Unlimiting Energy's Growth

By Tsvi Bisk

As costs decline and sophistication increases, smart materials could help unlock limits to growth.


The embryonic revolution in material science now taking place—specifically “smart materials” and superlight materials—offers strong evidence that there are no limits to growth. So-called smart materials, as defined on Wikipedia, “are materials that have one or more properties that can be significantly changed in a controlled fashion by external stimuli.” They can produce energy by exploiting differences in temperature (thermoelectric materials) or by being stressed (piezoelectric materials). Other smart materials save energy in the manufacturing process by changing shape or repairing themselves in response to external stimuli.

These materials have all passed the “proof of concept” phase (i.e., are scientifically sound), and many are in the prototype phase. Some are already commercialized and penetrating the market.

For example, the Israeli company Innowattech has placed piezoelectric materials under a one-kilometer stretch of highway to “harvest” the wasted stress energy of vehicles passing over and converting it to electricity. This is called “parasitic energy harvesting.” The company reckons that Israel has stretches of road where the traffic could efficiently produce 250 megawatts. If this is verified, consider the tremendous electricity potential of the New Jersey Turnpike or the thruways of Los Angeles and elsewhere. Consider the potential of railway and subway tracks. We are talking about tens of thousands of potential megawatts produced without any fossil fuel.

Thermoelectric materials can transform wasted heat into electricity. Some estimate that the wasted heat from industrial processes alone could provide up to 20% of America’s electricity needs—this would make cogeneration even more efficient. Cogeneration is already making headway around the industrialized world and still has tremendous unexploited potential; again, this would yield a tremendous savings in fossil fuels.

Smart glass is already commercialized and can save significant energy in heating, air conditioning, and lighting—up to 50% savings in energy in retrofitted buildings (such as the former Sears Tower in Chicago). New buildings designed to take maximum advantage of this and other technologies could save even more. Since buildings consume about 40% of America’s electricity production, this technology alone could over time reduce electricity consumption by 20%.

Even greater savings in electricity could be realized by replacing incandescent and fluorescents with LEDs, which use one-tenth of the electricity of incandescent and half of the electricity of fluorescents. The United States could flatline its electricity consumption—gradually replacing fossil-fuel electricity production with alternatives. Conservation of energy and parasitic energy harvesting, as well as urban agriculture, would greatly cut the planet’s energy consumption and air and water pollution.

Waste-to-energy technologies could also begin to replace fossil fuels. Garbage, sewage, and all forms of organic trash, agricultural, and food-processing waste are essentially hydrocarbon resources that can be transformed into ethanol, methanol, biobutanol, or biodiesel. These can be used for transportation, electricity generation, or feedstock for plastics and other materials. Waste-to-energy is essentially a recycling of carbon dioxide already in the environment and not the introduction of new CO2.

These technologies also prevent methane from entering the environment. Methane, a product of rotting organic waste, contributes just 28% of the amount that CO2 contributes to global warming but is 25 times more powerful as a greenhouse gas. Numerous prototypes of a variety of waste-to-energy technologies are already in place. When their declining costs meet the rising costs of fossil fuels, they will become commercialized and, if history is any judge, replace fossil fuels very quickly—just as coal replaced wood in a matter of decades and petroleum replaced whale oil in a matter of years.

Superlight Materials


But it is superlight materials that have the greatest potential to transform civilization and ultimately help introduce a “no limits to growth” era. I refer, in particular, to carbon nanotubes—alternatively referred to as buckyballs or buckypaper (in honor of Buckminster Fuller). Carbon nanotubes are between 0.01% and 0.002% the width of a human hair, more flexible than rubber, and 100 to 500 times stronger than steel per unit of weight. Imagine the energy savings if planes, cars, trucks, trains, elevators—everything that needs energy to move—were made of this material and weighed 1% of what they weigh now. Present costs and production methods make this unpractical at present, but that infinite resource—the human mind—has confronted and solved this problem before. Let us take the example of aluminum.

