(Picture from here.)
I spoke last week on the disheartening aspects of the issues we’re facing today. It occurred to me that I couldn’t talk about one side of the problem without talking about the other side.
While I have problems with our cultural moment inhibiting us, there are many, many causes for hope. We can solve the problems in front of us—many of the solutions are either on the table or about to be. We just have to reach out and grab them.
Here are just a few.
We get enough renewable sources of power to more than cover our needs. Like so many things, the problem is not production. It is distribution and storage.
We have a head start on the storage aspect by virtue of lithium ion batteries. New sources of lithium in South America and other places make using these batteries relatively cheap—the Tesla Power Wall is an example. You can put more power into a “wall” than into a score of lead-acid batteries. While lead batteries are still cheaper, lithium batteries have a much higher density and better charge history.
But lithium ion batteries are just a stopgap. They depend on lithium, for one. Lithium is not such a common material. Lithium ion batteries are and will always likely be a bit on the expensive side. We need something cheap enough it will replace the gas-fired turbine that is in reserve for when the sun don’t shine.
To this end there are a number of interesting alternatives being worked on.
In the periodic table, sodium lies just below lithium. Chemical properties have a tendency to group on the columns in the table and the sodium/lithium relationship is no exception. There has been a lot of work on sodium-ion batteries. This is extremely exciting. There is absolutely no shortage of sodium in the world. In fact, one of the side products of desalination is—you guessed it—sodium. Total tonnage of lithium mined in 2018 was 85k metric tons. There are 35g salt in every litre of saltwater. To get the same amount of sodium would take (if I’ve done the math correctly) 24 billion litres—about 24 million cubic meters. Right now there is, world wide, about 86.55 million cubic meters of water being desailnated every day. Sourcing the sodium won’t be a problem.
But I’m even more excited by iron flow batteries. These are batteries that depend on a fluid flow of ion exchange. It is not as energy dense as lithium batteries but they are very cheap and environmentally responsible. ESS is a startup that intends to act as an energy storage system for business and—most importantly—power plants. Remember that gas turbine on stand by I mentioned? This is where they would be effective.
There are a lot of storage solutions being worked on and when you read the research it looks like we are not far from real solutions.
Which brings us to distribution.
Probably you’ve heard of the Smart Grid—having the grid smart enough to route power more efficiently. This is one of the things that makes having home solar power really a game changer. Right now your solar party goes on the grid to be shipped somewhere else. Probably it transfers to local stations and maybe from there it can be distributed. But that doesn’t make much sense when your neighbors are right down the street. If the grid can pull in your power why can’t it send it down your street?
The Smart Grid does more than that. It can be locally resilient. It can allow you as a producer get the most bang for your buck. If you have solar and local storage, why can’t you sell it back that night when it is most needed?
A Smart Grid might also be poised to take advantage of high temperature superconductors. Right now, the highest temperature super conductor is about -23 C. But it’s under incredible pressure so it certainly isn’t ready for prime time. At normal atmospheric pressure the high temperature is about -135C.
That doesn’t mean we’re out of the power production research. We’re getting better and better at solar, wind and water power. But I’m, frankly, much more excited by new nuclear power approaches.
While renewable power systems are really important and will have to be a major part of the solution, there are incredibly power intensive applications that may exceed them. I’m talking about iron and aluminum production and that order of magnitudes. About half a pound of CO2 is produced for each pound of aluminum produced.
One of the nice things about electricity is, like money, it is fungible. The same thing can be used in many different ways. This means the output of a heavy power production plant can be used for industry just as well as it can be used for cooking ramen.
Here are three new areas of nuclear research that I find interesting:
The first is thorium reactors. Thorium is more abundant than uranium and has much less opportunity to make nuclear weapons. It has better physical and fuel properties and doesn’t have the same scale of nuclear waste problems.
The second is the traveling wave ractor. I’ve heard that Bill Gates is funding this one to some degree. Imagine a sort of pipe packed with material. On one end there is more enriched material. It is “lit” and begins producing heat through fission. That reaction not only heats water to run a steam turbine, it also transmutes adjacent material into a fissionable state. Which, in turn, generates heat, etc. It’s also called a “nuclear candle.”
There are different configurations for this that are not a linear construction like a pipe. But that is the idea. (In September, TerraPower and the China National Nuclear Corporation signed a memorandum to jointly develop this technoligy. This was abandoned in 2019 due to restrictions placed on it by the Trump administration.)
Finally, there is the old standby, fusion power.
This is a hard problem. It’s why people have been saying that no matter when you ask about it, it’s always fifty years in the future.
