Planet-changing technology

Rather than continue the endless poking and nitpicking that goes on in the various climate change threads, I thought it might be more useful and/or interesting to start one about the practical things that are being done, or proposed, to bring the planet kicking and screaming into the modern age. If anyone has their own ideas, a bit of halfbakery and brainstorming would be fun too.

This is not intended to be another climate thread. As various people have noted, we have way too many of them already. It’s just a place to post about interesting technology or new methods of doing things better with fewer resources, less energy, or less pollution. Some of the stuff here might loosely be called “low carbon”, but IMO CO2 reduction is just a small part of a much larger picture: we need to be inventing more efficient ways of doing things, eliminating things we don’t need to do, and show just a bit more respect for the natural world, if we can.

Could I take this opportunity to politely ask fred smith - if he wishes to participate - to refrain from hijacking the entire thread with rambling comments about hockey sticks, unicorns, and conspiracies. Let’s try to discuss stuff on their technical and social merits.

To kick things off, here’s a very old (2000) article which was published in Nature, which adds to the growing body of evidence that pesticides are a solution in search of a problem:

agroeco.org/doc/rice_diversi … isease.pdf

“Our results demonstrate that a simple, ecological approach to disease control can be used effectively at large spatial scale to attain environmentally sound disease control … it is significant that the diversification program described here is being conducted in a cropping system with grain yields approaching 10 Mg ha-1, among the highest in the world”.

This one might be a bit esoteric for most people, but it’s a real breakthrough:

feec.ece.vt.edu/DOE/Poster-Hutchens.pdf

The interface between a PV panel (solar panel) and “the real world” is a tricky problem. The crucial feature of this particular implementation is the elimination of electrolytic capacitors, which are big, unreliable, and full of gloopy chemicals. It also uses fewer switching devices, which makes it cheaper (and, again, a bit more reliable, or at least easily repairable). A DC-DC/MPPT module based on this design should cost ~10% of the panel price and last for the lifetime of the panel.

GMO foods are going to be a big part of our future for sure; I just don’t want to be the one eating the first several generations of them and I’d hope there will be enough competition in that area that we don’t see control of our food’s genes being handled by a single authority.

One big change is that plastic, right now incredibly cheap, might some day become expensive and we will have to start storing things in glass again. I find glass containers to be just fine though and don’t really understand why environmentalists focus upon things like charging us for paper bags instead of trying to get us to switch back to glass, which would have a much greater conservation impact… but I digress :slight_smile:

Not at all. It’s the simple things that sometimes (a) are right under our noses and (b) can make the biggest difference. I completely agree about glass containers. A beer in a glass bottle is somehow much nicer than one from an aluminium can.

As far as I can tell, manufacturers use plastic simply because they can. If they were forced to shoulder the full environmental cost of disposal, they’d be back to using glass overnight. But maybe you’re right: as oil becomes more expensive, it’ll get less and less practical to promote oil-based “disposable” materials and the cost of glass will fall relative to plastic.

Ya, the market lets them use plastic. I’ve just always been puzzled by that one. I used to be a hardcore environmentalist but I’m kind of over it. They charge me 10 cents for paper bags now but they’ll sell me all sort of junk in plastic… :ohreally:

[quote=“finley”]To kick things off, here’s a very old (2000) article which was published in Nature, which adds to the growing body of evidence that pesticides are a solution in search of a problem:

agroeco.org/doc/rice_diversi … isease.pdf

“Our results demonstrate that a simple, ecological approach to disease control can be used effectively at large spatial scale to attain environmentally sound disease control … it is significant that the diversification program described here is being conducted in a cropping system with grain yields approaching 10 Mg ha-1, among the highest in the world”.

This one might be a bit esoteric for most people, but it’s a real breakthrough:

feec.ece.vt.edu/DOE/Poster-Hutchens.pdf

The interface between a PV panel (solar panel) and “the real world” is a tricky problem. The crucial feature of this particular implementation is the elimination of electrolytic capacitors, which are big, unreliable, and full of gloopy chemicals. It also uses fewer switching devices, which makes it cheaper (and, again, a bit more reliable, or at least easily repairable).[/quote]
IMHO the biggest improvements regarding energy are not to be found in renewables (though geothermal is potentially interesting) but in improved energy efficiency. The light bulb has improved in efficiency thousands of times over for example. We will probably have to give up universal AC and heating but this is not so bad. Video games might have to go too. Well, as you’ve probably noticed, I imagine a more low-tech version of the future, mixed with genetically engineered foodstuffs and so-on. Assuming I’m right, it’s going to blow most western people’s minds since we tend to assume that consumption and luxuries will only increase as time goes forward when in fact competition from places like China and India should make that impossible. They are already sucking away at our wealth.

