Monthly Archives: February 2007

Sustainable Economy

There are many issues that need to be resolved in order for our survival on this planet to be sustainable over the long run. Some of the major issues are food production, energy production, and waste disposal.

One idea being pursued by some is the idea of intentional communities which are self-sufficient and live directly off the land in a sustainable manner. Use only what you need, produce no waste that can not be re-used, and don’t destroy the top soil at a rate that is faster than it can be replenished and your survival should be sustainable. Initially I questioned whether there was actually enough arable land for the worlds population to be fed without intensive farming, and I’ve come to the conclusion there is.

Requiring the worlds population to radically change their lifestyle to achieve sustainability is guaranteed to fail. A percentage will change for the global good but most will not. Some can not because of disabilities or other medical issues.

I believe that it is possible to design a system that would allow those who wish to continue living a modern lifestyle in a manner that is sustainable from a technological perspective. The problems of sustainable energy production, food production, exhaustion of resources, and disposal of waste are addressable. The major obstacles are vested economic and political interests.

Proponents of intentional communities bypass this problem by bypassing capitalism, becoming self-sufficient. However, they can not entirely financially isolate themselves from world economies because even land, which they require, has economic value.

The rest of us will either have to find a way to get past these vested interests in spite of a broken economic and political system, or fix the system. One major problem I see with the system is that as it is currently structured it requires continuous economic growth with attendant continuous increases in raw materials and energy and continuous increases in waste product.

People borrow money and it is expected that they pay it back with interest. This requires an expanding economy which is accomplished through consumerism. Making and marketing an every increasing quantity of junk we don’t need in order to keep the economic engine growing.

In order to live in a sustainable manner, we need a sustainable economic system that doesn’t require continued growth of the money supply. Credit unions are a step in the right direction, there is still interest but at least that is balance against interest paid.

Another area that artificially drives expansion of the economy is the stock market system. Originally intended as a method allowing people to pool capital to own a business, it has become a giant international online casino. People buy based upon hope of short term gains and then sell. Corporate board members then are pressured to maximize short term value at the expense of long term sustainability.

Republican pressure to lower short term capital gain taxes are misguided, because they will only exacerbate this problem. What are needed are incentives for people to invest for the long term so that board members will start thinking past this quarters results.

Yet another problem is that environmental costs aren’t included in the price of many products and services. Take nuclear fission power, it produces both long term transuranic wastes and short term fission products. Presently wastes are simply stored on-site but at some point those plants are decommissioned and then what? The industry isn’t worrying about this, that happens many quarters out. But it’s a real cost, that if included, would probably render nuclear fission financially prohibitive today. Now, there are ways to actually re-use the transuranic long term wastes leaving only short term wastes. That would greatly reduce that expense, but as long as no economic incentives exist, they’re going to continue doing what they do.

I don’t know how we fix these things but for the rest of us who aren’t going to go live in intentional communities (which as near as I can tell is the modern word for what used to be called a commune), they must be fixed.

The science and technology to fix these issues exist. We know how to build a type of fission reactor that will be a net burner of transuranics allowing us to extract around 20x as much energy from them as was produced during their production, eliminating the long term waste disposal problem and greatly improving our energy situation. We don’t do this because of vested economic interests. It’s much cheaper to continue running uranium through one-shot reactors wasting 95-99% of the fuels energy potential and creating a vast long term waste problem.

We have the science and technology to build nuclear fusion power plants which produce only non-radioactive non-toxic helium as waste and have no potential for melt down or explosion. The only science left to do to make these viable is some material research. The problem of superconductive magnet coils was an issue but the Chinese decided not to wait another 12-years for ITER and solved this successfully on their own.

The only real effort the US is part of at this point in the fusion area is ITER, and we contribute the equivalent of 2-days worth of oil imports over 25 years towards that. This tells you how seriously we aren’t about getting off oil. There are alternate avenues to fusion which could prove much cheaper than the Tokamak route that should be but aren’t receiving serious funding.

Fusion power would provide cheap unlimited energy allowing us to eliminate the need to burn hydrocarbons for fuel. The low cost of the fuel and low environmental impact of fusion power would make it practical to desalinize water on a large scale making desert into arable land. It would make it practical to recycle waste materials that presently are not recycled because the energy costs are too great.

In my opinion, we should have a national crash program to bring fusion online rapidly. In the meantime we should continue to expand other renewables, wind power, geo-thermal, etc.

If we do this it will allow us to greatly reduce our negative impact on the planet. It’s hardly the only thing we know but it’s a major thing.

