🔮 Automating invention; sulphuric acid; tardigrades & mice ++ #389
In the race to secure materials to power the transition to renewables, one chemical gets little attention: sulphuric acid
The near future
📈 Innovation chasm
In a captivating thought experiment swivelling around humanity’s ability to climb up the Kardashev scale, Matt Clancy explores the speed of growth and progress we could achieve were we to automate invention. The focus of unlocking long-term growth, Matt points out, “is not our strengths but our weaknesses”.
Even though the robots can complete their part of the invention process more and more quickly, we can’t advance another 0.1 steps up the Kardashev scale until the human inventors finish the part of the innovation tasks that only they know how to do. [...] Most importantly, growth won’t continuously accelerate into anything crazy so long as less than 100% of the innovation tasks are automated.
One further point Matt makes is about the combinatorics behind invention. He writes: “if innovation is about combining different ideas in novel ways, then the nature of combinatorics means the number of possible ideas grows at a faster than exponential rate.” This is where emerging disciplines such as collective intelligence play a key role, as EV member Gianni Giacomelli laid out in this newsletter a few months ago, writing about crossing the innovation chasm with “the interplay of networks of people and intelligent machines, thus generating emergent, superior (and possibly exponential) cognitive properties.”
🟨 Sulphur famine
In the race to secure materials to power the transition to renewables, one chemical gets little attention: sulphuric acid (H2SO4). Sulphuric acid was one of the first chemicals to be produced at a large scale during the Industrial Revolution for its use across metallurgy, textiles and cleaning. We still use massive amounts of it today: 246 million tonnes per year, with the expectation of increase to 400 million tonnes by 2040. Sulphuric acid is used to separate metals from their ores, playing a key part in the mining of heavy metals for EVs, batteries, magnets and other technologies; it is also used to produce biofuels and fertilisers. Now, here’s the catch: with the most easily available sulphur deposits exhausted by the 1950s, refineries turned to filtering sulphur out of petroleum; 80% of sulphur used today is sourced in this way. But as we move away from fossil fuels…
[t]he world could swing back to sourcing sulfur directly from mines. That may happen if the economics favor it. But it’s costlier than getting it from petroleum, and the Frasch process carries an unacceptable ecological burden (not to mention unpleasant social impacts that disproportionately affect people in developing countries). [...] Reducing the future need for sulfuric-acid certainly wouldn’t hurt. Already, there are batteries (such as lithium iron phosphate batteries) that have lower energy-capacity-to-weight ratios but take in less nickel, cobalt, and heavy metals, and thus need less sulfuric acid. Future research could shape batteries that deliver the best of both worlds.
See also, a couple of years ago we hosted a member-only briefing on building a sustainable battery industry. Premium members of Exponential View can read the brief here to understand battery technology and recycling.
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Dept of our climate future
In every Sunday edition, we track key metrics that tell us a little about our shared climate future. Our member, Marshall Kirkpatrick, takes the time to curate a view of our current climate status in this segment every week, and you can read Marshall’s curation below. Here’s Marshall:
Here on the West Coast of the US, the skies are orange again with the smokey consequences of colonial eco-management practices that have imperiled the resilience built by preceding centuries of anti-fragile prescribed burns and other ecological management practices. And it’s going to get worse before it gets better. But as Bill McKibben said this week in his piece ‘How Bad Is It? And What Does That Question Even Mean?’ — despair is not an option. ‘Desperation is an option—indeed, it’s required. We have to move hard and fast.’ Are you ready? Here are four inspiring examples of people moving hard and fast together.
Low-emission cities: About 150 cities across Spain will be implementing low-emission zones within their borders next year, under the country’s Climate Change and Energy Transition Law passed last year. CleanTechnica CEO Zachary Shahan says the law is vague but “the cities have to restrict access, transportation routes, or parking access in some way based on environmental classification labels.” 320 cities across Europe have low-emission zones in place today, that’s up 40% since 2019 and is expected to grow to at least 507 by 2025. These 150 Spanish cities will challenge Italy’s leadership position with 170 clean-air zones.
As Dr. Christine Winter said recently on the Green Dreamer podcast: “The boundaries between me and air and you and air are very, very blurred. At what moment is that something external? Then, at what moment is it internal? At what moment is it inanimate and at what moment does it animate you and me? We are in the world. We are of the world. We are of the environment, and we cannot exist outside of the environment. To present ourselves as something other, something separate from, is the most extraordinary hubris.”
