Banana-skin Science

Every now and again we find something that looks weird, but just maybe there is something in it. And while reading it, one wonders, how on Earth did they come up with this? The paper in question was Silva et. al. 2022. Chemical Science 13: 1774. What they did was to take dried biomass powder and exposed it to a flash of 14.5 ms duration from a high-power xenon flash lamp. That type of chemistry was first developed to study the very short-lived intermediates generated in photochemistry, when light excites the molecule to a high energy state, where it can decay through unusual rearrangements. This type of study has been going on since the 1960s and equipment has steadily been improving and being made more powerful. However, it is most unusual to find it used for something that ordinary heat would do far more cheaply. Anyway, 1 kg of such dried powder generated about 100 litres of hydrogen and 330 g of biochar. So, what else was weird? The biomass was dried banana skin! Ecuador, sit up and take notice. But before you do, note that flash xenon lamps are not going to be an exceptionally economical way of providing heat. That is the point; this very expensive source of light was actually merely providing heat.

There are three ways of doing pyrolysis. In the previous post I pointed out that if you took cellulose and eliminated all the oxygen in the form of water, you were left with carbon. If you eliminate the oxygen as carbon monoxide you are left with hydrogen. If you eliminate it as carbon dioxide you get hydrogen and hydrocarbon. In practice what you get depends on how you do it. Slow pyrolysis at moderate heat mainly makes charcoal and water, with some gas. It may come as a surprise to some but ordinary charcoal is not carbon; it is about 1/3 oxygen, some minor bits and pieces such as nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, and sulphur, and the rest carbon.

If you do very fast pyrolysis, called ablative pyrolysis, you can get almost all liquids and gas. I once saw this done in a lab in Colorado where a tautly held (like a hacksaw blade) electrically heated hot wire cut through wood like butter, the wire continually moving so the uncondensed liquids (which most would call smoke) and gas were swept out. There was essentially no sign of “burnt wood”, and no black. The basic idea of ablative pyrolysis is you fire wood dust or small chips at a plate at an appropriate angle to the path so the wood sweeps across it and the gas is swept away by the gas stream (which can be recycled gas) propelling the wood. Now the paper I referenced above claimed much faster pyrolysis, but got much more charcoal. The question is, why? The simple answer, in my opinion, is nothing was sweeping the product away so it hung around and got charred.

The products varied depending on the power from the lamp, which depended on the applied voltage. At what I assume was maximum voltage the major products were (apart from carbon) hydrogen and carbon monoxide. 100 litres of hydrogen, and a bit more carbon monoxide were formed, which is a good synthesis gas mix. There were also 10 litres of methane, and about 40 litres of carbon dioxide that would have to be scrubbed out. The biomass had to be reduced to 20 μm size and placed on a surface as a layer 50 μm thick. My personal view is that is near impossible to scale this up to useful sizes. It uses light as an energy source, which is difficult to generate so almost certainly the process is a net energy consumer. In short, this so-called “breakthrough” could have been carried out to give better yields of whatever was required far more cheaply by people a hundred years ago.

Perhaps the idea of using light, however, is not so retrograde. The trick would be to devise apparatus that with pyrolyse wood ablatively (or not if you want charcoal) using light focused by large mirrors. The source, the sun, is free until it hits the mirrors. Most of us will have ignited paper with a magnifying glass. Keep the oxygen out and just maybe you have something that will make chemical intermediates that you can call “green”.

The Case for Hydrogen in Transport

In the last post I looked at the problem of generating electricity, and found that one of the problems is demand smoothing One approach to this is to look at the transport problem, the other major energy demand system. Currently we fill our tanks with petroleum derived products, and everything is set for that. However, battery-powered cars would remove the need for petrol, and if they were charged overnight, they would help this smoothing problem. The biggest single problem is that this cannot be done because there is not enough of some of the necessary elements to make it work. Poorer quality batteries could be made, but there is another possibility: the fuel cell.

The idea is simple. When electricity is not in high demand, the surplus is used to electrolyse water to hydrogen and oxygen. The hydrogen is stored, and when introduced to a fuel cell it burns to make water while generating electricity. Superficially, this is ideal, but there are problems. One is similar to the battery – the electrodes tend to be made of platinum, and platinum is neither cheap nor common. However, new electrodes may solve this problem. Platinum has the advantage that it is very unreactive, but the periodic servicing of the cell and the replacing of electrodes is realistic, and of course recycling can be carried out because unlike the battery, it would be possible to merely recycle the electrodes. (We could also use pressurised hydrogen in an internal combustion engine, with serious redesign, but the efficiency is simply too low.)

