Friday, May 18, 2018

Why Agriculture and Forestry Are Dead or Obsolete the Way They Are Practiced Nowadas

A post by Greg Horrall


Dead if we keep doing it with our current dependency on mined finite-supply mineral fertilizers and obsolete if we hope to maintain even the current population... NO MATTER WHETHER IT’S DONE ORGANICALLY OR WITHOUT GMOs. Too little is now being done to respond to this. Our response options are to make some modifications to soil agricultural technologies, to develop new forms of food and fiber production and use more efficient ways of consumption that could support even higher human populations, or by default, to return to low-intensity soil agriculture + hunting and gathering that could support only a small fraction of our current population at much lower technological levels.

Why? All life on the planet (with a few very rare exceptions...organisms living on heat near underwater volcanic vents instead of using photosynthesis) depends on a very thin layer at the surface of earth’s topsoils and the photic zone of the earth’s surface waters to provide life-supporting minerals like K, P, Mg, Fe, etc. This layer, call it the life-support mineral nutrient layer (LSMNL), where photosynthesis occurs and where minerals are bioavailable (in ionic form dissolved in water)and physically accessible by photosynthesizers is where the food web begins. The soil agriculture that provides us with our endosomatic energy (food kilocalories) and our own life-support mineral nutrient needs is carried out in the LSMNL.

Agronomics as it’s done today...the selling of plant products without the return of mineral nutrients in human biowastes back to the growing soils, inevitably takes minerals out of the LSMNL much faster than they are replenished by natural processes...weathering of rocks (mechanical or biochemical) and volcanic ash deposition. Deposition of sediments in riverine flood zones can also act to replenish flood plain areas’ mineral nutrient supplies but only a small portion of the earth’s total agriculture occurs on such flood plains.

The overwhelming majority of food production today is only possible because farmers supplement soils too poor in naturally supplied minerals by applying mined (finite in supply) mineral nutrients at a high-enough rate to replenish losses due to non-return of mineral nutrients from our biowastes as well as losses to erosion and leaching which are often exacerbated by modern agricultural techniques. Modern farmers and even the simple peasant subsistence farmer are practicing nothing but another form of depletion-based technology, as is fossil fuel consumption for our exosomatic energy. Soil agriculture as we now do it consists in depleting the minerals of the LSMNL without return of the human biowastes that contain the minerals taken from the soils in our agricultural and forestry products. That’s a dead-end path, sooner or later.

Contrast the case of an ecosystem that’s running naturally. A natural forest or prairie ecosystem has virtually every sq cm of the soil covered with something that’s either growing or decomposing. No plant products are being removed. All the animals are depositing their biowastes fairly evenly over the soils. There are various species of plants with a wide range of root system depths and there are healthy micro flora and fauna in the soils capturing minerals that would leach down to lower not-root-accessible layers and also carrying out weathering processes on rocks and grains that make minerals from them bioavailable.

The monoculture of a crop growing field has mostly bare soils between plants, and also bare between growing seasons, exposed to erosional agents of wind and water. Its plants (our staple foods) have with only short depth root systems...very thin effective LSMNL. It has humans taking away mineral nutrients in the foods or fibers they harvest and never being returned to the growing fields from which they are taken.

Forestry has also become highly dependent on additions of mined mineral nutrients and is at this time our primary source of important products like wood and paper...things we need to replace with synthetic hydrocarbons. The orchard or plantation cultivation of trees is also a source of foods like palm oil and palm sugar and various fruits. The dependence of all types of tree cultivation on mined mineral nutrients has made it every bit as unsustainable as the soil agriculture that provides the bulk of our dietary needs.

(Note: Because they have deeper root systems trees have a deeper effective LSMNL but in the case of foods from trees, the yield of kcal per H-yr as well is much lower than our typical grain and legume staple crops.)

Natural forests and prairies are sustainable ecosystems.
Soil agricultural fields, “managed” forests, orchards, and plantations are not.

Sadly, and perhaps in only a few generations more, tragically, the problem of LSMNL soil mineral depletion has been getting little attention. Much more attention has been given to organic farming (stopping the use of synthetic chemical pesticides and herbicides and using natural N sources) and the fight to stop GMO technology...important matters but really secondary in comparison to LSMNL depletion.

Many people simply do not understand the situation and are unaware that virtually no agriculture or silviculture now being done is being done sustainably. Here we have the most basic and essential life support input, food, under threat of a supply collapse that could begin in just a few more generations and it’s barely registering in the public consciousness. Yes, compared to the time we have left to make an exosomatic renewable energy transition, we do still have a little bit more time left on the clock to deal with this, but it’s also a potentially far deeper and more complex problem requiring much more time to handle.

