Obtaining Unobtainium

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Two items of news have surfaced recently…One through the TED Conference, and one through 60 Minutes.

via the amazing TED Talks: Bill Gates on energy: Innovating to zero!

A molecule of uranium has a million times more energy than a molecule of coal.” Instead of burning the 1% of uranium-235 found in natural uranium, this reactor burns the other 99%, called uranium-238. You can use all the leftover waste from today’s reactors as fuel. “In terms of fuel this really solves the problem.” He showed a photo of depleted waste uranium in steel cylinders at the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant in Kentucky — the waste at this plant could supply the US energy needs for 200 years (woah!), and filtering seawater for uranium could supply energy for much longer than that.

And on 60 Minutes: The Bloom Box

The Bloom box is a new kind of fuel cell that produces electricity by combining oxygen in the air with any fuel source, such as natural gas, bio-gas, and solar energy. Sridhar said the chemical reaction is efficient and clean, creating energy without burning or combustion. He said that two Bloom boxes – each the size of a grapefruit – could wirelessly power a US home, fully replacing the power grid; one box could power a European home, and two or three Asian homes could share a single box.

Aside from the sheer far-feched coolness that both of these represent, and the social/political/cultural ramifications that could begin to be discussed, both of these made me recall a passage of C.S. Lewis’s in The Abolition of Man:

There is something which unites magic and applied science while separating both from the “wisdom” of earlier ages. For the wise men of old the cardinal problem had been how to conform the soul to reality, and the solution had been knowledge, self-discipline, and virtue. For magic and applied science alike the problem is how to subdue reality to the wishes of men: the solution is a technique…

The way I read the selection is that the path of earlier age wisdom was to attempt to live in conformity with the unyielding reality. Modernity, or applied science, has approached reality as a malleable natural world – something we can shape to fit our desires. Our current mindset seems to be generally focused on a search for new power sources, and in the case of the Bloom Box we are truly creating power out of thin air. Now I realize I’m stretching by trying to connect these three things in my mind, but in very general ways C.S. Lewis’s passage is a reminder of the possible split between a mindset of efficient creation of power (using science to coax and mine every last bit of energy from our finite resources in our search for more than we have) versus using science to help us in our efficient use of power (an example would be the extended battery life in our phones due to more efficient software programming/resource allocation).

In the topic of a more sustainable future, I would have to say that I might fall more in the camp of the ‘earlier ages:’ we have a depleting amount of unobtainium, do more with less of it. I feel that the greatest success is going to occur when our advances in efficient creation of power is met with a broader cultural shift in thought away from consuming to conserving.

2 Comments

  1. Elaine says

    i came across the bloom box the other day – and though i couldn’t quite put my finger on it, it was as exciting as it was unsettling. you nailed it.

    also…http://trendwatching.com/briefing/ – read down to all the examples inventions. i felt similarly about that…the simplicity of the products to help bring people in developing nations up to basic living standards is really exciting…its just one of those things where you have an billions of people that now have access and will want all that they didn’t have.

    how do you innovate, provide and improve standards of living, while teaching responsible living practices? Especially when we’re not living responsibly as a society ourselves?…

    • ryecroft says

      I’ve always equated our general state of affairs with that hospital/health care analogy that I can’t quite remember…treating the effects, but not the cause. Something like that.

      And I feel comfortable looking at it that way because I’m also guilty of that mindset. It’s a hard thing to change…especially considering the “land of plenty” viewpoint that we as an American society have grown up with for the last 225+ years.

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