Since the beginning of our time, civilization and resources have been inexorably linked, powering and making possible every part of our existence. And as our existence has evolved and expanded, so has our relationship with resources and our needs, seeing them grow in ever-greater importance to the advanced global economies we seek to continue building.
Resources have been the key to nearly every advancement we have ever made, and conversely, their scarcities have been the cause of our most pressing social problems. As a result of this relationship, the societies and civilizations of mankind have all attempted to mitigate scarcity through varied constructs: laws and social policies; ideologies and political movements; technological innovations; the rewriting of borders; and, ultimately, war. It all, always, has come down to managing resource scarcity.
Yet these constructs have almost always sought success by addressing the varied symptoms of resource scarcity, rarely the core problem itself. It is for that reason that I believe they have failed. A true solution doesn’t cure the symptoms; it cures the disease. In the case of resource scarcity, our cure comes not through social constructs, but through technology – and more importantly, what we can do with it.
Technology provides the solution to resource scarcity because it is first and foremost a catalyst to supply, as technology allows us to extract resources within the world around us while also making their extraction more efficient and less expensive. Throughout history, we have developed and depended on technology to solve resource shortages, leading to breakthroughs that have changed the world, even if we didn’t realize it at the time.
- The years following WWII gave rise to the threat of the first global resource crisis: food scarcity. Humanity was rapidly expanding in population, and feeding the planet was becoming more difficult. This crisis was detailed in The Limits to Growth, a 1971 paper that predicted catastrophic consequences for humanity should it fail to curb population expansion. These predictions were well reasoned, yet they never came to fruition. Why not? Technology came to the rescue through industrialized farming techniques, high-performance fertilizers and genetically modified crops, all of which increased food production to the extent that Earth now supports 7.4 billion people and counting.
- In the 1800s, aluminum was extremely rare, considered among the most valuable metals in the world. Today we throw it in waste receptacles. What made the difference? A method called electrolysis, which allowed us to inexpensively extract aluminum from its naturally occurring form, bauxite. This method made aluminum extraction easy and inexpensive, dropping its cost almost to the extent of irrelevance. Next time you throw away that can, though, realize that not 150 years ago it was worth its weight in silver.
- The need to obtain water by traveling to a location and carrying it back used to be a massive time expenditure for everyone within society, a problem that still exists within much of the developing world. Yet for the developed world, the invention of modern plumbing brought water to us on-demand. This collectively saved people trillions of hours in free time and removed a major impediment to economic growth.
- Sugarcane was introduced to Mediterranean regions around the 7th century and thereafter remained a major luxury commodity. As a valuable cash crop, sugar was heavily taxed and was a revenue source for government, making it a driver of the slave trade. Yet when technology introduced the steam engine and methods of vaporization in the late 1800s, the cost to refine sugar plummeted to less than 5% of its former price. It is now ubiquitous in most foods today.
In each of these examples, a once-scarce resource was made both abundant and inexpensive as a function of technology, for technology has the unique ability to expand the scale of resource production while also lowering costs. But in the past, technology only really improved our ability to extract resources that were naturally occurring, which over time has proved to be unsustainable as natural resources supplies eventually dwindle.
Yet what if we instead shifted gears and developed systems that could instead synthesize resources? Today, advances in technology allow us to do just that.
Of the breakthroughs we’ve seen recently, many have occurred within computer modeling and information technologies, polymer and material sciences and large-scale manufacturing. This has presented a critical mass of technical capabilities in some important areas: automation and precision of construction, speed and depth of computer processing, quality assurance, strength of materials and virtual modeling that allows us to engineer solutions to problems on much larger scales than we could previously.
To put it in perspective, most nuclear power plants in the United States were built before 1978. That means most of them were designed and built without the aid of a calculator. The same is true with many power plants and larger-scale social infrastructure: the bridges, skyscrapers and stadiums of our society. Yet today, we have the capability to design a nuclear reactor on a computer and build it on an assembly line, like one does a toaster.
To be sure, we can build many things with these increased capabilities. But the starting point is to build a system that can sustainably produce resources. And not just any resources, but the five most critical:
Water, Food, Electricity, Fuel and Building Materials.
Above all else, these are the most important resources for our civilization to operate. These are the resources that are so essential to powering our advanced economies, and they are the resources most likely to spark conflict when they become scarce.
The purpose of A Future Worth Having is to propose a framework that employs specific energy technologies to power large-scale synthetic resource production while also detailing how these technologies can be harnessed to accomplish greater goals thereafter. This framework is called Universal Energy, and it uses a standardized and modular mindset to make energy ubiquitously abundant, both to end resource scarcity with finality and to build a better world.
To begin explaining how Universal Energy works, it’s useful to circle back to the concepts of standardization and modularity. Standardized systems are built to a universal standard and have components reflecting that standard (i.e.: bolts in a vehicle using the standardized metric system). Modular systems are built with the ability to rapidly scale in size and sophistication and consist usually of a core system that can accept an indefinite number of attachments via standardized means (i.e. a Mr. Potato Head doll).
Standardization and modularity allow us to identify a superior technology and deploy it in a way that can be mass produced, allowing easy replacement of parts and driving down costs. We see this with vehicle assembly lines, for instance. Recent advances in technology enable us to apply these concepts on larger scales, especially within energy generation.
