Sunday, May 31, 2015

Thinking Like A Watershed

" This is why I turn white with foam and why they named me 'Blanco.' "

“The main challenge to rational planning for flood risk in the country is that private property rights trump even modest limitations on floodplain development,” said Nicholas Pinter, an expert on floods, people and politics at Southern Illinois University, in an email today. “And that sentiment runs deep in Texas. The result is unchecked construction on flood-prone land, up to the present day and in some places even accelerating.”
It’s worth noting that a similar pattern, although with a different mix of drivers, can be seen far from the strip malls and condos around Austin. In some of the world’s poorest places, rapid population growth and flimsy housing in zones of profound “natural” hazard have created huge vulnerability (the latest case in point is, of course, Nepal).
-- Andrew Revkin, Opinion in The New York Times, May 25, 2015

In many parts of the world, watersheds like me are underappreciated and overlooked. Not me.

Maybe it is because I am in a high, dry country, long the home to roving horse nomads and then to hardscrabble ranchers. Every cottonwood grove along my banks is sacred to those people, because they are rooted in the Earth, and when the rains come they know to be thankful, and to keep a respectful distance from my banks.

In good years, I bubble out in winter from a series of springs in northern Kendall County and flow generally eastward for 87 miles between rolling hills and canyons. My bed is quite shallow, and it briefly dips below ground in some areas of the Hill Country, like a Ninja practicing the secret of invisibility.

At other turns I pass through the steep cliff walls that I have carved out of hard rock over eons, to remind you of my hidden power. When my temper is aroused, I have 1000 times more strength (3000 m3/s versus 3 m3/s). This is when I turn white with foam and why they named me, those wise Tejano Texians, "Blanco."

When I stood up last week, I raised myself 30 feet in less than 3 hours, blowing away the puny depth gauges marking my passage through the Balcones Escarpment. 

About halfway between Austin and San Antonio, near San Marcos, I take a southerly turn. About two miles west of Gonzales I join my sister Guadalupe and the two of us gather in our brother Antonio before reaching our delta and estuary at Guadalupe Bay.

If you have seen the pictures coming out of San Marcos, Austin, Houston and the other central Texas towns this past week, you might wonder why we are all this angry; why we are all Blancos.

Some think it has to do with climate change, and there is an element of truth in that, but you need to look a little more closely. Texas ranchers and those mad fools in the oil patch have wrecked the climate for a good long while, but what has got me mad now is sprawl. 

In one county I run through, Hays, the population grew 61% between 2000 and 2010 and shows no signs of slowing. Those humans are doubling in numbers every couple decades. All those people assume there will be water enough for their yards and gardens even in dry years, but they are paving over the recharge zones of my springs. I know one shopping center that paved over 40 acres that once absorbed runoff for me and what did they do with that land? They parked cars on it!

So, people, if you really want to enjoy my gentle nature, and raft or kayak on me, or water your crops and herd your cattle, you had better stop what you are doing to my watershed. For heaven's sake, control yourselves. There are limits, you know.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Microbiome Verschränkung

"The ability of gut microbiota to bidirectionally communicate with the brain, known as the gut–brain axis, in the modulation of human health is at the forefront of current research.

  In 1935, Erwin Schrödinger wrote a letter to Albert Einstein in which he used the word verschränkung (translated by himself as entanglement) "to describe the correlations between two particles that interact and then separate, as in the EPR experiment."

In the Einstein-Podalsky-Rosen experiment it appeared that one particle of an entangled pair "knows" what action has been performed on or by the other, and with what outcome, even though there is no known means, or time, for such information to have been communicated. Schrodinger later wrote, "I would not call [entanglement] one but rather the characteristic trait of quantum mechanics, the one that enforces its entire departure from classical lines of thought."

Debaters of the likelihood of Near Term Human Extinction (NTHE) are less perfectly aligned than an EPR pair. Even those that subscribe to the theory are divided as to both the date and the precipitating cause. 

Near-term civilizational collapse, on the other hand, is a bit easier to predict because (a) all civilizations collapse eventually, (b) this new, wholly global one exhibits a perfect storm of fatal design errors and (c) the empirical measure of net energy per capita – with human civilization viewed as a rudimentary heat engine that hit its zenith some years ago (estimates of date vary) and is now in steepening decline (although the International Energy Agency or President's Council of Economic Advisors would disagree).

Humans are considered to be pretty resilient and adaptive. We have been through several evolutionary bottlenecks already, to prove the point.

Granted, luck plays a role. If the few thousand survivors of the evolutionary bottleneck now revealed by mDNA studies to have occurred 70,000-80,000 years ago had all been clustered in one location - say Cupertino, California - and a Chicxulub-scale meteor had chosen to strike there and then, well sayonara. Silicon Valley would never have had a garage to build in.