Improving energy efficiency is the thing to do right now, but for the not-so-far future I’m convinced the solution will come from fusion-generated electricity, for example from this kind of stuff:

en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Ignition_Facility

Huge supply of electricity, virtually no pollution generated, requires only several liters of water :smiley:

Assuming they can, you know, actually make it work :smiley:

I used to be a big fan of fusion, but the thing is, there’s a pretty damn good fusion reactor up there in the sky, just waiting for us to use it. I completely agree about energy efficiency, but the whole point about efficiency is that it allows you to do more with less. Technology is now at the point where very few applications need vast amounts of power, such as you might need from a nuclear power plant. 80-90% of human needs, I suggest, can be supplied cheaply and easily with a modest installation of solar collectors (PV and thermal).

It really irritates me when economists and other scientific illiterates suggest that because we’re burning X GWh/year today, we must of necessity burn as much or more to maintain our “standard of living” tomorrow. The presumption is utterly foolish given the historical trajectory of technology. To take a trivial example, a computer in the 1950s that needed an industrial 400V power supply can be emulated today on a $3 microcontroller sucking 100 milliwatts. A 60W incandescent lamp from the same era can be replaced today with a 6W LED. In general, progress on the efficiency side has massively outstripped progress on the generation and storage side.

Maybe not. I posted in the other thread that solar heating is now cheaper (much cheaper) than fossil-fuelled boilers. In climates with hot summers, you could use absorption chillers running from excess heat; low-input-temperature designs (suitable for solar) are now commercially available. Obviously, though, if buildings can be designed to not need aircon (which they often can be), then that’s what we should be doing.

Why?

One thing I don’t expect to see more of is GMOs. Like pesticides, they’re a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist; in fact several GMOs have been engineered simply to be resistant to herbicides (which are as pointless and destructive as pesticides), and I suspect the reason some research finds them to be harmful is that they’ve been more liberally doused in poisons (or, perhaps, have reacted to those poisons in unexpected ways).

More likely, I suggest, is the emergence of new open-pollinated landrace varieties suited to local microclimates, and a lot more interest in methods that work better than the old-fashioned, energy- and capital-intensive, chemical-drenched ones.

I’m curious how one becomes an ex-environmentalist. Disillusionment with idiots?

He found another planet.

Finley curious when you say we need large output energy sources for only a few things. What power generation source would be best for these? Hydro, nuclear, geothermal? Shall we move all heavy industry to Iceland and British Columbia? :slight_smile:

Lots of halfbakery coming up:

  • Why don’t they make all available surfaces solar panels… (that might be a bit too simple, and would probably piss the oil companies right off. It’s kind of funny, in the UK - where my parents live - they’re only allowed a set number of solar panels per roof, and they can’t even use all of the power they generate, most of it goes back to the grid).

  • Why don’t they make transformer wind turbines - that can telescopically pop out/unfold and work when needed and then fold back down when they’re not.

  • Try to make hybrid humans that can use photosynthesis for some energy needs. (highly unlikely, but being green might be fun).

  • Genetically modifying future generations to be of hobbit-like size, so they consume less food.

Really?

Really?

[/quote]

Dammit! OK then. Just smaller, but not like gluttonous hobbits. Let’s just say 50% smaller.

Assuming they can, you know, actually make it work :smiley:

I used to be a big fan of fusion, but the thing is, there’s a pretty damn good fusion reactor up there in the sky, just waiting for us to use it. I completely agree about energy efficiency, but the whole point about efficiency is that it allows you to do more with less. Technology is now at the point where very few applications need vast amounts of power, such as you might need from a nuclear power plant. 80-90% of human needs, I suggest, can be supplied cheaply and easily with a modest installation of solar collectors (PV and thermal).[/quote]

Cheaply? Really? I’m not a construction specialist but I’m pretty sure installing a solar system big enough to power your house is certainly possible, but definitely not cheap.