An example: most power plants today are constructed ad-hoc, meaning they were designed, engineered and built as unique systems. They may have a standardized pump or type of wiring, but no plant is identical to another. Moreover, our energy infrastructure and civilization as a whole is powered by a hodgepodge of sources: petroleum, coal, solar, wind, uranium, natural gas, geological heat, hydroelectric, corn ethanol and biomass.
Our energy production systems are arbitrarily powered. They do not interoperate with each other. And they are built as unique entities – with only minimal standardization and even less modularity in design.
These factors make energy systems highly expensive to build and operate. It moreover prevents us from rapidly scaling them in size, which limits the availability of energy to society and thus raises its price.
There is a better way.
The Universal Energy framework looks to the very best technologies we have to generate energy and proposes they be engineered and deployed in a way that’s both standardized and modular. This means that they can be built on assembly lines with universally interchangeable components. It also means that the technologies can be designed in such a way that they can work together in a concept called cogeneration, making the system more efficient while also making their performance greater than the sum of their parts.
This will do to energy production what technology has done to all consumer products: increase availability, lower prices and advance quality over time by scaling the learning curve (the idea that improvements and cost reductions increase with time and experience). The tricky part to making this approach successful is the identification of technologies that can generate energy in the required capacities, which we’ll define as meeting all of the following criteria:
- The technology must be able to generate immense energy at low cost. In order to synthesize enough resources to satisfy all of our requirements, we will need to create an indefinite supply of energy, meaning that regardless of how much energy is consumed it will always be generated at a rate faster than that of consumption. This requirement will set an initial target of 300% of our national annual electricity consumption (3,760 terawatt-hours as of 2014), coming to a total of 11.28 trillion kilowatt-hours generated annually. The cost of this electricity is intended to be no more than 2 cents per kilowatt-hour, down from today’s 10.44-cent average. Reaching this target would provide enough energy at a low enough cost to allow large-scale synthetic production of civilization’s five most critical resources to unlimited scales (a detailed pricing model of how this feasible is included in Chapter 15).
- Its energy source must be ubiquitous and long-term sustainable. If an energy source and its corresponding extraction methods aren’t sustainably available after widespread adoption, we’ll eventually find ourselves in the same position we are in now. For this reason, any solution we employ to provide Universal Energy will need to be viable for the long term, quantified for our purposes to be 100,000 years.
- The technology must be safe and environmentally friendly. The energy production system, its fuel and its waste must present negligible environmental impacts and must operate in a carbon-neutral capacity, meaning it does not emit carbon dioxide and contribute to climate change. Additionally, it must not leave toxic waste that cannot be rendered inert in a short time period (the metric we’ll use is 300 years or less).
- The technology must be affordable to develop, implement and use. Whatever benefits are brought by advances in energy technology will be irrelevant if they are not affordable, presenting the requirement for all energy-generating systems to have a realistic price tag.
- The technology must be deployable anywhere. There are effective energy technologies that can fit the previous four requirements, but many can only function in limited areas and thus cannot be deployed anywhere with certainty. Universal deployability is vital for inclusion into a modular and standardized energy framework, especially since many of the consequences of resource scarcity exist in areas that are geographically remote and/or with rugged terrain.
- The technology must be deployable rapidly. Considering the state of the world today, it’s tough to see how we’ll be in any sort of good shape in 20-30 years if resource scarcity isn’t solved in the next 5-15. The solution to this problem needs to get here immediately, or it won’t matter in the end.
Meeting these requirements does not come from one technology, but rather from a framework of three energy sources that are deployed with a strategic mindset. We choose the best energy technologies we have available based on their collective ability to meet the six criteria just mentioned, and we engineer them to work alongside each other in a modular capacity for maximum effectiveness in a universal standard. They are as follows:
- Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactors – An advanced type of nuclear reactor that avoids nearly all complications with our current approach to atomic power. They are clean, safe and proliferation resistant; furthermore, they can be deployed far more sustainably and less expensively than today’s Pressurized Water Reactors.
- Solar Road Surfaces – Applying solar cells to road surfaces allows us to implement solar power with high effectiveness while reducing the cost of road construction and maintenance. Most importantly, it also allows us to power cities from road surfaces to the extent that they draw progressively less power from local electric grids, and could instead even provide energy back into them – eventually turning cities into power plants.
This creates a national “smart electric grid” built upon already-existing road networks that can power auxiliary systems working in tandem with Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactors. Of these systems, none are so important as those that can synthesize fresh water and hydrogen fuel.
- A National Aqueduct – An indefinite supply of inexpensive electricity would allow us to extract both fresh water and hydrogen fuel from seawater. We can do this today; it’s just too expensive to do so on a large scale with current energy costs. Universal Energy changes that, and also provides us with the means to transport water across a landscape in a way that can generate a great deal of energy via solar power and at the same time function as a gigantic battery – a multi-faceted possibility that we’ll go over within the next few chapters.
With these systems in place, it makes possible the ability to grow food and synthetically produce building materials, satisfying all critical resources and completing the framework in concept.
Please recall that existing technologies comprise the underlying promise of Universal Energy. By creating a modular framework with resources already available to us and then standardizing that system across the grid, so to speak, we can position ourselves – and our children and children’s children – to not just survive on this planet, but thrive, accomplishing goals that were never before achievable and bypassing the limitations of our world as we know them. From here, we’ll go through these technologies and their benefits in order, so we can see how they make this all possible while dramatically improving our way of life.