But we are not alone. We are not even our own DNA. That body we blithely call human is actually a community of mostly convivial organisms, some autonomous, some not, that cohabit these complex, highly-evolved, organic structures and are responsible for all the vital functions that allow us to live. Indeed, "highly evolved" by itself means that cooperative arrangements between the many life forms that are in us and out, producing our food, oxygen, rainfall and climate, had enough time to become exceedingly complex and antifragile in their interactions. It is their tangled web that is largely responsible for this mild Holocene Epoch we have been enjoying, not just Milanković cycles

If complexity is a precursor to climax in ecosystems, disturbance, and restart, the same may be true of the human ecosystem, and so our highly complex human biology argues, after a Tainterian fashion, for NTHE. However, such a jaundiced view begs the question of how much complexity is too much, and how much provides biological stability, or antifragility, of a kind.

Ugo Bardi writes:
Much depends on what the after-crash climate will be. After the great warming "pulse" generated by fossil carbon burning, the Earth will stay very warm for a long period - at least some thousands of years. Gradually, it will cool down as the atmospheric carbon dioxide created by the industrial revolution will be gradually - very gradually - re-absorbed into the Earth's crust. It may well take a hundred thousand years to return to the pre-industrial CO2 concentrations. Only at that point we may see again the climate conditions which were typical of an Earth unperturbed by human activities; perhaps with the series of ice ages that characterized the "Pleistocene," the epoch preceded the more stable Holocene - in which we are still living.

Assuming Bardi's postulate is correct, or more precisely, that of David Archer, whom Bardi references, that the mean lifetime of fossil CO2 (not all GHGs) is about 30–35 kyr then it may well take 100,000 years for Earth's atmosphere to recover from Homo petroleo. Unfortunately, depending on how you look at it, one cannot rely on that prediction because of the possibility of the clathrate gun that could transform Earth's atmosphere to something more resembling Venus, shrouded in methane clouds. We wept at that prospect in our 1990 book, Climate in Crisis. 

Productivity of the U.S. health care
system, 1930-1982 (Tainter 1988)
Even assuming Homo post-petroleo could adapt to blistering hot surface temperatures for 100,000 years, perhaps on islands moderated by the ocean currents or at the poles, could our species then adapt to a Venus-like world? Chances diminish by degrees. The problem, as Tom Goreau has eloquently stated it, is that IPCC reports go out merely a century, while the emissions being accumulated will be around for millennia, and full cessation of fossil fuel burning will not arrest their delayed effects, although healthy soil microbe communities, promoted by regrarian farming and biochar, perhaps could.

Microbes, which are morphologically quite simple, can be remarkably more adaptive than humans to extreme conditions. On April 20, 1967, NASA's unmanned probe Surveyor 3 landed at the Mare Cognitum on a Lunar reconnoitering mission. Samples of soil from the crater where it landed were excavated with its robotic scoop and television pictures sent back to the Earth until May 3, when it shut down for a lunar night and unfortunately caught cold and died, unable to be reawakened when morning dawned, 14 days later.

The camera was retrieved by Apollo 12 astronauts three years later and returned to Earth. Opened in a clean room and sampled, the camera was discovered to still have live earthly microbes hiding in the foam crevices of its housing. These resilient microbes apparently had evaded sterilization procedures prior to Surveyor's launch. 

Some years later studies suggested that the camera had been contaminated by the Apollo astronauts, or in the sampling procedure, but these claims do not stand up to the original scrutiny provided by Lt. Colonel Fred Mitchell. In his careful study, Mitchell observed that there was a significant delay before the sampled culture began growing. This is consistent with the sampled bacteria as dormant spores, but would not be the case if the sampled culture was the result of fresh contamination. In addition, according to Mitchell, the microbes clung exclusively to the foam during culturing, which would not have happened had there been contamination. Furthermore, Mitchell suggested, if fresh contamination had occurred, millions of individual bacteria and "a representation of the entire microbial population would be expected"; instead, only a few individual bacteria were discovered and only from a single species. (Mitchell, F. J., & Ellis, W. L., "Surveyor III: Bacterium isolated from lunar retrieved TV camera," in A.A. Levinson (ed.). Proceedings of the second lunar science conference. MIT press, Cambridge, 1971).

To recap: one species of terrestrial microbes, the common bacterium Streptococcus mitis, when suddenly confronted with the nearly absolute cold of space, adapted, went dormant, and survived, not for a 14-day night, but for years.

