McCormick researchers have designed a geometrically-patterned light scattering layer that could make solar cells more efficient and less expensive.

McCormick researchers have designed a geometrically-patterned light scattering layer that could make solar cells more efficient and less expensive.

From Northwestern University:

In a potentially breakthrough discovery, researchers at Northwestern University have designed a new type of organic solar cell that will very likely lead to much higher efficiency and cheaper solar power.

The new cell design is based around a new geometrical pattern to be used in the ‘scattering layer’ of a solar cell, which works to keep the light trapped in the cell for longer.

The specific geometrical pattern was obtained by using a mathematical search algorithm modeled on natural evolution to identify the optimal design “for capturing and holding light in thin-cell organic solar cells.”

“The resulting design exhibited a three-fold increase over the Yablonovitch Limit, a thermodynamic limit developed in the 1980s that statistically describes how long a photon can be trapped in a semiconductor.”

According to the researchers, the new design will greatly increase the efficiency of organic solar cells.

It’s currently planned for solar cells, with the pattern in question to be fabricated with partners at Argonne National Laboratory.

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From Princeton University:

Princeton researchers have found a simple and economical way to nearly triple the efficiency of organic solar cells, the cheap and flexible plastic devices that many scientists believe could be the future of solar power.

The researchers, led by electrical engineer Stephen Chou, were able to increase the efficiency of the solar cells 175 percent by using a nanostructured “sandwich” of metal and plastic that collects and traps light.

Chou, the Joseph C. Elgin Professor of Engineering, said the research team used nanotechnology to overcome two primary challenges that cause solar cells to lose energy: light reflecting from the cell, and the inability to fully capture light that enters the cell.

organic-solar-triple-efficiency1With their new metallic sandwich, the researchers were able to address both problems. The sandwich — called a subwavelength plasmonic cavity — has an extraordinary ability to dampen reflection and trap light. The new technique allowed Chou’s team to create a solar cell that only reflects about 4 percent of light and absorbs as much as 96 percent. It demonstrates 52 percent higher efficiency in converting light to electrical energy than a conventional solar cell.

That is for direct sunlight. The structure achieves even more efficiency for light that strikes the solar cell at large angles, which occurs on cloudy days or when the cell is not directly facing the sun. By capturing these angled rays, the new structure boosts efficiency by an additional 81 percent, leading to the 175 percent total increase.

The physics behinorganic-solar-triple-efficiency2d the innovation is formidably complex. But the device structure, in concept, is fairly simple.

The top layer, known as the window layer, of the new solar cell uses an incredibly fine metal mesh: the metal is 30 nanometers thick, and each hole is 175 nanometers in diameter and 25 nanometers apart. (A nanometer is a billionth of a meter and about one hundred-thousandth the width of human hair). This mesh replaces the conventional window layer typically made of a material called indium-tin-oxide (ITO)

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Solar Could Power the Whole World by 2030

January 5th, 2011 | Posted by paul in Uncategorized - (Comments Off on Solar Could Power the Whole World by 2030)

SolarGrowth1975-2007Here’s are some back of the hand projections I worked up this afternoon. If my facts are wrong, please insert your own and lets recalculate the projections.  These are simply projections based on past trends.  I didn’t take into consideration better manufacturing methods beyond current thin-film solar technologies. So these projections do not include nanotechnologies, desktop manufacturing/3D printing (a sure thing), availability of needed materials (China, etc), regulations or other unforeseen economic roadblocks.

Fact 1:  The slowest growth period for installation of Solar Power was between 1990-2000 at 20% annually.

Fact 2: The fastest growth period for adoption of Solar Power was between 2004-2009 at 60% annually.

Fact 3: Total installed Solar Power as of November 2010, was approximately ~25 Gigawatts.

Fact 4: Total World Power Capacity is ~17 Terawatts (as of 2010).

Fact 5: Useable Solar Power is only 1/3 of the time in sunny areas, so practically speaking we’d need 51 Terawatts of installed Solar to match current needs.

PROJECTIONS

Using basic logarithmic functions I wanted to see how long it would take Solar at the above growth rates to reach 17 Terawatts.

SLOW (20%) –   Log (1700/25) / Log (1 + 0.20) = 41.2 Years  – Solar reaches current World Power Output by 2051.

MEDIAN (40%) – Log (1700/25) / Log (1 + 0.40) = 22.3 Years – Solar reaches current World Power Output by 2033.

HIGH (60%) – Log (1700/25) / Log (1 + 0.60) = 16.3 Years – Solar reaches current World Power Output by 2026.

CONCLUSION:

Even if we take the Median projections based on average growth of Solar over the last 30 years, we get Solar reaching current World Energy needs by 2033.  Since world energy needs continue to climb, then there is no reason why at a median 40% growth rate, Solar could not meet all the electricity demands of the world by 2030.

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Going All Electric

February 21st, 2009 | Posted by paul in Uncategorized - (Comments Off on Going All Electric)

How far a car can drive based on either of the following forms of energy, each produced from 100m x 100m (2.5 acres) of land:

FuelEfficiency

Just so you know, the solar is based on only 10% efficient readily available solar cell technology, with 50% now being developed.

