As long as humankind is around there will always be some awesome new technology right around the corner. Limited resources of traditional materials cause us to look at new innovative ways to utilize more plentiful materials or more efficient ways of using the traditional materials.
Michael Reynolds’ Earthship concept is one manifestation of this forward thinking. Essentially, he found a cheap and readily available resource and used it in manner that wasn’t previously thought of. Lumber and steel are expensive to produce. Tires are already made and filling up land fills and dirt is available at any build site for free. This is the type of ingenuity that steers humankind in the direction of a sustainable future.
I can’t help but wonder what’s next!
Although no one can predict the future with 100% certainty, there are a few conclusions or assumptions we can reasonably make.
1. Copper and aluminum are getting more expensive and will probably continue to do so. China is hoarding these materials with good reason, they are vital for future manufacturing and infrastructure.
Earthship’s impact: Although wiring for solar panels, household breaker box, outlets etc is necessary, wiring to the grid is not. A single earthship could save many miles worth of grid infrastructure.
Future technology impact: Room temperature superconductors would be awesome. They might not exist. Current “High temperature superconductors” that do exist still need to be chilled and insulated. Making the current use for limited industrial and scientific purposes. Carbon nanotube wires do exist and are better conductors than copper and lighter than aluminum. Making longer lengths of carbon nanotube wiring has been a challenge for many scientists and engineers, but a recent breakthrough could make the availability a reality in the near future.
2. Land is getting more expensive and will continue to do so. Efficiently utilizing available land will always become more important the further into the future we go.
Earthship’s impact: Food can be densely grown in the greenhouse all year long. Previously impractical places to live might be more practical. Solar enhanced septic tanks can maintain temperatures that allow natural decomposition in a place that would otherwise remain frozen. Lower energy needs mean less (or no) fuel to transport.
Future technology impact: Permafrost has been melting over the last decade. Northern Siberia, Northern Canada, Northern Alaska, Greenland and Antarctica can become much more practical to live in (or have a research facility.) Wind power is going to almost assuredly be the primary renewable source of power for at least small locations.
Subterranean cities in extreme hot deserts or cold tundra environments are likewise possible, solar energy being the most practical source of energy in deserts.
3. Access to clean water can be expensive. Lots of cities are already implementing long term water rationing.
Earthship’s impact: Utilizing rooftop rain once is great, but earthships can use the same water multiple times! This can make a life saving difference in some parts of the world.
Future technology impact: Humans need freshwater to drink, to give to our livestock and crops. Access to clean freshwater is a huge problem for developing nations. Most of the water on our planet has salt dissolved in it. The vast majority of fresh water is locked away in ice sheets or otherwise unattainable leaving only a tiny fraction available for use. Desalination isn’t new, but new possibly cheaper techniques could make this vital resource much more affordable in the future. From graphite electrodes to a new graphene membrane it is only a mater of time before the major breakthrough in desalination is made commercially viable. This will allow a subterranean desert city or seasteading city to thrive. (It makes sense to colonize the sea before colonizing space.)
Weather modification has lots of potential to reverse desertification and drought and could end up being very cost effective. The National Academy of Sciences is running a 21 month weather modification study that is partially funded by the CIA. Understanding and having accurate models is a good step towards being able to tell if whether modification is being used in a malicious manner. Consider the devastating effects of a hurricane. </TinFoilHat>
4. Oil is getting more expensive and will eventually run out. CO2 output is unfavorable. We need to capitalize on alternative fuel sources.
Earthship’s impact: Proper utilization of thermal mass means they sip energy, this makes earthships more practical to use alternative energy sources such as solar and wind as less capacity would be required compared to a traditional home.
Future technology impact: For any future cold environment subterranean cities, a thorium molten salt reactor would be a lot more practical than wind generators. (Think about the lighting requirements for growing enough food for a city.) Thor Energy in Norway is currently utilizing thorium mixed-oxide fuel pellets in a reactor designed for traditional uranium fuel pellets. This is just part of a plan to learn more about the thorium fuel cycle. Thorium will definitely have a place in Earth’s future energy portfolio. Thorium reactor’s could also have a use in some cities at night when solar isn’t an option.
Change is naturally slow. Consider Picken’s Plan, T. Boone Picken’s plan for energy independence in the US. Thanks to fracking we have an abundance of natural gas. Picken’s plan is pretty straight forward, use compressed natural gas (CNG) in automobiles instead of gasoline or diesel derived from foreign oil. Use wind power or other alternative energy for grid power instead of natural gas. This will allow a bridge of cheap energy to keep the power going until future battery and electric vehicle technologies are more developed and affordable.
5. Energy storage, batteries and lithium (used in modern batteries for electric vehicles, phones, laptops, etc.) are expensive! We need cheaper ways to store energy.
Earthship’s impact: An earthship’s passive solar design literally makes the home itself a giant battery storing thermal energy rather than electrical energy. This allows the electrical storage needs to be less than a traditional off-grid home. (Most earthships still use 80-90% efficient lead-acid batteries.)
Future technology impact: On smaller scale graphene super capacitor technology could store energy at about the same density as current lead-acid batteries, but can charge in seconds (instead of hours) and have an indefinite lifespan. Charging in seconds is an important factor if driving an electric vehicle, It could also mean having service stations that could recharge at in a reasonable amount of time.
Hydrogen storage could be a practical way to store energy for use overnight or even in a moderately large scale (village/town) a recent breakthrough in efficiently splitting hydrogen from water molecules could make this a good choice in the future.
There are solar power towers that store energy on a more industrial scale. but are less practical in areas without a lot of sun. Almost all storage technologies will have an application of which they are most practically adapted.