Category Archives: Elegant Technology

Sweden’s waste to energy, and other advanced problem-solving

The various schemes to make societies less carbon intensive fall into two categories—conservation of resources, and capture of alternative energy sources. When I wrote Elegant Technology, I was quite enchanted by Sweden's waste disposal system that provided most of the heat necessary to warm their homes during those long dark winters. So it is interesting to see how things have turned out—as seen through the eyes of an Australian documentarian. I am not so enchanted by this waste-to-heat solution as I was 30 years ago—I am pretty much down on fire these days. OTOH, I have not seen a better scheme anywhere else.

Aug 20, 2018

This documentary was done during the run-up to the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference. The most interesting part of this doc is probably the claim that Denmark did not decide to reduce their need for fossil fuels as a reaction to climate change, but as a response to the 1973 oil embargo. This means they have a 45-year head start on most countries—esp.USA.


This is from PBS. It concentrates on Samsø island in Denmark—which has nearly reached the target of complete sustainable energy generation. You will notice there are  tractors in use so they are still importing some petroleum.

Dec 12, 2015

Synthetic Photosynthesis

When I first started writing about climate change and the environment back in the 1980s, the atmospheric CO2 levels stood at approximately 340 parts per million. We are now firmly past 400. We are so far into uncharted territory, that all predictions are at best, educated guesses. However, very few of these guesses are encouraging. Anyway, I like this fictional account below.

Because it points out an obvious fact. Not only are we going to have to spend big bucks replacing the fire-based infrastructure, we must do something to return the CO2 levels to let's say, 310, or even 275. What we need is a synthetic version of photosynthesis. And we need it immediately because say we did invent a process that could capture atmospheric CO2 and turn it into O2 plus a very pure carbon, we are going have to put up probably 250,000 installations to start moving the needle down. Even Elon Musk wouldn't promise this in five years. We are talking a Manhattan Project-size effort x 50.

Compared to the effort to make inexpensive solar cells, the synthetic photosynthesis business is still pretty primitive. But at least there are folks who are producing hardware who also have a good idea how important this is.

This Machine Just Started Sucking CO2 Out Of The Air To Save Us From Climate Change 

Climeworks carbon capture device will take the gas from the air and sell it or store it in the ground. Now we just need a few hundred thousand more–as quickly as possible.

By Adele Peters, 05.31.17

Sitting on top of a waste incineration facility near Zurich, a new carbon capture plant is now sucking CO2 out of the air to sell to its first customer. The plant, which opened on May 31, is the first commercial enterprise of its kind. By midcentury, the startup behind it–Climeworks–believes we will need hundreds of thousands more.

To have a chance of keeping the global temperature from rising more than two degrees Celsius, the limit set by the Paris agreement, it’s likely that shifting to a low-carbon economy won’t be enough.“If we say that by the middle of the century we want to do 10 billion tons per year, that’s probably something where we need to start today.” [Photo: Julia Dunlop]“We really only have less than 20 years left at current emission rates to have a good chance of limiting emissions to less than 2°C,” says Chris Field, director of the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment and coauthor of a recent paper discussing carbon removal. “So it’s a big challenge to do it simply by decreasing emissions from energy, transportation, and agriculture.” Removing carbon–whether through planting more forests or more advanced technology like direct carbon capture–will probably also be necessary to reach the goal.

At the new Swiss plant, three stacked shipping containers each hold six of Climeworks’ CO2 collectors. Small fans pull air into the collectors, where a sponge-like filter soaks up carbon dioxide. It takes two or three hours to fully saturate a filter, and then the process reverses: The box closes, and the collector is heated to 212 degrees Fahrenheit, which releases the CO2 in a pure form that can be sold, made into other products, or buried underground. more

Direct air capture

Carbon dioxide can be removed from ambient air through chemical processes, sequestered, and stored. Traditional modes of carbon capture such as precombustion and postcombustion CO2 capture from large point sources can help slow the rate of increase of the atmospheric CO2 concentration, but only the direct removal of CO2 from the air, or “direct air capture” (DAC), can actually reduce the global atmospheric CO2concentration if combined with long-term storage of CO2.

