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« Emerging Tech LIVE! (6) | Main | Emerging Tech LIVE! (8) »

September 28, 2006


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Brian Wang

Maintaining and using a portfolio of capabilities would part of a better plan. Yes, we should do something about climate change, but panicked calls to spend money are not helpful. Fletcher is part of GE. The business like approach is to figure out ways to help fix the problem and to make money for GE and the economy. Like hybrid cars, make things better with less sacrifices. Toyota and Honda make or will make money doing that. If the better solutions make the implementers money, then they will be adopted faster.

People concerned about climate need to think business like, entrepreneurially, and creatively. They should also be more politically savvy and put forward initial proposals that move things in the right direction.

Phillip Huggan

Ironically, NASA programs are key to understanding more about Earth's climate. I could very easily rattle off 100 technologies developed in part or in full by NASA, that will and are mitigating the effects of climate change.
A very significant portion of existing hospital tools and techniques were devloped in part or in full by NASA. If NASA is killed, ageing boomers will suffer from inferior medical services. NASA is the best R + D institution on the planet: http://www.webometrics.info/top500_r&d.asp.htm


If we're going to attempt to slow or mitigate climate change, we need to know how much is economically rational to spend. This requires estimating how much it costs to do nothing, and how much it costs to apply various fixes.

If magic nanotech comes into existence as CRN predicts, we will be able to fix global warming very cheaply and easily, probably in 20-30 years. It is truly a non-issue.

Even without such technology we will undoubtedly be in a much better situation with regard to our capabilities to address the matter by the 2050 time frame. Note that most of the effects of warming only occur after that date. There are a number of proposals to mitigate warming, such as expanding cloud creation over the seas, or atmospheric or space shields, which will be relatively inexpensive compared to 2050 world GDP.

In terms of the costs of doing nothing, the best paper I've found is this survey of over 100 papers that attempt to estimate that cost:


The median estimate is $14 per ton of carbon. Most of those costs are in the third world.

The economically optimal approach is to apply a carbon tax of this amount. You can show that this will cause people to change their behavior to the degree necessary to minimize net costs. $14 per tC corresponds to a 3 cent per gallon gasoline tax. This is what, according to our best estimates, is the optimal amount for us to pay to compensate for the effects of global warming. It is much smaller than most people assume.

And if in fact we can cure global warming for a cost of much less than $14/tC, as appears likely given the reality of technological advancement over the next 50-100 years, this is an overestimate of how much we should be doing about it today.

This is the kind of analysis I'd like to see in a discussion of global warming. For some reason you seldom see things presented in these terms.


As usual, an entire panel of people who agree with each other over everything except how much of our money to spend on fixing a problem that hasn't even been well defined.

As for the stats on how much energy we use here... exactly how much energy DOES China use? For that matter how much does Europe use? Somehow those details are never ever mentioned. Wonder why...

A beautifully slanted session I'd say. I'm betting everyone left there thinking that the world will end in 20 years. Of course I was told the same thing back in 1968...

Tom Craver

From CIA World Factbook (figures a few years old):

China: 6.4 million bbl/day oil, 33.4 billion cu-meter/yr natural gas.

USA: 20.0 million bbl/day oil, 634 billion cu-meter/yr natural gas.

A barrel of oil is about 6e9 Joule, a cubic-meter of natural gas is around 36e6 Joule.

1.4e19 J oil + 1.2e18 J gas = 1.52e19 J

4.4e19 J oil + 2.2e19 J gas = 6.6e19 J

So the US uses about 4.3x as much oil/gas energy as China. If the US held steady, and China's usage increased at 10% a year, China would catch up in about 15 years - though that'd require about a 20% increase in global production, which seems unlikely.

Brian Wang

A bunch of energy stats at
the international energy association and many entries at wikipedia.

80 page pdf from IEA with stats up to 2004.


Phillip Huggan

"There are a number of proposals to mitigate warming, such as expanding cloud creation over the seas, or atmospheric or space shields, which will be relatively inexpensive compared to 2050 world GDP."

An L1 space shield would mass 1 million tonnes. That's 10 trillion dollars assuming $10000/kg to GEO launch costs and continued materials sciences improvements. That is also assuming an analogous "reflector" mirror (or some other mitigation technology) can be constructed in space to "undo" any albedo moderations should they prove to be more harmful than expected. The maintenance cost for such an enormous structure in space have never been estimated.