 

 

 

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Bye Bye Apocalypse: 5 Hopeful Trends

February 16th, 2009 | Posted by paul in Uncategorized - (Comments Off on Bye Bye Apocalypse: 5 Hopeful Trends)

Ok, the future of doom and gloom is getting old fast. At this point, nobody can predict the future, not even Bruce Sterling, Dmitri Orlov or Warren Buffett. Even the billionaires are getting hosed by the economic downturn.  But what this really proves is we have entered a new era where the old rules no longer apply.  That prospect scares a lot of people, especially the ones who’ve gained the most money and power by maintaining the status quo.  The elite have become naive enough to think they can continue getting away with theft and cronyism without any consequences (i.e. mob revolt), but this time they’re wrong. Asynchronous power is getting stronger all the time, which is why the worlds most powerful military is loosing to a small number of decentralized insurgents. I predicted the current economic crisis back in 2002, in my post Capital, Power and Ecology, simply because business as usual is not sustainable.  It was destined to collapse, and my best guess at the time was that it would happen sometime within the next decade or so.

There is nothing like a crisis to spur rapid evolutionary growth. We are witnessing a level of creative destruction that is unprecedented both globally and historically. Yet solutions for every problem we face are already available right now. We have all the information we need. In fact we are drowning in it.

The current economic collapse, rather than being a indicator of worse things to come, is instead a wake-up call to re-engineer our society from the bottom-up to become more resilient, capable of withstanding unexpected change and upheaval. A resilient economy is also one that is more sustainable and integrated with the planetary ecology, and more responsive to the needs of all of its citizens. Economic growth can and will accelerate, but not by converting precious resources into cheap disposable products, but by making more intelligent use of the materials we already have! There is no reason why this intelligent growth (getting more from less) can’t increase indefinitely, or at least until we’re ready to leave the planet. This is what is called a regenerative economy, or what Bucky Fuller called, ephermalization, which is the idea of progressively doing more with less.

What most doomsayers like Dmitri Orlov don’t get is the process of ephermalization.  His prediction is that our only solution is to accept that we’re all going to be a lot poorer, and we should just get used to it. This is just nonsense, and he’s not helping the situation any. I suppose if wealth is defined as having tons of disposable material goods, then yes our wealth will diminish.  But is that what we really want?  Having an economy that depends on cheap imported products from China, using up more non-renewable resources powered by coal-fired plants polluting the atmosphere while inducing severe climate change, is just plain stupid.  So yes Dmitri is right, we are going to become a lot poorer in terms of Stupid Wealth, but a lot richer in terms of Smart Wealth (Please read the Smart Growth Manifesto for a great explanation of this idea).

The answers to future growth and wealth production are decentralization via localization, regeneration, remediation, renewables, and cybernation all of which results in greaterresiliency.  If we can achieve both local and global resiliency we can grow out of our technological adolescence and become a type 1 civilization.  This means the odds of our species surviving this century increases dramatically, and we can go on to become a space faring immortal civilization should that be our wish.

Here are details for the five trends I listed, and how each can change the world for the better:

Decentralization

This applies across the board.  Anytime critical needs are centralized the resources for those needs are subject to attack and failure.  If one power plant fails a domino effect can take place, knocking more power plants offline. The solution to creating a resilient energy supply that is resistant to overloads or sabotage is to localize power production through locally available renewable resources like solar, wind, and geothermal.  If every community had at least one power generator for every thousand people in combination with more renewable energy being generated on local rooftops, there is nothing short of a nuclear blast that could shut it all down. The more decentralized, localized and miniaturized the power generation, the more resilient and reliable it becomes.  In an ideal world all the power would be generated by the house or building itself.  This applies equally to food production, means of exchange (localized currency), manufacturing and defense. For an interesting read on localized defense, read John Barr’s Power To The People. The topics John covers are both frightening and reassuring. But here is a good excerpt:

A newly vigilant and networked public will push for much greater levels of transparency in government and corporate operations, using the Internet to expose, publish, and patch potential security flaws. Over time, this new transparency, and the wider participation it entails, will lead to radical improvements in government and corporate efficiency.

On the national level, we’ll see a withering of the security apparatus, but quite possibly a flowering in other areas. Energy independence and the obsolescence of conventional war with other countries will reduce tensions between the United States and the rest of the world. The end of oil will also force corrupt states, now propped up by energy income, to make the reforms they need to be accepted internationally, improving life for their people.

Perhaps the most important global shift will be the rise of grassroots action and cross-connected communities. Like the Internet, these new networks will develop slowly at first. After a period of exponential growth, however, they will quickly become all but ubiquitous–and astonishingly powerful, perhaps as powerful as the networks arrayed against us.

