With all the squabbling about oil killing us all, climate change screwing with polar bears, nuclear plants falling apart, solar panels sucking on a cloudy day, and wind turbines scything through migratory birds with a gory violence best explained by an Omega Crom song, there’s a big point that all the complainers in the energy debate are ignoring: These days, we are being huge wimps. Millennia ago us humans were building the pyramids and the Coliseum; last century Edward Teller was talking about expanding the Panama Canal with nuclear bombs. Yet this century we’re piddling along, arguing about whether wind turbines are too noisy or whether solar arrays look ugly. Where are the big ideas?
Thankfully, George Dvorsky of Sentient Developments isn’t being a child. He’s thinking big to solve our energy crisis. His solution? Build a Dyson sphere, a massive solar array that would envelop the Sun itself. Such a system would provide us with so much damn energy we wouldn’t even know what to do. Imagine: You could leave on all the lights in the house all the time! Run the microwave and toaster without power surges! (Plus there’s that whole thing about eliminating dirty energy, nuclear disasters, and wars over energy resources.) As Dvorsky argues, a Dyson sphere would transform us from a wimpy, embarrassing, joke-in-the-universe Type 1 Kardashev civilization into an energy-secure, boomboxes-blasting-all-the-time Type 2 world. We’d finally be masters of our domain, as it were.
Of course, the sun has a circumference of around 2.7 million miles (or about 110 times Earth’s), which means a true Dyson sphere would have to be massive. (It’d be much, much larger in circumference than the Sun because of the latter’s five thousand degree temperatures.) So how do we build such a thing, when we apparently can barely afford a few thousand acres of solar panels on Earth? According to Dvorsky, we’ll have to mine Mercury for all it’s worth.
All you need for a modified Dyson sphere is a swarm of solar satellites, easy as that.
From his post, which has great background:
Oxford University physicist Stuart Armstrong has devised a rather ingenious and startling simple plan for doing so—one which he claims is almost within humanity's collective skill-set. Armstrong's plan sees five primary stages of construction, which when used in a cyclical manner, would result in increasingly efficient, and even exponentially growing, construction rates such that the entire project could be completed within a few decades.
Broken down into five basic steps, the construction cycle looks like this:
1. Get energy
2. Mine Mercury
3. Get materials into orbit
4. Make solar collectors
5. Extract energy The idea is to build the entire swarm in iterative steps and not all at once. We would only need to build a small section of the Dyson sphere to provide the energy requirements for the rest of the project. Thus, construction efficiency will increase over time as the project progresses. "We could do it now," says Armstrong. It's just a question of materials and automation.
The brilliance of the Dyson sphere is both that it’s modular, and that energy production and sphere development ramps up in a positive feedback loop. First, we’d have to build some geostationary solar arrays near the Sun, which would likely have to be shipped from Earth. But once those are up and beaming power, we’d be able to set up a construction outpost on Mercury, building more Dyson arrays, which would produce more power, allowing more production capacity, and so on.
Dvorsky elaborates much more on the process, but technical challenges aside (both Dvorsky and Armstrong claim we’d be able to start the process within this century, presumably with drones doing the building), Mercury is a great candidate because it’s apparently resource-dense, near the Sun, and presumably no one really cares if we strip-mine the whole thing to oblivion. I mean, when was the last time you worried about environmental conditions on Mercury?
Of course, as great as Dvorsky’s plan is, it’s the first stage that’s the hardest. When we can still barely power a dune buggy on the Moon, and we’re ages away from sending a lightweight expedition to Mars, how the hell are we going to power a massive construction project on a planet that, at best, is 50 or 60 million miles away?
These guys did it years ago, why can’t we?
With that in mind, Alex Knapp at Forbes put the kibosh on the whole idea:
I emailed Astronomer Phil Plait about this project, who told me in no uncertain terms that the project doesn't make sense. "Dismantling Mercury, just to start, will take 2 × 10^30 Joules, or an amount of energy 100 billion times the US annual energy consumption," he said. "[Dvorsky] kinda glosses over that point. And how long until his solar collectors gather that much energy back, and we're in the black?"
Knapp calculated (brilliantly, I might add) that, at it’s earliest stage, the Dyson sphere would take 120 trillion years to produce the energy needed to pillage Mercury. Even at full, Sun-encircling power, the sphere itself would take 174 years to dismantle Mercury. Knapp thus flips the kill switch: “If we're capable of generating the amount of energy right now that would take a Dyson Sphere 174 years to recover, why would we need to build a Dyson Sphere in the first place?”
Knapp’s damning numbers aside, building a Dyson sphere would require the resources and approval of some vast global sci-fi-friendly coalition that doesn’t exist yet. (Something tells me that Kofi Annan doesn’t have this project too high up on his to-do list.) But it’s still one hell of an epically crazy idea, and deserves praise for that alone. At the very least it adds some perspective to the energy date. So even if it’s doomed, there’s at least one good thing to come of it: The next time I hear about a bunch of NIMBY whiners talking about property values while people are still killing each other over oil, I’m going to point to this. Really, which would you rather have to do, live with some giant windmills or blow up a planet?
Image via Sentient Developments.
Follow Derek Mead on Twitter: @drderekmead.