Seeding clouds is realistic, but there is the issue of cloud altitude. No existing seeding experiments have been able to reliably sontrol altitude. Clouds too high warm the planet via the Greenhouse Effect rather than cooling it via reflecting solar output. If this is technically an impossible challenge, it doesn't matter how big the world's economy will be in 2050.

Maybe we can estimate cloud seeding will solve Global Warming 1/2 of the time (we can only guess it has a 50/50 chance of actually working), same for Iron Fertilization (despite disappointing experimental results to date). That only solves 75% of the problem. This seems admirable, but given the downside of runaway warming or even "warming regressive side-effects" outpacing technological progress, 75% of a Global Warming solution is hardly cause for cheerleading and hardly an excuse to ramp up oil consumption.


The space shield is probably the least practical of any of them - upper atmosphere particles appear far more efficient. See this study from Lawrence Livermore Labs:


But let's consider the space shield because even that one is not nearly as bad as you have it. First, launch costs of $10,000/kg are reasonable today, but surely we can do better in 50 years! Advocates of space tethers and elevators talk about $1/kg. No, I don't believe it either, but there is definitely room for improvement and an order of magnitude or two is easily possible.

Second, the LLNL study above talks about using advanced materials technology to create resonant sunlight scatterers. They calculate that an L1 space shield would take only 3000 tons of material to scatter near-IR so that it just misses the earth, countering even worst-case global warming.

Third, a linear extrapolation of world per capita GDP growth rates suggests 3.5% is reasonable for the next 50 years (with nanotech or other breakthroughs we could see much higher), which will make world GDP (presently 50 trillion dollars/yr) an order of magnitude greater than it is today.

Compared to Phillip's estimates, we gain 2 and perhaps 4 orders of magnitude on space launch costs, 2.5 orders on space shield mass, and 1 order of magnitude in economic growth, for a net of 6-8 orders of magnitude improvement in effective costs of a space shield.

Therefore even such an extravagant technological fix is far from out of the question 50 years hence, and the biggest argument against it is simply that other approaches are even that much cheaper. In fact the LLNL study estimates that a ONE-TIME charge of $1.7 billion today, 30 cents per person, would grow enough to fund ongoing global warming mitigation indefinitely just from generated interest.

30 cents per person is a much more realistic estimate of the true costs of global warming, if we assume that technological progress will continue rather than stagnating at a year-2000 level. I am surprised to see readers of this blog, which confidently forecasts technologies just around the corner that would make anything I've discussed here seem like like a relic of the Stone Age, are adopting such a conservative stance in estimating future capabilities to deal with global warming.

Nathan Lamont

One other thing thats being missed in this discussion, the need for a launch infrastructure that can support such a massive construction. The space program we have now could not support the mutiple launches and support of thousands of individuals needed to accomplish this feat. It would take many decades to develop, if we were inclined to, to develop such an infrastructure. A space shield would only be practical in such a space based civilization.

Brian Wang

How badly do we want to fix the climate problem?
How serious do we think it will be ?

We can develop 1960's technology that we could use to launch a million tons into space.

The case for project Orion is at this link Notice the issues of fallout and EMP are all addressed. 1080 fusion bombs. Big metal plates. We have that technology. It is just a matter of a lot of hard work and being willing to do it.

People are overly scared of the radiation issue and less about the costs of doing nothing.

Wikipedia has info on it

Lob up a space shield, land massive construction facilities on the moon. Mine for Uranium, H3, thorium and make other equipment and then send SuperOrions to Mars and the Asteroids.
Start moving the messy industries out of the biosphere.

60,000 semi trailer truck containers of 14 tons each. Those would easily be the supplies to make a simple permanent presense for tens of thousands of people.

Even this site that insists that the downsides of Orion are greater are the problems less than global warming ?

Nasa Institute for Advanced Concepts has more on more elegant ways to make a space shield. Including magnetic inflation of large low weight structures.

I have put on my site more info on minimag Orion. Good plans for interesting interplanetary propulsion - not the revolution for ground launch

Brian Wang

btw: on nathan's point.
A Super Orion would be one big launch. Infrastructure and logistics would not be that complicated.

I think tt could be done fairly comfortably in less than 8 years. No waiting on new science. Some computer modeling, and tests to optimize and validate the engineering.


Phillip Huggan

Earth orbit tethers require some radical capture strategies and capture failures are catestrophic.

