On the bright side, perhaps abundance awaits
If you are mired in pessimism, get hold of a remarkable book by Peter Diamondis, with the assistance of science writer Steven Kotler, titled “Abundance: The Future is Better Than You Think.”
Diamondis is a brilliant overachiever who has degrees in molecular biology and aerospace engineering from MIT and an M.D. from Harvard Medical School. He has also founded over a dozen space and high-tech companies.
At present he seems to be focusing his energies on trying to accelerate the development of the new technologies that he believes can solve our resource scarcity, climate change and other sustainability problems.
In fact, he believes that these new technologies can usher in an age of abundance. Now I am inclined to be skeptical. After all, I am old enough to remember the slogans of my youth; “Nuclear power too cheap to meter,” “Better living through chemistry,” etc., etc. You know, the good old days when we sprayed DDT all over kids in swimming pools. The days before Rachel Carson told us that things are not so simple.
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And yet, and yet … I have to admit that Diamondis’ book is entirely remarkable. In fact, it is almost encyclopedic in presenting a vast amount of raw data about our problems and even more data about the amazing new technologies already in the works and/or being developed today. It is this “exponential growth of technology” that excites our author’s optimism.
He actually asks us to look toward “a world of 9 billion people with clean water, nutritious food, affordable housing, personalized education, top-tier medical care, and nonpolluting, ubiquitous energy.”
Obviously, there is no space here for describing all the new technologies he discusses. But I will try to say something about some of them, beginning with energy. He describes the latest improvements to the renewables we’ve already heard of like solar, wind and biofuel from algae. The latter is quite interesting, with the U.S. Department of Energy stating that algae can produce 50 times more energy per acre than current biofuels.
Then he discusses new developments most of us have not heard of. First of all, much better energy storage, which we need in order to take full advantage of renewables. Primus Power already has a new “rechargeable flow battery in which electrolytes flow through an electrochemical cell that converts chemical energy directly to electricity. These devices are already storing wind energy in a new 25-megawatt, 75-megawatt-hour energy storage system in Modesto, California.
Another storage breakthrough, being built by Aquion Energy, is a battery that does not rely on the rare and toxic element lithium. Instead, this very efficient battery uses just sodium and water — cheap, ubiquitous and harmless. This battery releases energy evenly and never corrodes. With those two already-available storage technologies, it is claimed we can store and retrieve renewable energy for a cost of 1 cent per kilowatt hour and probably even less in future.
He also discusses promising new developments in safe, affordable nuclear power. First are fast reactors that can turn nuclear waste and surplus weapons-grade uranium and plutonium into electricity. These are safe because they burn liquid metal fuels that expand if the reactor overheats, causing the reactor to slow down and then stop on its own.
But he is most excited about the new, self-contained, small-scale modular “traveling wave” reactor. It has no moving parts, can’t melt down, and can run safely for 50-plus years while requiring no enrichment or waste storage. These TWRs are “build, bury and forget” power for a region or city. The developer, Terra Power, expects to have a demonstration unit by 2020. Other companies, including Toshiba and Westinghouse, are also working on different kinds of small, self-contained reactors.
Affordable desalinization via nanofilters is the highlight of his chapter on water, which is not surprising since the oceans cover 70 percent of the world’s surface. He also discusses a water filter that can purify 250 gallons of water a day on the same amount of energy it takes to run a hair dryer at a cost of about half a penny per gallon.
This device can take the filthiest, most contaminated water and produce pharmaceutical-grade injectable water. Its engine can run on almost anything, even cow dung. It could solve the high infant mortality/high birthrate problem in the rural areas of developing nations and bring down their high rates of population growth.
I’m running out of space, but I can’t resist mentioning at least two more fascinating technologies he discusses. These are excellent maintenance-free waterless toilets, which could eliminate 30 percent of water use in the developed world, and, for health care, how about diagnostic laboratories on a chip?
Besides being informative, the book is clearly written and you don’t have to be really technologically literate to enjoy it. What more can one ask of a book?
Mary Boland’s column appears on the third Saturday of each month. She is a retired teacher and journalist, a proud grandmother and a longtime resident of Carbondale.
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