Diminishing returns to increasing
complexity (Tainter 1988)
This historical anecdote makes a pretty good case for the proposition that no matter what we humans do to the climate of Earth, some life forms will survive. How long it takes these life forms to again evolve a community of something resembling human is anyone's guess.

Bardi continues:
A lot of things happened to humans during the transition from hunter-gatherers to farmers and pastoralists. We lost a good 3-4% of the cranial capacity, many of us became able to digest milk, we developed resistance to many diseases and the capability to live on a diet that was very different and much poorer than that of hunters and gatherers. These changes were genetic, resulting from the need of adapting to a different lifestyle and to a more complex society.

True these changes are genetic, but that may miss half the story. The changes also reflect the evolution of our microbiome. Our gut bacteria, which can evolve more quickly than generalized human physiology, are in much greater control of most bodily functions than is often assumed.

According to a new review in Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment, "Psychobiotics and the gut–brain axis: in the pursuit of happiness" by Linghong Zhou and Jane Foster from McMaster University in Canada (Neuropsychiatr Dis Treat. 2015; 11: 715–723, doi: 10.2147/NDT.S61997):
"The human intestine houses an astounding number and species of microorganisms, estimated at more than 1014 gut microbiota and composed of over a thousand species. An individual’s profile of microbiota is continually influenced by a variety of factors including but not limited to genetics, age, sex, diet, and lifestyle. Although each person’s microbial profile is distinct, the relative abundance and distribution of bacterial species is similar among healthy individuals, aiding in the maintenance of one’s overall health. Consequently, the ability of gut microbiota to bidirectionally communicate with the brain, known as the gut–brain axis, in the modulation of human health is at the forefront of current research.
Photo credit: CSIRO.
These cryptophytes have the
capacity to choose between
quantum coherence and decoherence
"Bidirectional communication via the vagus nerve, a component of the parasympathetic nervous system, is a well-established pathway for gut-brain signaling and, in recent years, has emerged as an important microbiota-to-brain communication pathway.

"The ENS [enteric nervous system], sometimes referred to as "the second brain" comprises intrinsic primary afferent neurons, motor neurons, and glial cells contained within the myenteric plexus and the submucosal plexus that extends along the entire length of the gut."

Zhou and Foster discovered that what you thought was your thinking may actually have originated in the hive communication going on in your gut amongst a billion single-celled organisms. How else do you explain how our biocomputer experiences 70,000 thoughts per day on roughly 24 Watts of power?

A century ago, Russian embryologist Elie Metchnikoff surmised that a healthy colonic microbial community could help combat senility. Now we are learning that the gut-brain axis - the two direction communication between the gut microbiota and the brain - affects not only health and immune response, weight management, allergies, tooth decay, cholesterol, arthritis, longevity,  but also brain function, emotional behavior and instinctive reflexes.

Gut bacterial imbalances have been linked to autism, depression, and eating disorders, as for instance, when genetically modified crops designed to be RoundUp-Ready through the glyphosate mechanism of destroying soil microbes that feed weeds at their roots are ingested by humans and make mayhem of human intestinal microfauna communities.

We don't yet entirely know how bacteria communicate, much less how they communicate with our brains or what effect that has, whether it occurs by physical linkages or through faster-than-light quantum phenomena, but we have to acknowledge the entanglement.

Bardi concludes:
"Is the future of humans a beehive? We can't say, but it looks more and more likely that some old ways of seeing the future are now wholly obsolete. Likely, our descendants will have no flying cars; no spaceships, no robot butlers bringing the martinis to them as they relax on the pool's edge. But the powers of a human hive could still be impressive even without the gadgetry of our times. Maybe the 'super-intelligence' that some see as developing in our computers could actually appear in an eusocial human organization (this is one of the themes of Frank Herbert's novel Hellstrom's Hive).

"Will these super-intelligent entities avoid the mistakes that we have done? We can't say; of course, it is a future that none of us will ever see. But it is a fascinating future and the interest in the future is part of the fact of being human. Perhaps, our hive descendants will think in the same way."

We can feel a little more assured that even though we humans evolve very slowly and face monumental, existential challenges from our pollution profligacy, the wee beasties that co-evolved in our guts adapt much faster to challenges and may yet decide we are worth hanging onto, assuming they did not engineer our planned obsolescence to begin with. 

Evolution may not be the only thing microbes are fast at. Like Gaia, they exhibit a kind of quantum intelligence, with multiple states of knowledge simultaneously appearing, and no apparent time or means to communicate. We, who treasure our autonomous egos, are fortunate to exist in community with a verschränkung hive mentality.

Fortunately, we clever apes have also hedged our bets by delaying new spacecraft sterilization protocols until after we sent unclean probes to Mars. If our hive community did not exist on Mars before (and wasn't that the discovery mission of the probes?) chances are very good that it does now.


