Thursday, July 17, 2008

Space Elevators, Skyscraper Farms, and Other Potential Great Leaps to Put Far Off Resource Limitations

In response to the running out of stuff on the planet concerns, these concerns have been around for hundreds of years, and now the population is many many times bigger, and yet we have way way more stuff per person. People eat and live far better. Technological advance has allowed us to get way more food and other material things out of the planet and to recycle far better. But will this continue for much longer? Here's two things that might provide a tremendous leap forward in our available resources.

– Space Elevators

– Vertical, or Skyscraper, Farms

I read a fascinating book by NASA scientist Brad Edwards. Dr. Edwards, who holds a Ph.D. in Physics from the University of Wisconsin – Madison, was in charge of a NASA study on space elevators. His book, The Space Elevator: A Revolutionary Earth-to-Space Transportation System (2003) describes how recent technological advances, especially in super strong and light nana-tech materials, may have now made space elevators feasible.

A space elevator is basically a long ribbon, or set of ribbons, made of a super strong nano material that extends from a base station on earth up to a base station in geosynchronous orbit. Large platforms ride up the ribbons into space via rollers on both sides of the ribbon. This method would potentially bring the cost per pound of putting material into space to a tiny fraction of what it is currently. Dr. Edwards predicts that this could eventually lead to a network of orbiting solar stations that could provide all of the earth's power for as long as the Sun lives – billions of years. Note; in orbit, without the atmosphere screening the sun, solar energy plants could produce far more power, and they would beam it to earth, in this idea, via microwaves. Dr. Edwards also forecasts many potential amazing things like mining asteroids and tera-forming planets (changing their atmosphere, temperature, composition, etc., by such things as steering comets into them). So, for example, Mars could become a giant farm.

The second big idea thing I refer you to is Vertical, or Skyscraper, Farms. These were featured just two days ago in the New York Times article, "Country, the City Version: Farms in the Sky Gain New Interest". Even today, they aren't nearly as expensive as I would have thought. The big idea here is that we live on a sphere, the Earth, but we only use the stuff at the very surface of that sphere, which is a tiny fraction of the total volume. If we could pull out soil and minerals from deeper down and put them in skyscraper farms, we could potentially increase the food supply many fold. An orbiting solar power network could provide massive amounts of free clean power for additional lighting from plant florescents throughout the hydroponic gardens of these skyscraper farms.

One of these days, years, decades, I will be able to spend time to do a detailed write up on these issues, a blog post and/or article. There are many fascinating things, like the above, which could have a great effect on our future. I already discussed another one in my June 23rd blog post. Quoting myself:

...a huge issue which could really change things in as little as the next 10 or 20 years is advances in video conferencing and other telecommunications. It's possible that in 10 or 20 years video conferencing could get so good that 25% to over 50% of skilled jobs could be done from anywhere. You could imagine say business managers or engineers communicating with each other via life-size ultra-high resolution monitors with an array of extremely accurate computer controlled mobile cameras and microphones. And you could imagine this and much more amazing telecom equipment being relatively inexpensive.

At that point, many or most skilled people could do their jobs from home anywhere, in Oak Park, Michigan, Podunk, Nebraska, anywhere. And if they didn't want to work at home, they could work in a Kinkos rent-an-office, or small satellite office, or complex, anywhere. When this happens it will really change society. It will make it so that homeownership makes sense for many more people, as you typically have to live in a home for at least 3-5 years without moving for it to make economic sense. Extended families will be able to stay together, rather than parents having to move far from their parents, siblings, and old friends for work. There will be a great savings in energy and decreases in pollution. The implications are huge. This is certainly something academics should be studying heavily for many reasons, one of which is, with the great net positive externalities, how, and how much, should the government be supporting this, the advancement of these telecom technologies.