The first red warning light, and it only takes one to declare an emergency, on the LSMNL instrument panel is for our supply of the mineral P, phosphorus. Keep in mind that there are numerous life-essential minerals which means that the supply of any one of them could severely limit our food supply, but P is arguably the most essential as it is the only mineral element found in the structure of DNA. The P supply warning light is now on and, although there is no firm consensus, the range of time-left-to-exhaustion-of-economically-recoverable P-rich rock reserves is from ~70 up to 200 years at current rates of consumption. Remember, P is not a replacable commodity like fossil fuels that can be replaced by renewable energy sources, but is a non-substitutable life essential commodity., and so 70-200 years is not really much time when dealing with a supply problem for something like this.

(Note: In recent years, the P depletion problem has received a little bit of attention starting with a group led by Dana Cordell in Australia and called the “Global Phosphorus Research Initiative”. See )
We should be moving now with urgency equal to that we place on our exosomatic energy supply problems to be developing and implementing the next paradigm of food production, beyond soil agriculture, something I call EternaCulture (EC)...closed mineral nutrient loop hydroponics (with very limited soil based growing of selected crops that have very low mineral content). Along with transitioning to a semi-vegan diet, this technology, if implemented well by placing most of it in tropical zones could enable us to keep our current population fed (even a much larger one) on a fraction of current agricultural land and water use. It could allow vast areas of natural prairies and forest ecosystems to re-develop on lands that would be no longer needed for meeting human needs. It would put an end to the appearance of oceanic dead zones that form due to fertilizer run-off into rivers. It would also be much more amenable to zeroing-out the use of pest- and herbicides, and it simultaneously provides for sanitation and fertilization services. As an added bonus, it would give the Southern (industrially less-developed,tropical climate zone nations) a sustainable and substantial revenue source for trading with the North.

As with the transition to renewable exosomatic energy, a transition to renewable food and fiber technology like EC will require decades of time and trillions of dollars in start-up capital, but its potential payoff is to enable a truly sustainable economy that can even continue to grow so that all the world’s people can reach a decent and healthy modern standard of living. If we could achieve that, the demographic transition phenomenon could stabilize our populations and we could continue pursuing the human dream of ad astra. Failing to make the transition to truly sustainable food production technology like EC will virtually guarantee that we will be going back to a pre-agricultural-revolution economy. Without sustainable food, no economy is sustainable, and food supply tech is the primary determinant of all other aspects of any economy.

Man’s future is going to depend more on endo-energy (food) technology than on exo-energy technology.

Some references for this article and for additional research:

About this post’s author, Greg Horrall:

An American raised in the farmlands of Indiana and living for the past 11 years in a small subsistence farming village in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, a graduate of Purdue University where he majored in Mathematics and minored in Physics and Aerospace Engineering followed by some graduate studies in Nuclear Fusion, Atmospheric Science, Photogrammetry, and Remote Sensing, Greg followed a career path in aerial imagery and topographical mapping and then became a spirulina culturist. He is now a struggling entrepreneur focused on ideas that follow the principles of what he calls Sustetatek, sustainable and efficient technologies for mankind’s flight into the future, and is currently working on a number of small projects like closed mineral nutrient loop food growing, an emoped, and a PVC-steel composite microhouse.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Five Things You Should Know About Collapse

The Roman philosopher Lucius Annaeus Seneca was perhaps the first in history to identify and discuss collapse and to note that "the way to ruin is rapid." From Seneca's idea, Ugo Bardi coined the term "Seneca Effect" to describe all cases where things go bad fast and used the modern science of complex systems to understand why and how collapses occur. Above: the Egyptian pyramid of Meidum, perhaps the first large edifice in history to experience collapse. 

1. Collapse is rapid. Already some 2,000 years ago, the Roman philosopher Seneca noted that when things start going bad, they go bad fast. It takes a lot of time to put together a building, a company, a government, a whole society, a piece of machinery. And it takes very little time for the whole structure to unravel at the seams. Think of the collapse of a house of cards, or that of the twin towers after the 9/11 attacks, or even of apparently slow collapses such as that of the Roman Empire. Collapses are fast, it is their characteristic.

2. Collapse is not a bug, it is a feature of the universe. Collapses occur all the time, in all fields, everywhere. Over your lifetime, you are likely to experience at least a few relatively large collapses: natural phenomena such as hurricanes, earthquakes, or floods - major financial collapses - such as the one that took place in 2008 - and you may also see wars and social violence. And you may well see small-scale personal disasters such as losing your job or divorcing. Nobody at school taught you how to deal with collapse, but to cope with it you'd better learn at least something of the "science of complex systems."

3. No collapse is ever completely unexpected. The science of complex systems tells us that collapses can never be exactly predicted, but that's not a justification for being caught by surprise. You may not know when an earthquake will strike but, if you live in a seismic zone, you have no justification for not take precautions against one - such as having emergency tools and provisions. The same holds for defending yourself and your family against thieves, robbers, and all sorts of bad people. And make plans for political unrest or financial troubles. You cannot avoid some collapses, but you can surely be prepared for them.

