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  • Showing only topics in ~science with the tag "physics". Back to normal view / Search all groups
    1. Introduction to the physical basis of global warming

      This is my attempt at contributing to "A Layperson's Introduction" series, here on Tildes. It's why it's here on ~science, rather than ~enviro Many people have heard about how global warming...

      This is my attempt at contributing to "A Layperson's Introduction" series, here on Tildes. It's why it's here on ~science, rather than ~enviro

      Many people have heard about how global warming works. “We are emitting greenhouse gases, and these trap heat, leading to further warming.” So how does this process occur in more detail? What is its physical basis? In this post, I will try to explain the physical basis of these questions in a simple way that is a bit more detailed than what is usually seen.

      Electromagnetic Spectrum and Thermal Radiation

      The electromagnetic spectrum is a broad spectrum that includes visible light. There are long wavelengths, such as radio waves and infrared light, and short wavelengths, such as ultraviolet light, X-rays, and gamma rays.

      Visualization of the electromagnetic spectrum

      Thermal radiation is the radiation emitted by the molecules of an object due to thermal movement. It can be in the visible light wavelength, shorter wavelength, or longer wavelength. The length of these wavelengths varies depending on the temperature of the object that is the source of thermal radiation. For example, the thermal radiation emitted by Earth falls into the infrared spectrum, which is at lower energy, because Earth is not as hot as a star. The shift of thermal radiation emitted by colder objects to longer wavelengths is also known as Wien's law.

      Energy Budget and Stefan-Boltzmann Law

      Our planet Earth has a certain energy budget. In other words, the energy coming to the planet and the energy going out from the planet are specific. The source of the energy coming to the Earth is the Sun, and on average, approximately 340 Watt/m2 energy reaches the surface of the planet. In order for this energy to be balanced, the energy radiated from Earth into space must be equal to this amount. This happens in two ways. First, some of the incoming energy is reflected into space by the Earth itself. Both the atmosphere (especially clouds) and the surface make this reflection. The second part can be explained by a physical law called Stefan Boltzmann law. According to this law, each object emits a certain amount of energy as thermal radiation, and the amount of this energy increases with temperature. This increase does not occur linearly, but as the fourth power of temperature. The mathematical expression of the law is given below.

      E = σT4

      In this equation, "E" is the energy, "σ" (sigma) is the Stefan-Boltzmann constant, and "T" is the temperature in Kelvin. However, the law cannot be applied to any object in its current form. The above equation is valid for ideal bodies called "black bodies". In physics, a black body is the name given to an ideal body that absorbs and emits all incoming radiation. However, Earth differs from a black body due to reflection. Therefore, the following equation is more appropriate.

      E = εσT4

      Here, ε (epsilon) means emissivity. Emissivity is the effectiveness of the surface of a material in emitting energy as thermal radiation. For a black body, ε = 1. The Earth's mean ε is less than 1, because it is not a black body. At the same time, emissivity changes depending on which part of the Earth is examined. For example, the emissivity of a vegetated surface and a desert or glacier are different. However, it is more important for us at this point to remember that the mean ε is less than 1.

      When we look at the formulae above, we see that, in accordance with the Stefan-Boltzmann law, the Earth emits thermal radiation depending on the temperature, even though it is not a black body. This constitutes the second part of the Earth's energy budget, namely thermal radiation. In summary, Earth receives energy from the Sun and radiates this energy through reflection and thermal radiation.

      Radiative Forcing and Greenhouse Effect

      The energy budget is very important for our planet. Any change in the budget causes Earth to warm or cool. Natural or human-induced changes that change the balance between incoming and outgoing energy are called radiative forcing. This is the mechanism by which greenhouse gases warm the planet. Some gases in the atmosphere, such as carbon dioxide (CO2) or methane (CH4), have physical properties that absorb the thermal radiation emitted by Earth. If you remember, Earth's thermal radiation was in the infrared spectrum. That is, these gases absorb at certain points in the infrared spectrum. As a result of this absorption, the gases emit it again in the form of thermal radiation in all directions. While some of the emitted radiation escapes into space, some of it remains on Earth, causing warming. Since the energy emitted by Earth will increase as it warms up, at a certain point, the incoming and outgoing energy becomes equal again.

