Conserve To Greatness---Energy Resource Efficiency and The Future (1 of 5)

Man built most nobly when confronted with the greatest limitations.
Frank Lloyd Wright

Nothing grates quite so much as that stock phrase, "This country didn't conserve its way to greatness."
In fact, homo sapiens in general and Americans in particular did conserve to greatness! Better designs, using less material to get more results, is only one engineering option, the opposite of burning more fuel. If fuel is cheap and fresh air unlimited, burning more is wisest. If fuel is costly and air polluted, time and materials must be devoted to increasing cleverness. Fortunately, this can often be done. Clever engineering can often follow Buckminster Fuller's dictum of "doing more with less."
For example, Benjamin Franklin was asked to help ease a problem of a wood fuel shortage in the British North American cololonies (Clark, p. 55). The options were 1) go west where there were more trees, 2) find another energy source (maybe coal), or 3) burn wood more efficiently. Some people did go west, but Franklin was not about to forsake the comforts of city living. There was coal, but most North American settlements were to poor and lacking in infrastructure to get enough coal for heating.
The efficient option was to look at the open fireplaces that sucked in nearly as much cold air as the warm air they provided. Also, houses frequently had one side of the fireplace against an outside wall, warming the outside. Franklin put a burner inside a room so that heat was emitted for a full circle around it. Furthermore, he made it of metal so that the combustion gases could radiate more heat before they were lost up the chimney. Finally, Franklin incorporated pipes to bring in fresh air for combustion so that the stove would not suck warm air from the house.
That stove was the beginning of American central heating that became the envy of older "more advanced" European societies. That stove, along with his electrical experiments, established Franklin as one of the great technologists of his age.
Several decades later, James Watt in England worked to make a more efficient version of an existing invention, the Newcomen steam engine. Watt's improvements made an engine powerful enough to create the industrial revolution. As a byproduct, it pushed advances in both thermodynamics and metallurgy.
Dropping back several millenia, food supplies can be described in terms of efficient resource use. Some of the earliest hunters apparently used fire drives to kill large and dangerous prey. (Imagine the environmental impact statement!) Hundreds or thousands of acres were burned to drive herds of animals over cliffs. Unsuccessful hunts left only ashes. Successful hunts often killed hundreds more animals than the hunters could use. Some of the biggest and slowest animals might have been exterminated that way.
Bows, spear throwers, and hunting on horseback allowed hunting of single animals so that the general prey population could be saved for the next hunt. However, the major advance was domesticated animals that were always available for meat, were more productive because of protection from predators, and (from mammals) provided milk.
Going from gathering plants to sowing and harvesting was another advance in productivity. It allowed population to increase by orders of magnitude. More than that, a critical mass was reached in spare food, time available, and population density. The byproduct was most of what we know as civilization.
Still, much of the greater food production was not available in winter and bad seasons. Storage was the key to reducing waste and thus blunting the effects of famines. The pharoahs in Egypt stored grain, but even that still left serious diet deficiencies. In 1810, Nicolas Appert won a 12,000-franc prize from the French government for the first successful canning of food. In the early 20th Century, refrigerators saved perishables . . . and saved the energy and time of daily trips to the market.
Those advances surmounted previous limits in the past. Similar advances will surmount supposed limits of the present.
Electronics is the nexus of technologies and the paradigm of how society can use less while advancing in undreamed of ways. Most technological advances since the 1950s came from or developed with the aid of electronics.
It started in the 1840s when the telegraph allowed distant control of railroad deliveries, a development that ultimately produced modern commerce. Subsistance production plus some trade was replaced by connection of the most efficient producers. Telephones, radio, and now computer connections are all only improvements on the commercial revolution wrought by telegraph wires.
However, communications brought other efficiencies as well. Telephones eliminated fleets of bicycle messenger services. Radio dispatching allowed taxis, police cars, ambulances and patrol boats to serve more effectively. Cinema and other mass media allowed a single player to perform before millions.
Yet, that was only the beginning. In 1948, a research team at Bell Labs developed the first transistor. Its solid state electronics allowed use of less power and vastly accelerated minaturization. The promise of miniaturization was fulfilled in shrinking transistors then several tiny transistors built together as one integrated circuit, then large scale integration (LSI), then very large scale integration, and on into continued advances.
Superlatives are trite from overuse, but the results are apparent. Electronic devices have radically decreased use of energy, materials, production time, and size of the equipment used. Capabilities have increased logarithmically and are expected to continue doing so.
One implication is that electronic controllers can increase the efficiency of existing technology without radically changing the technology: fine tuning auto carburetion by use of chemical sensors in the exhaust, switching lights out when people leave a room, controlling electric current use by motors, remote control of appliances.
Those are all after thoughts, only a small fraction of the potential in efficiency. Electronics for sensing and computing can change the basic technologies.
In Engines of Creation, Drexler predicts that a computer with the power of a human brain could eventually be crammed into a volume of one cubic centimeter (p. 79). Such power would allow rapid computer design. Furthermore, Drexler suggests that such miniaturization would allow construction of "replicators," near-microscopic devices capable of reproducing themselves and processing materials into structures or usable products.
That all may be some decades in the future, however. Meanwhile, there are efficient approaches that can be applied to virtually any resource limitation. Following the pessimistic Club of Rome scenarios (Meadows et al.), the limitations are nonrewable mineral resources, food production, and clean environment. The following text is a partial description of how the so-called limits can be transcended.


  1. How about genetically engineered gerbils, who eat used disposal diapers, and then generate energy from their exercise wheels.


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