4. Resisting collapses is usually a bad idea. Collapse is the way the universe uses to get rid of the old to make space for the new. Resisting collapse means to strive to keep something old alive when it could be a better idea to let it rest in peace. And, if you succeed for a while, you are likely to create an even worse collapse - it is typical. The science of complex systems tells us that the main reason for the steep "Seneca Collapse" is the attempt to stave it off. So, let nature follow its course and know that there some problems may be unsolvable but can be surely worsened.

5. Collapse may not be a problem but an opportunity. Collapse is nothing but a "tipping point" from one condition to another. What looks to you like a disaster may be nothing but a passage to a new condition which could be better than the old. So, if you lose your job, that may give you the opportunity to seek a better one. And if your company goes belly up, you may start another one without making the same mistakes you did with the first. Even disasters such as earthquakes or floods may be an opportunity to understand what's your role in life, as well as give you a chance to help your family and your neighbors. The Stoic philosophers (and Seneca was one) understood this point and told us how to maintain one's balance and happiness even in the midst of difficulties.

To learn more about collapse, see Ugo Bardi's main blog "Cassandra's Legacy," Ugo's blog specifically dedicated to the Seneca Effect, and Ugo Bardi's book "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017)

Saturday, May 12, 2018

New Rare Earth Resources: A Non-Solution For A Non-Problem

Above: the report on the "Financial Post" of April 13, 2018. The study that the report describes is not just a bad paper, but something highlighting the shortcomings of our whole society in understanding and managing mineral depletion.

Any report on mineral availability that starts with "a semi-infinite deposit" should be taken with great caution - it reminds of when Julian Simon said that we have oil for "six billion years". About this report on rare earths, I'd say that calling it "clueless" is way too kind. But there is nothing to do: the term "rare" in the concept of "rare earth minerals" rattles so much inside people's minds that they imagine both a non-existing crisis and non-existing solutions.

So, what do we have here? A grand claim about rare earth resources that comes from a paper recently published in Nature. Let's go see it.

The term "tremendous" in the title of a scientific paper should ring more than a few bells in one's mind, but let's go to the meat of the paper, what did the authors found, exactly? Basically, that the concentration of rare earths and yttrium (that they call REY) in the mud of some areas at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean is larger than the average concentration in the earth's crust.

So far, so good. Then the authors go on to calculate the total amounts of rare earths that could be found in the large areas examined and conclude that these can be considered as "semi-infinite" resources. (the term is straight from the paper, it is not an invention of the journalist of the "Financial Post.").

At this point, you would ask at what cost these "semi-infinite" resources could be recovered, but this question is wholly ignored in the paper. The only instance where the term "cost" appears is when they say:

Because the amount of the resource is enormous, improving the ore grade will greatly enhance the economic value of the mud even if the recovery yield is somewhat lower than that we observed. A decrease in mud weight and volume will directly lead to reductions in smelting costs.

You wonder what Nature uses reviewers for, right? But, apart from meaningless paragraphs like this one, the problem is fundamental: extraction is not a question of amounts, it is a question of cost and the cost is directly related to grade. This basic point is never discussed in this paper, except for defining the underwater deposits as "extremely high grade." (and note that they use the term 18 times in the paper!)

"Extremely high grade," you say? Let's see. From the maps of figure 2 in the paper, it turns out that for most of the area explored the concentration is well below 2,000 ppm, that is less than 0.2%. In the text, the authors say "REY-rich mud having a maximum of almost 8,000 ppm (0.8%) of total REY content (ΣREY) was confirmed." But this is a maximum, not an average. Elsewhere in the paper, they speak of larger concentrations, but they seem to refer to special areas.

So, let's assume, optimistically, that 0.2% is the average concentration of rare earth minerals in this oceanic mud. Is this an "extremely high grade"? Well, high ore grade, in this case, may be all in the eye of the beholder. Let's compare with what we have on land. There is a recent review by Paulick and Machacek of the situation of rare earth extraction. It is a long and complex story, but the gist of it is that it is difficult to extract rare earths for a total concentration of oxides below 1%. Many mines operate on ore grades higher than 1%, some even up to 6%-8%. Paulick and Machacek state that "Overall, it could be assumed that deposits in the 2–4 wt% grade range may be in a position to add to global REE production at competitive operation costs."

There follows that the "extremely high grade" ores found by the Japanese researchers at the bottom of the ocean are well below what we need in order to be extractable at costs compatible with the present market conditions. 

And that doesn't take into account that these ores are at the bottom of the ocean, which is a (probably "tremendous") additional cost. The authors recognize the problem but don't quantify it, limiting themselves to state that, "if a hydrocyclone can be operated in-situ on the deep-sea floor, it would be possible to reduce lifting costs," Yeah, sure, and as Lewis Carroll said, "sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast."  Finally, there is no mention of the impact on the marine ecosystem of lifting untold billion tons of materials from the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. An impact that might truly deserve the adjective "tremendous." 

You see how bad this study is, but the problem is not so much the hype ("semi-infinite amounts," "extremely high grade," "tremendous potential," etc.) - after all, hyping one's minor discoveries to turn them into major breakthrough has become a cottage industry in science. The problem is worse. 