One major problem is storing the hydrogen. If we store it as a gas, very high pressures are needed to get a realistic mass to volume ratio, and hydrogen embrittles metals, so the tanks, etc., may need servicing as well. We could store it as a liquid, but the boiling point is -259 oC. Carting this stuff around would be a challenge, and to make matters worse, hydrogen occurs in two forms, ortho and para, which arise because the nuclear spins can be either aligned or not. Because the molecule is so small there is an energy difference between these, and the equilibrium ratio is different at liquid temperatures to room temperatures. The mix will slowly re-equilibrate at the low temperature, give off heat, boil off some hydrogen, and increase the pressure. This is less of a problem if you have a major user, because surplus pressure is relieved when hydrogen is drawn off for use, and if there is a good flow-through, no problem. It may be a problem if hydrogen is being shipped around.

The obvious alternative is not to ship it around, but ship the electricity instead. In such a scenario for smaller users, such as cars, the hydrogen is generated at the service station, stored under pressure, and more is generated to maintain the pressure. That would require a rather large tank, but it is doable. Toyota apparently think the problem can be overcome because they are now marketing the Mirai, a car powered by hydrogen fuel cells. Again, the take-up may be limited to fleet operators, who send the vehicles out of central sites. Apparently, the range is 500 km and it uses 4.6 kg of hydrogen. Hydrogen is the smallest atom so low weight is easy, except the vehicle will have a lot of weight and volume tied up with the gas pressurized storage. The question then is, how many fuel stations will have this very large hydrogen storage? If you are running a vehicle fleet or buses around the city, then your staff can refill as well, which gets them to and from work, but the vehicle will not be much use for holidays unless there are a lot of such stations.

Another possible use is in aircraft, but I don’t see that, except maybe small short-haul flights driven by electric motors with propellors. Hydrogen would burn well enough, but the secret of hydrocarbons for aircraft is they have a good energy density and they store the liquids in the wings. The tanks required to hold hydrogen would add so much weight to the wings they might fall off. If the main hull is used, where do the passengers and freight go? Another possibility is to power ships. Now you would have to use liquid hydrogen, which would require extremely powerful refrigeration. That is unlikely to be economic compared with nuclear propulsion that we have now.

The real problem is not so much how do you power a ship, or anything else for that matter, but rather what do you do with the current fleet? There are approximately 1.4 billion motor vehicles in the world and they run on oil. Let us say that in a hundred years everyone will use fuel cell-driven cars, say. What do we do in the meantime? Here, the cheapest new electric car costs about three times the cost of the cheapest petrol driven car. Trade vans and larger vehicles can come down to about 1.5 times the price, in part due to tax differences. But you may have noticed that government debt has become somewhat large of late, due to the printing of large amounts of money that governments have promptly spent. That sort of encouragement will probably be limited in the future, particularly as a consequence of shortages arising from sanctions. In terms of cost, I rather think that many people will be hanging on to their petrol-powered vehicles, even if the price of fuel increases, because the difference in the price of fuel is still a few tens of dollars a week tops, whereas discarding the vehicle and buying a new electric one involves tens of thousands of dollars, and with the current general price increases, most people will not have those spare dollars to throw away. Accordingly, in my opinion we should focus some attention on finding an alternative to fossil fuels to power our heritage fleet.

The IPCC Orders Action

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has produced Part 3 of a report, and with only about 2900 pages, that has one stark message: we need aggressive action to curb greenhouse gas emission AND we need aggressive action to absorb CO2 from the atmosphere, and the action must start now, not some indefinite time in the future. As I recall, this problem was highlighted thirty years ago, and in that thirty years, emissions have increased. There was not even a hint of a reduction. To give some idea of how seriously some take this matter, Germany closed down its nuclear power plants, and now it threatens not to use Russian gas, but instead burn lignite. We cannot do much worse than that can we?

Maybe we can, and maybe we are. According to an article by Lawrence et al. (Front. For. Glob. Change https://doi.org/10.3389/ffgc.2022.756115 (2022) tropical rain forests not only secrete carbon and take it out of circulation, saving around 0.5 of a degree C, but they also physically cool the planet by a further 0.5 degrees C. What the trees do is to emit much humidity from their leaves, with the result that they cool themselves (similar to sweating) and this humidity creates clouds, which reflect sunlight back to space. This is the sort of a geo-engineering proposal often made, but the trees do it for free. So, what are we doing? Why, cutting down the rain forests. Apparently a third has been removed, and another third has been heavily logged so it is not as functional as it should be. We are supposed to be trying to hold the temperatures to an increase of no more than 1.5 degrees C, we are nearly there already, so do we really need another degree of heating added in for no good reason?

