Sunday, April 29, 2018

Spring Cleaning

"If you’re buying weird tech gizmos, you need to know what you are trying to prove by that. "

As that time of year falls upon us like a piano thrown from a 5th floor window, we like to recall the advice of Bruce Sterling to the Viridian Design Movement (c. 1999).

Do not lug around an enormous tool chest or a full set of post-earthquake gear unless you are Stewart Brand. Furthermore, unless you are a professional emergency worker, you can abstain from post-apocalyptic “bug-out bags” and omnicompetent heaps of survivalist rations. Do not stock the fort with tiresome, life-consuming, freeze-dried everything, unless you can clearly sense the visible approach of some massive, non-theoretical civil disorder. The clearest way to know that one of these is coming is that the rich people have left your area. If that’s the case, then, sure, go befriend the police and prepare to knuckle down.

Now to confront the possessions you already have. This will require serious design work, and this will be painful. It is a good idea to get a friend or several friends to help you.

You will need to divide your current possessions into four major categories.
  1. Beautiful things.
  2. Emotionally important things.
  3. Tools, devices, and appliances that efficiently perform a useful function.
  4. Everything else.
“Everything else” will be by far the largest category. Anything you have not touched, or seen, or thought about in a year — this very likely belongs in “everything else.”

You should document these things. Take their pictures, their identifying makers’ marks, barcodes, whatever, so that you can get them off eBay or Amazon if, for some weird reason, you ever need them again. Store those digital pictures somewhere safe — along with all your other increasingly valuable, life-central digital data. Back them up both onsite and offsite.

Then remove them from your time and space. “Everything else” should not be in your immediate environment, sucking up your energy and reducing your opportunities. It should become a fond memory, or become reduced to data.

It may belong to you, but it does not belong with you. You weren’t born with it. You won’t be buried with it. It needs to be out of the space-time vicinity. You are not its archivist or quartermaster. Stop serving that unpaid role.

Beautiful things are important. If they’re truly beautiful, they should be so beautiful that you are showing them to people. They should be on display: you should be sharing their beauty with others. Your pride in these things should enhance your life, your sense of taste and perhaps your social standing.

They’re not really that beautiful? Then they’re not really beautiful. Take a picture of them, tag them, remove them elsewhere.

Emotionally important things. All of us have sentimental keepsakes that we can’t bear to part with. 

We also have many other objects which simply provoke a panicky sense of potential loss — they don’t help us to establish who we are, or to become the person we want to be. They subject us to emotional blackmail.

Is this keepsake so very important that you would want to share its story with your friends, your children, your grandchildren? Or are you just using this clutter as emotional insulation, so as to protect yourself from knowing yourself better?

Think about that. Take a picture. You might want to write the story down. Then — yes — away with it.
You are not “losing things” by these acts of material hygiene. You are gaining time, health, light and space. Also, the basic quality of your daily life will certainly soar. Because the benefits of good design will accrue to you where they matter — in the everyday.

Not in Oz or in some museum vitrine. In the every day. For sustainability, it is every day that matters. Not green Manhattan Projects, green moon shots, green New Years’ resolutions, or wild scifi speculations. Those are for dabblers and amateurs. The sustainable is about the every day.
Now for category three, tools and appliances. They’re not beautiful and you are not emotionally attached to them. So they should be held to keen technical standards.

Is your home a museum? Do you have curatorial skills? If not, then entropy is attacking everything in there. Stuff breaks, ages, rusts, wears out, decays. Entropy is an inherent property of time and space. Understand this fact. Expect this. The laws of physics are all right, they should not provoke anguished spasms of denial.

You will be told that you should “make do” with broken or semi-broken tools, devices and appliances. Unless you are in prison or genuinely crushed by poverty, do not do this. This advice is wicked.

This material culture of today is not sustainable. Most of the things you own are almost certainly made to 20th century standards, which are very bad. If we stick with the malignant possessions we already have, through some hairshirt notion of thrift, then we are going to be baling seawater. This will not do.

You should be planning, expecting, desiring to live among material surroundings created, manufactured, distributed, through radically different methods from today’s. It is your moral duty to aid this transformative process. This means you should encourage the best industrial design.