Solar capacity expansion: Bloomberg Opinion’s energy writer David Fickling wrote a very encouraging piece this week about the massive global investments in solar power infrastructure, titled “The Supply Chain to Beat Climate Change Is Already Being Built: Look at the Numbers”. The huge increases in fossil fuel prices this year hide the fact that the solar industry is winning the energy transition.” Fickling writes that investment is the key place to look: “Such spending is a forecast made flesh: a bet on the direction of future demand, taking the physical form of property, plant, and equipment. Looked at through that lens, 2022 has been a blockbuster year for energy transition — and nowhere is spending racing ahead more dramatically than in solar.”
EV member Ramez Naam expanded on the piece with a Twitter thread about the opportunities and challenges:
Among the latest examples of solar and renewables investments are this week’s news that the renewable energy company Arevon has secured a US$400 million loan facility from two banks for its solar and energy storage pipeline in the Midwest, Southeast and California. Bosch announced plans for a $200 million investment in South Carolina to build hydrogen fuel-cell stacks for Class 8 semi trucks. This Spring, Bosch announced plans to invest more than $1 billion globally to develop more fuel cell technologies by 2024.
Wave power: Oakland-based CalWave has successfully executed a challenging 10-month experiment in ocean wave energy harvesting, weathering two storms off the coast of San Diego that were as large as max forecasts for a ten-year period, with zero manual interventions thanks to an onboard autonomous control system. The US Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory said that “In the United States, waves carry the equivalent of about 80% of the country’s energy needs.” Last week in Australia, the firm Wave Swell Energy marked 12 months of successfully delivering enough energy for 200 homes to a local grid. CleanTechnica’s Tina Casey profiled CalWave and says in the future we may see a very exciting intersection of wave power, offshore wind, and green hydrogen conversion.
Smarter planes: Last week we highlighted smart systems that could enable human civilization to do more and need less. In another example, new research from the University of Bristol, published in the journal Aerospace, “suggests modification to air traffic control procedures and aircraft operations could reduce the climate impact of aviation by as much as 20 per cent in the next five to 10 years.” The study’s lead author says, “Flight route modifications in the form of climate optimal routing, to avoid climate-sensitive regions, and formation flight, in which two aircrafts fly one behind the other (separated by ~2km) could hold the key to drastically reducing aviation’s climate impact.”
May all our flights into the future grow smarter together.
Short morsels to appear smart while turning to Twitter for investment advice
⛽ China’s oil demann could shrink for the first time in 20 years, thanks to the country’s zero-Covid policy.
🚘 Google maps can choose the most energy-efficient route for EVs.
📱Researchers have laid out how to use post-quantum cryptography to secure Signal against quantum computer attacks.
🐁 Outcomes in studies with mice can be influenced by the sex of the researcher, which puts a lot of results into question. See also, we now understand a little more about what protects the seemingly invincible tardigrades against dehydration.
🤔Friction doesn’t seem to work the way we thought: above a certain speed of friction, wear decreases.
Thanks for reading, as always! Members of our invite-only community, Exponential Do, will come together in several events this month via Zoom. The events range from a member-led book club, a blockchain meet-up, to discussing climate change mitigation and human embodiment. To apply to join the community, fill out this form. We bring in a new cohort of members quarterly.
What you’re up to – notes from EV readers
Kaila Colbin was granted the Friend of New Zealand award by the Kiwi Expart Association (KEA). Congratulations!
Josh Berson is organising Refugium 02: Exercises for the End of the World, part 1, an interactive seminar to explore existential threats. Members of Exponential View get a $70 discount with the code EXPONENTIAL.
CEO of Sustain.Life Annalee Bloomfield discussed sustainability and team building on Exige International’s Leadership Series podcast.
Claire Karle and her team at the OECD have launched their Annual Call for Innovations in Government, with the Mohammed Bin Rashid Centre for Government Innovation.
Hampus Jakobsson and his team are kicking off their new climate tech conference The Drop, September 21 in Malmö (Sweden).
Philippe Honigman gave the TEDx talk “DAOs as the Firms of the Third Kind” (in French).
To share your projects and updates, fill out your details here. Because of space constraints, we prioritise updates from paying members and startups I have invested in. (You can become the former by subscribing, if you have not already, and the latter by getting an intro to me via a trusted contact.)