Space Elevators look good. Would cost less than $10 billion to construct and maybe a few billion annually to maintain. 150 fifteen tonne payload launches a year yields a $1000/kg break-even price. More like $3000/kg if you are building the first SE.
But the ribbon material must yield around a 35-40 GPa tensile strength, present CNTs are only 29 GPa strong. A new CNT manufacturing strategy or mass-producible sidewall defect "healing" strategy must be developed. That timeline is anyone's guess but non-SE laboratories will be doing.

Existing rocketry technologies have deflationary cost factors like lighter radiators, lighter solar panels, better carbon composites in construction, a more diversified ownership profile (China, Brazil, private companies) but ultimately 85% of their launch weight must be fuel.

Orion, I haven't looked into in detail, but it looks expensive. I've seen a report detailing the hidden costs of developing rockets, and I suspect all of these costs would crop up in any Orion rocket-build program. The only place I see Orion being politically viable is Russia.

A Lunar SE is almost constructable now; some space robotics would be the only missing existing technology. I think He-3 is still two orders-in-magnitude cheaper than is the cost of breaking even with a bare-bones Lunar SE. An Earth SE you want to build as cheap as possible, a Lunar SE needs some sort of existing Lunar industry to be cost-effective (blame Moon dust and micro-meteors).

There was a new launch scheme sketched out on the Yahoo Space Elevator forum earlier this year. It utilized lift from a massive tether "whipping" around the South Pole (or somewhere in the Southern Ocean). The person originating this scheme is working on the spreadsheet for it.

Conservately assumming materials sciences can only get us an $8000/kg GEO price floor, Hal's 3 million kg shield would cost 25 billion dollars to lift to GEO. From there deployment (and maintenance) of such a large surface area space object has never been attempted (as is stated in the paper). I'd be very interested in what this would cost. I like that the metallic spheres can be positioned to add more sunlight if necessary.

Phillip Huggan

...And the reason I am picking on the solar shade, is that it is the most likely easy mitigation strategy, even if expensive. Cloud seeding might not work if cloud altitude cannot be controlled. Iron fertilization might never permit the growth of only the desired plankton species. A shade is 100% possible (and expensive), even if fine-tuning our non-linear climate system proves tricky.

I do like space tethers for hitching a free ride in orbit from LEO to GEO (via charging).

Brian Wang

Space elevators are still working on new science.

The original article is talking about what to do if climate change starts impacting faster and harder than we are expecting.

the fastest way to get up a big space shield up is Orion. Yes, it would cost quite a bit.
But we have already have made thousands of fusion bombs.

I don't think climate change will hit that fast or as hard as discussed at the Emerging tech conference. In which case, we can slowly mess around and muddle through. Conservation, slowly switch over to alternatives etc...

If we have time then we have time for all sorts of tech to mature. Hypersonic planes as part of two stage launch systems. Getting room temperature superconductors that could magnetically launch.

Certain big goals cost a lot of money. We will have spent 100 billion or more on the < href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/International_space_station#Costs">international space station. A lot of money for a relatively small goal. 3-7 people.

With SuperOrion we land Dearborn, michigan onto the moon. Pop 98000. The people, the factories, the mining equipment, the supplies. The $10 billion space elevator (which also will have cost overruns) would have 150 fifteen ton payloads. That is still only 2250 tons. 400 space elevators for one year 40 elevators working for 10 years would be needed to move one million tons. Once we paid for Orion we would be on our way to developing and owning the solar system.

the difference in volume is the difference between explorers and colonizers.

The real future is taking decades longer because we did not and have not properly assessed the risks of nuclear versus non-nuclear. Non-nuclear we have global warming and climate change and no cities on the moon, orbit and mars. We have to wait and hope that really good solar and real nanotech and space elevators can work out in time to pull our fat out of the fire.

He3 power generation also involves waiting to figure out the science of the fusion to make it work.

Phillip Huggan

"If we have time then we have time for all sorts of tech to mature. Hypersonic planes as part of two stage launch systems."

Yes. Possibly. Hypersonic micropayload vehicle to LEO and then use an electrostatic tether to raise altitude.

"Getting room temperature superconductors that could magnetically launch."

Good luck with this one. I think too many sci-fi novels have overhyped the feasibility of this method.