A few engineering proposals have been made for removing CO2 from the atmosphere, but work in this area is still in its infancy. [29] Among the main technologies proposed, three of them stand out: Causticization with alkali and alkali-earth hydroxides,[30] carbonation,[31] and organic−inorganic hybrid sorbents consisting of amines supported in porous adsorbents. A 2016 article reviews the research in these various areas.[29]

One proposed method is by so-called artificial trees.[32][33] This concept, proposed by climate scientist Wallace S. Broecker and science writer Robert Kunzig,[34] imagines huge numbers of artificial trees around the world to remove ambient CO2. The technology is now being pioneered by Klaus Lackner, a researcher at the Earth Institute, Columbia University,[35] whose artificial tree technology can suck up to 1,000 times more CO2 from the air than real trees can,[citation needed] at a rate of about one ton of carbon per day if the artificial tree is approximately the size of an actual tree.[36][37] The CO2 would be captured in a filter and then removed from the filter and stored. more

Scientists Turned Carbon Dioxide into Oxygen by Zapping It with a Laser

The finding would explain early oxygen in Earth's atmosphere—and it's some fodder for sci-fi space breathing apparatuses.

Jason Koebler Oct 3 2014

Photosynthesis sure is a miracle, isn't it? It allows plants, bacteria, and algae to take carbon dioxide and, with the help of a little sunlight, turn it into the oxygen we all breathe. But now scientists have taken photosynthesis out of the equation and have managed to make oxygen (O2) by zapping carbon dioxide (CO2) with a laser.

In chemistry, the general wisdom is that molecules, if we were to anthropomorphize them, are lazy. Carbon dioxide, when its bonds are broken into its component parts, takes the "minimum energy path," meaning it will break into one oxygen atom and a carbon monoxide molecule (CO), because, as chemists Arthur Suits and David Parker explain in a new analysis in Science, CO "possesses a much more stable diatomic bond than O2."

If I were to do an ASCII art version of what the chemical bonds in carbon dioxide look like, it would be something like this:


Carbon is double bonded to the oxygen atoms, and it's way easier, chemically speaking, to simply lop off one of those bonds and create a CO molecule and an oxygen atom.

So, the conventional wisdom has been that under almost all circumstances, it'd be impossible to take carbon dioxide—say, from a human's exhalation, for instance—and turn it back into gaseous oxygen, which would require two oxygen atoms. But then, researchers at the University of California, Davis decided to try doing just that by exciting carbon dioxide using what's known as a "high energy vacuum ultraviolet laser."

It turns out that, in a highly excited (and still anthropomorphized) state, carbon dioxide and other molecules have a bit more energy to skip that minimum energy path and, like any agitated person/molecule, feel like "roaming," which is a chemical phenomenon in which chemical bonds will break in other ways.

The UC Davis researchers found that the chemical bonds did indeed break in other ways, and were able to turn carbon dioxide back into oxygen and a single carbon atom (they also describe the discovery in Science).

On Class and Climate Change

In 1899, Thorstein Veblen would publish perhaps the most interesting, and misunderstood, book ever. It was called The Theory of the Leisure Class. Many, perhaps most, of the readers of this scintillating tome consider it a wonderful work of satire that highlights the foibles of the idle rich, and those who would emulate their lifestyles. And while I would agree that many parts of Veblen’s analysis are screamingly funny, we miss the point if we assume that Veblen was merely trying to entertain. Because beneath the chuckles, there is a deadly serious class analysis that goes a very long way towards explaining why a problem like climate change doesn’t get treated as seriously as it should be.

In Veblen’s world, there are two basic classes. The Industrial Class organizes the community’s necessary work. The Leisure Classes fasten themselves on the backs of the industrial classes “through force and fraud” in the often successful attempt at getting something for nothing. The Marxists then ask, “Aren’t your industrial classes merely another name for the proletariat?” This is important—the answer is NO.