Get excellent tools and appliances. Not a hundred bad, cheap, easy ones. Get the genuinely good ones. Work at it. Pay some attention here, do not neglect the issue by imagining yourself to be serenely “non-materialistic.” There is nothing more “materialistic” than doing the same household job five times because your tools suck. Do not allow yourself to be trapped in time-sucking black holes of mechanical dysfunction. That is not civilized.

Now for a brief homily on tools and appliances of especial Viridian interest: the experimental ones. The world is full of complicated, time-sucking, partially-functional beta-rollout gizmos. Some are fun to mess with; fun in life is important. Others are whimsical; whimsy is okay. Eagerly collecting semifunctional gadgets because they are shiny-shiny, this activity is not the worst thing in the world. However, it can become a vice. If you are going to wrangle with unstable, poorly-defined, avant-garde tech objects, then you really need to wrangle them. Get good at doing it.

Good experiments are well-designed experiments. Real experiments need a theory. They need something to prove or disprove. Experiments need to be slotted into some larger context of research, and their results need to be communicated to other practitioners. That’s what makes them true “experiments” instead of private fetishes.

If you’re buying weird tech gizmos, you need to know what you are trying to prove by that. You also need to tell other people useful things about it. If you are truly experimenting, then you are doing something praiseworthy. You may be wasting some space and time, but you’ll be saving space and time for others less adventurous. Good.

If you’re becoming a techie magpie packrat who never leaves your couch — that’s not good. Forget the shiny gadget. You need to look in the shiny mirror.

So. This approach seems to be working for me. More or less. I’m not urging you to do any of this right away. Do not jump up from the screen right now and go reform your entire material circumstances. That resolve will not last. Because it’s not sustainable.


Sunday, April 22, 2018

Mycelial Mind

"One thing we can say about our fungal cousins. They are vastly better connected to the natural order of things than our species seems to be. "

Most of the languages of the West have no word for people who are thought pioneers. Some of these individuals are also scientists in some discipline and defined that way, but many are without portfolio — no certifications or sheepskins to confer authority for their out-of-school pronouncements.

We all know people like this. Derrick Jensen, Paul Stamets, Fritjof Capra, Joanna Macy, Terence McKenna, Noam Chomsky. Sometimes their ramblings are profound and sometimes just flights of fancy. Stamets’ flights of fancy back in the 1990s led many to think that mushrooms could neutralize radioactive waste, which is of course impossible. But Stamets, after McKenna, put forward some thoughts about mycelial intelligence or the evolutionary morphology of the human brain that have lasting value.

They theorized that a meeting of mind and mushroom a few hundred thousand years ago led to the Sapiens Sapiens line of homo. Recently a paper by Mark Mattson in Frontiers in Neuroscience  sheds more light on that subject by observing that most, if not all, unique features of the human brain are the result of superior pattern processing. The neural processing pattern Mattson describes is based in a mycelia-like human neural network.

Humans and fungi are not evolutionary strangers. We were once the same organism, hundreds of millions of years ago. At some point we parted company, with our line going for discrete, albeit tribal, individualization with internal respiratory and digestive organs and a partnership with bacterial intestinal flora, and the other line continuing to externalize all those functions while establishing deep symbiosis with nearly all other forms of life, mammals included. Fungi’s relationship with bacteria is less cordial than ours.

Some five to eight million years ago, the human brain began to enlarge. That corresponded with  an upright posture that gave us the capacities to see, hear and smell farther, move more rapidly and forage longer distances. Other mammals developed similar pattern processings to ours — hippocampus-based cognitive maps of food sources, potential predators and navigation landmarks; ability to distinguish individuals of the same species and their emotional state; and use of sounds and visual gestures to communicate.

Uniquely, our line of mammals evolved a larger cerebral cortex that permitted the “development of tools, processes and protocols for solving problems and saving time” — including all aspects of agriculture, transportation, science, commerce, defense/security, and music; spoken and written languages; rapid decision-making based upon intricate reasoning; mental time travel to compare future scenarios; and “magical thinking/fantasy, cognitive process that involve[] beliefs in entities and processes that defy accepted laws of causality including telepathy, spirits, and gods.” (Mattson)

Magical explanations were produced for phenomena that could not be understood. As science gradually came to provide better explanations, magical thinking gradually receded. This is not to say it disappeared. We can see magical thinking in the denial mechanism for human mortality (life after death); limits to growth (peak everything); climate change, crooked Hillary and Russian collusion in the 2016 US election. We all have that gene, and it is alive and well.