According to the IPCC, carbon emissions will have to decline rapidly after 2025, halve by 2030, and hit “net zero” by the early 2050s. Given current efforts, a warming of 3 degrees is forecast. Emissions from existing and planned projects already exceed the allowable carbon budget. But even going to zero emissions will not suffice in the short term. Nations also need to extract carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

So, what can we do? First, consider the problem. For our electricity, which has a little under 750 GW global capacity, wind power provides a little over 6%; solar provides a little over 2%, hydropower about 16%, nuclear about 10%. For fuels, earth consumes about 3.8 trillion cubic meters of natural gas, 35.4 billion barrels of oil, and 8.5 billion t of coal a year. Why we have a problem should be clear. Currently, about 2/3 of our electricity comes from burning fossil fuel. Worse, you don’t build a coal-fired power station today and turn it off tomorrow. Wind turbines need solid support. Making a tonne of cement produces roughly 800 kg of CO2, making a tonne of steel releases 1.85 t of CO2; combined they sum to about 16% of the world’s CO2 production. Wind power might be “green” but look at the CO2 emitted making and installing the equipment. Solar is free, but the demand for electricity is when solar is weak or non-existent, so massive storage is required, and that gets expensive, both in terms of money and in CO2 emissions for making the batteries. The point is, all new infrastructure is going to involve a lot of CO2 emissions before any energy is generated.

Transport is a particularly difficult problem. I think it is a common problem, but where I live the cities expanded significantly after WW 2, and they expanded with the automobile in mind. The net result is it is most people get around by car. Most people have access to a car, and that is petrol driven. The electric vehicle that might replace the petrol-driven car costs (here, at least) over twice that of the petrol driven car and you cannot really convert them. The reason is the electric vehicle needs a huge mass of batteries to have a useful driving range. Further, as I pointed out in a previous post, we cannot have everyone driving electric cars because we do not have the cobalt to make the batteries, and we still need ships and aircraft, which use a rather small fraction of the oil cut. We have to do something with the rest of the fuel cut. You may have noticed that large electricity production above and how so much comes from fossil fuels. Transport uses about 25% of the total energy production. That means to convert transport to electricity, we need to expand electricity generation by about another 250 GW. That is easy to write down, but just think of all the CO2 emitted by making the concrete and steel to build the power stations. Our current wind power would have to expand by a factor of 5.5 and we have to hope there are no still days. Of course, you may legitimately argue that if we charged batteries at night that would even the base load and you do not need all the additional installation. That is true, except green electricity generation  usually is not optimal for base loads.

My view is it cannot be done the way the enthusiasts want it done. We shall never get everybody to cooperate sufficiently to achieve the necessary reductions because society simply cannot afford it. We need a different approach, and in some  later posts, I shall try to offer some suggestions.

Solar Energy in India

There is currently a big urge to move to solar energy, and apparently India has decided that solar energy would greatly assist its plans to deal with climate change. However, according to a paper by Ghosh et al.in Environmental Research Letters, there is a minor problem: air pollution. It appears that while India is ranked fifth in the world for solar energy capacity, parts of it, and these tend to be the parts where you need the power, suffer from growing levels of particulate air pollution. There are two problems. First, the particles in the air block sunlight, thus reducing the power that strikes the panels. Second, the particles land on the panels and block the light until someone cleans the detritus off the panels.

I am not sure I understand why, but the impact on horizontal panels ranged from 10% to 16%, but the impact was much greater on panels that track the position of the sun (which is desirable to get the most power) as they suffered a 52% loss of power from pollution. Apparently if it were not for such pollution it was calculated (not sure on what basis – existing panels or proposed panels) to be able to generate somewhere between an additional six to sixteen TWh of solar electricity per year. That is a lot of power.

But if you are reducing the output of your panels by fifty percent, that means also you are doubling the real cost of the electricity from those panels prior to entering the grid because you are getting half the power from the same fixed cost installation. The loss of capacity translates into hundreds of millions of dollars annually. China has the same problem, with some regions twice as badly off as the Indian regions, although care must be taken with that comment because they are not necessarily measured the same way. In all cases, averaging down over area is carried out, but then different people may select different types of area.

So, what can be done about this? The most obvious approach is to alter the sources of the pollution, but this could be a problem. In India, the sources tend to be the use of kerosine to provide lighting and the use of dirty fuel for cooking and heating in rural villages.