Back in the day when Marxists preached that they were the friends, advocates, and only true representatives of the Proletariat, there was always something demeaning in their analysis. When someone picks strawberries all day in the hot sun, the Marxist description of the Proletariat and their troubles is still surprisingly accurate. But what do you call an farmer with 2500 acres under cultivation, or an engineer, or a big building contractor, or any number of important and often high paying occupations? They are obviously Industrial Class jobs but they all come with very different problems than face someone doing stoop labor. Obviously, there is an incredible amount of stratification within the occupations that can be found under the heading of “organizing and performing the community’s necessary tasks.”

Just as the Industrial Classes are stratified, so are the Leisure Classes. There is a large gap in income and status between a pickpocket and a hedge fund manager. But while there are hundreds of differences between the two major classes, many quite profound, the most telling is that when the Leisure Classes engage in conspicuous consumption and waste, their highest calling is uselessness. On the other hand, the goal of the Industrial Class is to be useful.

This class analysis is almost universally despised by the academic idea police. The right wing hates it because so many of their elites are little more than well-dressed thieves. The “left” (especially the Marxist varieties) hates it because it opens the possibility that there are enlightened, imaginative, and quite necessary “capitalists.” But it continues to be relevant because it describes the existing social order so much better than probably all the competing class descriptions combined.

The most amazing manifestation of Veblen’s analysis is that while almost everything created by humans demonstrates the existence of an Industrial Class, they are culturally nearly invisible. They almost never appear on television or literature. They are often dismissed as weirdos being called geeks or worse. Their occupations are dismissed or demeaned (usually because they are useful.)

While the Leisure Classes treat the Industrial Classes with contempt and slander—often as part of an ongoing strategy to defraud—the Industrial Classes do a wonderful job of returning those emotions. I know a radiation oncologist who claimed that as an undergraduate physics major at the University of Tulsa, he was part of a group that decided to explore the liberal arts side of his campus in a search for intelligent life. He reported that the search had turned up nothing. I told him that I knew a plumber in a college town who felt the same way about the professors at the local exclusive liberal arts colleges claiming, “Those guys are so stupid, they couldn’t poor piss out of a boot with the instructions written on the heel.”

So the distinctions between the Industrial and Leisure classes are real and generally hostile. But this class analysis is especially helpful when it comes to the problems caused by climate change. Here’s why. The reason that most of us live in societies that require large amounts of fossil fuels to keep running is because that is how the Industrial classes built them. Those streets, and electric grids, and houses, and food bought from a cooler did not fall from heaven—they were built on purpose by people who had every reason to believe they were doing the community’s necessary work.

The Leisure Classes are hardly innocent in this matter. The Industrial Classes can build almost anything. The reason there is so much third-rate building in USA is because the agents of greed insist on doubling the price of everything with the real estate fees and usurious financial arrangements. So the net effect is that almost everything gets built on the cheap, corners are cut—especially in areas of energy conservation. The result is that at least 3/4 of the housing stock cannot be fixed for less than the cost of a complete replacement.

Even worse, since the early 1970s, the Leisure Classes have systematically destroyed much Industrial Class capability. In USA, we call that process deindustrialization. They close down a productive facility and throw the accumulated expertise to the winds. What this means is that we cannot simply give the Industrial Classes new job assignments, we must rebuild much of their institutional capabilities from scratch—which is at least 10 times more difficult and expensive

But nothing is quite as instructive as the difference between the Leisure Class and Industrial Classes in their approach to the climate crises. The Leisure Class approach is to raise awareness, hold conferences, lobby for carbon taxes, and market modern-day indulgences called carbon offsets—if you can afford it, you can continue to sin.

The Industrial Classes don’t need their awareness raised because they believe that climate change is real, the only meaningful solution involves replacing the infrastructure with a zero-carbon alternatives, that this will involve 100s of thousand new parts and devices, and they want to build some of those parts. The folks who figured out how to make solar cells for $0.75 a watt were not the sort who sit around planning the next symbolic gesture.