Sunday, May 17, 2015

Kondratiev Goes Surfing

"Excursions from the comfort of the normal to the uncertainty of the new typically happen brutally and violently."

  We read recently in a Southern California newspaper that climate change may wreck the shape and direction of waves that make for some of the world's best surfing beaches. We wondered if it might have a similar effect on Kondratiev cycles.

Our species now has to focus on three overarching tasks:
  • switching away from fossil energy and onto renewables;
  • degrowing industrial dependencies and shedding our profligate ways in a very resource-constrained new environment; and
  • mending the damage we've done by undertaking massive works of ecological restoration – returning us to a garden planet and restoring Gaia to her full health.

Among collapsologists, the surfing analogy works at several levels. Instead of passively observing tsunami-size Kondratiev and Elliott waves pound civilization to rubble, we can get out and ride those waves. We are not destroying anything to have our fun. Its renewable energy. We are degrowing our footprint, which is growing hope in inverse proportion. Surfing hits our dopamine receptors. With newfound friends, in ecovillages and organic farming collectives, this big wave surfing can be a lot of fun.

"Surfing is a very experiential or 'now' activity," a surfer recently told the San Jose Mercury News.  "When waves die in one spot and pick up in another, you move to that spot." This is the phenomenon Kevin Kelly described as "scenius," observing that throughout history certain geographical areas attract creative human energies, often passing into and out of their heyday with unexpected suddenness. As Benoit Mandelbrot says, "Wave prediction is a very uncertain business."

Most demographic moves of populations around the planet are reactive. Typically people are fleeing political, social and environmental crises, not rushing somewhere to find a nexus of like-minded individuals. Witness the nomadic invasion of Europe. Many of these waves of refugees reflect, in the mirror, a desperate and very brutal grab of Western countries for control of dwindling oil. Tent cities of refugees extend from Jordan across to North Africa. As they seep into the old stone cities of Europe, they raise their tents under bridges or bargain with farmers to camp in exchange for work. Soon enough, climate refugees will follow. They will be looking for places to escape the heat.

Excursions from the comfort of the normal to the uncertainty of the new typically happen brutally and violently. A rare event  invasion, terror bombing, freak storm – forces a lurch for equilibrium.

In these movements there is an asymmetrical agency issue, which is the problem that those who make decisions bringing about such horrendous consequences suffer disproportionately less because they have insulated themselves from the downside. Think of how well endowed a Senator's health care plan is in comparison to the average citizen's. There is also the issue of asymmetrical informational opacity, in which not only the decisions themselves and how they are made, but the qualitative value of the information predicating them is kept secret from outside scrutiny.

Take for example the book tour of discredited New York Times reporter Judith Miller. Miller, we may recall, was Dick Cheney's handmaiden for stovepiped and fabricated intel on Iraqi WMD,  and her planted NYT stories went on to be cited by Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice, and Dubya as proof that the rape of Iraq was justified to prevent more 9-11s "in the shape of a mushroom cloud." Interviewers with the attention span of an Alzheimer's patient now toss softballs at Miller, letting her rewrite history to her advantage, in much the same way Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice, and Dubya are given a pass on the Middle East and thus Jeb Bush is taken seriously as a presidential candidate for 2016. This is asymmetrical informational opacity.

For those causing the problems there are no consequences. There is only a large upside for them and the greater downside is confined to distant and powerless victims. The same can be applied to the average US citizen, who bears ultimate responsibility for silently assenting to the outrage in unleashing high-tech weaponry on pastoral societies like Vietnam, Grenada, Afghanistan or Yemen for the sake of cheap fuel for their Hummers and retirement communities with golf courses. Many USAnians, goaded by asymmetrical and captive information diets, are more than willing to wreak havoc on a third of the world, mindless of consequences.

Of course there are no consequence-free zones, ultimately. Refugees are only the first wave of consequence for Fortress America. Asymmetrical warfare, as the pentagon has so aptly called it, invariably returns from the powerless to be directed at the would-be insulated. Wield asymmetric technologies at your peril.

In the near term, when large, national or transnational companies abuse, everybody except the culprit ends up paying the cost. Between 2000 and 2010, the US stock market lost two trillion dollars for investors but made scores of new billionaires among the top fund managers. Or take nuclear energy (please!), whereby the bulk of the costs – cancers, expensive cleanups, diverted weaponry  are foisted off on future generations while the current generation of electric ratepayers enjoys all the benefits of "cheap" electricity.

But this asymmetry is a function of scale. Opacity is seldom possible at local scale, and feedback is quick. In a less isolated system, such as a city mayor's office, abuse by authority is more likely to be kept in check by the proximity of the victims and the likelihood their voices will be heard when the next election rolls around. A small retailer who sells a product that harms one of his customers is likely to destroy his business. Retribution is quick.