Mattson does not explore whether ingestion of psychedelic mushrooms was a precipitating factor in the evolutionary jump in our patterning capacity and the corresponding enlargement of our cerebral cortex. He merely observes that Homo sapiens is the only hominid to survive from an original pool of from 8 to 27 species and suggests that our competitive advantage was not physical prowess but superior pattern processing. That ability being described — derived from greater efficiencies of synapsed electrical streamlining leading to better neural networking — is a mycelial pattern. (Parenthetically it has been argued that it was our capacity for ruthless aggression, not more benign mutations, that killed off all competing lines — see Quest for Fire.)

The same efficiency improvements have been described for the redesign of the Tokyo commuter system, wherein researchers scattered oat flakes in a pattern identical to Tokyo’s rail stations and a slime mold, Physarum polycephalum, iteratively selected the optimal pathways between stations. The scientists added areas of bright light (which slime mold tends to avoid) to correspond to mountains or other geologic features that the trains would have to steer around. The mold reinforced routes that were working, eliminated redundant channels, and constantly adapted and adjusted for maximum efficiency — the same as our cerebral cortex does to accelerate and deepen our pattern processing.

Blogsmith Rob Mielcarski examined Mattson’s paper in greater detail and was quick to note a comparison with Brower and Varki’s Mind Over Reality Transition (MORT) theory. As previously described in this blog's review of their book, Denial: Self-Deception, False Beliefs and the Origin of the Human Mind, Brower and Varki argued that humans are hard wired to ignore unpleasant thoughts, such as their own mortality. Mielcarski observed:
  • After 8 million years of slowly improving brain power in many hominids species, there was a dramatic jump about 100,000 years ago in one of the species that enabled language and enhanced tools making, and that species used its unique skills to outcompete all the others.  That species also simultaneously began to believe in life after death which was later elaborated into religions, something no other species does. Using Mattson’s reasoning, brain power should have simultaneously improved for all hominids with no unusual discontinuity.
  • Mattson is mistaken about the adaptive value of religion. He thinks that the magical thinking associated with religion has some adaptive value. I think the evidence is clear that humans apply magical thinking to many aspects of their lives, including religion. The adaptive value of religions is not magical thinking, rather it is that religions serve to define, unite, govern, motivate, and entertain tribes, and (especially in times of scarcity) define outside tribes as enemies. In other words, religions improve survival via enhanced social cooperation.
  • Mattson acknowledges that magical thinking about human divinity is a unique and fascinating persistent behavior but does not offer an explanation. I think the explanation is clear. Given the human brain’s tendency for magical thinking we should expect religious beliefs to include every conceivable wacky story, as they do, and we should statistically expect a few of those wacky stories to involve life after death, but they don’t, instead every one of the thousands of human religions has a life after death story which suggests there must be a separate genetic reason for the universal belief in life after death.
  • Mattson thinks the primary cause of anxiety disorders and depression is defective SPP [superior pattern processing] resulting in a blurring of reality, self-doubt, and hopelessness. While no doubt true in some cases, Mattson does not consider that a defective ability to deny unpleasant realities can be the cause of mental illness. For example, fully accepting the science of human overshoot, climate change, and net energy decline coupled with an understanding that an individual cannot influence the outcome is a plenty strong reason for depression. In other words, magical thinking likely improves mental health.
Neither Mielcarski nor Mattson take the discussion where Stamets and McKenna did, and begin to wonder whether there was a sort of family reunion with mushrooms that occurred one or more times in our evolution, leading to superior pattern processing. It is an intriguing proposition that invites further research.

One thing we can say about our fungal cousins. They are vastly better connected to the natural order of things than our species seems to be. Whatever tutorial began 100,000 years ago probably needs to resume.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

How Many Trees Do We Need?

"A city like New York (18.6 million people) should require 55.8 million trees to provide its oxygen."

