Seven generations

“No tree grows by itself. A tree is a community.” — Oren R. Lyons

This man is obviously very wise. I think the trouble with modern civilisation is exactly that: not enough respect for nature and not enough responsibility (of individuals, businesses, companies or governments). We never seem to think about future generations enough.

Our environmental footprint

Most of the global economy is based on the idea of selling physical products. And if you’re not selling something yourself, your clients are people that do.

B I’ve noticed that in some environmental discussions and debates, Westerners automatically assume that their country is less polluting than poorer countries. I don’t think pointing the finger at China really helps. And here’s why:

I think our blatant consumerism in the West doesn’t compare favourably to the third world, because all of the things that we buy have a kind of “environmental footprint” if you like. And note that I’m not even really talking about CO2 emissions here (even though the US carbon emission per capita is 17.56 metric tons while that of China is ‘only’ 6.19 metric tons per capita). Carbon is not the only element on the periodic table although it is the one that goes into the atmosphere more than the others.

If China pollutes rivers or whatever making loads of stuff for the West, who is really doing (causing) the polluting? The chinese manufacturers? Or is the Western consumer demand for those products ultimately to blame?

My main backround if materials science. One of the more eye-opening subjects I found out about (in terms of environmental degradation) is called “extractive metallurgy”. Extractive metallurgy is the study of chemical processes that we use to extract an refine metals from their ores. Basically, in a nut shell, all materials have to come from somewhere. Ususally it’s either the Earth’s crust itself or sea water.

In most of the processes, you need either need huge amounts of electricity and/or high temperatures and/or huge amounts of other chemicals to obtain the desired elements and/or compounds.

For example, here is just one of the many steps in the refinement of germanium:

GeO2 + 4 HCl → GeCl4 + 2 H2O

In this step, the reactive gas chlorine is being used to make germanium more reactive. So chlorine, which is toxic, is used in one of the processes to extract the element germanium from its oxide. Okay.

And here is just one of the steps in tellurium refinement:

HTeO−3 + OH + H2SO4 → TeO2 + SO2−4 + 2 H2O

In this step, sulfuric acid is being used to make tellurium more reactive. Okay.

And where are germanium and tellurium being used you ask? They are two semiconductors that are the basis for integrated circuits and other electronic components in all sorts of electronic devices. Not so good.

In fact, many other nasty chemical compounds are used in the extraction, refinement and manufacturing industries. Many others.

I’m not 100% sure, but I think the worst offenders are the electronic consumer devices, simply because they contain the most number of hard-to-extract elements. The harder-to-extract elements require more chemical treatment steps. That’s just one of the reasons why they these elements are so expensive (not just that they’re rare). In fact I can probably go so far as to invent a new theory, which goes something like this: “the higher the unit price of an element, the more damaging its extraction process is to the environment.” But I digress…

Here’s the thing. There are a lot of chemical elements used in computers and extracting them from the ground and processing them taxes the environment (especially when you consider all of the planned obsolesence we see today). Our current way of life creates more and more electronic waste that cannot be recovered or recycled (except perhaps the gold bits)

I recently asked a few questions on Quora and I’d like to share those questions and answers with you now. Listed here are some of the toxic chemicals and semiconductors that are used in electonic decices. Go on, take a look. Can you begin to see how big the problem is now?

The point is, nasty chemicals are used at all steps of the extraction and refinement process. We just don’t ever see them being used in industry. Oh but they’re there alright. They’re being used all the time.

Suffice it to say that if Westeners think they pollute the Earth less than a typical 3rd-worlder, in my eyes, they are sorely mistaken. [Read more…]

Discrimination is second nature.

Every time you select a piece of fruit, based on the condition of its skin, you’re judging the contents.

No one likes to eat a soggy banana or a rotten apple. We’ve come to learn that if a banana is bruised & blackened on the outside, inside is most likely a soggy fruit mush.

Even 3 year old children know the difference is in the taste. They won’t eat it. Although sometimes, despite multiple bruises and other exterior imperfections, the interior is not as bad as we think; we are rewarded by what we find inside – 100% intact fruit! Succulent, delicious. Generally though, after years of practice, we learn to judge fruit correctly…

There are two ways of describing this situation:

  1. Some might say I am discriminating against all fruit with a certain type of skin (be it the colour or the texture); I am pre-judging, I am being critical.
  2. Others might say that I have a distinguished, discerning or refined sense of taste; I am a perceptive, particular and sensitive person.

One of these sentences contains positive statements whilst the other definitely has negative connotations. Clearly, something is wrong, and I think you’ll easily spot the pattern in the words below-

Synonyms for the adjective “discriminating”:

analytical, astute, authentic, canny, careful, choosy, clever, correct, cultivated, defined, definite, detailed, discerning, distinct, distinctive, distinguish, eclectic, exacting, exact, explicit, genuine, incisive, ingenious, insightful, intuitive, factual, faithful, fastidious, finicky, fussy, judicious, just, keen, literal, methodical, meticulous, observant, particular, picky, proper, prudent, refined, right, rigorous, scientific, scrupulous, selective, sensitive, skillful, smart, specific, strict, subtle, systematic, tasteful, true, unerring, unmistakable, veracious, wise.

