Kyle Forinash applies physics to environmental issues in new book

13th July 2017

By Steven Krolak

(NEW ALBANY, Ind.)—The timing couldn’t be better for the appearance of Physics and the Environment, the new book by Kyle Forinash III, professor of physics at IU Southeast.

While humanity suffers through another hottest year on record, glacial and polar melt accelerates, biodiversity craters and storms increase in number and ferocity, policymakers grapple with how best to secure the survival of our species.

There is broad global consensus on most key issues, but in the United States, bitter political battles continue to be waged over air and water quality standards, energy sources, pesticides, climate change and just about everything else, including the principle of environmental protection itself.

Those looking for a way to approach environmental issues realistically and responsibly will find Forinash’s contribution a welcome novelty—a book that uses physics as the context for the consideration of environmental choices.

“Most approaches are either political or philosophical and don’t look at the physical constraints involved,” Forinash said.

His book is all about constraints.

“It is not possible to break the laws of physics,” Forinash said.

Among those are the laws of thermodynamics, which govern just about everything that happens on Earth, since they deal with energy, temperature and entropy.

Proposals, decisions and policies are often justified by political expediency or perceived economic gain. But without reference to basic facts of nature, they are essentially doomed to failure.

“For example, because gasoline motors and coal generated electricity are thermal processes, the second law of thermodynamics will always limit these devices to much less than 100% efficiency—in fact 20% for gasoline motors and less than 40% for coal-fired plants,” Forinash said.

Other technologies, such as solar power, have different limitations, and will turn out to be more efficient simply because their full potential has not yet been approached, in contrast to mature technologies like internal combustion. In other words, coal-fired plants and gasoline engines are already operating at near peak efficiency while solar power could supply up to ten times the world’s current energy use, even with today’s technology, to say nothing of what might be achieved through refinement and innovation.

Such considerations have an impact when discussing how to invest energy and resources in more complex systems that rely on energy, such as transportation.

“If the electricity for electric cars is supplied by coal, electric cars are actually dirtier than gasoline cars,” Forinash said.

Forinash explores considerations of cost, benefit and risk, and how they relate to environmental decisions, noting that true costs of technological choices are not always quantifiable but borne by society nonetheless. With chapters on climate, nuclear power, renewables, conservation and storage, the book offers a broad and unflinching look at the realities we face.

Physics and The Environment is Forinash’s second book on the topic, following Foundations of Environmental Physics; Understanding Energy Use and Human Impacts (2010). Reflecting seven years of additional research and thought, his initial argument emerges even more clearly, and urgently.

“Political and social solutions to environmental problems need to be based on sound science,” Forinash said.

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