The answer is to electrify them, but now the problem is there are 600,000 such villages. Problems in a country like India or China tend to be very large, although the good news is the number of people available to work on them is also very large. Unfortunately, these villages are not very wealthy. If you want to replace home cooking with electricity, and domestic heating with electricity, someone has to pay for electric ranges. One estimate is 80 million of them. Big business for the maker of electric cookers, but who pays for them when the rural people are fairly close to the poverty line. They cook with fuel like biomass that gets smoky because that is cheap or free. Their cookers may even be home-made, but even if not so, they would have to be discarded as they could not be used for electric cooking.

There are claimed to be other benefits for reducing such pollution. Thus reducing air pollution would reduce cloudiness, which means even better solar energy production. It is also claimed that precipitation is inhibited from polluted clouds, so it is concluded that with more precipitation that would wash more pollution from the air. I am not sure I follow that reasoning, because they have already concluded that they will have fewer clouds.

If they removed these sources of air pollution, they calculated that an extra three TWh per year could be generated from flat surface panels, or eight TWh per year could be generated from tracking panels. The immediate goal is apparently to have 100 GW solar installed. It will be interesting to see if this can be achieved. One problem is that while the economics look good in terms of money saved from increased solar energy, the infrastructure costs associated with it were neglected. My guess is the current air pollution will be around for a while. It also shows the weaknesses of many solar energy projects, such as setting up huge farms in the Sahara. How do you stop fine sand coating panels? An army of panel polishers?

Can Photovoltaics Provide our Electricity?

The difference between a scientific assessment and a politician’s statements is usually that the first has numbers attached to it, and that forces the analysis to come to some form of realism. You may have heard politicians say the answer to climate change is simple: solar energy. The sun, they say, has huge amounts of energy. That is true, but so what? We cannot simply pipe it to our homes and cars.

According to a recent article by Lennon et al in Nature Sustainability the International Technology Roadmap has estimated that to get photovoltaics to replace other forms of power it needs a peak output of 60 TW by 2050. Of course, one still needs a huge battery storage system because the sun does not shine at night, and domestic electricity peaks tend to be near dawn and dusk, not in the middle of the day, but let us put that aside for the moment. Let us concentrate on the material demands of generating it. If that does not add up, what follows is immaterial because we can’t use it, at least on the required scale.

First, consider copper. From Zhang et al. 2021(Energy and Environmental Science, 14: 5587) the auxiliary systems (cables, transformers, connections in modules) require 2,800 kg/MW,  which, to get to 60 TW, requires 168 million t. That is about 20% of the estimated global reserves. Similarly, the amount of silver would be about 90,000 t, which is about 16% of the estimated known world reserves, but three times the supply available now. The estimate for silver is that 1 TW would consume between 53 – 117% of current silver production. As can be seen, 60 TW will be a problem. Indium usage tends to be 50% higher than that of silver, and there are some indications it could be even higher. Global reserves of indium could be as low as 2.7% those of silver. The most optimistic estimate for bismuth usage is that 1 TW would consume 50% of the global bismuth supply. On top of that, you may ask why is the global supply so large? That is because these metals are currently used for other things as well as PV modules, and the other uses are increasing in sales volume. Thus the touch screens on your mobile phones rely on indium. Further, although more indium and bismuth are used in these PV modules, bismuth has only about 2/3 the global reserves of silver. We need more of these elements and there is much less available. The total resource level is not that great, and when we have mined those resources, what then? Anyone who says, “Recycle them,” should be asked how they propose to do that. Thus a given mobile phone has tiny amounts of indium, and of a large number of other elements. Separating them all will be extremely difficult, but when the known resources are gone, now what?

However, the problem does not stop there. It is one thing to have, say, silver sulphide dispersed through various rocks, and another to having silver in a form ready for use in a photovoltaic.

Not only that, but there is material not directly involved in electricity generation. Thus aluminium is used in mountings, frames, inverters and in many other energy technologies. Now refining aluminium is rather energy intensive. There are two main steps: refining bauxite into alumina, then electrolysing the alumina. A tonne of aluminium ingot requires about 63 GJ of energy to make. Just for photovoltaics we need an extra 486 Mt of aluminium, which requires 30.6 quadrillion Joules. This is a huge amount of energy, so a lot of fossil fuel will have to be burned with the corresponding effect on climate change. We can cut this back by using recycled aluminium, but the recycled aluminium is currently being used. Unless there is a surplus of recycled material or potentially recyclable material, recycling adds nothing because the uses it is taken from will have to use virgin material.