One hundred fifty years ago, aluminum was more expensive than gold or platinum. When Napoleon III held a banquet of state, he provided his most-honored guests with aluminum plates. Less-distinguished guests had to make do with gold plates. When the Washington Monument was completed in 1884, it was fitted with an aluminum cap—the most expensive metal in the world at the time—as a sign of respect to George Washington. It weighed 2.85 kg. Aluminum at the time cost $1 per gram (or $1,000 per kg). A typical day laborer working on the monument was paid $1 per day for 10–12 hours a day. In other words, today’s common soft-drink can, which weighs 14 grams, could have bought 15 ten-hour days of labor in 1884.

Today’s U.S. minimum wage is $7.50 an hour. In other words, using labor as the measure of value, a soft-drink can would cost $1,125 today (or $80,000 a kilogram). Then, in 1886, a process discovered independently by two chemists—American Charles Marten Hall and Frenchman Paul Héroult—turned aluminum into one of the cheapest commodities on earth. Aluminum now costs $3 per kilogram, or $3,000 per metric ton. The soft-drink can that would have cost $1,125 without the process now costs four-tenths of a cent, or $0.004.

Today, industrial grade carbon nanotubes cost about $50–$60 per kilogram. This is already far cheaper than aluminum in 1884 in real value, if we use the cost of labor as the measure of value. Yet, revolutionary methods of production are now being developed that will drive the costs down even more radically. For instance, researchers at Cambridge University in England are working on a new electrochemical production method (in the prototype stage) that could produce 600 kilograms of carbon nanotubes per day at a projected cost of around $10 per kilogram, or $10,000 a metric ton.

This cost-saving process will do for carbon nanotubes what the Hall–Héroult process did for aluminum. Nanotubes will become the universal raw material of choice, displacing steel, aluminum, copper, and other metals and materials. Steel currently costs about $750 per metric ton. Nanotubes of strength equivalent to a metric ton of steel would cost $100 if this Cambridge process (or others being pursued in research labs around the world) is successful. Imagine planes, trucks, buses, cars, and elevators that weigh 5%, 2%, or even 1% of what they weigh today. Imagine the savings in conventional energy. Imagine the types of alternative energy that would be practical. Imagine the positive impact on the environment of replacing many industrial and mining processes and thus lessening air and groundwater pollution.

The most promising use of nanotubes is to turn them into paper. “Buckypaper” looks like ordinary carbon paper. It appears flimsy but will revolutionize the way we make everything from airplanes to cars to buildings to household appliances. It is 100 times stronger than steel per unit of weight, and it also conducts electricity like copper and disperses heat like steel or brass.

Ben Wang, director of Florida State University’s High-Performance Materials Institute, claims, “If you take just one gram of nanotubes, and you unfold every tube into a graphite sheet, you can cover about two-thirds of a football field.” Since other research has indicated that carbon nanotubes could be a suitable foundation for producing photovoltaic energy, consider the implications of this statement. Several grams of this material could be the energy-producing skin of new generations of dirigibles—making these airships energy autonomous. These energy-neutral airships could replace airplanes as the primary means to transport air freight.

Beyond the Limits

Is this a futurist fable, or is it entirely within the scope of development in the next 20 years (or even 10)? Modern history has shown that anything human beings decide they want done can be done in 20 years if it does not violate the laws of nature. The atom bomb was developed in four years from the time the decision was made to make it; putting a man on the Moon took eight years from the time the decision was made to do it.

It is a reasonable conjecture that, by 2020 or earlier, an industrial process for the inexpensive production of carbon nanotubes will be developed, and that this is the key to solving our energy, raw materials, and environmental problems.

The revolution in material science will help enable us to become self-sufficient in energy. It will enable us to create superlight vehicles and structures that will produce their own energy and obviate the need to pump oil or mine many resources. Carbon nanotubes will replace steel, copper, and aluminum in a myriad of functions. Whatever residual need we might have for such materials will be satisfied by the recycling of existing reserves already in the system.

Such developments will help overcome the limits of growth and enable human civilization to become a self-contained system.

About the Author

Tsvi Bisk is director of the Center for Strategic Futurist Thinking and author of The Optimistic Jew: A Positive Vision for the Jewish People in the 21st Century (Maxanna Press, 2007). He is also the THE FUTURIST’s contributing editor for Strategic Thinking. E-mail bisk@ futurist-thinking.co.il.