Sunday, August 31, 2014

Per Capita Davis: Weird science may save us all


From page A3 | August 15, 2013 |

Somewhere deep in our hearts, I think we all fundamentally believe this climate change stuff is going to turn out OK; we will have some adverse effects but humanity will dodge the bullet and things won’t be as bad as we fear.

We may not be optimistic about the future but we are hopeful and, at least for me, a part of that hope is based on a trust that, perhaps at the last minute but hopefully sooner, technology is going to save us.

Someone now in grade school may come up with an elegant carbon capture scheme that rescues us from the worst of the predicted adverse impacts of rising global temperatures. Or, more likely if one buys into the proposition that we can science our way out of the doom-and-gloom scenario, is that thousands of people, from all parts of the planet, will overcome the funding cuts to education and ignore the attacks on science and scientists and create a medley of actions and measures.

As someone once said, if there is a solution to climate change its more likely to be from “silver buckshot” than from a “silver bullet.”

Accordingly, here are a few things folks are working on, none of which on its own avoids our potential peril, but all of which could contribute and as such provide fodder for hope that technology is coming to the rescue.

The news has been covering the now-famous $300,000 hamburger that came not from a cow but from a Petri dish and the story usually focuses on two things — one, many people don’t even want to try to taste it and, two, who can afford a $300,000 hamburger, not including bun, pickle and mustard?

A recent article in Bloomberg Business Week, however, featured a start-up company with a business plan that is growing leather in a lab, in effect using the outside of a cow as a “gateway” product that would eventually get them into the meat business. They have thus far produced a business card-sized rectangle that feels like and smells like leather and they are working on scaling up the process.

The potential implications for reducing greenhouse gas emissions are huge. The article cites an Oxford University study that claims that meat (or leather) grown in a lab would reduce by 90 percent the resources (water, feed, etc.) associated with traditional meat/leather production. And, of course, the greenhouse gas emissions from cow burps, and disposal of their wastes, would pretty much zero out.

How feasible is this? I don’t know, but the article indicates that these guys (a father-son team) are no slouches, that they previously co-founded a firm that grew human tissues for drug companies to use in testing new compounds. Also, they have government grants and funds from private sources of several million dollars, so someone thinks bypassing the cow to produce leather/meat has a future.

Here’s another example of technical folks thinking up innovative ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The Peugeot car company is working on a “hybrid air” vehicle that would compress nitrogen during the deceleration process and then use that compressed air to propel the vehicle. This would be a “gas-air” hybrid instead of now common “electric-gas” hybrid. Peugeot estimates this system would increase fuel efficiency by 31 percent and result in a car that gets more than 80 miles per gallon of gas.

There are technical obstacles to this system, some of them big ones (how do you run an air-conditioner when stuck in traffic if your car doesn’t have a battery?) but the car, because it relies on hydraulics rather than batteries, avoids issues related to battery replacement and disposal.

Other engineers are working on expanding methods for producing electricity from water. Currently (pun intended), hydroelectric power comes from dams, but inventors are testing machines that will sit on the bottom of rivers, or in the ocean, to take advantage of the energy of moving water.

One such device, now being tested in Maine, looks like a huge (98 feet wide and 31 feet tall) grain thresher you might see on a farm. Its blades, turned by the river current, can produce, 24/7/365 enough electricity for 25 homes. Not much, but it’s a prototype. The fish in the river are in discussions with the birds that navigate on-land wind turbines on how to register their concern.

Similarly, a London-based company is testing a machine that converts ocean wave energy to electricity, but instead of sitting on top of the water and having to deal with storms and big waves, it’s moored below the surface and generates electricity from sub-surface ocean currents. This machine is being tested off the coast of Italy.

The list of inventive approaches could go on and on, but here are just a couple more currently being tested: dance floors that use the pressure created by dancers moving on the floor to produce electricity; capturing waste heat used in the cremation process to produce power; and taking advantage of body heat to provide power for mobile phones and other devices. I have no idea how that one would work, but someone is working on it.

— John Mott-Smith is a resident of Davis; his column is published on the first and third Thursdays of each month. Send comments to



John Mott-Smith

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