Is it possible that we could wreck the atmosphere enough that humans would suffocate for a lack of air to breathe? Probably not. Still, it’s not a chance worth taking.

Earth’s atmosphere is 78 percent nitrogen and human activities add only very slightly to that, although now more than all the natural sources. 20.9 percent of what’s up there is the oxygen we need to breathe. Water is about 1 percent. The remainder — less than one percent — is all the other gases, including all the greenhouse gases.

Most people think we get our oxygen from trees, and this is true in part. Trees release oxygen when they make glucose from carbon dioxide and water — a net gain of one molecule of oxygen for every atom of carbon layered into a tree. Estimates vary on how many trees it takes to produce the oxygen required by one human, and one might expect that because the amount of oxygen produced by a tree depends on its species, age, health, and surroundings.

A human breathes about 9.5 metric tons of air in a year, but oxygen only makes up about 21 percent of that air and we only extract a little over a third of the oxygen from each breath. That works out to a total of about 740 kg of oxygen per year.

A 2-ton sycamore tree produces about 100 kg of oxygen per year. A 100-ft Northern Spruce, according to Northwest Territories Forest Management, 18" diameter at its base, produces 6,000 pounds of oxygen (2,727 kg).

According to Environment Canada, the average tree produces 260 pounds of oxygen per year (118 kg). If we accept that as a good estimate, we each need about 6 mature trees to support ourselves.
A city like New York (18.6 million people) should require 112 million trees to provide its oxygen. It has those — in the Taconics, Adirondacks, Poconos, and Berkshires — although it shares them with Newark, Philadelphia, Hartford, Albany and others, so maybe not enough for everyone. Cities like Mexico City (21 million), Mumbai (21 million), Sao Paolo (21 million), Shanghai (24 million), Delhi (25 million) and Tokyo (38 million) are straight out of luck.

Fortunately for all of us, ocean phytoplankton and coastal mangroves also make oxygen. Not so fortunately, both of those sources are being destroyed by climate change and reckless development.

Are we in trouble? Not any time soon.

Free oxygen did not exist in the atmosphere until about 2.4 billion years ago during the Great Oxygenation Event, when oceanic cyanobacteria learned to produce oxygen by photosynthesis, setting off the greatest mass extinction in history. Say goodbye to all the happy anaerobes. They either went underground or died.

Over the next 2.4 billion years, cyanobacteria made a lot of oxygen. That said, we are not entirely out of the woods, so to speak. Most organisms have evolved to live in an environment that has a very specific set of conditions. We have come to rely on air containing about 21 percent oxygen.

That concentration has varied over time, with the normal equilibrium up to about 600 million years ago being about 15% but then rising and peaking at about 30% around 280 million years ago and gradually declining since. It has never been less than 20% in human evolutionary history. How low it can go before humans feel a need for some breathing space is anyone’s guess. By destroying all the natural sources — forests, corals, mangroves — while also polluting the atmosphere, we are putting a lot at risk.

That blue halo that colors the Earth in space is less about the color of our oceans than the scattering of light from the wavelengths of the gases in our atmosphere. As we destroy that balance, particularly the relative proportion of oxygen, we may just lose that halo. We could lose a lot more.

Originally published at

Sunday, April 8, 2018

First they locked up the Knowledge

"If you were given the choice between continued life on earth and computerized devices and the internet, which would you choose?"

“Putting food under lock and key was one of the great innovations of your culture. No other culture in history has ever put food under lock and key — and putting it there is the cornerstone of your economy…. Because if the food wasn’t under lock and key, Julie, who would work?”
— Daniel Quinn, My Ishmael

Some years ago, game makers found a way to suck you into to playing online games for free and still make money. Like Amazon, Facebook and YouTube, they set special features behind paywalls. You could only reach the higher levels of play if you were willing to shell out hard cash.

It wasn’t long before most of the reputable scientific journals latched onto the same model to monetize their websites. Tease you with free summaries or the occasional open article (and sometimes authors can pay to permit that) but then lock up the hard science unless you can shell out hard cash.

Recently Nature Geoscience received correspondence from some leading IPCC climate scientists including Michael Mann. The letter was published online under the title, Interpretations of the Paris climate target. The editors solicited a response from ten other IPCC scientists and published that as Reply to ‘Interpretations of the Paris climate target’. 