The problem is that these claims go straight to the media and are not challenged or, if they are, the challenge is not visible to the public. For the layman, the impression may well be that there are "semi-infinite" rare earth resources, which is not the case. But it is not even the case that we are "running out" of anything. Depletion is not about running out, depletion is about increasing extraction costs and if the extraction of something costs more than what you can afford to pay, then you may as well say that you "ran out" of it. But it is a different story and we aren't there yet with rare earths: we have time to adapt by using less and recycling.

Still, it seems to be impossible to pass this message to a society whose behavior can be best described as "knee-jerk" reactions - that is, showing only two states of understanding of the situation: complacency or panic (quote by James Schlesinger). It is not the only case in which society as a whole completely misunderstands what the real problems are (just think of climate). 

And, as usual, we march into the future blindfolded and along a narrow path with cliffs on both sides

Image h/t Max De Carlo. To know more, you may wish to read my book Extracted: How the Quest for Mineral Wealth Is Plundering the Planet

Thursday, May 10, 2018

The Fisherman and the Farmer - A Tale About Overexploitation

Ilaria Perissi and Nicola Calisi playing the fisherman and his wife in a theatrical piece shown in Florence in 2017. The piece was based on the story told below (text by Ugo Bardi). The origin of this story is told here.

Once upon a time, a fisherman who lived on the shore of the lake went to visit his cousin, a farmer, who lived in the countryside.

“Cousin,” said the fisherman, “I am glad to see you and that God blessed you with a good wife and many children. But I also see that your children are thin, and they look hungry, and the same is true for your wife. I am sad at seeing that, cousin. Why don’t you make bread for your children with the grain that I saw you keep in the granary? Don’t you trust God to provide for you in the future? I can tell you that God gives me abundant fish from the lake where I fish, and my good wife and my children don’t starve.”

“Cousin,” said the farmer, “I am glad to see you, too, and I am sure that God blessed you in giving you abundant fish so that your wife and your children do not starve. But you are right when you say that my children are hungry, and it is true that we haven’t had much bread to eat. But the land sometimes gives us plenty and sometimes not so much. This year, times were more difficult than usual and the harvest was not so good as I hoped it would be. Yet, I must follow the rules that my father followed, and my grandfather before him followed, and the ancient fathers of all of us followed. And I follow these rules not because I don’t trust God to provide us with food that, but because I think that it is what God wants us to do. Every year, some seed must be kept for the new harvest and this is the seed I keep in the granary. No matter how hungry we are, this seed cannot be eaten. And that the same for everything we have: from mushrooms to the berries of the woods. Whatever we take from the land, we must not take too much of it, so that there will be more of it in the new season. And this is the way of the farmer and I will follow it.”

“And so be it, cousin,” said the fisherman, “I will go back to my family on the shore of the lake, and may God bless you and your family and keep hunger away from all of you.”

“And so be it, cousin,” said the farmer, “I wish you a good trip back home on the shore of the lake and may God bless you and your family and keep hunger away from all of you.”

Some years later, the farmer went to visit his cousin, the fisherman, who lived on the shore of the lake.

“Cousin,” said the farmer. “I am glad to see you again, but I see that your children are thin, and they look hungry, and the same is true for your wife. What happened? Why can’t you fish enough to feed your family? I remember that the last time I saw you, you told me that God had blessed you with abundant fish from the lake.”

“Cousin,” said the fisherman, “I am glad to see you again, too. And I told you the truth, some years ago, when I said that God had blessed us with plenty of fish. But since then, many fishermen have been fishing in the lake, and they all have children, just like me. And the more we keep fishing, the less fish there is in the lake. And now that the lake is almost empty of fish, we can’t feed our children.”

“But, cousin,” said the farmer, “why didn’t you and the other fishermen fished a little less when there was still plenty of fish? You should have waited for the new fish to be born, just as we farmers wait for the new harvest to grow. In this way, you wouldn’t have emptied the lake of fish and your children would not starve now.”

“Cousin,” said the fisherman, “you are right and what you are telling me is something that I thought myself. But I also thought that, if I fished less, then the other fishermen would catch the fish that I wouldn’t catch. And I think that every fisherman thought the same and we all went fishing as often as we could, and we fished as much as we could until there was almost no more fish in the lake because we fish the young fish just as the old. And now we don’t have much food to feed our children, but we still must follow the way of the fisherman, as my father did, and his father, and the ancestors of all of us. And this way is to fish and to keep fishing and hope that God will keep hunger away from us and from our families.”

“And so be it, cousin,” said the farmer, “I will pray God for you that He may keep hunger away from you and from your family. But I am afraid that God may not help those who caused their own ruin.”

“And so be it, cousin,” said the fisherman, “and I thank you for your prayers although it may well be that God will not help those who caused their own ruin. But I wish that God will help you and the other farmers who wisely keep the seed of the present harvest for the future harvest.

Below, the announcement of the play.

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Negative Emission Technologies: maybe we can still save the world, after all!

