Exoalchemy

Greetings, ridiculously happy Earth creatures.

Greetings, ridiculously happy Earth creatures.

UGHLLO.  This is Grumpy Cat.  Technically, it’s DOCTOR Grumpy Cat.  However, MISTER Grumpy Cat will be fine.  I’m so pissed off at my latest alma mater for encouraging Marxist faculty in their coercion of useful idiot students into “safe space” insanity, that I not only refuse to give them a dime – I have effectively renounced my superfluous degree, the proof of which remains hidden in my closet, a sorrowful reminder of my misspent youth.

Normally, I don’t post about science, or more specifically Modern Science, which I tend to regard as one of humanity’s Grand Mistakes.  However, my feral friend Wolf Moon (who is really more of a mangy coyote than a social predator) has convinced me this would be a good thing to get off my fluffy little cat chest, so here we go.


Energy.  It’s actually important.  That is, if one wants there to be a future with little grumpy cats making grumpy little faces while they inexplicably purr at their idiot human masters.

The problem is that the idiot human masters don’t understand energy.  Unlike us grumpy cats, who spend as much time as possible not wasting energy, idiot human masters do two things simultaneously.  They waste energy, AND they don’t use enough energy to get MORE energy.

Getting both of those right is hard.  That’s why I love this ridiculously grumpy “Trump” guy, who is about to be in charge of the Department of Energy.  Not only is he “high energy” – he is both stingy as hell, AND wanting to flip on the energy switch for this planet.  OMG – a human who’s not an idiot.  Who would have thought?

Now, I have to digress to make that point.  So bear with me.

I was in the bookstore today, and I saw THIS BOOK on the “20% Off” table:

Grumpy Cat wants a ride to Jupiter. Titan. Wherever. Buy this book.

Grumpy Cat wants a ride to Jupiter. Titan. Wherever. Buy this book.

Actually, I didn’t see the nerdy journalist or the abnormally attractive female scientist, but I did see the book on the left.  I even bought it, because I felt it unfair to criticize the book without buying it.  Call me old-fashioned, but I think there is a certain decorum which must be observed while pointing out the flaws in the thinking of other scientists.

This book – with which I partially agree – is promoting the idea of human exploration and settlement of the OUTER parts of the solar system.  Specifically, the Saturnian moon known as Titan.  Personally, I think this is a wonderful idea.  As we move out in the solar system, Titan is one of those “must visit” destinations.

The problem, however, is that Titan is like Jeb Bush.  LOW ENERGY.

But that’s not the viewpoint of the book.  These authors think that Titan is a better destination than Mars.  And part of the reason they think this, is that they think there’s an abundance of energy stored up on Titan.

OMG. It's a perpetual motion machine. AGAIN.

OMG. It’s a perpetual motion machine. AGAIN.

These people have energy all wrong.  Which is not surprising, given the horrible imposition of political windmill thinking on science over the last – oh, let’s see – approximately 8 years, but possibly 24 years, or even 53 years, if you look at the fat corrupt idiot magically getting Kennedy’s job on the far side of the grassy knoll, as being where the rocket started falling off the launch pad.

But I digress.

To see the moment where I did the biggest face-palm in decades, you have to turn to page 65, and read the following passage.  Honestly, I think it’s some kind of miracle that I opened the book right to the passage, even if miracles are a really horrible hack on any simulation, and thus both charming and repulsive.  Where was I?  Oh, yes, here….

“Alone in the solar system, Titan’s landscape is buried in fuel we could harvest and burn with technology hardly more advanced than the gas furnace found in a typical American house.  The natural gas on Earth is mostly methane, like Titan’s lakes and seas.  The dunes around those shores on Titan are also hydrocarbons, mostly of heavier and more complex organics called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs.  With Titan’s atmospheric hydrocarbon factory and cold temperatures, this all makes sense.