Degrowing industrial dependencies and shedding profligate ways in our resource-constrained new world returns the scale of practical work from global to local and cuts straight through opacity and insularity.

Surfing is not a team sport requiring large stadiums. It is performed by semi-autonomous actors observing the patterns of nature and blending with them. Done well, it accomplishes nothing, and a great deal. 

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Inside the Musk Cocoon: Teslarian Tomorrows

"You can either sell or you can drill, but you can't do both."


Timing Matters.

If you are a prudent designer of your own future, you are already taking steps to get out of the way of the ear-shattering whoosh when the greatest economic bubble in history bursts the limits of “extend and pretend.”

Nonetheless, how and when you prepare for that historic shift matters. If, like Ted Kaczynski, you hole up in a cabin in the Montana mountains and stop telling people where to find you, you are a very committed prepper. You may miss some of the circus extravaganzas that always attend peaks in civilization (like the Classic Maya theater state).

If, as time passes without any collapse and you become worried about your stranded investment in the downslide, perhaps, like Kaczynski, you will be tempted to bend your talents towards speeding its demise.

You wouldn't want to run up all your credit cards – and those you can quickly acquire – to their limit in anticipation of the crash of the banking system only to discover that it didn't happen that fast, and moreover, your country has recently reinstituted debtors' prisons.

Who would have predicted that global Ponzi civilization had enough staying power not only to survive the hurricane-force gust of the subprime-home-mortgage financial deflation in 2008 but to stretch that same derivatives balloon to many times its impossible size in the ensuing 6 years? What is this thing made of?

As Richard Heinberg points out in his latest book, Afterburn, the current fracking bonanza and its effect on gas prices was predicted in the late 1990s by Peak Oil gurus Campbell and Laherrere. Does the tapping of the Bakkan Shale mean "Saudi America" oil wealth for the next century, climate be damned? Hardly.

Uncorking shale gas drill technology – something that has been known about for half a century  merely demonstrates two key premises: (1) energy addicted industrial nations will seek ways to replace rapidly depleting reserves of fossil energy at any price and (2) replacements will no longer be low hanging fruit unless we are speaking of palm berry ethanol. Mostly, they will be deep ocean, Arctic, fracked shale, and other exotic substitutes at much lower energy density and return on investment and much quicker depletion rates. These substitutes will temporarily depress the price so much it may even fall below production cost, bankrupting producers and curtailing further exploration. "There is no Goldilocks zone," Heinberg says, meaning there is no price point at which it is possible to drill and also sell. You can either sell or you can drill, but you can't do both.

Enter Silicon Valley, home of exuberant optimism, and its Demigod Wunderkind, Elon Musk. For readers living in a Montana cabin and downloading this by ham modem, Musk is the South African lad who dropped out of a PhD track at Stanford (high density capacitors) to start Zip2, a proto-Facebook, in 1995. It sold to Compaq in 1999 for $307 million (hmmm, whatever happened to...). 

Musk, 27, put his profits into another idea that we know today as PayPal. That sold to eBay in 2002 for $1.5 billion. Musk, 30, then put $100 million into SpaceX, whose stated purpose was to colonize Mars with at least a million people over the next century, and then $70 million into Tesla, the electric sports car. Both are now bleeding about $100 million per quarter.

In 2006, he spent $10 million to launch SolarCity, whose goal it was to revolutionize energy production by creating a large, distributed utility that would install solar panel systems on millions of people’s homes. That idea is succeeding nicely, although SCTY is still bleeding red ink.

Musk is profiled by Tim Urban, who had lunch with him earlier this year.

This guy has a lot on his mind across a lot of topics. In this one lunch alone, we covered electric cars, climate change, artificial intelligence, the Fermi Paradox, consciousness, reusable rockets, colonizing Mars, creating an atmosphere on Mars, voting on Mars, genetic programming, his kids, population decline, physics vs. engineering, Edison vs. Tesla, solar power, a carbon tax, the definition of a company, warping spacetime and how this isn’t actually something you can do, nanobots in your bloodstream and how this isn’t actually something you can do, Galileo, Shakespeare, the American forefathers, Henry Ford, Isaac Newton, satellites, and ice ages.

I talked to him for a while about genetic reprogramming. He doesn’t buy the efficacy of typical anti-aging technology efforts, because he believes humans have general expiration dates, and no one fix can help that. He explained: “The whole system is collapsing. You don’t see someone who’s 90 years old and it’s like, they can run super fast but their eyesight is bad. The whole system is shutting down. In order to change that in a serious way, you need to reprogram the genetics or replace every cell in the body.” Now with anyone else—literally anyone else—I would shrug and agree, since he made a good point. But this was Elon Musk, and Elon Musk fixes shit for humanity. So what did I do?