We can have substitution. Replacing aluminium with steel reduces the energy demand to make the metal, but increases the loss due to corrosion, and because it is heavier, increases transport greenhouse gas emissions. It is possible to reduce demands by making things lighter, but there is limited scope here because simple costs have led to most of these cherries already having been picked.

On top of that, we have ignored another elephant in the room. Silicon comes from silica, which is very inert. There is no shortage of silica and rocks are made of that bound to metal oxides. However, the making of silicon is very energy intensive. To make high grade silicon we need 1 – 1.5 GJ of energy per tonne of silicon. We need 13 t of silicon per MW, so 60 TW of energy requires 780 billion t of silicon, or a minimum of another 780 quadrillion J of energy. We shall make a lot of greenhouse gases making these collectors.

Asteroid (16) Psyche – Again! Or Riches Evaporate, Again

Thanks to my latest novel “Spoliation”, I have had to take an interest in asteroid mining. I discussed this in a previous post (https://ianmillerblog.wordpress.com/2020/10/28/asteroid-mining/) in which I mentioned the asteroid (16) Psyche. As I wrote, there were statements saying the asteroid had almost unlimited mineral resources. Initially, it was estimated to have a density (g/cc) of about 7, which would make it more or less solid iron. It should be noted this might well be a consequence of extreme confirmation bias. The standard theory has it that certain asteroids differentiated and had iron cores, then collided and the rock was shattered off, leaving the iron cores. Iron meteorites are allegedly the result of collisions between such cores. If so, it has been estimated there have to be about 75 iron cores floating around out there, and since Psyche had a density so close to that of iron (about 7.87) it must be essentially solid iron. As I wrote in that post, “other papers have published values as low as 1.4 g/cm cubed, and the average value is about 3.5 g/cm cubed”. The latest value is 3.78 + 0.34.

These varied numbers show how difficult it is to make these observations. Density is mass per volume. We determine the volume by considering the size and we can measure the “diameter”, but the target is a very long way away, it is small, so it is difficult to get an accurate “diameter”. The next point is it is not a true sphere, so there are extra “bits” of volume with hills, or “bits missing” with craters. Further, the volume depends on a diameter cubed, so if you make a ten percent error in the “diameter” you have a 30% error overall. The mass has to be estimated from its gravitational effects on something else. That means you have to measure the distance to the asteroid, the distance to the other asteroid, and determine the difference from expected as they pass each other. This difference may be quite tiny. Astronomers are working at the very limit of their equipment.

A quick pause for some silicate chemistry. Apart from granitic/felsic rocks, which are aluminosilicates, most silicates come in two classes of general formula: A – olivines X2SiO4 or B – pyroxenes XSiO3, where X is some mix of divalent metals, usually mainly magnesium or iron (hence their name, mafic, the iron being ferrous). However, calcium is often present. Basically, these elements are the most common metals in the output of a supernova, with magnesium being the most. For olivines, if X is only magnesium, the density for A (forsterite) is 3.27 and for B (enstatite) 3.2. If X is only iron, the density for A (fayalite) is 4.39 and for B (ferrosilite) 4.00. Now we come to further confirmation bias: to maintain the iron content of Psyche, the density is compared to enstatite chondrites, and the difference made up with iron. Another way to maintain the concept of “free iron” is the proposition that the asteroid is made of “porous metal”. How do you make that? A porous rock, like pumice, is made by a volcano spitting out magma with water dissolved in it, and as the pressure drops the water turns to steam. However, you do not get any volatile to dissolve in molten iron.

Another reason to support the iron concept was that the reflectance spectrum was “essentially featureless”. The required features come from specific vibrations, and a metal does not have any. Neither does a rough surface that scatters light. The radar albedo (how bright it is with reflected light) is 0.34, which implies a surface density of 3.5, which is argued to indicate either metal with 50% porosity, or solid silicates (rock). It also means no core is predicted. The “featureless spectrum” was claimed to have an absorption at 3 μm, indicating hydroxyl, which indicates silicate. There is also a signal corresponding to an orthopyroxene. The emissivity indicates a metal content greater than 20% at the surface, but if this were metal, there should be a polarised emission, and that is completely absent. At this point, we should look more closely at what “metal” means. In many cases, while it is used to convey what we would consider as a metal, the actual use includes chemical compounds with a  metallic element. The iron levels may be as iron sulphide, the oxide, or, as what I believe the answer is, the silicate. I think we are looking at the iron content of average rock. Fortune does not await us there.

In short, the evidence is somewhat contradictory, in part because we are using spectroscopy at the limits of its usefulness. NASA intends to send a mission to evaluate the asteroid and we should wait for that data.

