Steve Conover over at one my favorite blogs, The Skeptical Optimist, had a fascinating post the other day discussing "useful" and "not-useful" energy. His premise centered around previously-reported breakthrough in hydrogen generation technology using an alloy of aluminum and gallium. Of course one of his readers brought up the problem with the second law of thermodynamics, and that it takes more energy to create the allow than it can eventually yield.
I keep hearing the argument that such-and-so process is a "net energy loser." The typical fallacy in that argument is that not all energy is useful to humankind. It clarifies things for me when I mentally separate "energy" into at least two categories: useful and not-useful. Note: "unexploited energy" might be better terminology than "not-useful energy," but I’ll stick with the latter for this article.
An isolated waterfall in the Canadian Rockies is a lot of energy, but left alone, it’s not very useful to residents of Manhattan. On the other hand, a hydroelectric generator on that same waterfall, if used to help make ten million aluminum-gallium bricks, transforms the waterfall’s energy into something extremely useful for ten million vehicle drivers in Manhattan.
Is it just me, or are analogies to the lean manufacturing concepts of "waste" and "value-added" also dancing through your heads? Let’s go on to see if the fuzzy haze dissipates a bit.
When not-useful energy is affordably transformed into useful energy, you and I shouldn’t care if the second law of thermodynamics is impossible to violate. We should be happy to use not-useful energy in order to make useful energy.
Useful from the perception of the customer? Value from the perception of the customer? Egads!
But that brings up a potential analogous corollary… transforming waste from one perspective into value from another. Isn’t that really the heart of manufacturing to begin with? At a minimum it is recycling, although that’s from a different angle. One man’s sand and copper is another man’s LCD TV.
There are other common aspects of this relationship as well, some that tie directly to manufacturing. If you build a hydro plant at that isolated Canadian waterfall, do you hurt the pristine environment that has value to the local residents? What about the aluminum smelter? At what point does the value of "useful energy" to the Manhattan residents outweigh the value of pristine "non-useful energy" to the Canadians? Who gets to make that call, and by what criteria?
And perhaps those of us in the lean world shouldn’t simply look at reducing waste, but instead converting waste to value.