Localization

This is really the same thing as decentralization.  The localization movement is definitely picking up steam, as more people are beginning to realize that governments don’t work very well, and needs are best met locally.  The aftermath of Katrina is a classic case of government gone wrong. There is a great book called The Transition Handbook: From Oil Dependency to Local Resilience, which is a users manual for transitioning your community from one dependent on centralized sources of food, energy, and currency to a localized one.  A localized resilient community would be one that generates all of its own food, energy and many or most of its products. Desktop manufacturing will do a lot to bring the power of production down to the local level, reducing the current expensive and polluting means of transporting products from one corner of the globe to another. A product designed in Malaysia can then be sent online to you in Kansas, where it can be manufactured locally. A resilient community would also have a robust locally issued currency that is immune from government issued fiat currency that is fixed and manipulated by the most powerful for their benefit at the expense of everyone else.(See the video Money is Debt, for a fantastic explanation of the evils of corporate banking and government issued fiat currency). Localized currency is the way to go, and their many thriving examples, including the Totnes Pound in the UK, and the Berkshares in Western Massachusetts.  At last count there are over 1200 local currencies in the US alone. The Totnes Pound was the brainchild of the author who wrote The Transition Handbook.  He’s created a network of towns in the UK that are all making the transition to local resilience.

Another great idea is a Time Bank, where you deposit time by doing tasks for other members, who in turn get paid for your services with time they deposited. Time Banks are now operating in 22 countries and growing.  Here’s a good quote from a guy who has combined the two concepts of local currency and time into what he calls Ithaca hours, in Ithaca New York.

We printed our own money because we watched Federal dollars come to town, shake a few hands, then leave to buy rainforest lumber and fight wars. Ithaca’s HOURS, by contrast, stay in our region to help us hire each other. While dollars make us increasingly dependent on transnational corporations and bankers, HOURS reinforce community trading and expand commerce which is more accountable to our concerns for ecology and social justice.”

Regeneration

Regeneration is the ultimate endpoint of comprehensive recycling.  To accomplish this will require two primary fronts of advancement.  The first is new, efficient and cost-effective means to recycle materials we’ve already created, and the second is transitioning more of our products to using materials that can be recycled.  Advances on both fronts will result in a middle ground combination of materials that are biodegradable, low or negative carbon footprint specific, and/or easily recycled non-biodegradable stock.  Advances are happening on all these fronts, and those companies willing to spend money on research and development stand to reap huge financial rewards from innovation in recyclable materials and processes.

In the meantime, there are huge tracts of land that have been destroyed by pollution or non-sustainable agricultural processes.  The solution is to engage in aggressive bioremediation efforts to regenerate the soil, clean up the toxic waste and polluted water stores.  Solutions for this are already here, including nanofilters for cleaning water, microbes for cleaning and rendering harmless toxic waste, and advanced permaculture methods for bringing dead land back to life. John Todd developed what are called Living Machines, that can turn waste water back into drinkable water.  With Todd’s help the Tennessee Valley Authority has already done this with their water supply, and has cleaned up their polluted river in the process. There are many good sources for information on how to  do this for yourself. Some good starter books include Introduction to PermacultureFrom Eco-Cities To Living Machines,  Edible Forest Gardens, and Mycelium Runnng (which shows how to remediate dead soil using mushrooms).

Renewables

This is a no-brainer.  If your energy supply is produced locally from readily available sources such as wind, solar and geothermal, there is no dependence on outsiders, whether it be large energy corporations or foreign states for supple of your energy needs.  The added bonus is the energy is clean, green and non-polluting, which in turn eliminates the expenses added by pollution, including health costs and remediation of polluted lands.

Cybernation

This involves both the continuing transformation of more of our world into bits, which can be transported and replicated at next to no cost, and the increasing intelligent automation of more of what makes our world run.  If more of our services and products are conducted and generated online, it reduces the need for material and energy costs of doing the same thing in the analog world.  Just imagine how much energy costs will be reduced by reducing dramatically the need for transportation of goods, when they can be made locally by the advancement of desktop manufacturing technologies.

Then there is the continuing network effect ov more people get online, more high quality information becoming available, and connections to people and resources becoming more relevant through semantic intelligence, peer-to-peer knowledge exchange and better social networking services.  And with Moore’s Law of accelerating returns we’ll continue to get computer power for less and less money.  Advances in all the areas mentioned above will become accelerated too, as everyone can connect with the right people at the right time, spreading knowledge, know-how and creative solutions more rapidly than ever before.

Resiliency & Anti-Fragility and Thrivability

So what’s the result of all this?  Our quality of life will improve dramatically because we’ll all be wealthier, healthier, and safer from smart growth.  This will produce cost savings in the trillions per year, reductions in pollution and far greater resiliency for our world.  Imagine the incredible reduction in cost when all of the materials that are currently being chewed up by mining, the cutting down of rain forests, and the pollution of lands and waters, are no longer needed.  Imagine if you can get almost everything you need within 5 miles of your home.  Imagine the cost reductions when food, energy and materials are all available locally through permaculture, biointensive gardening, local aquaculture, living machines, abundant clean energy and desktop manufacturing.  It’s a future worth working on, and we can start building it today.

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Heal the Planet, Live Forever, Travel the Stars

December 8th, 2008 | Posted by paul in Uncategorized - (Comments Off on Heal the Planet, Live Forever, Travel the Stars)
floating-green-ecocities

Vincent Callebaut’s Lilypad Ocean City

Solutions to all the world’s problems are all around us.  Every day there are thousands of new solutions presenting themselves to solve every pressing problem facing the planet and humanity.