That said, there have been some very interesting developments that suggest it may actually become doable in the near future. I would not wager a lot of money on it but I would wager some. Certainly, it’s the correct long term solution. The above two technologies, coupled with reneables, would give us the breathing room we need to finish development of fusion. There are some significant major energy requirements in our future and we will need a much larger source of power than we have now. We’re need power for those lasers to send off probes to Alpha Centauri.
We are on the cusp of really starting to attack the problems of aging. I’m just going to talk about a few:
A while back there was a length of life study of diabetics. Diabetics generally have a significantly reduced lifespan even when the problem is controlled. They found one population of type 2 diabetics that had an average lifespan that exceeded the control group. When they investigated this they discovered this group was taking metformin. Metformin is a cheap, well tolerated drug.
Subsequent studies have suggested that it has a beneficial effect on many age related conditions. There is now longevity study for it.
You can always tell when something works: Big Pharma circles around it like sharks after a wounded seal.
Recently, a fish oil derivative has been approved by the FDA as a heart disease.
My own favorite is some research in intracellular antiviral responses. This mechanism is a relatively weak response when compared to the normal immune response. Essentially, if a cell detects it’s been infected it kills itself. The idea is that initially there aren’t very many cells that get infected by the virus so we can afford to lose them. In addition, the infected cell is compromised anyway so it’s a small loss.
Most pathogenic viruses have figured this one out. Which is why they are pathogens.
There’s been some work in attaching virus identification molecules to triggers in the system, enhancing the response. Thus, a mouse cell would be infected and in the normal course of events burst with new viruses and the organism dies. The engineered protien identifies the virus and triggers the cell death.
Conservation systems are also becoming mainstream—we have all seen how LED lighting can now be competitive with other forms so powering a home takes less energy. We need it. CO2 is going to make our lives miserable.
It’s all well and good if we stop putting CO2 into the air. What do we do with the CO2 that’s already there?
Recent research has suggested that reforestation might well get a huge bang for the buck by something as simple as reforestation. Remember the global warming problem is two fold: 1) We are putting out an enormous amount of fossil carbon into the atmosphere and 2) We’re removing many mechanisms by which that carbon is pulled out of the atmosphere.
Apparently, this has a much bigger impact than was previously considered. It’s cheap and it’s scalable. Consider it geoengineering that we can live with. Or would you like to put up enough hydrogen sulfide to block the sun?
Plastic is another problem. There are two big problems here: 1) plastics that have already degraded into micro plastics and 2) that fact we’re still producing it.
It’s probable we’re not going to get rid of plastics—it has become just too useful. That leaves two other alternatives: better recycling and biodegredation.
We’ve been hearing a lot about the loss of recycling capability in recent years. Let’s be clear. Most plastics can be recycled. It’s not a matter of technology. It’s a matter of labor and energy.
There are a number of communities springing up that demonstrate. The one I like is Precious Plastics. They have developed methods and techniques to take things considered “unrecyclable” and, well, recycle them into building products, textiles and jewelry.
Microplastics are created by us and dumped into waterways and the sea and they are also created by plastics that are ground up by ocean action.
Capturing microplastics before they reach the ocean is an area of ongoing research. Here are a couple of interesting technologies that may be fruitful.
This one is strange: the cora ball. It claims to capture 26% if microfibers before they ever get out of the washing machine. I don’t think any consumer item is going to be that effective. But I could see technology like this introduced into washing machines. This article attacks the problem in a larger scale manner.
There are research efforts in trying to clear the microplastics out of the ocean. Alfa Laval has some pilot projects on doing this.
But we still have to clear the material that is already there. That is a huge problem for which I haven’t seen a solution. Any process that filters out microplastics also filters out plankton and we’d have to put that back uninjured.
Recycling microplastics has a different scale of problem than full sized products. Full sized products can be sorted. Different materials have different recycling techniques. That said, I don’t think this is insurmountable.
I’ve saved the best for last.
One thing the internet has given us is the ability to form communities. Many artistic, technological and scientific endeavors have been enabled by using indie-go-go and kickstarter. The above Precious Plastic is a world wide community.
It’s convenient to rail against the bad communities. The same medium that gave us Precious Plastic also gives us neo-nazies.
That said, we are—as a community of human beings—are at the cusp of amazing things. Human beings have always been a mix of cooperative and antagonistic individuals. We invented religion and government to keep ourselves in harness to one another, to pick cooperation over conflict. That we enabled conflicts between religions and governments should come as no surprise. Gaming the system is always one of our options.
But the tribalisms, conflicts and grudges that got us here will not get us much further. We cannot solve these problems without working together.
All that holds us back is us.