Me: Well…but isn’t this important enough to try? Is this something you’d ever turn your attention to?

Elon: The thing is that all the geneticists have agreed not to reprogram human DNA. So you have to fight not a technical battle but a moral battle.

Me: You’re fighting a lot of battles. You could set up your own thing. The geneticists who are interested—you bring them here. You create a laboratory, and you could change everything.

Elon: You know, I call it the Hitler Problem. Hitler was all about creating the Übermensch and genetic purity, and it’s like—how do you avoid the Hitler Problem? I don’t know.

Me: I think there’s a way. You’ve said before about Henry Ford that he always just found a way around any obstacle, and you do the same thing, you always find a way. And I just think that that’s as important and ambitious a mission as your other things, and I think it’s worth fighting for a way, somehow, around moral issues, around other things.

Elon: I mean I do think there’s…in order to fundamentally solve a lot of these issues, we are going to have to reprogram our DNA. That’s the only way to do it.

Me: And deep down, DNA is just a physical material.

Elon: [Nods, then pauses as he looks over my shoulder in a daze] It’s software.


I think I’ve successfully planted the seed. If Musk takes on human genetics 15 years from now and we all end up living to 250 because of it, you all owe me a drink.

Last week Musk, 43, announced that he had inked deals with Panasonic, the Japanese giant tech company, to produce a revolutionary new battery that would dramatically cut the cost of energy storage for renewables. Tesla aims to begin delivering units by this summer from its California car factory and later shift production to a $5 billion Panasonic plant under construction near Reno, Nevada. When the Gigafactory starts production next year, Tesla cells will deliver 12% higher energy density.

Tesla's “power wall” batteries — ranging from a $3,000 7-kWh wall-mounted unit to $25,000 for the 100-kWh unit  represent a significant price drop. Utilities such as Duke and ConEd have installed large battery systems next to wind farms. Nationwide, 62 megawatts of batteries and other energy-storage devices were installed in 2014 at 180 sites, up 40% from the previous year.

In California, state rebates cover 60% of the price of the battery. In the US, batteries that are connected to solar panels are eligible for federal tax credits equal to 30% of the price of the battery.

The battery developed by Musk is not new science. Lithium is the highest energy density element for the anode side of a storage battery. Exxon scientists proposed the idea of using it in batteries in the 1970s, and Sony produced the first commercial Lithium Ion battery in 1991.

What has changed is the quality. The early Sony batteries were lithium cobalt oxide (LiCoO2). Packaged in polymer battery packs, there were problems with runaway overheating and outgassing which Sony discovered only after one of their cellphones caught fire near its user's ear. Tesla had a similar experience with its Model S roadster in 2013.

In 1996 the anion du jour was lithium iron phosphate (LiFePO). Besides being flame resistant, LFP lacked carcinogenicity because it contained no radioactive cobalt. Unfortunately, it was 60% less energy dense. In 2002 performance was boosted by doping LFP with aluminum, niobium and zirconium. In 2013, the standard went to vanadium alloy, which is what you will find in the Tesla and Chevrolet Volt. LFP batteries today have 4 to 5 times longer cycle lifetimes, 8 to 10 times higher discharge power and 30 to 50% less weight than predecessors. Li batteries are enjoying their own Moore's Law.

Musk has been pushing incremental improvements along multiple lines:

Similar to lithium oxides, LiMPO4 may be synthesized by the following methods: 1. solid-phase synthesis, 2. emulsion drying, 3. sol-gel process 4. solution coprecipitation, 5. vapor phase deposition, 6. electrochemical synthesis, 7. electron beam irradiation, 8. microwave process 9. hydrothermal synthesis, 10. ultrasonic pyrolysis, 11. spray pyrolysis, etc. Different processes have different results. For example, in the emulsion drying process, the emulsifier is first mixed with kerosene. Next, the solutions of lithium salts and iron salts are added to this mixture. This process produces carbon particles of nano sizes. Hydrothermal synthesis produces LiMPO4 with good crystallinity. Conductive carbon is obtained by adding polyethylene glycol to the solution followed by thermal processing. Vapor phase deposition produces a thin film LiMPO4. Another type of synthesization is flame spray pyrolysis in which the FePO4 is mixed with Lithium carbonate and glucose and charged with electrolytes. The mixture is then injected inside a flame and goes through a process of filtering to collect the synthesized LiFePO4 at the end.

