I was recently asked if I had hope for the world. I do. There are lots of reasons why, but the three biggest areas are breakthroughs in energy, fuel and food production. These are not all technologies, but they are often technologies. Have a read and see what you think.
Nanosolar has a huge investment behind them, something like 800 million dollars and a lot of it very smart money. Tech team includes senior manufacturing gurus from IBM etc.
The pitch: thin film solar panels with a production cost of $0.30 per watt (vs. $2.30 per watt for normal panels). Now here’s the interesting part. Their machinery costs 160 million dollars for a machine which can make a gigawatt of panels per year. Capital cost for a 1 watt of panels printed each year is $0.16 in other words.
Sale price for a panel is said to be around $1 for their tech. That leaves an _enormous_ amount of money available to scale with – they’ve got fifty cents on each watt of panels sold to be used for either scaling capacity (tripling it) or as profit. The possibility of very, very fast growth clearly exists here, limited by indium mining capacity probably, but it’s 1/3 as common as silver and has few other industrial uses so it’s likely a soluble problem.
Weirdnesses: last time I checked they had 4.1 *billion* dollars of pre-orders and were printing less than a megawatt a month of panels. Why, I don’t know, but I’ve long regarded a really accurate understanding of what’s going on at nanosolar HQ as about the most important geopolitical question on the table. If we get them, we’ve got a way out on electrical power and much of climate.
is in a similar state – an even cheaper panel technology, with Alan Heeger, who got the Nobel for conductive polymers in 2000, at the helm.
On the transportation fuels front there’s two hot tips.
3>Walter Adey and the Algal Turf Scrubber
Dr. Adey was the coral guy at the Smithsonian. He started growing algae to clean water, so his algae growing technology is always cast as being about clean water, which confuses the picture. Here’s the clear version: he’s fixed biodiesel. How? You know the thick, hairy stuff that grows on stones in rivers? That’s an algal turf. They grow in seawater too. And most of the complexity of harvesting algae is separating single cell critters from the water that surrounds them, where as turfs you harvest with a snowplough type blade.
It gets better. Turfs are multi-species, and include multicellular critters – they’re a complete ecosystem. Bonuses are two: firstly, you can grow them open tank and anything that drifts in becomes part of the mix. This means no evil pesticides or “monsanto-style” genetic engineering of algae for pesticide resistance. Second the lipid content of the turfs goes up with time as you get more and more little predators and such like which are just made of lovely, crunchy oils. You just wait until enough oil has buit up for your purposes.
Did I mention this is all happening in a two foot deep seawater tank, kind of like a rice paddy, but in some desert or other? Completely doable. They’ve got something like a hundred acres under cultivation now, but, again, *how fast can it scale?* – as fast as you can flatten and flood desert areas.
Note the possibility of running 100% butanol in an unmodified or slightly tweaked gasoline engine. Now that is still being worked on, but the energy density and lack of corrosion problems seen with ethanol are *very* promising.
5> the switch economy
So basically you wind up with gigantic saltwater algal swamps with amphibious snowplough harvesters scraping up the wet biomass. The oils you skim and turn into biodiesel, and the biomass you turn into biobutanol. Result: scalable biofuel economy that doesn’t put pressure on freshwater or croplands.
And it runs in existing engines, certainly for the biodiesel, and _possibly_ for the biobutanol.
All of this is doable. How fast can it be done? Well… if somebody gave Walter Adey the money we’ll spend cleaning up Deepwater Horizon, we’d be done already.
6> Ivette Perfecto (great name) and her big organic food metanalysis.
Ivette Perfecto of the University of Michigan in the US and her colleagues found that, in developed countries, organic systems on average produce 92% of the yield produced by conventional agriculture. In developing countries, however, organic systems produce 80% more than conventional farms.
Basically, global food yields could go up 80% if we went organic. Seems moderately solid.
7>One Acre Fund
12,000 farms in Africa. One year training program, kind of like health visitors but for farming. For a year they come to your farm, visit, and teach you things. Cost per farm $100 or so, taken as a loan by the farmers. Average results… wait for it…
Bunch of .com guys who got interested in Africa, apparently. Heavily data-driven, but there’s no special tech. Apparently most of the farming boost comes from teaching people to plant seeds properly.
8> Small Farm Multiplier
“In all cases, relatively smaller farm sizes are much more productive per unit area — 200 to 1,000 percent more productive — than are larger ones. In the United States the smallest farms, those of 27 acres or less, have more than ten times greater dollar output per acre than larger farms.”
Basically big farms are more profitable (lower labor costs) but small farms are more productive, per acre. Food prices rise, small farms become more economic, people produce a hell of a lot more food per acre.
A recent study of farming in Turkey, for example, found that farms of less than one hectare are 20 times as productive as farms of more than 10 hectares. Sen’s observation has been tested in India, Pakistan, Nepal, Malaysia, Thailand, Java, the Philippines, Brazil, Colombia and Paraguay. It appears to hold almost everywhere.
(Monbiot, but we’ll forgive him)
I haven’t tracked down the original paper yet. Anybody got a link to it in the comments?
So there you have it: reasons for hope in energy, fuel and food.
Never believe that nothing can be done about the state of the world. It’s all here, right here, right now, waiting for you to do something about it.