“So why doesn’t Titan explode when someone lights a match?  No oxygen.  We burn fossil fuels on Earth by adding heat or a spark to a combination of carbon-rich fuel and oxygen.  Energy comes out in a flame or explosion as the energy originally deposited by the sun is released, along with carbon dioxide and water.  Titan’s atmosphere is mostly nitrogen, like Earth’s, but without oxygen.”

Incidentally, I LOVE polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.  I’ll have to swoon about those some other time, however.

The authors should have stopped right there, but they didn’t.  This is the point where THE NEXT QUESTIONS matter.  This is where one should ask some very simple questions.

Why are there flames in the first place, here on Earth?  What is the ORIGIN of the things that give us fire?  What PROCESS would be analogous to fire on Titan?  Does that process occur anywhere in the known universe?

Ah – this is where it all blows up.  Look at what the authors assert next.

“But underneath Titan’s hydrocarbon surface layer, perhaps just below, or maybe 100 kilometers (62 miles) down, water ice or slush makes up much of its mass.  Water contains plenty of oxygen.  [DANGER, WILL ROBINSON! -G.C.]  A simple process of running water through an electric field, called electrolysis, frees the oxygen.  The International Space Station uses electrolysis to produce oxygen for breathing.  The colonists could also breathe it, and could use it to burn methane, which would provide plenty of energy to keep the process going.”

OK.  I could go on, but there is no need.  Chemists from multiple branches are already shaking their heads, and biochemists have raised eyebrows.

A simple process of running water through an electric field, called electrolysis, frees the oxygen.

No.  Just no.

Let me put it this way.  This “simple process” just used up every last bit of energy you are planning to get back later.  AND MORE.  “Freeing the oxygen” is actually “creating a strong, high-energy oxidizing agent, molecular oxygen“.

Don’t believe me?  Do the calculations.  Hints: conservation of energy, heats of formation, enthalpy.

People keep thinking there is a free lunch somewhere.  PEOPLE!  WakeTFU!  This is Grumpy Cat talking to you.  THERE AIN’T NO FREE LUNCH!

The reason that there are delusions like this – the idea that methane is some magical source of energy – is that humans are not only plant parasites – they are electrochemical parasites.

Not to throw any stones.  Grumpy Cats are parasites, too.

In the same sense that intestinal parasites thrive in the highly unnatural environment of another organism’s gut, humans and other plant parasites thrive in the highly unnatural environment of readily available food from the only critters who truly survive on this planet – plants.  And remember – plants are just exhaust parasites of nuclear reactors – a.k.a., the sun.

The question is, what food did the plants create, to form this highly unnatural environment that we live in, relative to an abiotic earth?  You might argue that they created things like cellulose, sucrose, and proteins as food, and I might argue that some of it got slow-walked into the food storage deep-freeze of coal and oil.  But no matter what you pick, I’m going to add one.

Molecular oxygen.

Yes.  You are breathing a fossil fuel.  DEAL WITH IT.  Oxygen is not a “byproduct”.  It’s a fuel.

In essence, plants store energy in a semi-shared battery.

YOU CANNOT NEGLECT EITHER PART OF THE BATTERY, BECAUSE FAILURE TO PAY ATTENTION TO BOTH PARTS OF A BATTERY WILL GET YOU INTO TROUBLE.

ALWAYS.

That was probably one of the most important lessons I ever got out of general chemistry.  Looking at half-reactions alone is dangerous.

So what is OUR battery?  One part of the battery stores oxygen as a gas, shared by all plants.  The other part of the battery is retained by the individual plant, becoming its personal stockpile of not-quite-hydrocarbons, including such things as sugars and proteins.

(Please note the beautiful analogy to cryptography.  Pretty neat, ain’t it?)

Note that OUR plants store the reducing agent and expel the oxidizing agent.  There is no reason to think that is always the case.