Synonyms for the verb “to discriminate”:

assess, be bigot, brand, categorise, classify, collate, compare, contrast, delineate, designate, differentiate, discern, draw distinction, evaluate, extricate, disfavor, favor, hate, incline, judge, pigeonhole, know, note, be partial, perceive, portray, remark, segregate, separate, set apart, show bias, single out, specify, split hairs, tell apart,treat differently, typecast, victimize.

So we can describe someone as being discriminate or discriminating, but the act of discriminating against something without enough knowledge is forbidden.

Whenever you turn on the radio and choose a station you are being prejudiced towards new music styles and discriminating against them by not listening. I prefer cotton over wool, because I’ve found that wool makes my skin itch. Am I biased towards cotton plants or racist (specist) against sheep? Whenever anyone thinks about making any kind of informed decisions, discrimination is second nature.

[Read more…]

In the future we will engineer termites to build skyskrapers.

Yes. In the future, I can confidently predict that we will engineer termites to build skyskrapers.

Because in the future, we will start to realise the power of “bottom up” systems of engineering. Currently, we do everything from a “top down” perspective. What does that mean? We start with a mine, dig that up, we then crush and grind the ore down, melt it, form it into large slabs of metal which then get progressively smaller as they are processed. Yes, we even obtain the metallic powders that are used in 3D printing this exact same way. This is a most inefficient process.

Nature does it the other way around. It uses local materials obtained from trace chemical elements and is then able to organise, redirect and assemble those individual atoms and molecules to build its own structures, in situ. It does this without any “larger scale” instructions or guidance. And it is able to replicate itself on top of that. So the more I think about it, the more evolution amazes me.

I read this fascinating book in 2014 called “Emergence”. And one of the traits of nature is that it has “emergent” properties. What does that mean? It means that complex systems or behaviours can arise from relatively few simple rules. In other words, it is “self assembling”. Organisms can do their own thing seemingly without any intererence from the outside world. Wouldn’t we like to be able to do that? Here is where we are currently at:

The other marvel of nature is that everything is an “ambient temperature process”. Think about that for a moment. Practically every synthetic material we produce today requires some form of heat to manufacture. Metals must be smelted. Ceramics must be fired. And plastics must be obtained by “thermal cracking” of crude oil. Sure there are a few exceptions, such as sol-gel technology.

Imagine for a moment a “homogenous” material with different chemical, thermal, electrical and physical properties along its length. In other words, a single material that was flexible at one end and rigid at the other, without being formed from two separate raw materials. If we could get that to happen, spontaneously, then I think we would be quite a clever species. Because an invention like that would literally change the world.

Imagine tyres that increased their coefficient of friction and gripped more in the wet. Or indeed, slicks that morph into treaded tyres in the presence of water. You see, from what I have read, I think all of that is ‘theoretically possible’, but the more biodiversity we lose, the less chance there is that it will happen. That is why protecting biodiversity is so important, so we can understand how genes work to create any morphology and material properties we desire.

Is a ‘circular’ electronics industry possible?

I think one of the biggest problems that humanity will face in the not–too–distant future is a lack of synthetic biodegradeable semiconductors.

Okay, so I’ve put that thought out there into cyberspace and now I suppose I should explain it. Why do I think this is going to be such a problem?

As we are all too much aware, human civilisation is fast becoming dependent on technology. You might say that the 1st world is already highly dependent on technology. And a big part of current technology includes electronics devices. Electronics drive everything from robots to computers. Without electronics, we go back to the analogue era. I’m sure that I don’t even need to explain that any further, do I? Without electronics, we’re screwed.

So earlier this year, I asked two questions on Quora:

  1. What are the main semiconductor compounds used today?
  2. What elements are used in the manufacturing of circuit boards and electronic components for consumer electronic devices?

It doesn’t make any sense to totally rely on something that we can only make in limited quantities, yet we are doing just that. Because the trouble is this: the way in which we produce electronic devices today is completely unsustainable. We mine the Earth for new minerals and the only element we recover from all of our electronic waste is gold (well, okay, we do sometimes also recycle lead and copper). But what about recycling all of the other elements that are used in electronic components?

Are we recycling tantalum? No. Are we recycling indium? No. Are we recycling gallium? No. Are we recycling arsenic? No. Are we recycling cadmium? No. Are we recycling selenium? No. Are we recycling tellurium? No. Are we recycling germanium? No. Are we recycling samarium? No. Are we recycling neodymium? No. Are we recycling niobium? No. Are we recycling antimony? No.

[Read more…]