It really irritates me when economists and other scientific illiterates suggest that because we’re burning X GWh/year today, we must of necessity burn as much or more to maintain our “standard of living” tomorrow. The presumption is utterly foolish given the historical trajectory of technology. To take a trivial example, a computer in the 1950s that needed an industrial 400V power supply can be emulated today on a $3 microcontroller sucking 100 milliwatts. A 60W incandescent lamp from the same era can be replaced today with a 6W LED. In general, progress on the efficiency side has massively outstripped progress on the generation and storage side.[/quote]

Yet the global energy consumption is growing fast: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_energy_consumption

Whatever is appropriate. When oil/gas is not an option, I think we’ll see far more diversification and local specialisation - a bit of a re-run of the industrial revolution and electrification. For example, some particular bit of coastline might be extraordinarily attractive for a DTP generator, and we’ll see industry spring up around it. Some parts of Africa or the Middle East where it’s so hot as to be uninhabitable (say, the Sahara or Kavir desert) might become the world’s foundry, using concentrating solar for extracting or refining metals and other useful elements.

As Atomist suggested, a lot of stuff will simply disappear because it is - and always has been - uneconomic. For example, aluminium smelting will largely disappear because (a) disposable aluminium cans and trays are just ridiculous and (b) aluminium is one of the few metals that’s easily recyclable. Likewise with a lot of plastic products.

Well, why not? If governments didn’t subsidize, protect and generally fiddle with certain favoured industries, many more countries would be able to find their niche. The idea of competitive advantage gets sneered at these days, but I believe it’s an important concept that could help get us out of the mess we’re in. Countries that aren’t good at something shouldn’t pour public resources into it in a futile attempt to become merely mediocre.

Because they wouldn’t work - it would cost a lot of money and you’d get poor performance. Solar panels have to be carefully aligned and completely unshaded.

Also, we simply don’t need to do that - modern, efficient techology simply doesn’t require very much energy. There is a book written by some professor (can’t remember the title - I’ll check later) who estimated that you’d need to literally cover the British Isles with solar panels to replace all existing power sources. And his calculations were quite right. But he didn’t bother to analyse how much of that energy is simply being wasted. Transport is a particularly good example: it absorbs a huge fraction of world oil output, but you could achieve a far superior result using electric PRT, light rail, and suchlike. Given the typical per-person mileage (which is the parameter that actually matters) the energy input would be negligible, equivalent to maybe 10-20m2 of PV panels per capita. Similarly, he didn’t bother to enquire if electricity is what we need. When you analyze usage, the UK needs a lot of heat. Solar heat collection is easy and low-cost.

Probably cos it would just be too much trouble :slight_smile:

Why bother when you can eat plants, which can already pull that trick? I know, some people won’t eat their veg, but that means they’ll die and people who DO eat their veg will survive. Natural selection in action :smiley:

Wouldn’t the big humans just keep the little humans as pets?

Powering one’s house is not a smart way to deploy solar, mainly because people aren’t IN their houses most of the time. That’s why most home solar systems are grid-feed configurations (like Dr Jellyfish’s parents). Solar heating makes a lot of sense (because hot water is easily stored), but not PV.

But yeah, solar is dirt cheap. It’s in the interests of TPTB to perpetuate the myth that it’s outrageously expensive. PV panels are now about US$1.3 per installed watt, depending on technology, including the cost of metal mounts and MPPT electronics, but not including storage (which, obviously, is highly variable depending on how much is installed). In a moderately sunny climate - anywhere south of the UK - you get about 2.5watts/day for each installed watt. Near the equator, twice that. So if you wanted to average 4kWh day of electricity - which is more than enough for a modern household - you’d need to install about 1.6kW of panel area, which would cost US$2100.

So, where does the rest of the money go when you pay 10,000 for a 1kW solar array on your roof? Well, it goes into the pockets of the installation contractors, who have a nightmare job trying to install solar panels into a building that was never designed for them ... and who, incidentally, are having an awesome time selling third-rate kit to uneducated homeowners who have [i]no idea[/i] of the wholesale prices. And to the taxman, who skims 20-30%. If the panels were integrated into the building design, the installation cost would be a few hundred US.

Because it’s being wasted. Energy output is like roads, or computer memory space - the application fills whatever space is available. A lot of that energy expenditure is being pissed down the toilet by third-world countries adopting 19th-century technology, in the mistaken belief that that’s the route to “development”. China is finding out - too late - that it doesn’t quite work like that.