The ancient Egyptians knew how to manage the commons. A single central authority managed the Nile river, to make sure that everybody had enough water for their needs. Could we do the same for our atmospheric commons and save the world by using negative emission technologies (NET)? Above, a Pharaoh (probably Ramses II) receives the crown of Upper and Lower Egypt.

Before I went to hear Klaus Lackner in Les Houches in March 2018 (image on the right), I had a very poor opinion of direct atmospheric capture (DAC) and negative emission technologies (NET).  If you had asked me, I would have said that there is no need for these technologies: why can't we just avoid emissions, instead? And if you were to tell me about "artificial trees," I would have told you that Mother Nature spent some 350 million years to develop trees, and She knows better than us how to remove CO2 from the air.

Well, I changed my mind. I came out of Lackner's seminar convinced that DAC/NET may give us a fighting chance to survive. Consider that it is perfectly possible that we already passed the "tipping point" that will lead Earth's climate to move to a different climate state. In that case, reducing emissions or even zeroing them will not help us. And, in any case, we are not doing that fast enough. So, DAC/NET as the last hope to save civilization? (*) Possible and even likely. Let me explain.

First of all, let me state a point which is clear to me: the energy transition is NOT a technological problem. We could go through the transition fast enough to avoid running out of energy and before climate change destroys us. But only if we were willing to invest enough in the transition, and we aren't. The problem is financial and political. And, at present, it seems to be impossible to solve since the idea that civilization (and perhaps humankind) is at risk is just not penetrating into the consciousness of the decision makers.

The main problem is that we haven't been able to find a way to frame the message in the right way. Let's imagine a dialog between a scientist and the public.

Scientist: We have a big problem with CO2 emissions. The atmosphere is going to overheat, the tropics will be desertified, the sea level will rise and swamp all the coastal cities, lots of people will die of starvation. And more dark and dire things. 

Public. Ouch, that's terrible. What can we do to avoid that? 

Scientist. Well, you have to change your lifestyle. Give up your car for a bicycle,  turn down your thermostat, no vacations overseas, that kind of things. 

Public. I see...  Mr. Scientist, but are YOU doing that?

Scientist: Well, I do what I can but, you see, there is this thing that we scientists call the "h-factor" and the higher it is, the higher our salary is, so I have to attend international conferences, take planes, travel, all that. . .

Public. You know, Mr. Scientist, I think you are part of a conspiracy of scientists who invented the idea of global warming in order to siphon money out of the pockets of taxpayers. And, by the way, on the next elections I am going to vote for someone who will defund your research so that you'll stop bothering me with this scam.

See the problem? Instead, let's imagine that the last part of the dialog goes in a different way

Scientist. A little CO2 in the atmosphere is a good thing, but too much of it becomes a waste problem which may create a climate disaster.

Public. So, Mr. Scientist, what do we have to do to avoid that? 

Scientist. Well, we have ways to remove the excess CO2 in the atmosphere. It will cost you some money, of course, but it is just like for the household waste you produce. Every good citizen has to pay to have their waste taken care of. 

Public. But what are YOU doing about that?

Scientist: Me? Of course, I am going to pay for the removal of my CO2 waste, just as everybody else. 

Public. Hmmm...... I see. Let's discuss how much that would cost.

So, the idea of atmospheric CO2 removal - NET - could be just the kind of message that goes through and that can be understood by almost everybody. Lackner himself confirms that from his experience in Arizona, where he works. Arizona is not known to be a place where people agree with the idea that AGW exists and is a problem. But Lackner reports that when the climate problem is framed in terms of "clean up your mess," then even the most hardened science disbelievers may grudgingly admit that something needs to be done. And to the people who insist that "CO2 is not a pollutant" you can just answer, "nor is coffee, but if you spill some of it on your carpet you'll want to remove it."

Of course, a good message is useless if applied to a technology which can't work but, in this case, I think there are reasons to think that DAC/NET could. It is a complex story, but you can start looking at it from Lackner's papers at this link. You can also find useful data about costs and about the energy involved at this link. For something not academic, see this article on The Guardian.

You'll see that this technology is a thoroughly studied subject, not an idea just thrown in. And it has a number of advantages. One is that it is much more effective than simply planting trees. With the best of good will, we don't have the space and the time to plant enough trees to remove enough CO2 from the atmosphere (besides, people seem to be more interested in destroying trees). Artificial trees should work better than the IPCC idea of BECCS (bioenergy and carbon capture and sequestration) since they need no water or fertilizers and they can be placed anywhere, even in the middle of a desert. Then, DAC machines are flexible: the CO2 removed from the atmosphere can be sequestered underground but also, if needed, used to produce fuels and chemicals: you can "tune" the removal without having to leave the machines idle.

A rough estimate of the energy involved in the DAC task says that about 10 GW of continuous power would be required in order to remove one billion tons of CO2 per year. Since we are emitting some 38 Gtons of CO2 per year, the energy needed for DAC to have an impact is not unreasonably large since the world consumes today about 15 TW of power. Consider also that this technology couples nicely with renewable energy. The excess energy that photovoltaics and wind produce in some periods can be conveniently put to good use powering the CO2 removal system.