He describes the evolution in a July 2014 Tesla Conference Call formerly found on YouTube (at 25:23 to 27:37):

25:23 Journalist: On the Gigafactory, is the chemistry going to be the same battery chemistry that you're currently using or is that part of the discussions that are going on with Panasonic?
25:34 Elon Musk: There are improvements to the chemistry, as well as improvements to the geometry of the cell. So we would expect to see an energy density improvement and of course a significant cost improvement. JB, do you want to add anything? 

25:53 JB Straubel: Yeah, that's right. The cathode and anode materials themselves are next generation. We're seeing improvements in the maybe 10% to 15% range on the chemistry itself.
26:09 Elon Musk:Yeah, in terms of energy density.
26:09 JB Straubel: Energy density. And then we're also customizing the cell shape and size to further improve the cost efficiency of the cell and our packaging efficiency.
26:22 Elon Musk: Right. We've done a lot of modeling trying to figure out what's the optimal cell size. And it's really not much. It's not a lot different from where we are right now but we're sort of in the roughly 10% more diameter, maybe 10% more height. But then the cubic function effectively ends up being just from a geometry standpoint probably a third more energy for the cell or maybe 30%. And then the actual energy density per unit mass increases.
27:09 JB Straubel: Yeah. Fundamentally the chemistry of what's inside is what really defines the cost position. It's often debated what shape and size, but at this point we're developing basically what we feel is the optimum shape and size for the best cost efficiency for an automotive cell.
27:25 Elon Musk:Yeah.
27:28 Journalist: The chemical formula will be the same, it's just shaped differently or…? 

27:32 Elon Musk: No.

27:32 JB Straubel:No.
27:35 Journalist: Is it a different formula?

27:37 Elon Musk: Yeah.

The first thing those of us outside the fog of Silicon Valley ask when we hear about things like a technology breakthrough is, is it safe for the planet, does it deplete non-renewables, and can it scale? Silicon can scale, because it is just sand. The ocean makes more every day. Neodymium, the rare earth at the center of lasers, wind generators and electric car motors, is, despite its periodic table location, not rare. In China it's a fertilizer.

Lithium, on the other hand, is more constrained. About 70 percent of the world’s lithium comes from brine (salt lakes); the remainder is derived from hard rock. The low hanging fruit has already been picked. Research institutes are now developing technology to draw lithium from seawater, with exactly the same as the desperation seen in the hunt for for new uranium.

It takes 750 tons of brine, the base of lithium, and 24 months of preparation to get one ton of pure lithium to alloy. Lithium can also be recycled an unlimited number of times, but it takes 20 tons of spent Li-ion batteries to recover one ton of commercial-grade lithium.

In 2009, total demand for lithium reached almost 92,000 metric tons, of which batteries consumed 26 percent. Musk's announcement, coupled with Telsa's policy of open patents, could push demand up considerably. Should you be looking into lithium futures? At the time of this writing, there are no other materials that can replace lithium with comparable energy density, nor are there battery systems in development that offer the same or better performance as lithium-ion.

The failure to find a Goldilocks zone may eventually come to lithium the same way it came to fracking.

Moreover, graphite, the anode material, could also be in short supply. A large EV battery uses about 25kg (55lb) of anode material. The process to make anode-grade graphite with 99.99 percent purity is expensive and produces much waste. Recycling is difficult and expensive. As we have written here before, biochar substitutes for graphite have been proven effective, at far lower cost, but they lack comparable energy density.  If space is at a premium, as it is in a Tesla Roadster, a biochar anode is not an option. In a home system, it might be.

Musk has hedged his bets. Space X has plans to mine asteroids, and depending on how the surveys of the red planet go (and Peak Debt) we could see Space X lithium mines out there. The million Martian residents need gainful employment, after all, and what better thing to be doing than to power the Tesla Roadsters of Silicon Valley billionaires?

But then, timing is everything. Whether you invest in Panasonic, Solar City and Tesla or a cabin in Montana might be a good indication of how long you think Musk's fantasy has to run its course. In the meantime, everyone stands to gain by cheaper, more powerful batteries.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Language and Fire

"As homo entered into settlements and tribal societies around 200,000 years ago, our brain growth stopped. Since the last ice age, the average size of the human brain compared to our body has shrunk by 3 or 4 percent"

Language and fire. Darwin considered these the two most significant human distinctions.

As winter passes into spring, we are making biochar from bamboo again. Amended with locally adapted beneficial microbes, it will be our principal soil amendment for the summer and fall gardens. We thin the groves before the annual shoots emerge, taking out the old and dead culms and making more room for new growth. We trim the culms and cut them to one meter lengths. The trimmings are used to build chinampas in our wetlands (from the Nahuatl word meaning "squares of cane") and later we heap dredgings and manures on those islands to help form new soil and produce food islands in the cool aquatic microclimate. The remaining canes feed our kiln.