But what about iron cored asteroids? We know there are metallic iron meteorites so where did they come from? In my ebook “Planetary Formation and Biogenesis”, I note that the iron meteorites, from isotope dating, are amongst the oldest objects in the solar system, so I argue they were made before the planets, and there were a large number of them, most of which ended up in planetary cores. The meteorites we see, if that is correct, never got accreted, and finally struck a major body for the first time.

A New Way of Mining?

One of the bigger problems our economies face is obtaining metals. Apparently the price of metals used in lithium-ion batteries is soaring because supply cannot expand sufficiently, and there appears to be no way current methodology can keep up.

 Ores are obtained by physically removing them from the subsurface, and this tends to mean that huge volumes of overburden have to be removed. Global mining is estimated to produce 100 billion t of overburden per year, and that usually has to be carted somewhere else and dumped.  This often leads to major disasters, such as mine tailing causing dams, and then collapsing, thus Brazil has had at least two such collapses that led to something like 140 million cubic meters of rubble moving and at least 256 deaths. The better ores are now worked out and we are resorting to poorer ores, most of which contain less than 1% is what you actually want. The rest, gangue, is often environmentally toxic and is quite difficult to dispose of safely. The whole process is energy intensive. Mining contributes about 10% of the energy-related greenhouse gas emissions. Yet if we take copper alone, it is estimated that by 2050 demand will increase by up to 350%. The ores we know about are becoming progressively lower grade and they are found at greater depths.

We have heard of the limits to growth. Well, mining is becoming increasingly looking like becoming unsustainable, but there is always the possibility of new technology to get the benefit from increasingly more difficult sources. One such possible technique involves first inserting acid or lixiviant into the rock to dissolve the target metal in the form of an ion then use a targeted electric field to transport the metal-rich solution to the surface. This is a variant of a technique used to obtain metals from fly ash, sludge, etc.

The objective is to place an electrode either within or surrounding the ore, then the acid is introduced from an external reservoir. There is an alternative reservoir with a second electrode with opposite charge to that of the metal-bearing ion. The metal usually bears a positive charge in the textbooks, so you would have your reservoir electrode negatively charged, but it is important to keep track of your chemistry. For example, if iron were dissolved in hydrochloric acid, the main ion would be FeCl4-, i.e. an anion.

Because transport occurs through electromigration, there is no need for permeability enhancement techniques, such as fracking. About 75% of copper ore reserves are as copper sulphide that lie beneath the water table. The proposed technique was demonstrated on a laboratory scale with a mix of chalcopyrite (CuFeS2) and quartz, each powdered. A solution of ferric chloride was added, and a direct current of 7 V was applied to electrodes at opposite ends of a 0.57 m path, over which there was a potential drop of about 5V, giving a maximal voltage gradient of 1.75 V/cm. The ferric chloride liberated copper as the cupric cation. The laboratory test extracted 57 weight per cent of the available copper from a 4 cm-wide sample over 94 days, although 80% was recovered in the first 50 days. The electric current decreased over the first ten days from 110 mA to 10 mA, suggestive of pore blocking. Computer simulations suggest that in the field, about 70% of the metal in a sample accessed by the electrodes could be recovered over a three year period. The process would have the odd hazard, thus a 5 meter spacing between electrodes employed, in the simulation, a 500 V difference. If the ore is several hundred meters down, this could require quite a voltage. Is this practical? I do not know, but it seems to me that at the moment the amount of dissolved material, the large voltages, the small areas and the time taken will count against it. On the other hand, the price of metals are starting to rise dramatically. I doubt this will be a final solution, but it may be part of one.

Our Financial Future

Interest rates should be the rental cost of money. The greater the opportunities to make profits, the more people will be willing to pay for the available money to invest in further profitable ventures and the interest rates go up. That is reinforced in that if more people are trying to borrow the same limited supply of money the rental price of it must increase, to shake out the less determined borrowers. However, it does not quite work like that. If an economic boom comes along, who wants to kill good times when you can print more money? However, eventually interest rates begin to rise, and then spike to restrict credit and suppress speculation. Recessions tend to follow this spike, and interest rates fall. Ideally, the interest rate reflects what the investor expects future value to be relative to present value. All of this assumes no external economic forces.

An obvious current problem is that we have too many objectives as central banks start to enter the domain of policy. Quantitative easing involved greatly increasing the supply of money so that there was plenty for profitable investment. Unfortunately, what has mainly happened, at least where I live, is that most of it has gone into pre-existing assets, especially housing. Had it gone into building new ones, that would be fine, but it hasn’t; it has simply led to an exasperating increase in prices.