But don't think of NET as a way to keep burning more and more fossil fuels. It is an emergency tool to remedy the damage we have already done: if we keep at doing more damage, then it will be useless. It needs to be coupled with a rapid reduction in emissions and the deploying of renewable energy sources. Note also that the amount of CO2 that can be stored underground is not infinite.

Then, it becomes a question of cost and of time. We need to build millions of DAC machines in a few decades if we want to control the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere and bring it to levels that we judge safe. Impossible? No: during the second world war, the world managed to produce some five million tanks and military vehicles in about 5 years. In fifty years, a much larger economy such as the present one could well produce tens of millions of DAC machines, also considering that one of these machines is probably less complex and less expensive than a battle tank (to say nothing about being much more useful).

In the end, the essential point of this technology is that it is truly global: DAC machines can be placed anywhere in the world and their effects will be global. As a consequence, operating them requires a global governance system. The situation is not different from that of the ancient Egyptians who needed to manage the Nile in order to ensure that there was enough water for irrigation. They succeeded, so why can't we? It is a great occasion for humankind to get together for a worthy task: managing the atmosphere as a global commons.

Below, King Scorpion II engaged in digging an irrigation ditch in ancient Egypt, in other words, managing the commons!

(*) Note that DAC/NET is absolutely not the same thing as "CCS" (carbon capture and sequestration) intended as a retrofit for existing and new coal plants. Coupling coal with CCS is just an expensive way to keep going with obsolete technologies and will do more damage than good if it is deployed.

Thursday, May 3, 2018

"Hope is not weak. Hope swims" - A book by Solitaire Townsend.

I had big hopes for this book, "The Happy Hero" that Solitaire Townsend published in October 2017. But when the book arrived I was immediately put off by the combination of the cover and the title. I don't know about you, but I hate the places where you are greeted by one or more smiling faces and - often - by the words "have a nice day." Maybe there is some market research showing that these things increase sales, but for me they are depressing. The first impression of this book is that it is one of those "self-help" books you find in the bookstores in the halls of airports. Sugar coated pills that help nobody.

But, no. The book is different. Reading it, a poem by Walt Whitman came to my mind, So Long, where he says "This is no book; Who touches this, touches a man". In this case, it is a woman but, apart from that, for what I can say, this book is very much Solitaire Townsend and Solitaire Townsend is very much this book. And I can tell you that Solitaire is one of the brightest persons I've ever met. For one thing, her idea that the "likes" in facebook are the equivalent of money in the sociosphere has changed my view of the world (I discuss her idea in my book "The Seneca Effect.")

Then, if a book is like a person, it can never be perfect - you may like him or her a lot, but you must accept his/her idiosyncrasies. And not all persons you meet are the kind of person you would want to marry. So, this book has defects, one is the title. Personally, I would have chosen as title the sentence written at p. 61, "Hope is not weak, hope swims". It is nevertheless a remarkable book. Very remarkable.

Let me just emphasize one point: it is that Solitaire is everything but solitary (sorry for the pun). She understands a fundamental point: if you want to do something good, you don't do that alone. At page 91 she cites an old saying that goes "if you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together." Which I think really highlights one of the weak points of the environmental movement. The tendency of going alone.

So, if you think you want to be a good environmentalist, you may leave your car for a bicycle and that may make you feel like a hero. But you don't realize that what you have done is just to leave some gasoline available for some bad guy with an SUV. And let's say nothing about the hordes of doomsters who populate the movement. They have already decided that we are all to die, nothing to do about that. Apparently, they feel happy that way. It is what Solitaire calls "the monster of doom."

Instead, no hero can be a hero, alone. If you go together, if you form a group, if you build relationships, then whatever action you engage in has to be shared. Then, it has to benefit everybody and not only works better, it gives you much more satisfaction than brooding about disasters to come. (BTW, who invented the silly idea of a Seneca collapse?)

There are plenty of variations on the theme "Saving the World" with the well-known caveat that the world doesn't need to be saved - it is us, humans, who need to. Yet, if you don't want to fall into fatalism or into useless tinkering of details,  we need people like the non-solitary Solitaire Townsend.

I always found "So Long" by Walt Whitman both troubling and fascinating. Ray Bradbury felt the same because he titled one of his short stories I Sing the Body Electric, the first line of Whitman "Leaves of Grass". And, surely, Bradbury's idea of the "book people" of Fahrenheit 451 was inspired by Whitman. About the idea that books are people and people are books, here is the relevant part of So Long

My songs cease—I abandon them; 
From behind the screen where I hid I advance personally, solely to you.

Camerado! This is no book; 
Who touches this, touches a man; 
(Is it night? Are we here alone?) 

It is I you hold, and who holds you; 
I spring from the pages into your arms—decease calls me forth.

