Hacker News new | past | comments | ask | show | jobs | submit login
Earth as a nuclear furnace (geothermal heat is mostly from radioactive decay) (wikipedia.org)
44 points by iwwr on April 3, 2011 | hide | past | favorite | 14 comments

The beauty of this is geothermal heat adds the opportunity for life to develop/survive outside the Goldilocks Zone [1]. Not just in our solar system where the moons of Jupiter and Saturn are very active geologically due to tidal forces [2] but on extrasolar moons and planets that otherwise may not be suited to life.

Perhaps there is more life in the universe where the base energy source is that of geothermal than that of radiation from a star? I wonder what an sentient life form evolved from this environment would be like?

I feel a short story coming on.

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Habitable_zone

[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tidal_force

It's funny that this is coming up now - just this week, there was a pre-print on arxiv.org that explored the possibility of a planet being heated (possibly enough to become habitable) by dark matter annihilation in its core: http://arxiv.org/abs/1103.5086

The long term stability of such a heat source is poor (it would start very hot, then cool exponentially). But it's an interesting idea.

You do realize that exponential decay actually translates to always-declining but relatively stable behavior as you approach the limit, right?

How long is long term though? If I'm reading this right, the highest generator of heat is naturally radioactive thorium, which has a half-life of about 14 billion years. The Earth is only about 4.54 billion years old.

No, thorium is the lowest, not the highest. It decays too slowly to be a large source of heat.

Potassium-40 (1.2 billion years) is the highest.

The article says that thorium releases 3.27×10^-12 Watts of heat per kg of mantle, while potassium releases 1.08×10^-12 Watts.

Isn't that more, or do I just fail at basic math?

I got my info from here: http://www.berkeley.edu/news/media/releases/2003/12/10_heat.... which said potassium. Shrug.

It would be interesting to determine how much of the dark side of the Earth is heated by leftover warmth from the daylight, and how much is geothermal.

My guess is that geothermal contributes almost nothing. I wouldn't be surprised if the solar radiation via a full moon contributes more than geothermal.

I'm surprised of how little potential geothermal has as a sustainable energy source. The total heat flow from the earth is 42 TW, and wikipedia says world energy consumption in 2008 averaged at 15 TW. We'd need a better then 30% global efficiency to use geothermal exclusively long term. This pretty much makes geothermal non-renewable...

Solar energy on the other hand clocks at 173 petawatts (of which 30% is reflected, so that makes it 120). http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Earths_energy_budget#Incoming_e...

Did that Wikipedia article disappear in the one hour since you've linked to it?

EDIT: Never mind, correct link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Earth%27s_energy_budget

We should make it a standard that url's be copy-pastable. Sorry and thank you.

You could say that a lot of energy is being wasted because it's converted into heat via simple decay and not fission. Fissioning the available uranium and thorium would produce vastly more power, enough to push the human race up a few more decimal points on the Kardashev scale.


Guidelines | FAQ | Lists | API | Security | Legal | Apply to YC | Contact