We build the fire in a wok-shaped earthen pit until it spins a torroidal flame front. By continuously adding bamboo we keep the flame high over the pile, watching secondary ignitions of the gases. We allow no oxygen to penetrate down to the lower zones of the pile where we are making charcoal. The 40-degree slope on the sides of the pit provides the precise fluid dynamic. As the cellulose gives up its volatile elements, they escape as gases, leaving behind a hard, crystalline matrix of carbon: biochar. The biochar will be crushed, mineralized, charged with hungry microbes from our compost piles, and sent to gardens and orchards to perform its thousand-year-long ecological restoration work. We heal our damaged atmosphere, deserts and oceans by giving safe and durable shelter to the microbial soil food web.

Every animal on earth has to budget the energy its draws from food. A human allocates roughly one-fifth of acquired calories to its brain, regardless of whether that brain is doing anything useful or just sleeping. The increase in hominid brain size, beginning around 2 million years ago, had to be paid for with added calories either taken in (with a paleo diet) or diverted from some other function in the body.

One way we found to acquire more calories was with fire. Cooked food, like fermented food, is predigested, or broken into simpler protein chains. For the same amount of calories ingested, a body gets 30 to 80 percent more energy from cooked foods than from raw. As raw foodies know, today that usually shows up as food stored around the belly. But as our ancestors switched to cooked food, with their more vigorous lifestyle, they acquired bigger brains by shrinking their guts. Barrel-shaped apes perambulating on four limbs morphed into narrow-waisted Homo sapiens that ran down game on two. 

Charred bone and primitive stone tools in a cave in South Africa confirm the use of fire for cooking one million years ago. Still, most scientists believe fire was mastered much earlier, around the time of Homo erectus, roughly 1.8 million years ago. 

The evolution of multicellular animals from single celled amoebae depended on cells being able to sense and cooperate with other cells. They did this by generating an electrical potential across membranes, by pumping out ions. We now know this function in both plants and animals is often carried out by symbiots – tiny, semiautonomous parts of our microbiome. Many of the components needed to transmit electrical signals, and to release and detect chemical signals, are found in single-celled organisms known as choanoflagellates. Our partnership with choanoflagellates extends back around 850 million years.

By 360 million years ago, our reptilian ancestors crawled up onto land, eventually birthing our first mammalian ancestors, about 200 million years ago. These creatures already had extra layers of neural tissue on the surface of the brain. Some of these neocortices were quite large. There were flying reptiles that had both large brains and brain-to-mass ratios larger than ours today.

After the dinosaurs went extinct from sudden climate change 65 million years ago, our primate ancestors took to the trees. Good eyesight helped us catch insects and birds, which led to an expansion of the visual part of our neocortex and better hand-eye coordination. Perhaps that was one of things that attracted us to fire, gave us cooked food, and sent more calories up to our crania. Besides increasing in size, our brains developed more input and output points, synaptic nodes modulated by other sympathetic microbes in our microbiome.

All of which equipped us with an extraordinary ability to integrate and process information and perform deliberative reasoning. We began to identify and search for overarching patterns. We took a step away from our animal ancestors and looked beyond the physical objects in front of our eyes. Among other manipulations of our physical world, we mastered fire.

As homo entered into settlements and tribal societies around 200,000 years ago, our brain stopped growing. Since the last ice age, the average size of the human brain compared to our body has shrunk by 3 or 4 percent. Some think our brain's wiring is more efficient now than it was in the past, but that is far from proven.
More likely this shrinkage marks a gradual decline in our mental abilities. David Geary at the University of Missouri-Columbia theorizes that once complex societies developed, the less able could survive on the backs of their smarter peers, whereas in the past, they would have died  or at least failed to procreate. We also know that the more intelligent people are, the fewer children they tend to have. That would gradually augur a decline of about 0.8 IQ points per generation in wealthy societies, which may also be occurring. It certainly would help explain why most US politicians today cannot fathom the philosophical debates of  Jefferson, Hamilton, Adams and Franklin about the limits to state power. These were men who lacked Google but more than made up for it by reading the classics in original Latin, French or Greek. 

Today it takes 10 calories of fossil energy to produce one calorie of food. We are rapidly losing that fossil energy supply and that suggests we can anticipate a significant drop in available food supply unless we radically change how we acquire food.

We could, for instance, harness the wonders of fire to make biochar, rejuvenate soil fertility with our microscopic allies, and build healthy inner ecologies to make ourselves, and our planet, better prepared for the ever-changing future. Whether we shall, with our diminished brain capacity, remains to be seen.




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