In the last half of the twentieth century, interest rates positively correlated strongly with inflation. Investors add in their expectation of inflation into their demand for bonds, for example. Interest rates and equity values tend to increase during a boom and fall during a recession. Now we find the value of equities and the interest rates on US Treasuries are both increasing, but arguably there is no boom going on. One explanation is that inflation is increasing. However, the Head of the US Federal Reserve has apparently stated that the US economy is a long way from employment and inflation goals, and there will be no increase in interest rates in the immediate future. Perhaps this assumes inflation will not take off until unemployment falls, but the evidence of stagflation, particularly in Japan, says you can have bad unemployment and high inflation, and consequently a poorly performing economy. One of the problems with inflation is that expectations of it tend to be self-fulfilling. 

As a consequence of low inflation, and of central banks printing money, governments tend to be spending vigorously. They could invest in new technology or infrastructure to stimulate the economy, and well-chosen investment will generate a lot of employment, with the consequent benefits in economic growth and that growth and profitability will eventually pay for the cost of the money. However, that does not seem to be happening. There are two other destinations: banks, which lend at low interest, and “helicopter money” to relieve those under strain because of the virus. The former, here at least, has ended up mainly in fixed and existing assets, which inflates their price. The latter has saved many small companies, at least for a while, but there is a price.

The US has spent $5.3 trillion dollars. The National Review looked at what would be needed to pay this back. If you assume the current pattern of taxation depending on income holds, Americans with incomes (in thousand dollars) between $30 – 40 k would pay ~$5,000; between $40 – 50 k would pay ~$9,000; between $50 – 75 k would pay ~$16,000; between $75 – 100 k would pay ~$27,000; between $100 – 200 k would pay ~$51,000. For those on higher incomes the numbers get out of hand. If you roll it over and pay interest, the average American family will get $350 less in government services, which is multiplied by however much interest rates rise. If we assume that the cost of a dollar raised in tax is $1.50 to allow for the depressed effects on the economy, the average American owes $40,000 thanks to the stimulus. Other countries will have their own numbers.I know I seem to be on this issue perhaps too frequently, but those numbers scare me. The question I ask is, do those responsible for printing all this money have any idea what the downstream consequences will be? If they do, they seem to be very reluctant to tell us.

Living Near Ceres

Some will have heard of Gerard O’Neill’s book, “The High Frontier”. If not, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_High_Frontier:_Human_Colonies_in_Space. The idea was to throw material up from the surface of the Moon to make giant cylinders that would get artificial gravity from rotation, and people could live their lives in the interior with energy being obtained in part by solar energy. The concept was partly employed in the TV series “Babylon 5”, but the original concept was to have open farmland as well. Looks like science fiction, you say, and in fairness I have included such a proposition in a science fiction novel I am currently writing, However, I have also read a scientific paper on this topic (arXiv:2011.07487v3) which appears to have been posted on the 14th January, 2021. The concept is to put such a space settlement using material obtained from the asteroid Ceres, and orbiting near Ceres.

The proposal is ambitious, if nothing else. The idea is to build a number of habitats, and to ensure such habitats are not too big but they stay together they are tethered to a megasatellite, which in turn will grow and new settlements are built. The habitats spin in such a way to attain a “gravity” of 1 g, and are attached to their tethers by magnetic bearings that have no physical contact between faces, and hence never wear. A system of travel between habitats proceeds along the tethers. Rockets would be unsustainable because the molecules they throw out to space would be lost forever.

The habitats would have a radius of 1 km, a length of 10 km, and have a population of 56,700, with 2,000 square meters per person, just under 45% of which would be urban. Slightly more scary would be the fact it has to rotate every 1.06 minutes. The total mass per person would be just under 10,000 t, requiring an energy to produce it of 1 MJ/kg, or about 10 GJ.

The design aims to produce an environment for the settlers that has Earth-like radiation shielding, gravity, and atmosphere. It will have day/night on a 24 hr cycle with 130 W/m^2 insolation, similar to southern Germany, and a population density of 500/km^2, similar to the Netherlands. There would be fields, parks, and forests, no adverse weather, no natural disasters and ultimately it could have a greater living area than Earth. It will be long-term sustainable. To achieve that, animals, birds and insects will be present, i.e.  a proper ecosystem. Ultimately it could provide more living area than Earth. As can be seen, that is ambitious. The radiation shielding involves 7600 kg/m^2, of which 20% is water and the rest silicate regolith. The rural spaces have a 1.5 m depth of soil, which is illuminated by the sunlight. The sunlight is collected and delivered from mirrors into light guides. Ceres is 2.77 times as far as Earth from the sun, which means the sunlight is only about 13% as strong as at Earth, so over eight times the mirror collecting are is required for every unit area to be illuminated to get equivalent energy. 