      CO2 emissions, concentration, and radiative forcing

      In the image above, in different climate change scenarios, emissions of the greenhouse gas CO2) (left), the corresponding increase in CO2 concentration in the atmosphere (middle), and the increasing radiative forcing due to this increase are shown (right). Note that the radiative forcing is shown in Watts/m2. It is shown this way because it is calculated based on the change in Earth's energy budget, and Earth's energy budget is shown as Watt/m2.

      In other words, although the incoming energy is the same, there is a certain decrease in the energy going into space due to the greenhouse effect. This leads to what we call radiative forcing. As a result of radiative forcing, the temperature of Earth increases, and as the temperature increases, the thermal radiation energy emitted by the planet increases. This causes the incoming and outgoing energy to become equal again. As a result, in the long run, radiative forcing (and the greenhouse effect) does not lead to a change in the energy budget. However, it causes solar energy to remain in the atmosphere for a longer period of time, causing a certain amount of warming. This is what we call global warming due to the greenhouse effect.

      This process is, of course, more complex than described here. Since the atmosphere has a layered and fluid structure, there are factors that make the job more complicated. For example, while the increase in CO2 warms the troposphere (what we call global warming), the lowest layer of the atmosphere, it causes the stratosphere, its upper layer, to cool. Despite these and similar complexities, the physical basis of global warming is still based on the mechanisms described in this post.


      • Schmittner, A. (2018). Introduction to Climate Science. Oregan State University
      • van Vuuren, D. P., Edmonds, J., Kainuma, M., Riahi, K., Thomson, A., Hibbard, K., Hurtt, G. C., Kram, T., Krey, V., Lamarque, J.-F., Masui, T., Meinshausen, M., Nakicenovic, N., Smith, S. J., & Rose, S. K. (2011). The Representative Concentration Pathways: An overview. Climatic Change, 109(1-2), 5–31. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10584-011-0148-z
      • Wild, M., Folini, D., Schär, C., Loeb, N., Dutton, E.G., König-Langlo, G. (2013). The global energy balance from a surface perspective. Clim Dyn 40, 3107–3134. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00382-012-1569-8
      • Zohuri, B., McDaniel, P. (2021). Basic of heat transfer. Introduction to Energy Essentials, 569–578. https://doi.org/10.1016/b978-0-323-90152-9.00017-7

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      21 votes
    2. Nuclear fusion discussion

      I'm a big fan of nuclear fusion as a concept and hope to shift toward doing active research in the field at some point. I'd like to open this discussion to talk about topics regarding nuclear...

      I'm a big fan of nuclear fusion as a concept and hope to shift toward doing active research in the field at some point.

      I'd like to open this discussion to talk about topics regarding nuclear fusion as a future energy source. To start, I'll lost a couple of ongoing fusion efforts I'm familiar with.

      ITER:Of course the biggest fusion project is ITER, the massive multinational collaboration which is building a massive tokamak reactor in France. Unfortunately ITER will never produce power for average people, as it's purely a test reactor with no plans to be connected to the grid. The following effort to build a functional grid connected reactor, DEMO, isn't set to be built until at least 2050. This has resulted in a considerable number of private ventures trying iut experimental alternative approaches.

      HELION:At the time of writing this, there's quite a bit of buzz surrounding Helion energy, both because of the ambitious timeline theyve recently proposed as well as the investment of Sam Altman of OpenAI fame. Helion uses an FRC topology, which I personally think is a really cool idea. Basically it's a tokamak without the physical shell around it, and is kept sustained by the internal plasma physics. Helion also has another interesting quirk, they are not pursuing the typical DT fuel strategy, but are instead planning to use DD fusion to breed He3 and use DHe3 fusion as the primary energy source. I think this is a good idea because DHe3 fusion is "aneutronic", whereas DT fusion produces high energy neutrons that are somewhat of an unsolved problem to deal with. I wonder though, how they intend to deal with the inevitable tritium pollution that DD fusion creates, and how they will separate that out before Iit creates neutrons anyway.