It was Bucky Fuller who made this observation back in the 1960’s, that given sufficient willingness we have everything we need now to house, clothe and feed every human being on the planet ten times over, and at a standard of living equal to a billionaire.  What is required, Bucky Fuller said, is a Design Science Revolution.  Updating this for modern time, what we really need is a Green Design Science Revolution.

Green architecture comes in many forms, and they get more amazing by the day – urban skyscraper farms, floating eco-citiesglowing solar towersturbine-driven skyscrapersmagnetically levitated wind collectors. Where does it end?! Vincent Callebaut is definitely of the leading architectural visionaries leading this movement.

Lets start with the picture [to the right]. The so-called Lilypad Project is perhaps the most fantastical of these green wonders. The idea is to create a series of floating self-sufficient ocean-going eco-city islands. Each one would be able to house 50,000 residents and would support a great deal of biodiversity. Collecting pools located in their centers would gather and filter water for use on board.

These would be places for adventurers and refugees alike as water levels rise around the world and threaten many, particularly island, habitats. As fears of global warming induced population displacement are steadily realized, the allure of waterborne aquatecture becomes more and more enticing.

floatingcity143

Designed by Alexander Asadov, this incredible floating Aerohotel (pictured above) features a lighter-than-air aesthetic that sits serenely atop an elegant system of supports. Conceived as an elevated aquatic structure replete with hanging gardens, the space-age floating island preserves the entire extent of the ecosystem beneath it, contrasting with man-made islands that disrupt their immediate environment with tons of gravel fill.

The beauty of most of these solutions is they not only solve their intended design problem, they also solve many of the other problems of the world as well. Whether it’s poverty, pollution, political tyranny, climate change, disease, or environmental degradation, they are all related to each other via a complex web of life in a materially closed system at the bottom of a gravity well.  Solve one piece of the puzzle, and the rest of the puzzle gets a little bit easier to solve as well.

Although I’m still a bit jaded with the American political process, I’m more hopeful than ever before. The reasons are many, but most especially the “can do” attitude that is sweeping the nation since Obama’s victory.  It’s a shift in consciousness.  I’m seeing solutions, rather than intractable problems.  I’m seeing that we can do anything if we’re willing enough. And I’m not the only one feeling it, millions around the world are.

Thanks to 8 long years of disastrous policy and rampant corruption, people have seen just how much bold faced lies and crap they can take. People are fed up with the constant bullshit, and they are not going to take it anymore.   When pundits and other so-called “experts” say we can’t do this, or we can’t do that, people are crying foul!  I’ve heard it on the radio, and seen it on the streets. People know now that we can do anything if we set our mind to it.

I heard a recent radio interview with some so-called electric car supporter saying it will takes us decades to convert even 25% of our car fleet to electric and plug-in hybrids, except this time he was out smarted, and out WILLED by everyone else on the panel, including the callers, who said their is no reason we can’t convert to 100% renewable and electric vehicles in half the time – if we are willing.

Better Place, a company that aims to build a worldwide electric car charging infrastructure, has announced an agreement with the state of California to build a $1 billion network in the Bay Area. Meanwhile, Tesla CEO Elon Musk says his company is looking at rapid charge technology, and the possibility of swappable batteries.  The entire US fleet of vehicles could be powered by renewable energy.

recent study done by Mark Z. Jacobson at Stanford University says that wind, water and sun beat biofuels, nuclear and coal for clean energy.

Wind was by far the most promising, Jacobson said, owing to a better-than 99 percent reduction in carbon and air pollution emissions; the consumption of less than 3 square kilometers of land for the turbine footprints to run the entire U.S. vehicle fleet (given the fleet is composed of battery-electric vehicles);l the savings of about 15,000 lives per year from premature air-pollution-related deaths from vehicle exhaust in the United States; and virtually no water consumption.

 

“There is a lot of talk among politicians that we need a massive jobs program to pull the economy out of the current recession,” Jacobson said. “Well, putting people to work building wind turbines, solar plants, geothermal plants, electric vehicles and transmission lines would not only create jobs but would also reduce costs due to health care, crop damage and climate damage from current vehicle and electric power pollution, as well as provide the world with a truly unlimited supply of clean power.”

Jacobson’s research is particularly timely in light of the growing push to develop biofuels, which he calculated to be the worst of the available alternatives. In their effort to obtain a federal bailout, the Big Three Detroit automakers are increasingly touting their efforts and programs in the biofuels realm, and federal research dollars have been supporting a growing number of biofuel-research efforts.

“That is exactly the wrong place to be spending our money. Biofuels are the most damaging choice we could make in our efforts to move away from using fossil fuels,” Jacobson said. “We should be spending to promote energy technologies that cause significant reductions in carbon emissions and air-pollution mortality, not technologies that have either marginal benefits or no benefits at all”.