The key to all this is to stop the waste, and to do that we need to think like this:

“This fixed number here, X, represents the amount of land area and resources we would like to devote to energy generation. It delivers an amount of energy Y, per person, that is also fixed. Given that constraint, how do we get all the things we want from it?”.

It’s hard to get politicians or industrialists to think that way because their natural instinct is more,more,more. There’s no why. More is good. It’s axiomatic. But constrain must happen, one way or another: if society can’t do it softly, nature will do it with lethal force.

What is that general pessimism here?
I really don’t get it… Anyone cares to explain? With solid data to back up his/her claims?

Quite honestly, the world has never been a better place than today for the average human being.
Or a some posters just trolling?

What pessimism? :eh: There’s been some great responses to my original post so far.

fred, is that you?

Ever been to Somalia? A lot of the world looks only slightly better than Somalia.

What pessimism? :eh: There’s been some great responses to my original post so far.
[/quote]

Well, the stuff about no ACs in the future, forced decrease in energy consumption, tin cans… Also I read some post in the climate change thread.

[quote=“finley”]

fred, is that you?[/quote]

Nope.

[quote=“finley”]

Ever been to Somalia? A lot of the world looks is only slightly better than Somalia.[/quote]

No I haven’t. But i don’t see how this is relevant concerning the average.

[quote=“Kawa”]

Yet the global energy consumption is growing fast: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_energy_consumption[/quote]

Yes and no. Global consumption is growing due to population growth and 3rd world-ish countries increasing consumption. But it wouldn’t be hard to envision western countries consuming a lot less per person. Right now there is a lot of waste and appliances are becoming less power hungry all of the time. In addition to that cheap energy prices have not put a lot of emphasis on decreasing consumption yet and there is a lot that can be done as far as more efficient heating/cooling starting with insulation. For example nowhere in Taiwan uses insulation despite high AC usage. Let power prices rise and there will be a demand for insulation in new construction.

You’re not going to die if tin cans disappear and they have to start selling Coke in twisty glass bottles again. Honestly, that’s like thinking the world is about to end because the Big Brother season has finished. As for aircon, I did point out that there are other possibilities (design buildings better, and use solar where necessary).

You can safely ignore the climate threads. That’s just a Punch and Judy show :slight_smile:

They ARE the average. There are over two billion people living in Africa and India alone, and a majority of them have a low quality of life. There’s another 1.3 billion in China and Nepal, nearly 1 billion of whom live much as they did in the 15th century. Much of South-East Asia is “poor”, despite a massive and increasing energy burn rate. The US and Western Europe are the anomalies; what they do, or have done, will never work elsewhere. But that’s not a problem - because the technology exists for them to do it differently. That’s what this thread is about. If you want to argue for the benefits of gas lighting, horseless carriages, and men with emphysema working down t’ pit, go right ahead, but you’re about a century out of date.

:thumbsup: Exactly. Stop subsidizing failure and mediocrity.

[quote=“finley”]
You’re not going to die if tin cans disappear and they have to start selling Coke in twisty glass bottles again. Honestly, that’s like thinking the world is about to end because the Big Brother season has finished. As for aircon, I did point out that there are other possibilities (design buildings better, and use solar where necessary).

You can safely ignore the climate threads. That’s just a Punch and Judy show :slight_smile: [/quote]

:slight_smile: But i do like drinking my Coke out of a can . One could even argue about the can vs. glass bottle issue.

[quote=“finley”]
They ARE the average. There are over two billion people living in Africa and India alone, and a majority of them have a low quality of life. There’s another 1.3 billion in China, nearly 1 billion of whom live much as they did in the 15th century. Much of South-East Asia is “poor”, despite a massive and increasing energy burn rate. The US and Western Europe are the anomalies; what they do, or have done, will never work elsewhere. But that’s not a problem - because the technology exists for them to do it differently. That’s what this thread is about. If you want to argue for the benefits of gas lighting and horseless carriages, go right ahead, but you’re about a century out of date.[/quote]

All is part of the average. Looking at some random human well being indicator one has to acknowledge that times never have been better (for humans). I don’t intend to say that all is well - just that it has not been better ever before.

:thumbsup: Exactly. Stop subsidizing failure and mediocrity.[/quote]

Why would you trust the free market so much? How else to anticipate changes, quite surely to happen? Or do you think there is no need for being prepared?
As has been discussed before e.g. solar panels or even fracking are the result of (of course subsidized) research efforts. First emerged in some state run research facility.