I agree only a worst-case runaway warming scenario is worthy of serious attention and I agree it won't cause economic losses greater than annual productivity gains until the 2nd half of the 21st century. But that doesn't mean any of these potential mitigation strategies are guaranteed. Collectively they might solve 90% of the problem.
It is the ten percent of our futures where: biotechnology doesn't give us a viable plankton species for iron fertilization, no CNT sidewall defect healing procedures are cost-effective, artificial clouds form at an altitude too high to cool the climate, LEO rocket launches are still a crap-shoot... it is this 10% that makes increased fuel-taxes, SUV tariffs, and cancelling big-oil tax-breaks, Kyoto, wise investments.

C'mon Brian. I've given up the Kyoto dream. I let go. My objection to Orion is the development cost, but *surely* you must realize the politics of exploding nuclear bombs for a payload propulsion mechanism, is a non sequitor? In space beyond the asteroid belt maybe. No one will ever legislate Orion. I would give it up as a dead-horse.

Phillip Huggan

"One issue that remained unresolved at the conclusion of the project was whether the turbulence created by the combination of the propellant and ablated pusher plate would dramatically increase the total ablation of the pusher plate. According to Freeman Dyson, during the 1960s they would have had to actually perform a test with a real nuclear explosive to determine this; with modern simulation technology, this could be determined fairly accurately without such empirical investigation."

From the wiki, this is the next paper that Orion-enthusiasts need to produce.

Brian Wang

Oil on the pusher plate reduces the ablation problem.

I recognize that people collectively are either too gutless or misinformed to get behind Project Orion or most variants under most circumstances. But if things got desperate enough with climate change then faster technological certain solutions that would work are waiting. The point being we would not all die from a climate crisis. We would just have to choose to use tools that we are currently to squeamish to use.

I find it ironic that those who campaigned against nuclear power from the 1960's to the 90's and increased dependence on fossil fuels...Made the all the problems that are now top of their list now worse. Climate change is worse now because of the freeze in nuclear power for the past 30 years. The middle east problems are worse now because of the excessive dependence on middle east oil. If we cranked out nukes so that most of the developed countries were like France with 70% power generation from nuke generators then even with lower supplies we would not need all of the Opec supplies. Then the middle east would be like Africa. A screwed up place where the locals kill each other (sometimes in the millions) but where the developed world does not really care. I am just stating a fact. Iran - Iraq war - millions dead..it was not a major issue for most people. Darfur/Rawandan some hand wringing and a movie or two.

Being someone concerned about the future and wanting a better future in general. Gross errors in technological and development strategy effect the course of civilization and human welfare in the biggest way. Historical examples: China destroying their ocean going fleet 500 years ago. China not choosing to trade with the West and not choosing to aggressively adopt industrialization technology 200 years ago.

I equate those with our current lack of major development of space and not aggressively pursuing nanotechnology and fully utilizing nuclear power.

Nathan Lamont

I've followed Andrews Space's development of the Mini-Mag Orion for a few years, it has potential. Will it be realized within the next 10 years? possibly. Will it be developed to allow for thousands to live in near orbit within the next 10 years? Not likely.
Like it or not we are still in infant mode in exploring space, it will take many decades (or centuries if we keep advance at the pace we are going) before we can support several thousand people in space for long duration. there are no real technical issues with living in space, just political and econimical reasons.

Phillip Huggan

What present applications do you envision for Orion that would require such a massive payload lift capacity?

40 Space Elevators aren't feasible as each ribbon breaks every decade and "fratricides" other intact elevators, if there are too many of them (6-12 max?) stacked along the equator. So Orion really would be the only massive payload launch technology. Merely mining the Moon is still expensive. I could see if robotics technologies advance enough to permit clunky Freitas replicators... but otherwise there is no manufacturing base in space. Scientific R + D is not enough to fund Orion.

Brian Wang

You are right mini-mag is not likely to allow us to put up thousands into near orbit. I was talking about the old Super-Orion plans. 1080 fusion bombs. 8 million ton ship. 3 million tons of cargo.
mini-mag is a lot better than chemical once you are up into orbit, but there are other systems that might provide mini-mag competitive capabilities up there (plasma magnets, advanced ion, Vasimir etc...) . I have not seen a mini-mag configuration for revolutionizing ground launch.

As has been noted, people are not willing to use super-Orion where it has clear advantage. Hundreds of times better getting a lot of stuff to orbit and the moon decades before anything else. We should use whatever we can to get nuke making facilities on the moon to make super-Orions for moving about the solar system.
Or we wait for mature molecular nanotech. Although even that would be better if bother molecular nanotech were combined with advanced nuclear tech.

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