The three best alternatives that Jacobson is mentioning are each seeing revolutionary advancements. The Maglev wind turbine is designed to generate up to 1GW of power.

maglev2

Magnetic levitation is an extremely efficient system for wind energy. Here’s how it works: the vertically oriented blades of the wind turbine are suspended in the air above the base of the machine, replacing the need for ball bearings. The turbine uses “full-permanent” magnets, not electromagnets — therefore, it does not require electricity to run. The full-permanent magnet system employs neodymium (”rare earth”) magnets and there is no energy loss through friction. This also helps reduce maintenance costs and increases the lifespan of the generator. Maglev wind turbines have several advantages over conventional wind turbines. For instance, they’re able to use winds with starting speeds as low as 1.5 meters per second (m/s). Also, they could operate in winds exceeding 40 m/s. Currently, the largest conventional wind turbines in the world produce only five megawatts of power. However, one large maglev wind turbine could generate one gigawatt of clean power, enough to supply energy to 750,000 homes. It would also increase generation capacity by 20% over conventional wind turbines and decrease operational costs by 50%. If that isn’t enough, the maglev wind turbines will be operational for about 500 years.  A few hundred of these could power the entire American car fleet.

Beyond centralized solutions, there are plentiful cheap individual ones as well.  Accessible individual wind power is getting cheaper all the time, such as Helix Wind residential wind turbine.

On the Solar front we have Nanosolar’s printed solar cell.  They are already creating and selling massive sheets of solar cells for less than $1.00 per watt.  Their current manufacturing output now exceeds all other solar manufacturers in the world combined!  They are claiming prices of less than 30 cents/watt are achievable once manufacturing goes mainstream. To put this in perspective, the current price for coal is $2.10 per watt.  Solar and wind are becoming cheaper all the time, and are no competitively cheaper than the more dirty alternatives.  There is no excuse anymore to use the dirtier alternatives, other than providing corporate welfare to obsolete industries (coal, oil, nuclear, etc.).  The only downside to sources like the sun and wind, is they are not continuously available.

Enter Deep Geothermal.  Currently, geothermal plants exist near fault lines and other areas where hot temperatures are closer to the surface.  For example just south of Reno, Nevada there is a geothermal plant that powers the entire city, or equivalent to 220,000 homes. This tiny plant and all of its facilities takes up less than 8 acres of land.  This plant works because it’s sitting on top of a geothermal basin, where hot temperatures are right under the surface. So location is everything with current geothermal implementations.  Deep geothermal technologies change this because they are able to dig deep enough, that location doesn’t matter anymore.  With deep geothermal power water is pumped down to the hot rock, heated, and then brought back to the surface to turn turbines for electricity. Dig deep enough and boiling hot temperatures are available everywhere.  You could set up a geothermal plant anywhere power is needed.  Nevada is also home to Solar One, the third largest solar concentration plant in the world, producing 64MW of power on less than 400 acres.  Combine Nevada’s abundance of sun, wind (especially in Northern Nevada) and resident surface geothermal could power most of the United States, turning Nevada into one of the 10 biggest economies in the world.

Cars meanwhile could be converted over to running mostly or entirely by electricity.  About 90% of the population drives their cars less than 100 miles a day.  So the limited range of current battery technology would take care of 90% of automobile energy consumption. The other 10% could be a combination of electric and plant-based fuels with 100 – 300 miles per gallon possible.Rather than these plants taking place of food crops, they could be saltwater based and be grown in currently non-arable areas.  The use of saltwater crops for food and fuel could expand the world’s arable land by 50%! That’s over 50 million square miles of previously uncultivated territory in the world’s coastal deserts, inland salty soils, and over-salinized agricultural land (For more information on salt-water agriculture see Food vs Fuel).  The water for these salty plants could come directly from the ocean.  Meanwhile a portion of this seawater could be desalinized, bringing fresh water to the very arid regions that need it. An added benefit of all these saltwater plants along with renewable energy could cut global greenhouse gases back to pre-industrial levels

As I mentioned in Regreening the Earth, the European Union has proposed building out a massive renewable energy works that would tie together very-large scale solar facilities in Northern Africa, offshore wind powered turbines in the North Sea to form a large universal energy grid. The Africans would also get a cut of this cheap energy, since most of the solar plants would be in the Northern Sahara.  As part of this plan,  large scale desalination plants would line the African coastline to bring much needed water to areas of Africa that have been suffering from devastating droughts and desertification.  This massive increase in fresh water to Africa would alleviate many of Africa’s problems with hunger, disease, and poverty. The potential for re-greening Africa is very compelling, and could be a model for re-greening much of the rest of the world.  Comprehensive solutions like this EU proposal is precisely what the world needs to making the world a better place and bringing us all into a prosperous and robust 21st century future. .

However, climate change is but one part of our current environmental crisis.  The other is the wholesale destruction of fragile ecosystems taking place around the world. Locations like Indonesia and the Amazon are seeing the most diverse plant and animal kingdoms give way under chain saws and bulldozers. These vital ecosystems, having evolved over millions of years, are bring destroyed for short-term economic gain.

The problem of resource depletion is big, and it will require an equally big solution  What we need is a wholesale transition to a world-wide regenerative economy – based on value, rather than debt.  (  A regenerative economy is one that recycles and regenerates everything it uses and creates back into the economic fold to be used again and again.  This eliminates both the need for chewing up the planet or creating toxic landfills.

To get a better understanding of the regenerative economy, I recommend watching Sustainability is Only Half the Solution, Regeneration is the Other Half.