While it has not been a good time to talk about reindustrialization for at least 40 years, the fact is, the Industrial classes have made real progress in that time-frame—LED lighting, cool electric cars, better batteries, net-zero housing, etc. But because we allowed the economy to be run by thieves, these breakthroughs were markedly more difficult than they needed to be. And IF folks finally decide that they want to accelerate the kinds of progress that the Industrial Classes have made since the wake-up call of Oil Shock #1 in 1973-4, the first order of business is to institute an economics that is geared towards honest enterprise. It’s quite simple—crooks cannot pull the financial levers of any new green society.

See also:
A longer version of this class analysis

The major differences between the two classes

Renewable energy in India

While I was at the University of Minnesota, I had several neighbors from India—engineering and computer science majors (yes, there was a time when Minnesota had several leading-edge computer makers including Honeywell and Control Data.) These young men were very interested in India's modernization and discussed development issues a lot. At one point, one grumped, "Our problem is that we have but two sources of energy—nuclear and dung."

That might have been true in 1971 but as the clip below shows, it is not true any longer. India has a bunch of serious environmental problems but when it comes to converting to sustainable energy supplies, they have an enormous advantage—they don't have to replace as much embedded infrastructure as someplace like USA and Western Europe. Plus they have an excellent system for training young STEM students and a vast labor pool to maintain the sometimes fussy solar and wind systems.

Go India!


India eyeing a new monster 100GW solar-capacity goal

Country still working to meet its current solar goals and staggering under pollution.

MEGAN GEUSS - 6/24/2018, 8:00 AM

Earlier this week, India's energy minister R.K. Singh suggested that the country is considering issuing a tender for 100 gigawatts of solar energy. PV Tech confirmed the report, which added that the tender could be tied to solar panel-manufacturing buildout. In 2015, India set a goal to reach 100GW of solar capacity as part of its larger aim of 175GW of renewable energy in general by 2022. This latest 100GW tender would be for a 2030 or 2035 target.

The existing goal is ambitious, so a stretch goal further into the future is even more so. The country's current total solar capacity is just 24.4GW, according to The Economic Times. (For context, as of this month the US has about 55.9GW of installed solar capacity total.) But although the solar sector there is still small compared to the US, it's growing quickly. Utility-scale solar capacity grew by 72 percent in the previous year, The Economic Times noted.

Johannes Urpelainen, an India-based fellow at the Columbia University Center on Global Energy Policy, said that the 100GW tender wouldn't be for one massive plant but would represent financing for small projects.

"Solar is very popular in India," Urpelainen wrote to Ars. "It's not expensive, Prime Minister Modi repeatedly talks about it, and people everywhere now see solar being used. I have been going to India for the past six years, and in 2012 solar was still very rare. Now it is everywhere."

Keeping the momentum on buildout would be significant for India, a country where explosive economic growth and a continued reliance on coal have created terribly polluted cities and skylines drenched in smog. (Despite all this new solar, India also added 4.6GW of coal-fired capacity in the previous year, the Times noted.) In his comments this week, Singh said there is an urgent need for renewable energy in India, where 20 of its cities are ranked among the most polluted in the world.

In addition to adding capacity, India has also been building out its Inter-State Transmission System (ISTS).

Urpelainen told Ars that a single 100GW solar tender would be ambitious but feasible as long as India's economy keeps growing. "The cost of a 100GW tender at current prices could be in the ballpark of 100 billion dollars," he said, "but renewable energy prices will continue to decrease. If the government insists on domestic manufacturing, though, the cost could be higher because the inexpensive Chinese panels would be inadmissible." more

Final beta (Climate Change video)

This version incorporates most of the suggestions I have gotten, mostly from Tony's Progressive caucus, Grandpa Smet and my favorite political operative, Da Wege!

So this covers the main points I had in mind:

1) The science of climate change is overwhelming.

2) The reasons why climate change is so difficult to address are mostly structural and technological.

3) Only a massive building effort can alter these structural problems.

Enjoy the video. It is 18:03 minutes long. If you enjoy the music track, it is because some of the music is especially appropriate. For example, the song, "Don't Worry, Be Happy" topped the charts the same year James Hansen testified before Congress, or that the hymn, "Nearer My God to thee" was published the same year oil was discovered in Pennsylvania—the same industry that was soon to be monopolized by a devout Baptist Sunday School teacher named Rockefeller.