O how your fingers drowse me! 
Your breath falls around me like dew—
your pulse lulls the tympans of my ears; 
I feel immerged from head to foot; 

Enough, O deed impromptu and secret! 
Enough, O gliding present! Enough, O summ’d-up past! 

Dear friend, whoever you are, take this kiss, I give it especially to you—Do not forget me; 
I feel like one who has done work for the day, to retire awhile; 
I receive now again of my many translations—from my avataras ascending—while others doubtless await me; 
An unknown sphere, more real than I dream’d, more direct, darts awakening rays about me—So long!

Remember my words—I may again return, I love you—I depart from materials;
I am as one disembodied, triumphant, dead.

Sunday, April 29, 2018

Nuclear Fusion: is it still worth investing on it in an age of cheap renewable energy?

A review by Giuseppe Cima of the situation with nuclear fusion. The matter is complex, but Cima identifies the crucial point: even assuming that nuclear fusion were to work as expected, it would be more expensive than the presently available renewable technologies. Consider also that it will take decades before we can have fusion reactors able to produce commercially available energy (if ever). How much better and cheaper will renewables be by that time? Considering that fusion is not a "clean" technology, as sometimes claimed, it doesn't seem to have any realistic chance to be useful for something, now or in the future. So, why are we still spending money and resources on this technology? One more example of the human blind faith in technology and its miracles (U.B.)

ITER TOKAMAK, looking carefully, at the bottom right circled in red, a human in a yellow jacket. The probable size of a magnetic confinement fusion reactor is huge and it's at the core of most of its problems.

My view on nuclear fusion, in a nutshell

 by Giuseppe Cima

Nowadays few businesses would invest in conventional nuclear power stations. In the US, subsidies of 100% or more fail to attract private investments for a nuclear fission power station, the classic form of nuclear energy. So, the perspectives for a revival of nuclear are not rosy.

But there exists another form of nuclear energy, thermonuclear fusion, the one that powers the stars. Fusion, the sticking together of light nuclei such as hydrogen, is a nuclear reaction distinct from fission, where heavy atoms, such as uranium, break apart. Fusion energy research has been pursued since the WWII years in national labs and universities all over the world. Despite all efforts, though, so far it has not provided a clear indication of being feasible. What are the current perspectives of this form of energy?

Fusion technologies

There are two ways to burn hot nuclear fusion fuel: make it react very quickly before the burning gas flies away, the way an H bomb works, or use a magnetic field to insulate the plasma from the reactor walls. The bomb method can be replicated in a series of micro-explosions in the lab, but the rate has to be high enough to produce relevant electric power and this poses huge unsolved problems. A giant laser fusion experiment in the US, the National Ignition Facility, has demonstrated how difficult and expensive is to produce a micro-explosion once a day. Imagine doing that hundreds of times per second for years. Even with a budget provided by the military for weapon development, laser fusion is far away from pointing to a credible commercial reactor.

Therefore, from the inception of fusion energy research, most efforts have been devoted to magnetic confinement of steady state hot plasmas. After 70 years of trying, almost everybody in the field has concentrated on one favorite scheme which goes under the name of TOKAMAK, a Russian invention. The tests performed so far indicate that the minimum size of a potential reactor core will be large, the size of a large building. ITER, a TOKAMAK presently under construction in France to demonstrate the feasibility of fusion, is of this size but, apart from the size, it is so expensive that its construction is requiring the financial contribution of all developed nations on earth.

The doughnut-shaped ITER reactor core is 30 meter in diameter, 20 m high. It is an extremely complex device, much more sophisticated than an equivalently powerful nuclear fission reactor and roughly 10 times the volume. Its core weights more than 30 thousand ton, just the floor of ITER uses 200 thousand cubic meters of concrete.

Size is the most obvious drawback of nuclear fusion: the large size makes it impossible to mass produce these reactors. This factor gives a considerable advantage to the competition, made of comparatively small generators: gas turbines of 50-100 MW, efficient windmills of a few MW, photovoltaic solar panels of less than 1 kW. These generators can be transported by truck and the speed of their industrial development has been inversely proportional to the power of an individual module. The cost of electricity for photovoltaics and wind originates mainly from the cost of capital invested in the generator and its ancillary equipment, just as it's the case for Deuterium-Deuterium fusion where the fuel is nearly free. Natural gas power stations burn inexpensive fuel and have the lowest generator capital cost of all, but are CO2 polluters, nowadays a serious drawback.

We must specify that the fuel for fusion reactors is nearly free only in the case of the Deuterium-Deuterium fusion. The current idea, instead, is to use the easier reaction of Deuterium with Tritium, the latter being another radioactive isotope of Hydrogen. It is a very rare isotope that can be bred in the same TOKAMAK which is burning it, but not in sufficient quantity to keep these reactions going. This is another issue of ITER-like reactors, for the time being swept under the rug.

Because of its large size and complexity, it's very hard to imagine that a TOKAMAK fusion reactor could be less expensive than a conventional fission reactor and detailed present-day estimates put the cost of the kWh to more than 12 ¢, just for the capital cost, and before knowing all the details of a working reactor.