Below is an artist depiction of San Franciscos powered by geothermal energy “mushrooms” and algae-harvesting towers produce hydrogen, which is stored and distributed via a series of carbon nanotube walls. Fog catchers capture moisture from the atmosphere to distill fresh water.

sf-ecotopia

A network of above ground and underground systems “fulfill infrastructural needs for the movement of people, water, hover-cars, and energy throughout the city”. Taking cues from nature, a giant super system resembling seaweed and chantrelle mushroom will hold together this network to collect water, power and distribute it across the city.

sf-ecotopia-004

The biggest challenge in creating a regenerative economy is converting waste back into useful materials.  This includes all of our waste such as water, petroleum based plastics, and precious metals.  One solution to having abundant clean water will be the widespread adoption of cheapnanofilters, which have already proven effective in treating waste water. Biodegradable and recyclable plastics exist, and only require infusions of capital investment to become cheap enough to compete head on with traditional plastics.  Saltwater agriculture + plant based plastics = win-win regeneration.   Add in the growing potential of nanotechnology and microbe-based reclamation tools, and we could clean up and eliminate ALL of the toxic materials we’ve ever created, while simultaneously restoring damaged ecosystems. Human civilization finally becomes a deeply organic and fully integrated part of the biosphere.

All of this effort toward creating a sustainable and regenerative economy would simultaneously solve many, if not most of the world problems.  It would create hundreds of millions of new jobs.  It would allow developing and third-world nations the opportunity to leap-frog entirely the polluting and wasteful industrializing phase right into a clean, green, regenerative economy.  This would result in a radical reduction of world-wide poverty and hunger, while bringing them the benefits the best of the 21st Century has to offer.

So this brings me to two other pressing problems – population growth and political tyranny.  As I mentioned previously, all the worlds problems are interrelated.  The rapid rise in pollution, industrial waste, and environmental destruction can be directly linked to population growth.   Population growth in turn means more competition over dwindling resources, which means more wars, genocides, and politically oppressive regimes run by brutal dictators and junta’s, supported by first-world industrialists.  BUT, if the means to health, wealth and economic prosperity can be had without further resource depletion, then the incentive for war is significantly reduced.  The same goes for political oppression and culturally based genocide wars, which are the result of desperate, ignorant people caught in the web of poverty, disease and lack of education.  Economic prosperity and education go hand-in-hand.  If developing nations are able to access the world’s knowledge through the internet, this opens them up to the rest of the world. Freedom is a tantalizing thing, and once people have it they will do everything they can to keep it and expand it.  I found out just yesterday, Saudi Arabia now has it’s own all-girl rock band called Accolade.  Their hit song Pinocchio is getting massive airplay throughout the middle east.  They still can’t perform live, and must wear their black shawls while in public, but the influence of downloadable music and iPods is having a cultural influence on the young in oppressive regimes.

When people are well off economically several things happen – they are less likely to commit crimes, less likely to commit acts of terrorism, and less likely to have children, and less likely to put up with assaults on their freedom.  The net population growth in the First World is zero.  All population growth is happening in Second and Third World countries and their immigration into First World countries.  Improve the economic conditions of the world’s poor, and population growth stops.

All this will take is willingness to make it happen.   Most people don’t even know their are solutions, or think it is way more difficult than it seams.  So it’s about educating and inspiring as many people as possible.  This is why I’m cautiously optimistic that if a minimum threshold of people wake up and adopt a can-do attitude we can in fact make it happen.

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The Solar Economy & The Re-Greening of the Earth

June 30th, 2008 | Posted by paul in Uncategorized - (Comments Off on The Solar Economy & The Re-Greening of the Earth)

Despite climbing gas prices, and an ever growing threat of global warming, I’ve become more confident that a clean-green sustainable economy is on it’s way.  As hard as the gas prices hit the wallet, these higher prices could not have come at a better time.  There’s nothing like the pocketbook that gets people’s attention. As the cost of using polluting resources climbs, cleaner alternatives become more attractive.  What’s kept kept this transition from taking hold is a combination of powerful oil interests combined with not-cheap-enough renewable alternatives.  That’s beginning to change.

The most significant challenger yet to our traditional energy scheme is a company called Nanosolar.  Although they are mum on specific details of efficiency and pricing, what is clear is they are now printing (rolling) solar cells off in their production facility in excess of 100 feet per minute using a single $1.65 million dollar conveyor system.  Nanosolar is claiming efficiencies as high as 14%, with at least an average of 10%.  According to a press release on June 18th, they are now capable of printing 1GW of solar capacity per year.  And that’s just for starters. According to their CEO, the speed of these conveyor systems could theoretically be ramped up to 2000 feet/minute.  Even if they achieved a quarter of that speed, that same facility would then be capable of 5GW/year.  The current annual global consumption of energy from all sources is 5 x 10^20 joules.  This translates into 15 Terawatts of ongoing power output every second of every day.  If nanosolar alone were charged with converting the entire world to solar over 10 years, they would need 300 production facilities of equivalent size. In the scheme of things, this isn’t very much, however we don’t have to rely on just Nanosolar for our energy needs.  There are many other sources including geothermal, wind, as well as solar-thermal (the current choice for large-scale solar installations). One thing is clear, there is no reason we can’t convert all of the world’s energy production to clean-green renewables over the next couple of decades.   The traditional view is that such a transition would require huge subsidies from governments.  If Nanosolar can achieve the 99 cents/watt prices they claim, then no subsidies would be needed. Anything less than a $1/watt makes it competitive with petroleum based power sources, especially if prices per barrel remain above $100 (It’s currently above $140/barrel).  Assuming the entire worlds energy production were being produced in a single location in North Africa, below is a map showing the area needed:

solar-thermal-power-bb001

The larger square represents the whole world, and the middle square represents the 25 countries of the European Union.  As you can see the amount of land needed is rather minuscule   This area was calculating using a conservative 8% efficiency. Luckily for us, solar power decentralizes energy production, eliminating the necessity for centralized power sources.  Like the PC before it, cheap solar power gives everybody the ability to produce their own power on their rooftops, the same way the PC put centralized supercomputer power on every desktop and laptop.  Below is an image showing a variety of large-scale sources and how they could be tied into a network supplying all of Europe, Western Asia and Africa with power.

solar-thermal-power-bb011

Although it’s not clear form this picture, a positive and very powerful benefit to cheap solar power is radically cheaper desalinization plants.  Not only would Africa benefit from the economic boon of massive solar farms in the northern Sahara, but a huge increase in fresh water into Africa’s arid region, long suffering from drought, desertification, economic hardship and starvation. Even before these benefits are felt, desalinization itself has become cheaper, with current prices now below 50 cents per cubic meter of water.  And just a few days agoSiemens Water Technologies reported a new technology that desalinizes one cubic meter of water while using only 1.5 kwh of energy, which, according to the report, is one half the energy that other processes use.  Include cheap solar into the mix, and water from desalinization becomes 5-10 times cheaper than from traditional municipal sources.  What this means, is that vast areas of arid regions throughout the world could become beautiful green paradises, lush with vegetation, lakes,streams, farming and life.  The Sahara,and most other deserts in the world could some day look like this:

DesertFarming1

The Sahara Desert is a notoriously hostile environment where it is almost impossible to survive – let alone grow and thrive. The Sahara Forest Project is an audacious environmental undertaking aims to change all of that. The Sahara Forest Project aims to provide a new source of fresh water, food and renewable energy in hot, arid regions, as well as providing conditions to re-vegetate any desert region. Using an inspired combination of solar power and seawater, an ambitious collective of environmental designers, architects and engineers has plans to convert part of this harsh desert into a thriving plant paradise that will bring food, water and power to one of the most unlikely places on the planet.

sahara_green1

The first critical move is to use concentrated solar power bring in vast amounts of solar energy via huge arrays of mirrors that will supply the installation with electrical power and heat. The second essential step is the employment of seawater greenhouses which uses seawater rather than tapping into the depleted underwater freshwater sources via wells. The solar power is used to evaporate the seawater, clean and cool it, and to spread the conditioned air throughout a system of greenhouses.

The result: cool air, plenty of freshwater moisture, and copious plant growth. What can be grown? Essentially anything you can imagine, including most kinds of staple produce found in your local grocery stores. Best of all, the seawater being used is rich in nutrients which can be used in the growing process which in turn minimizes the need to bring in external nutrient sources from outside of this closed system.

And outside of the system? Extra clean water can be released into the local atmosphere and create a regional microclimate that can sustain the growth of some kinds of plants that can live outside of the greenhouses. In the long run, then, not only can the greenhouses themselves provide food but the entire operation can improve the regional climactic conditions and repair environmental damage (such as fresh water depletion) slowly change the local ecosystem back to something closer to what it was thousands of years ago.

Along with abundant supplies of clean energy, transportation and other high power energy use can either be converted to electric or hydrogen.  Hydrogen can be produced by applying electrolysis to water. Everything from large transports to hypersonic aircraft can run on hydrogen fuel.  Meanwhile electric cars could be powered by solar generated electricity produced on the rooftops of the average home.

The average daily use of electricity of the American home is 30KWH.  In order to produce this much electricity daily using an 8% efficient solar cell would require approximately 500 square feet.  Each square foot would generate about 9 watts, which equates to 4500 watts for 500 square feet.  This would require less than 7 hours of sunlight a day.  Obviously many days of the year are cloud covered, and this is not considering the more northern climates which get less sun still.  However, 8% efficiency is very low, and I used it as a conservative baseline.  If you double the efficiency to 14% you only need 3.5 hours a day.  Also keep in mind, 30KWH/day is an American use, which is more consumptive than any other countries household in the world. Nanosolar is claiming an average of 10% efficiency, with highs of 14%.  With additional research there is no reason to think these efficiencies can’t go higher.  Some companies have already achieved 40% efficiency with some materials.  500 square feet of nanosolar cells at their current price would cost $4500, not counting installation and dc/ac inverters.  Still, as this technology goes mainstream, which it will, the costs will only go down.  Nanosolar is saying that once they scale up another factor, prices could drop as low as 30 cents/watt of production, or less than $1500 to have you total energy independence for yourself.  No more power bills, and with an electric car, no more gas bills either, not to mention the radical reduction in global carbon emissions.

