Monday, October 25, 2010

New wood-based substitute for plastic shows that the greatest resource is still human ingenuity.

Resource exhaustion has been a common theme in public dialogue, from the days of Thomas Malthus up to today. The National Energy Policy Institute recently published a documentary entitled "The End of Suburbia: Oil Depletion and the End of the American Dream." I didn't watch it, but a staff writer for the California Chronicle describes its general "claim that the suburbs wouldn't exist without cheap oil." Enjoy your SUVs while you can, I guess.

In this film, and similar pieces on 'a coming age of energy scarcity', the unspoken assumption is that oil resources are fixed so they must eventually run out. A seemingly intuitive claim, but perhaps a false one. Some economists (most famously the late Julian Simon) have argued that natural resources are functionally infinite. As a resource becomes more scarce the price rises, causing people to search for substitutes. To quote Simon himself:
Ivory used for billiard balls threatened to run out late in the 19th century. As a result of a prize offered for a replacement material, celluloid was developed, and that discovery led directly to the astonishing variety of plastics that now gives us a cornucopia of products (including billiard balls) at prices so low as to boggle the 19th century mind.

Thanks to human ingenuity and technological advance, previously useless materials can become resources for the future. Now, due to concerns about the environmental effects of plastic and the future price of oil, the next stage in this process has arrived with Arboform.

Discovered in the last two years by German researchers, this plastic substitute uses lignin (a component of wood usually discarded during paper production) combined with flax and other fibers to form a mold-able substance with similar properties to plastic. Some Arboform products - golf tees, furniture, baby toys, and women's designer shoes - have already been introduced. According to one of the scientists, "By just using lignin, we could technically replace a quarter of the world's plastic production." 

Obviously, oil is still relatively cheap, and plastics are still the most economical choice for most products -- or I'd be typing this on an Arboform keyboard. However, if in the future oil were more scarce, the paper industry is already producing 130 million pounds of lignin per year; a ready substitute for petroleum-based plastics. Similar substitutes are being developed in the fields of transportation and power production, and will become more profitable and widely used if oil is ever depleted. Given the availability of substitutes informed by instant feedback from prices, there's no reason to expect the "suburban lifestyle" is in much danger from oil scarcity.

As long as market prices operate, running out of resources is one danger we can stop fearing. Arboform is just one example of how innovators can turn today's problem into tomorrow's opportunity.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Fermi Paradox makes discovery of new habitable planet a good news/bad news situation.

In the latest science news, a planet has been discovered which could potentially support life. A neighborly 20.3 light years away, Gliese 581g has liquid water and enough gravity to maintain an atmosphere -- making it a fairly good imitation of earth.

Great news, right? Homo sapiens now has the potential to spread across the galaxy, leaving the barren rock of Terra behind as we forge into the great empty unknown. Unfortunately, the actual "getting there" part is still a ways off. Even worse, this discovery may not bode well for the future of humanity.

What could be so ominous about discovering a distant, earth-like planet? It all boils down to the Fermi paradox. From Wikipedia, the Fermi paradox "is the apparent contradiction between high estimates of the probability of the existence of extraterrestrial civilizations and the lack of evidence for, or contact with, such civilizations." In other words, if they're out there, why haven't we seen them yet? Given the extremely long lifespan of the universe and the enormous number of galaxies and stars, the laws of probability would indicate that any space-faring life form should have colonized the entire universe by now.

The lack of evidence for extra-terrestrial life, in spite of the enormous opportunity for its growth, requires some serious explaining. One possible cause - the lack of earth-like planets which could support life - has just been ruled out completely. What reasons are left to account for the apparent barrenness of the universe?

A recent paper by Nick Bostrom of Oxford University postulates that some 'Great Filter' might exist, which causes lifeforms to go extinct before they can spread across the cosmos. This could be a cataclysmic event, or just a mundane limitation that stops most organisms from evolving into something complicated enough for space travel. Bostrom argues that this filter is either behind us - humanity has passed the test - or somewhere in our future - bad news. His conclusion: discovering evidence of a complex extra-terrestrial lifeform would indicate the Great Filter is waiting for us ahead, and we are as dead certain to fail at perpetuating our species as the billions of other races that must have existed throughout the galaxy before us.

The discovery of Gliese 581g is a great step in astronomy, physics, and potential science fiction topics. However, the Fermi paradox implies that if we ever go there, and discover even so much as an amoeba, it's a dismal sign for humanity's ultimate prospects of survival.