Staying true to game theory, in both cases the journal published only the title of the letters. If you want to actually read the letters, you need to shell out $59. Each. For those of us who try to stay abreast of developments in climate policy, or the UN structured expert dialog that is taking place per the Paris Agreement, that paywall is a poke in the nose and the bum’s rush.

We have been watching Bitcoin for a while and have decided it is pure evil. Sorry about that, Max and Stacy. We were glad to hear that Google banned all cryptomining extensions to the Chrome app.

It is not that we don’t like the blockchain, but Bitcoin is based on the Etherium backbone which uses far too much energy — at current rates of growth, all the world’s energy by 2020. Bitcoin could switch to Hedera very easily but doesn’t. That’s evil.

Current estimated annual electricity consumption for Bitcoin mining is 56.71 TWh. Twenty-eight U.S. households could be powered for 1 day by the electricity consumed for a single transaction. Bitcoin’s carbon footprint per transaction is 408.42 kg of CO2-e. That one transaction produces more greenhouse impact than the average Bangladeshi or Vanuatuvian do in an entire year. Bangladesh and Vanuatu are going under water and their citizens forced to relocate because Bitcoin gives no thought about where its computing power comes from. It is an externalized cost. Same for Climatecoin, or Nori — Silicon Valley techno-cornucopian libertarians with no concept of thermodynamic laws or biophysical ecology.

Analysts at Credit Suisse examined Bitcoin’s potential to consume all the world’s energy and concluded for that to happen the price of a coin would have to rise to $1.1 million. It could happen in 5 years, or next month, or later today.

The power demand of Bitcoining likely pales in comparison to the power demand of clandestine superpower cyberwars now underway. The reason the Empire came so hard after Julian Assange and Chelsea Manning was not because leaked videos of Apache helicopters strafing civilians or John Podesta’s emails were dangerous to HRC and her election rigging. It was the same reason they are still after Snowden. These people know too much, will tell all, and have too much of a following. If they can’t be decapitated, they can be isolated until they atrophy and die. Blame the rest of it on the Russians. 

From their dim dungeons, Assange and Snowden accurately predicted Cambridge Analytica, which flipped both the BREXIT vote and the US election of 2016. They predicted the leaked NSA cyberwar tool, EternalBlue, allowing hackers everywhere to hold companies and agencies for ransom. They predicted the changes to be wrought by machine intelligence, well, at least some of them. Last year Stephen Hawking joined in when he said:
Unless we learn how to prepare for, and avoid, the potential risks, AI could be the worst event in the history of our civilization. It brings dangers, like powerful autonomous weapons, or new ways for the few to oppress the many. It could bring great disruption to our economy.
In 2017 he amended his prediction that humanity only had about 1,000 years left. He reduced the horizon by an order of magnitude — to 100 years unless we could arrest AI. 

Consider this. If you were given the choice between continued life on earth and computerized devices and the internet, which would you choose? If you are like most of us, you will wait to give up the latter until forced to, and even then, not without a fight.

Call us neoluddite, but were our lives in the 1970s so primitive before the Mac, Windows and the World Wide Web that we would never want to give up what we have in 2018 and go back to that, even if to keep what we have comes at the cost of our own extinction?

We are just asking. And wondering why more people are not, also. Should it not, by now, be obvious what is happening? There is not a good ending to this.

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Just One Word: Bioplastics

"Any carbon that does not go back to the atmosphere can just chill. It can be a building or a bicycle, it doesn’t matter. Just chill a few centuries while we get our act back together."

Mr. McGuire: I just want to say one word to you. Just one word.
Benjamin: Yes, sir.
Mr. McGuire: Are you listening?
Benjamin: Yes, I am.
Mr. McGuire: Plastics.
Benjamin: Exactly how do you mean?
Mr. McGuire: There’s a great future in plastics. Think about it. Will you think about it?
— The Graduate (1967)
A “composite” is when two or more materials are combined to create a superior and unique material. The prefix, “bio,” means the composite takes natural fibers, including wood, leaves and grasses, and blends them with a matrix (binder) made from either renewable or non-renewable sources, like lime, clay, plastics, or old tires.

