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Giving Comfort by Studies

Sustaining progress in the long term requires using technologies that have not yet been developed and won't be needed for a long time. No company is motivated to spend money to develop them, because they won't result in profits in the time scale on which the company operates. For the same reason their development has a low priority as a Government activity.

We technological optimists do scientific calculations and conclude that the necessary technologies can be developed. Students of economic history tell us that similar problems have been readily solved in the past when the new technology was needed. However, the pessimists still worry and tell us that this time it may be different - maybe the technologies can't be developed. They then claim that the only safe course for humanity is to assume that the technologies cannot be developed and scale down our society to make do with the technologies we already have.

The optimists point out the enormous costs to society of scaling it down and consider counting on new technology to be much the safer course.

This is about all that can be said at such a general level, so let's consider some of the many possible studies:

  1. Getting gasoline from coal, oil shale and tar sands. These were worked on during the 1970s "oil crisis". Solutions were found and pilot plants were built. These plants were abandoned when the oil shortage was discovered to be imaginary. (1997 note: The tar sands in Alberta, Canada turned out to be competitive at present prices).
  2. Using hydrogen separated from water by nuclear energy as an automobile fuel. This may be needed when we run out of petroleum or sooner if global warming proves serious. Around 2000 BMW demonstrated cars with reasonable range using liquid hydrogen in an internal combustion engine.
  3. Nuclear breeder reactors. These will be needed for long term use of nuclear energy. Fortunately, we will be able to buy them from the Japanese.
  4. Central station solar power and its long distance transmission. Also wind power. 2002 note: Central station solar power has had so many problems that already constructed demonstration plants were turned off. Wind power is better but still marginal.
  5. Making new topsoil.
  6. Making topsoil a sellable and transportable commodity.
  7. Retrieving topsoil that has been washed down the Mississippi from the delta and barging it back up the river.
  8. Getting metals from ordinary rock, e.g. iron and aluminum from silicate rocks.
  9. Getting uranium from seawater or from granite.
  10. Pumping water from the Mississippi to the region now watered by mining 16.5 million acre-feet per year from the Oglallala Aquifer. Studies were done on a 1964 proposal for a project called the North American Water Alliance that would have supplied 250 million acre-feet of water per year from Canada and maybe Alaska to the U.S. and northern Mexico.

  11. Removing CO2 from the atmosphere by any of a variety of methods. One is to cut down forests in Siberia and Canada, not burn the wood, and replant the forests. Do this as often as needed.
Because of a miscalculation about how soon an oil shortage would develop, the technologies for getting gasoline from oil shale, coal and tar sands were developed. Between 1973 and the early 1980s petroleum supply was expected to be tight and the prices were expected to be high. Billions of dollars were spent on developing these alternate sources of oil. When oil turned out to be be cheap and likely to remain cheap for longer than companies like to look ahead, all these projects, except for Canadian tar sands, were abandoned. However, we now know approximately what the costs of these alternate sources of petroleum will be when we need them. It seems they will be less than double present petroleum prices.

The cost of pumping water can reasonably be estimated, because the Corps of Engineers is experienced in this area.

Now consider getting metals from ordinary rock. The second law of thermodynamics imposes a minimum energy cost for the separation. Athough a few people have made much of this, they evidently didn't do the calculation. This cost only goes up logarithmically as the concentration goes down and won't amount to much. Oh well, I actually did the calculation of the second law costs. The actual costs of mining and crushing all that rock will be larger and can be estimated, but the chemical processes for extracting iron and aluminum from complex silicates on a large scale have not been developed. Maybe, say the moderate pessimists, it can't be done. (The strong pessimists are absolutely certain it can't be done.)

Industry will not be motivated to develop the processes for a very long time - probably hundreds of years. There is still too much ore that is much easier to handle.

If the Government were to pay for developing the processes and demonstrating them, we would feel more secure. Even paper studies would be helpful.

Is it worth what is likely to be a large cost, say a few hundred million dollars, just to feel better?

It seems to me that it will be worth even a large cost, if the alternative is that the pessimists develop the political power to shrink our society. They are good at epithets like "technofix" for jeering at proposed new technologies

Perhaps that can be considered unlikely.

I am curious whether people think it would be worthwhile to spend money on studies designed to assure ourselves that problems can be solved when the problems in question are hundreds of years away. Paper studies might not cost much. Send me email.

The small number of hits on this page suggests to me that not many minds would be eased by showing that problems that won't arise for a long time can in fact be solved. Therefore, the studies are unlikely to be done, and people offer arguments largely based on their temperaments and on what can be concluded from purely scientific considerations. That's quite a lot.

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I welcome comments, and you can send them by clicking on jmc@cs.stanford.edu

The number of hits on this page since 1996 April 2.