Instead, electricity commercialized from unsubsidized photovoltaic and wind generators is presently sold at prices between 2 and 7 ¢/kWh, depending on location, and there is room for more savings. These sources are intermittent, fusion is not, but for a renewable-dominated electrical production, the additional cost of energy storage would entail a fraction of the cost of energy production. This is a purely economic consideration: renewables are already less expensive than fusion energy.

There is a second very relevant drawback linked to the large size of the fusion reactor: its development time. ITER will experiment with real fusion fuel not earlier than 2035 and will realistically carry on the experiments in the following 10 years. It implies that this experimental phase, not a prototype reactor since ITER will be incapable of producing energy, will have taken roughly 50 years.

To make a dent in the world electricity production one should implement thousands of 1 GW size reactors. How long of an experimentation phase should one consider to reach this goal from when ITER will have answered the initial round of questions? Maybe 100 years, i.e. a couple of experimental phases.

To summarize, on top of a plethora of unresolved, even unknown, design issues of technical nature, magnetic fusion poses problems linked to the huge size of the TOKAMAK reactor core: a large kWh cost and a very long development time. For the ones sensitive to the "cleanliness" of fusion I also have to mention that ITER at the end of its life will present a bill of around 30,000 tons of heavily radioactive waste without having produced a single kWh. Magnetic fusion is not clean: its fuel and the products of the reactions may be modestly radioactive, but the machinery itself is not.

Why the reactor has to be large

Why a magnetic fusion reactor has to be big, physically very large? Thermonuclear fuel has been proven to burn in the H bomb, but it can burn also non-explosively, think of the sun. For any fuel to burn in steady state, the energy released in the volume of the burning matter equals the energy escaping from it, heat produced equals heat lost, the energy balance equation. The rate at which energy is produced grows in proportion to the density of the fuel, the number of atomic nuclei per unit volume. The reactor power density increases with the density of the reacting particles.

The plasma in a reactor is a gas of atomic constituents roughly in thermal equilibrium, its kinetic energy content is characterized by a pressure. If the TOKAMAK plasma has to be contained by a magnetic field, the field pressure has to be substantially higher than the plasma pressure. The magnetic pressure produced by the external superconducting magnets at the plasma location is limited at present to less than 200 atmospheres by the mechanical strength of the magnets. Improvements are foreseeable on the magnets front and they would be helpful, but the magnet materials are themselves subject to the laws of nature of solids: these improvements will be marginal.

Like in an ordinary gas, the plasma pressure is proportional to particle temperature and density. The fusion temperature has to be in the region of hundreds of millions of deg C hence, because of the magnetic pressure limit, the particle density turns out to be pretty low, a million times less than the molecular density of the air we breathe. The result is a low power density.

On the other side of the reactor power balance equation, the energy lost by the plasma is dictated by plasma turbulent motions and the size of the device. Turbulence has been experimentally demonstrated to be present at a significant level in all magnetically confined plasmas of thermonuclear interest, just like with water in a canal.

The analogy is close, for a given incline the water flow in a canal is constrained by an irreducible turbulent drag, with negligible dependence on the canal construction details. This is the case also for energy confinement in a thermonuclear plasma, it's dominated by unavoidable turbulent fluid motions. But a reacting core large enough to reach power breakeven always exists because its volume (energy production) to surface (losses) increases with its size, a purely geometric consideration. The sun, even without a magnetic field, is certainly large enough for breakeven.

These are the reasons why the tokamak reactor has to be very large. The size required to maintain the large core temperature needed for the plasma to fuse. This is the main factor making nuclear fusion expensive and very hard.

Bottom line

As things stand, present-day renewable technologies are considerably less expensive than a potential nuclear fusion reactor - even assuming it would work as expected. My work in fusion coincided with the Reagan electric sector deregulation when something similar happened between natural gas and coal-fired power stations. The development of large aviation jet engines made possible efficient, inexpensive, factory produced, electricity generators which proved to be impossible to beat and coal power plant investors went bankrupt to allow for the American industry to take advantage of the newer, less expensive, technology. It was then too early for the wind and photovoltaic revolution but now they are here to make nuclear fusion obsolete before it has been proven to work.

The author

Giuseppe Cima has been employed in various capacities by fusion research labs and Universities in Europe and the US for most of his professional career: Euratom Culham UK, ENEA Frascati and CNR Milan, the Fusion Research Center at UT Austin. He published around 50 peer-reviewed papers in this field, mostly about EM waves for plasma diagnostic and heating, magnetic configurations, turbulence measurements. After losing faith in a deconstructionist approach to fusion, he started an industrial automation company in Texas. He is at present retired in Venice, Italy, where he struggles to protect the environment, conserve energy and teach technology and science.


Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome and the author of "Extracted: how the quest for mineral resources is plundering the Planet" (Chelsea Green 2014). His most recent book is "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017)