      TRIALPHA:In addition, another major company TriAlpha Energy, also pursued FRCs, hoping to use an alternative proton-boron11 mix to achieve aneutronic operation. I think they've sort of pivoted toward being more a neutron source than working toward breakeven.

      HB11: A recent proposed approach is HB11, which is also going for proton-boron fusion. Now with Tri Alpha this seemed really dubious, because hydrogen boron has a much lower cross section for fusion than other options, even the DHe3 that Helion is doing. In addition, boron has way more electrons than hydrogen, so a proton boron plasma has more electrons with causes more bremsstrahlung loss. HB11, however, thinks they can overcome this through high energy laser acceleration. They want to use a high power laser to shoot a fuel pellet into a target. This supposedly will work much better than heating the stuff, because the laser will impart a specific impulse and thus the thermal spectrum of the impact will have a much higher Q factor centered around the cross sectional peak. I'm not really convinced on this, just because I feel like that thermal spectrum would only last for the first few atomic layers of impact before it doesn't really matter amymore.

      CFS: The next option I would consider to be one if the most popular fusion startups is Commonwealth Fusion Systems. They have what I'd consider the most conservative approach, they are attempting to build a Tokamak design like ITER, but hope to reduce the size considerably by taking advantage of advances in superconductor technology with REBCO tapes.

      W7X:The next reactor type I'll mention was in the news a lot a few years back, the Wendelstein-7X in Germany. This is a stellarator design, the crazy twisted car wreck of a thing you may have seen before. The stellarator is shaped that way so that it doesn't require an induced current like the tokamak to have magnetic helicity, because the shape does that automatically.

      ZAP:Another well liked dark horse is Zap Energy. They're not as flashy as the other reactors but seem to be working off solid physics that have been proven out over many years. They're trying to do sheared flow z-pinches, which is basically creating a lightning bolt that's perfectly straightened out and super dense.

      DPF:One more somewhat obscure option is Eric Lerner's Dense Plasma Focus approach. I'm a little puzzled by this option because it seems to be the exact opposite of Zap, where they make an incredibly twisty lightning bolt instead of a straight one.

      FUSOR/POLYWELL:There are a couple reactor types that get mentioned often but are more or less obsolete are the Fusor and the Polywell. A Fusor is a neat device that can be built to fit on a desktop and still produce actual fusion reactions, but has a fundamental design flaw of a physical electrode inside the plasma that introduces too much conductive heat loss. The Polywell is a more advanced concept thay tries to create a "virtual" cathode with orthogonal magnetic mirrors, but I think after many years of experimentation researchers were unable to validate the formation of such a virtual cathode.

      NIF:One option that is sort of tangential is the NIF, which you might have heard technically produced more energy than it produced. I dont think its necessarily going to go anywhere, mostly because it's more a weapons program than an energy program, but I think the chirped pulse amplification technology they use is really cool.

      GENERAL-FUSION:And finally I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the very highly funded and publicized General Fusion. I definitely give them points for pure childlike wonder. The original pitch was they were going to take a giant swirling tornado of molten metal, fire a ball of plasma into the eye of the storm, then smash the whole thing from all sides with a hundred giant hammers. To be honest is such a wild concept that I don't really know if it really makes any sense or if it's a fever dream. It's undergone a few revisions after finding out that certain parts of its concept just weren't going to work. This doesn't inspire a ton of confidence, but also shows flexibility in their thinking.

      There's definitely lots of other companies with other variations, but this gives a general idea of the huge range of ideas and approaches being pursued. I think it's a really cool field to explore and I'd love to hear all your thoughts about it.

      48 votes