Mad About Science: The Kardashev Scale, Part I

By Brenden Bobby
Reader Columnist

Human beings are a global species, harvesting energy to transport supplies around the planet. We’re the only species we’ve ever observed that exists at such a scale, so it’s easy to believe that we’re top dog and the most advanced species in the known universe.

There are some big problems with that kind of thought. It’s important to consider the vast scope of the known universe. One light year is about 6 trillion miles. The diameter of the universe is about 93 billion light years, so for humanity to believe that it is the pinnacle of life in the universe would be on par with an ant colony believing it is the height of civilization in our entire solar system.

Courtesy photo.

Enter the Kardashev scale. This is a method of figuring out just how advanced a civilization is, based on the amount of energy it harvests. Energy capture and usage can tell us a lot about a civilization — it’s a direct translation to how much matter can be shifted to meet an end. 

As an example, the ancient Egyptians had no access to steam power, which meant building the Great Pyramid of Giza took considerably longer than it would have if they had access to hydraulic cranes or automobiles. The same can be applied to energy at a planetary scale.

It’s worth noting, before we continue, that energy is a touchy topic. Our current energy production relies on fossil fuels — the remnants of ancient carbon-based life that used photosynthesis to pull carbon from the atmosphere and convert it into a building material for new cells. We apply heat to turn that carbon back into CO2, which produces energy from the reaction that we then apply to things like moving pistons, effectively undoing the photosynthesis of these ancient cells. This, of course, creates an abundance of CO2 in the atmosphere, which has an adverse effect on the global climate when waste production outpaces Earth’s natural ability to filter carbon back into plants.

So what exactly is the Kardashev scale, and where does humanity fall on it?

Designed by Russian astrophysicist Nikolai Kardashev in 1964, it originally showcased three levels of civilization based on their ability to harvest and use energy, though that number now goes up to five.

A Type 1 civilization would capture and use 100% of the energy of its home star. In our case, that would be the sun. Care to guess how much energy from the sun human beings use?

Currently, solar accounts for 3.1% of the entire Earth’s energy usage. That is only a tiny fraction of the amount of solar energy that reaches the Earth. Less than 1 billionth of the energy expelled by the sun actually reaches our planet. We are essentially using less than 3% of 1 billionth of the amount required to be considered a fledgling civilization, according to the Kardashev scale.

How might a civilization go about capturing that much energy?

We would need to build a Dyson sphere. A Dyson sphere is a hypothetical structure that would surround the sun, using a mixture of solar panels, insulators, water and closed turbines to capture and convert 100% of the energy emitted by a star. This would essentially enclose a star in a colossal structure and use it like a giant fusion reactor, with the added bonus of being able to harvest energy from photons (or light), as well. Interestingly, building this sort of structure would rapidly propel humanity from a Type 1 to a Type 2 civilization, one that uses 100% of the energy produced by the sun.

The next big question becomes: What do you do with that kind of energy?

Storing that amount of energy would be no small feat. Even transferring that much energy into direct usage through production would be staggering — we would run out of material far before we would run out of energy. Unless we completely mined a planet down to its core, it’s also unlikely that we would have enough material to create batteries to hold all of that energy. And what about sending that energy back to Earth? What happens when we block out the sun?

Interestingly, there are a few proposed solutions to this problem. One could argue that if we’re using 100% of the sun’s energy, we could simply redirect a portion of that to powering UV lights to mass produce agriculture, as we’d have more than 100 billion times the amount of energy we currently use. Similarly, we would be able to use that energy to provide a regulated climate to the planet, since the Earth would no longer be receiving heat from the sun.

In order to transmit energy from the Dyson sphere to Earth, it’s likely that we would use a wireless form of energy transmission, such as beaming a powerful laser to a target on or above Earth. This is similar to forms of energy transmission we use today, particularly in communication arrays that use lasers and microwaves to send information to a wireless receiver that then sends data to hubs through cables.

Are you curious about the sun and the immense amount of energy it produces? Stop by the library meeting rooms (1407 Cedar St., in Sandpoint) beginning at 10 a.m. on Friday, Aug. 12 for a presentation on the sun, followed by a viewing of the sun through a solar scope in the library garden. Solar scopes are designed to protect your eyes from the blinding light of the sun, while still allowing you to safely observe our resident star.

Check back next week to find out more about the Kardashev scale, and what that could mean for the human species.

Stay curious, 7B.

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