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Hope

2013-05-17

Light at the end of the tunnel has been provided by two articles in this week’s New Yorker.  I haven’t written about anything in the New Yorker before, but I’ve enjoyed its deep reporting for many years.  The magazine has only gotten better and better, as revealed by its clear sighted historical pieces about previous editors, for example.

The first article detailed a process for making an organic substitute for Styrofoam.  This substitute replaces the basic building block of Styrofoam, polystyrene, with mushroom mycelia.  Mycelia are the white, threadlike structures that appear in any damp, loose material after a few days.  Spores, which are the ubiquitous, microscopic resting forms of common mushrooms, grow into these strong, light networks of the rootlike vegetative form.  Not until they have matured do they produce the fruitlike, macroscopic mushroom we are so familiar with.

Mycelia are mostly composed of chitin, which forms the cell walls of these organisms.  In the process that replaces Styrofoam, an organic medium such as chopped up corn stalks or similar plant debris is seeded with the appropriate species of spores after it is fully sterilized with steam.  The material is blown into the appropriate shape of mold, then side aside in a warm, dark place for four days.  The fully grown shape is then heat sterilized again to stop growth and is ready for use.

In the absence of the organic medium, mycelia can be grown into shapes that are composed solely of chitin.  This material is as light as balsa wood, yet tremendously strong.  It can potentially be used to replace plastic in many, if not all, forms.

Phase-out of plastics derived from industrial sources would have many advantages.  First, chitin based plastics would be highly biodegradable.  Second, the monomers used to produce plastic polymers are in many cases toxic chemicals such as styrene and urethane; these materials could be eliminated.  Third, the use of “plasticizers” could be eliminated; these chemicals are also frequently toxic and highly persistent.

At this time, the world and especially the oceans have been highly polluted with plastic debris: small pieces of plastic derived from larger pieces that have gradually disintegrated.  This material can be found in huge amounts, trapped in eddies in vast islands in the middle of the sea.  Phasing out the use of these plastic materials will eventually reduce the quantities of this plastic debris, but it will take many years.

 

The second article in the New Yorker profiled a company that is making kites that generate electricity.  These kites are gigantic, with wingspans over eighty feet, and they fly at altitudes of up to a thousand feet.  They generate prodigious amounts of electricity, and are helped by the much steadier winds present at altitude.  In effect, they can replace the enormous rotor blades, two hundred foot towers, and heavy concrete bases with relatively small ground-based spools containing high-tension electrical cable.

The company that is making these experimental kites is being funded by Google, among many other companies.  They are very serious, and have already spent several million dollars on this project.  If (and when) these kites become commercially viable, they will produce electricity that is cheaper than current wind projects, and much more reliable.

Although the wind industry only produces four percent of the power in the United States, they have grown by twenty times in the last ten years.  Continued increases in capacity and reliability will take some of the pressure off the fossil fuel industry to provide power.  Unfortunately, this is unlikely to have positive results in mitigating climate change for some fifty years or more.  By then, dramatic changes will have occurred, with worse to follow.  Cessation of excess carbon dioxide production will be required and it will take perhaps several hundred years thereafter for concentrations of carbon dioxide to decline to historic levels.

Despite the unpleasant changes to be expected with the dramatic increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide (not to mention the brown cloud over Asia) that will be seen over the next few years, there is hope that the ingenuity and industry of really smart people will allow at least a portion of the human race a chance to survive the next two hundred years.

There are indications that, due to population growth and economic development, serious environmental crises or pandemics may cause a sudden drop in population in the next few years.  I can’t guess the likelihood of a catastrophic change; I can only sense the possibility looming in front of us as a species.  Our hope is that we can figure a way out of looming disaster.

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