossil energy is stealing time

Our prevailing economic and industrial models depend upon the accelerated entropy represented by fossil fuels — vast stores of concentrated, processed biological matter holding in suspension many millions of years of processed, prehistoric sunlight. We are burning through this bank of stolen time at a frightening rate, millennia of stored energy gone in one-time use every year.

Nature makes use of real-time energy conversion to produce complex materials in abundance. Humanity uses fossil-time energy to fuel its industrial production.

Learning more about the energetics of life, and making much better use of these techniques for our own technology and industrial production, would present us with the means by which to achieve a seismic change in the capacity and sustainability of our species.

Towards real-time energy utilisation

“Everything you are, and have, you owe to the radiations from your sun.”

Chocky (John Wyndam)

The sun is a vast opportunity machine — dedicated (at least for the next few billion years) to trying its hardest to give this planet a chance to do stuff. Neither the sun nor the planet has an opinion on this. The sun is equally happy heating the surfaces of sterile planets. It is humanity that has an emotional stake in this game, humanity that has the chance to take the almost endless opportunities offered to us by the ready supply of 84 Terawatts of energy every single day.

This abundant solar income is utilised readily by life in general but, strikingly, is all but overlooked by humans. We turn our back on this diffuse daily bounty in favour of concentrated forms from our fossil past.

Achieving a sustainable future requires us to reverse this relationship, to explore and develop massively distributed industrial production capable of aggregation, hyper low-voltage technology/energy systems and biological production that takes place at the speed of our seasons.

Our challenge is to use real time rather than stolen time to achieve more than we could ever have dreamt.

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