What can we do as individuals? You can write your congress critters and tell them that we need to get serious about fusion and other renewables and stop killing for oil. We can really look at our own lives and avoid buying junk we don’t need, and where possible buy used stuff that otherwise will go into a landfill, or things made from recycled materials. We can reduce our energy consumption as much as possible.

Food Production

Can anyone point me to reliable data regarding the amount of land required for food production for a human being using various methods and with various diets, modern agriculture verses more natural methods, western diets verses less meat intensive diets verses vegetarian diets, etc? Thank you.

Controlled Nuclear Fusion

In the past I posted an idea regarding a possible way to scale up a device called a “fusor”, a small hydrogen fusion reactor that uses electrostatic forces to accelerate deuterium ions towards the center of the device where a portion of them collide with sufficient energy to fuse releasing neutrons, helium, and energy.

These devices have been around for many years but they only generate a very small amount of energy and consume more energy than they produce. They are useful as neutron sources.

Conventional fusors consist of two concentric grids inside a vacuum vessel to create an electrostatic field gradient to accelerate deuterium ions. The difficulty with this approach is that a large number of ions collide with the inner grid heating the grid and melting it before a usable amount of power can be generated.

My thought was to operate the fusor not as a steady state device but rather as an AC field device such that the charge on the inner grid reverses just as the ions pass it, avoiding collisions.

Dr. Robert W. Bussard came up with another idea to eliminate losses to the grids. He eliminated the grids. Instead of using grids to create the electrostatic field, he has come up with a magnetic means of containing electrons to create a potential well.

Personally, I find Dr. Bussard a bit annoying because he feels the need to attack any competing approaches such as Tokamak, never the less I find his approach interesting and promising.

Here is a video presentation by Dr. Bussard on his machine. It’s an interesting talk if you discount his trashing Tokamak fusion. The large size required for a Tokamak and cost really doesn’t represent a big issue in a nuclear power generating situation because you are talking about power levels of 600 megawatts or more an a large machine is required just for heat load considerations.

The video describes the evolution of the machines they built and how they kept addressing various issues with each generation and eventually on the last attempt created a machine that produced fusions at 100,000 times the maximum achieved by Farnsworth with his fusor. At that point they ran out of funding.

My feelings on the Tokamak reactors, particularly the spherical Tokamak reactors have the ability to make power commercially economically, the majority of the science is done for Tokamak reactors and the scaling laws are known. They will be too large to be used in portable applications such as powering trains and planes and ships and spacecraft.

This technology is not quite as ready but this system may be able to work for these applications. They believe that at a size of 2-1/2 meters these can produce power even with a PB11-proton system which is aneutronic (produces all charged particles, no neutrons). A deuterium-tritium system can be around 1-1/2 meters. Still too big for a DeLorean but small enough for large aircraft, ships, trucks, trains, and spacecraft.

The spacecraft applications are incredible, this technology could make trips to Mars and even outer planets practical.

Ultra Capacitors

A lot of hype has been given lately to ultra capacitors. They are a new type of capacitor that can theoretically achieve energy densities similar to or even surpassing lithium ion batteries.

The creators of these capacitors hope to replace chemical batteries in everything from laptops to cellphones to electric vehicles. Electric vehicles in particular they claim will benefit because they say ultra capacitors can charge and discharge at higher rates thus allowing more effective regenerative braking.

It is my opinion that much of this hype is overblown. There are issues that I think will severely limit ultra capacitors applications. Chemical batteries maintain a relative constant voltage across the majority of their discharge curve. A lithium ion cell using a graphite anode is typically just under 4 volts fully charged and just over 3 volts fully discharged.

If you had a 4 volt ultracapacitor, it would be 4 volts fully charged but 0 volts fully discharged. At 3volts, you’d only have used 44% of it’s capacity. So to use an ultracapacitors full capacity you have to have equipment that can operate over a wide voltage and current range (because the current will have to increase as the voltage decreases to maintain the same power level).

The advantages of ultra capacitors, their high charge and discharge rate capability has been duplicated in advanced nano-particle based lithium ion batteries. There are lithium ion batteries in production today that can be fully charged in 3 minutes and charged to 80% of their capacity in one.

Present day ultra capacitors do not have the longevity one would expect from a capacitor, down to about 80% of their initial capacity after 1000 charge / discharge cycles.

I’m not saying ultra capacitors aren’t a useful technology, but I do not believe they will displace chemical batteries in all applications like their manufacturers would like to suggest. Rather I think the hype is mostly “investors give us your money” crapola.