Carbon fiber reinforced polymer (CFRP) is an extremely strong and light plastic with carbon fibers woven in. These are highly prized by many industries but at the moment they are very expensive to manufacture.

High-end users like Ferrari or Jaguar can absorb the added costs and pass those along to their upscale clientele. When Elon Musk’s Space X Shuttle needed a way to reduce launch vehicle weight without compromising strength or other qualities, they turned to carbon fiber polymers.

The substitution of lightweight carbon for heavier aluminum-lithium at the same strength gave Space X the ability to place a 300 ton reusable vehicle — potentially either an interplanetary spaceship or a cargo freighter — into low Earth orbit. A problem their engineers encountered, however, is that the carbon fiber polymer tended to degrade from prolonged contact with one of the shuttle’s essential cargoes — liquid oxygen.

Could a solution lie in a non-bonding, non-oxidizing form of carbon?

CFRPs have been used in high-end automobile racing since Citroën won the 1971 Rally of Morocco with carbon fiber wheels. Low weight is essential for automobile racing and carbon fiber is also ten times stronger than the steel it replaces. Racing car manufacturers went on to develop omnidirectional carbon fiber weaves that apply strength in all directions, making the cars stronger than they had been when they were pure polymer.

Building engineers were quick to adopt what they learned from Formula V. Carbon fiber polymers were soon being wrapped around steel-reinforced structures such as bridge or high-rise building columns. By enhancing the ductility of the section, they increased the resistance to collapse under hurricane, earthquake or avalanche loading.

In some countries pre-stressed concrete cylinder pipes (PCCP) account for the vast majority of water transmission mains. Due to their large diameters, failures of PCCP are usually catastrophic and affect large populations. Now carbon polymers are being retrofitted as PCCP liners that take strain off the host pipe.

As recently as 7 years ago BMW was using water cutting for parts, but today, in partnership with Airbus Helicopter and others, the carmaker has moved to carbon cutting tools — coated with ground diamond that can double feeding speeds. The carbon tools have a geometrically-defined cutting edge and are sharpened by a plasma process. For BMW and Airbus, production costs are being reduced 90 percent.

Bicycle frames of carbon polymer give the same strength as steel, aluminum, or titanium for much less weight and can be tuned to address different riding styles. Carbon fiber cellos, violas, violins, acoustic guitars and ukuleles are selected by discerning musicians for the quality and fidelity of their sound. Other commercial products already available:
  • bagpipe chanters
  • billiards cues
  • carbon fiber posts in restoring root canal treated teeth
  • carbon woven fabrics
  • drones
  • drum shells
  • fishing rods
  • guitar picks and pick guards
  • helicopter rotor blades
  • high reach poles for window cleaning
  • laptop shells
  • loudspeakers
  • passenger train cars and furnishings
  • suitcases and briefcases
  • tent poles
  • thermoplastic films for moisture and corrosion barriers
  • tripod legs
  • turntables
  • violin bows
  • walking sticks
Even though the unique properties of carbon make it a superior choice for these applications, up to now the high cost has been a challenge. What if that barrier could be breached by recycling and blending carbon — from agricultural, municipal and industrial wastes that might otherwise return to the atmosphere or ocean — and plastics, like polystyrene, that are poisoning soils, waterways and the ocean with a non-degradable toxin?

Combining biochar at rates of 5, 15, 25, and 40 percent by weight with wood and plastic to make alternative composites to traditional wood-polypropylene binders, scientists found:
  • All biochar rates increased flexural strength by 20 percent or more
  • Tensile strength was highest with 5 percent biochar
  • Tensile elasticity was highest with 25 and 40 percent biochar
  • Water absorption and swell decreased
  • Biochar additions showed improved thermal properties.
Wood plastic composites (WPCs) have annual growth rates of 22 percent in Northern America and 51 percent in Europe. Often polyethylene, polypropylene and polyvinyl chloride use wood flour or fiber as fillers, and more recently, resin impregnated paper waste from particleboard and fiberboard manufacture. The advantages of using bio-based components in these plastics is that wood and paper are non-abrasive, low in cost, widely available, low density and weight, flexible and recyclable.