The reason cited for proposing this to be at Ceres is that Ceres has nitrogen. Actually, there are other carbonaceous asteroids, and one that is at least 100 km in size could be suitable. Because Ceres’ gravity is 0.029 times that of Earth, a space elevator could be feasible to bring material cheaply from the dwarf planet, while a settlement 100,000 km from the surface would be expected to have a stable orbit.

In principle, there could be any number of these habitats, all linked together. You could have more people living there than on Earth. Of course there are some issues with the calculation. The tethering of habitats, and of giving the habitats sufficient strength requires about 5% of the total mass in the form of steel. Where does the iron come from? The asteroids have plenty of iron, but the form is important. How will it be refined? If it is on the form of olivine or pyroxene, then with difficulty. Vesta apparently has an iron core, but Vesta is not close, and most of the time, because it has a different orbital period, it is very far away.But the real question is, would you want to live in such a place? How much would you pay for the privilege? The cost of all this was not estimated, but it would be enormous so most people could not afford it. In my opinion, cost alone is sufficient that this idea will not see the light of day.

The Future is Coming

The question then is, what will it be? I have just been reading a book by a number of futurists and it was remarkably timid, with a lot of conditional subjunctives and a bit of wishful thinking. Superficially, we should do better with the clues out there. Or can we? Are there too many unknowns? Is any part of the future impossible to predict with any reliability? Certainly, around here the professionals seem to make predictions on a par with the way I make them, that is, most of them are rubbish. About three years ago, economists were recommending New Zealand invest a lot more in tourism. OK, Covid 19 could be regarded as a Black Swan Event, but as soon as the virus struck, economists were advising that there would be unemployment of at least 11% by now, even with strong government financial support for the flailing industries. Accordingly, the Reserve Bank brought interest rates way down and began a major program of quantitative easing. The latest unemployment figures here are 4.5%, and thanks to floods of low interest money house prices have got out of control. Of course, the Reserve Bank will no doubt claim credit for the low unemployment (in part because anyone who can be of use at house building is employed) and ignore the house prices. So, what next? As usual, I have no idea.

Between 2008 and 2020, it appears the Federal Reserve, the European Central Bank, the Bank of Japan and the People’s Bank of China have been printing $1 trillion per year, and using this to buy government bonds. The governments have pushed the money into society with extremely low interest rates to encourage industries to employ more people and bring new things to market. Do you see this happening? No? So what will happen? Surely, if you keep pumping air into a tyre, eventually something will give. Quantitative easing has currently reached about 30% of various nations annual GDP, that is, 30% more than was needed to run the economies previously, yet they continue with greater enthusiasm. 

So what has happened? The reserve banks buy bonds from commercial banks, who then have managers that have to do something with the money. They lend to the wealthy and more to the rich to buy assets. Thus suppose you have an asset that yields 6% per annum. You use that as collateral to borrow money at 2%, or maybe even at 1% interest and buy another asset yielding 6%. Now you are starting to make more money and since you got rich by doing this sort of thing, you know what you are doing. As long as you make good investments and have fixed interest contracts, you cannot lose, leaving aside a massive disaster, and even then you will be in a better place than most others. The lesser wealthy either buy smaller assets, or stock. The net result is an overall increase in prices of these assets. If the asset is a house, the rent gets raised to accommodate the increased price. Those who sell or do not wish to buy assets put the money into banks or bonds, where it sits out of circulation, thus keeping the working money supply down. The extreme is when huge amounts of money are secreted away in tax havens.

So the poor get poorer because they have to rent, and their income has stayed the same because there is allegedly no inflation. Why is there no inflation? Because asset prices, housing, etc, do not count in most inflation indices. They do not count because it makes the establishment look so much more in control if they ignore these minor problems. Accordingly, the poor have to buy fewer consumables. That is why there is a shortage of productive investment: sales are static or, with this virus, are going down. The poor have less money, they buy less, hence industries do not expand. In fact, industries tend to contract. Last year, our national airline let go a third of its workforce. Quite high-earning people end up chasing much lower-paid jobs. They also suspended the purchase of new aircraft, so that is less income somewhere else. In such times, it is the higher salaried people let go unless they are essential, so we see even more hollowing of the middle class. The future is coming, but it is less clear from the financial point of view what it will hold. All that money effectively doing nothing is both a potential crisis and an enormous opportunity. Anyone who can think of an original way to capture some of that could become seriously rich.