Imagine that plants on some weirdly nitrogenous planet produced no gases, but instead consumed nitrogen (N2) and water (2H2O), creating stockpiles of ammonium nitrite (NH4NO2) as their energy storage medium (presumably using something different like proteinoids for structural purposes).  This somewhat unstable substance, composed of ammonium ions and nitrite ions, is fairly stable at high pH and low temperature, but can be smoothly reverted to nitrogen and water with release of energy.  THAT would actually be something that you could mine as an energy source.  Ammonium nitrite is a redox reaction waiting to happen.  It may be named as a single chemical, but it is really two chemicals – and letting them react is all that is needed to do a microscopic “kaboom” and give you heat, light, and motion.

Or let’s make it more Earth-like, and say that the ammonia isn’t stored as ammonium ion, but is returned into the atmosphere as the gas – essentially acting as a reducing-agent analog of molecular oxygen on Earth – and nitrites were kept as the “stockpiled” food source of the organism.  In principle, stealing that fossil fuel is the same – mine the nitrites, then react the nitrites with the ammonia to get energy back.  If you can find the nitrites, you can “burn” them with atmospheric ammonia.

Looking at Titan, which is a reducing environment par excellence, the alleged fuels of methane and water are chemically very sad if you’re looking for energy.  Even the nitrogen in the air is pretty sad, because nitrogen and hydrogen barely give you anything when they react to give you ammonia, which they are very loath to do to begin with.  Nitrogen likes being nitrogen very much.

And water really, really likes to be water.  It does NOT want to be oxygen and hydrogen.  The reason I winced at the casual mention of electrolysis, is that I loved to perform it as a kid – and I respect the HUGE amount of energy that it takes to break water into hydrogen and oxygen.

SO – as far as Titan goes – well, you’re going to need something else for energy.  The whole premise of the book – that Titan is some huge reservoir of energy waiting to be tapped – making it more desirable than Mars as a colonization target for that reason – it’s just plain wrong.  In fact it’s SO wrong, I almost suspect that this book is some kind of disinformation, although I can’t actually think of anybody who would fall for it, other than the Obama administration, which seems to have more or less produced it (you’ll have to get the book to figure that one out).

It’s kind of ironic.  We teach kids about socially divisive and civilizationally useless “white privilege”, when they know absolutely nothing about the electrochemical privilege that we all share – the one that makes hydrocarbons actually worth something here, while they are worthless on Titan.

The only way you’re going to find any kind of awesome energy on Titan, to assist in your colonization efforts, is if something left it there.  You either find a fossil fuel (possibly highly unconventional) of an existing or prior organism (here’s hoping THAT generalized colonization prerequisite sends a chill up somebody’s spine in Washington), or you take advantage of the periodic table and use some kind of nuclear fission or fusion reaction to get your energy by the most awesomely efficient methods available.

All of which seems vastly easier on Mars than on Titan.  Unless, of course, there IS or WAS some kind of odd life on Titan, which left an entire economy of unearthly fossil fuels.  Which then raises the question of whether we should even set foot on the place.

And thus, by taking the long way around – looking at the simple case of a small planetoid which doesn’t even share the same chemistry as Earth, we see the same energy problem – the fact that there is no free lunch.  There are only fossil fuels if you are REALLY lucky, and nuclear fuels because you ARE lucky at a deeper level.


So where were we?

Ah, yes.  Trumpy Cat.

For a person who doesn’t have any scientific training, Donald Trump sure seems to have figured out that it’s all about energy.  Most importantly, he seems to understand that energy begets more energy.   And THAT is smart energy.

My guess is that Trumpy Cat is simply an excellent student of history, and observed the larger effects of energy on economies and societal progress at the national and international scales.  One could also say that he has keenly observed that what some countries DO about energy, and what they SAY about energy, are not the same thing.  Moreover, he may have observed that what said countries encourage HERE by way of bribes, influence, and whatnot, would be for us to do the opposite of what they do.  Hence, it would appear that the Trumpy Cat is interested in energy realism, and energy fairness.

I just think we have to be smart about energy.  I figure if we’re smart, things will work out.  And who knows?  We might even send some people to Titan.

HINT:

All the way to Memphis Titan

All the way to Memphis Titan

 

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