Decking for outdoor applications represents the largest market for WPCs. In Europe, the WPC market, outside automobiles, is 120,000 tons, with more than half going to decking. Now manufacturers are shifting product lines to include siding, roofing, windows, door frames, and outdoor furniture. Some are already incorporating nanoscale reinforcing fillers like nanoclay and carbon nanotube into the composite material.

An extrusion technology called “waxy technology” recycles and transforms more than 12 different types of post-consumer plastics and packaging materials into long lasting, termite-resistant plastic lumbers, potentially sparing many forests from the axe. An ideal product for building, construction and furniture making, extruded lumber costs 32 percent less than pressure-treated timber, avoids arsenic and other eco-toxins, and last more than 40 years without replacement even in sunny, windswept, and coastal areas or in underwater applications. Applying cascade carbon thinking to this scenario could supply both process heat and a low cost, high value filler material, and sequester ever more carbon.

Any carbon that does not go back to the atmosphere and does not go back to the oceans can take a break from the carbon cycle. It doesn’t have to burn to become CO2. It does not have to digest or decay to become CH4. It doesn’t have to kill coral reefs or warm the Earth. It can just chill. It can be a building or a bicycle, it doesn’t matter. Just chill a few centuries while we get our act back together.

Impregnated paper waste is a major challenge for recycling due to the large amounts produced, potential toxicity and low biodegradability. Just a medium sized paper impregnating factory can produce 400 tons per year. One option is oriented strand board, but that just kicks some of those problems down the road. A better option would be pyrolysis.

Until recently, all carbon fiber came from a chemical called acrylonitrile, made from petroleum, ammonia, and oxygen. The process for making acrylonitrile produced potentially explosive heat and made toxic wastes, including hydrogen cyanide gas. In 2017, a team of researchers at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory developed a process for producing acrylonitrile from corn stalks and wheat straw that doesn’t make heat and has no toxic byproducts.

The MAI Carbon Cluster — an initiative from the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research — has been looking at high volume production processes that could cut the cost of carbon fiber by as much as 90 percent and raise recycling rates to more than 80 percent. The effort, which has seen Audi and BMW working together despite initial reservations, now involves a total of 114 partners including Airbus, BASF, Eurocopter, SGL and Voith.

During a workshop at the Ecovillage Training Center in Tennessee in 2017, we made cascaded concrete with various biochar concentrations. We made composites by melting soy-foam packing peanuts and the kinds of styrofoam clamshell containers they use at take-out in restaurants (and typically wind up in landfills, rivers or the ocean). We made chardobe brick and compressed CINVA ram brick. We made grout for a tile bench. These exercises were only scratching the surface of the potential, but they showed what lies ahead.

By melting extruded polystyrene foam packing peanuts and clamshell containers — (C8H8)n — in an acetone bath — (CH3)2CO — and adding powdered biochar (C) until it stiffened, a char-tile is produced that is light, structural, fracture-resistant, and can be molded to any shape. It could be kitchen tiles, surfboards, iphones, tennis rackets, boats or biodomes.

The potential for these kinds of innovations is huge. The global automotive industry produced about 63 million passenger vehicles and 21 million commercial vehicles in 2012. By 2020 production could grow to 100 million vehicles per year, with China accounting for about 18 to 20 percent of the total.
The typical passenger vehicle curb weight ranges between 3,000 and 4,000 lb (1,364 and 1,818 kg). The weight of sport utility and crossover utility vehicles (SUVs and CUVs) is usually 500 to 1,000 lb (227 to 454 kg) more.

Some quick math tells us that each year more than 150 million tons of new cars and trucks hit the roads around the world, including 120 million tons of steel and 10 million tons of aluminum. Composites make up less than one percent by weight, and CFRP currently only about 9000 tons, a minuscule 0.05 percent of the total global automotive materials.

Every 100 lb (45 kg) reduction in weight cuts the fuel need by roughly 2 to 3 percent. Designers have discovered, however, that weight reduction in one area sets up further weight reduction in other components and systems — resulting in a virtuous spiral of weight reduction. Composite bodies weigh 50 to 70 percent less (250 lb/113 kg) than steel, and that allows engineers to downsize chassis members, body panels and exterior accessories, structural and cosmetic interiors, suspension, drivetrain, exhaust and engine bay pieces, brake systems, fuel systems, wheels and other components.