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Utopia or Oblivion

January 19th, 2003 | Posted by paul in Uncategorized - (Comments Off on Utopia or Oblivion)

A reader named Chris Hagglund wrote me and had this to say:

Dear Paul:

I was reading your weblog and I found your post from Jan 6 about building a good future for our children. My perspective on the future is from a technology standpoint — basically building the systems that will enable a global democratic society/societies and guaranteeing freedom and opportunities for our children. I know there are a lot of things that need to be done, one of which is to build a ubiquitous free wireless network. I also think that for the sake of our planet we should begin using hydrogen as an energy source sooner rather than later. What do you think about these things? How do you think we can best go about building the utopian future you envision?

Dear Chris,

It’s always nice to hear from people who share my visions and concerns. I believe like Bucky Fuller, that we stand at the precipice of utopia or oblivion, there is no third way. Technologies are becoming so powerful, that we will either destroy ourselves or establish a utopian paradise. Nanotechnology alone will not be able to co-exist with us for long, unless we as a species somehow figures it all out. I’m not sure what it’s going to take to tip the scale towards utopia, except a massive shift in the way people see the world and the choices they make.

Looking at things today, there are at least a few things I hold out promise for and see as necessary to move things in a more positive direction:

1) Open Spectrum – The coming about of a ubiquitous wireless network that is entirely decentralized, ad-hoc, and open. Both you and I already understand why having an unfettered, uncontrollable, open and free network of communication and connection is the surest way to have a free society. No matter how bad it could get otherwise, when people have the ability to communicate, organize and build community without fear, the powers that be loose their power ultimately. They know this, which is why emerging technologies like 802.11 and mesh networks, the politics of spectrum, and other battles to come are so important. Much hangs in the balance. It is my hope that no matter what they do, that these technologies will be so successful and sufficiently disruptive and decentralized that there will be nothing they *can* do. It bears mentioning that ubiquitous computing combined with advance socially enabling software will likely change the balance of power and capital as we know it. See my blog entries on Capital, Power and Ecology and From Global Economy to Global Village for my views on this.

2) Obsolescence of Oil – There is great promise in alternative energy sources. They will continue to get cheaper. As more people invest, the manufacturing costs will continue to go down which in turn encourages more investment. So I not only want us to wean ourselves from oil, I’m hoping it will simply loose out in the marketplace to cheaper alternatives. This will happen eventually as we are closely approaching Hubberts Peak. The shift to a solar-hydrogen economy has the added benefit of encouragaing invesetment in space migration. The politics of oil has been brutal, and unfortunately it looks like its about to get a lot worse. The sad part is that our dependence on oil is going to not only destabilize the world politic its probably going to create a whole new generation of terrorist that will plague us for many years to come. The saddest part of this isn’t so much the terrorism, as it will be societies inappropriate response to it – more oppression, less freedom – basically a society based on tyranny and suspicion rather than openness and trust. This is why its so crucial that we have open communications and the transparency it engenders. And it would help if our foreign policies didn’t sow the seeds of terrorism in the first place!

So the real question is, will the combination of free communications and cheaper alternatives to oil kick in fast enough to turn the tide? I’m not sure, but I remain hopeful.

So in answer to your question, what can we do today? Well, we can each do our part to spread the word about these liberating technologies, and for those of us who have the skill, build and deploy these technologies as fast as possible. I’m not an engineer, so I’m doing my part, in an otherwise insanely busy life, by publishing this blog and getting people excited about the possibilities – that it’s not too late. Since we only have two choices left – utopia or oblivion, lets start building utopia right now.

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From Carbon Economy to Hydrogen Economy

November 25th, 2002 | Posted by paul in Uncategorized - (Comments Off on From Carbon Economy to Hydrogen Economy)

I popped over to Joi Ito’s Weblog today, and he had some interesting tidbits on the inevitability of the hydrogen economy. And while reading it, I discovered again Mr David Isenberg, who I just referenced below with his article, The Paradox of the Best Network.

David is famous for many things including his paper “The Rise of the Stupid Network” David was talking a lot about Oil. He says that “Hubbert’s Peak”, when oil production will begin to drop, will happen in 2003. On the other hand, world energy consumption will increase 66% (USA Today, 1/10/02) from 1999-2020. It’s OBVIOUSLY time for the Hydrogen Economy that we’re starting to get very excited about.

David was extremely bright and gave me an interesting view into the “prosultants” (vs “consultants”) who are smart researchers who trying to figure things out and convey them to people and companies.

hydrogenloopThis picture to the right is ECD’s vision of the Hydrogen Economy. Get carbon out of the picture. Reduce the cycle to the basic elements of the universe. Photons creating energy to break H2O into Hydrogen and Oxygen. Oxygen goes back to the atmosphere and the Hydrogen is stored and transported in the Hydride material. The Hydrogen is later extracted to create energy through combustion or through the creation of electrical energy with a fuel cell. This electricity can be stored in a Hydride battery which is also based on Hydrogen. The electricity obviously can be used for propulsion or be converted into meta-energy, or information. Photos->Hydrogen->Electrons->Bits that’s all we need. No CO2, fossil fuels, uranium or any of the non-big-bang stuff please. Oh and by the way, the basic material and the phenomenon used to store hydrogen in a solid, the convert hydrogen in to electricity and the store electricity in hydride batteries is the based on the same basic science.

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