As weight becomes an increasing concern for fuel mileage, as the impact of new carbon emissions regulation hits the steel and aluminum industries, and as the potential for automobiles to go from carbon producing to carbon removing is better understood, some big changes and opportunities lie directly ahead.

Old automakers that find themselves asleep at the wheel may find the marketplace is a cruel master — the penalty for not staying current increases each design cycle, and design cycles are getting shorter — moving from about nine years to six or less.

It is projected that by 2025, the auto industry (including race car teams and aftermarket accessory vendors) will consume about 25 percent of the global carbon fiber production capacity. Airlines may consume another 25 percent. Although CFRP is a growth industry, there are drawbacks. Metals are readily repaired, reused and recycled and there is a huge global marketplace in all those areas. The same cannot yet be said of CFRP. To avoid material wastes, landfill expenses and exposure to fines in some regions, the industry is going to have to get a better grasp of carbon cascades.

The market addressable by recycled carbon fiber (rCF) is 55,000 MT/yr with 50,000 MT/yr of CF scrap available to fill this. That 5000 ton gap represents an immediate opportunity, but more important is the long term — designing recycling into the whole process. Lux Research cites present CF capacity of 120,000 tons/yr versus projected near-term demand of 225,000 tons/yr, as rail cars, bridges and buildings increase their CFRP content. The CF industry must grow rapidly and rCF should play a major role in meeting demand.

A new CFRP rail bogie frame is being made using 80 percent compression molded rCF and 20 percent virgin fiber (vCF). These carbon rail cars reduce weight over their steel counterparts by 75 percent, cutting wheel-to-rail loads by 40 percent.

According to an industry insider’s report,
For vehicles priced less than $120,000 with production volumes greater than 20,000 units per year, the inclusion of recycled carbon fibers will be critical to meeting the economic performance required to make money from automobile sales. Further, the energy it takes to reclaim carbon fibers is small compared to that required during virgin fiber production. Added to a reduced need for petroleum-based feedstocks, recycled carbon fiber adds an extra green dimension to CFRP solutions.
Consider this hypothetical scenario: Luxury automobile manufacturer X, which sells 100,000 vehicles annually in the North American market, can raise its average fuel economy from today’s 29 mpg to 40 mpg by 2025, a 33 percent improvement. But it still fails to meet the 55 mpg target. The current fine assessed to the manufacturer is $55 per 1 mpg under the standard, multiplied by the manufacturer’s total production for the U.S. domestic market. In this scenario, manufacturer X would be fined approximately $82.5 million. Similar incentives exist in Europe, but they are even more onerous. In the U.K., failure to meet emissions standards results in a fine of €95 ($123 USD) per gram of CO2 per kilometer over the limit per vehicle. For flagship Jaguar Land Rover Ltd. (Whitley, Coventry, U.K.) sedans or Aston Martin (Gaydon, Warwickshire, U.K.) sports cars, this represents as much as an additional $20,000 or more per vehicle.
Retired or scrap carbon fiber for reuse in manufacturing is a first stage cascade — easily accomplished by a combination of compression molding and thermoplastic films that provide shape and cohesion to the rCF content. A second stage could be separation of the carbon content in an exothermic process — burning or dissolving away the non-carbon portion and leaving behind cascade carbon that can be put to new uses. A third cascade might be capturing the heat from that second stage and transforming it into process steam, electricity, or commercial heating and cooling. The fresh carbon supplied by these processes offers scores of possibilities.

Carbon, arranged into chains and rings by photosynthesizing plants, then rearranged to weave into fabrics, fibers and filaments, will soon surround us in our buildings, modes of transportation, and much, much more. Much better there than the atmosphere or oceans.

Thanks for reading! If you liked this story, please consider sharing it around. Our open banjo case for your spare change is at Patreon or Paypal. This post is from Carbon Cascades: Redesigning Human Ecologies to Reverse Climate Change by Albert Bates and Kathleen Draper, coming from Chelsea Green Publishers later this year (the book is free to our sponsors).




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