Tag Archives: technology

Venus

For those who do not believe in hell, I have bad news: you are dead wrong. At any given moment this place is located between 41 million and 258 million kilometres away from Earth. Temperature over there is 462 degrees Celsius and its atmosphere is filled with acid. We call this place Venus.

At first sight Venus does not seem to be an interesting place for space colonists. In this post I will discuss the value of the second planet for future space colonization.

One of the most remarkable features of our twin-sister planet, is her thick atmosphere, (yes, this deserves her very own Wikipedia lemma). Her atmosphere’s main component is carbon dioxide (96.5%), followed by nitrogen (3.5%) and traces of other compounds.  One of these other compounds is sulphuric acid. This mineral acid is very corrosive, but nevertheless it is used in many important industrial processes. Hence the mining of sulphuric acid is quite interesting for space settlers.

Mining sulphuric acid from the atmosphere of Venus is in many aspects quite similar to mining helium 3 from the outer planets. So Venus might be used as a training ground for helium mining on, say, Uranus. Technologies developed for this economic activity can be used in the Outer Solar System, with modest adaptations.

But also Venus’s large nitrogen reserves are quite interesting. Nitrogen is essential for terrestrial life, and it’s one of the basic ingredients of fertilizers. Through the Baber-Bosch process ammonia is produced from nitrogen and hydrogen. And ammonia has, besides the production of fertilizers, many industrial applications.

And what to think of the enormous amount of carbon dioxide on Venus? Carbon dioxide can directly be used for growing crops, which utilize photosynthesis to convert water and carbon dioxide into biomass and oxygen. But these carbon dioxide reserves could also be used to produce graphene and synthetic diamonds. These substances have interesting properties for use in electronics.

In order to produce either graphene or diamonds, one has to reduce carbon dioxide to pure carbon. One way to do this is the Bosch reaction. In this process we let carbon dioxide react with hydrogen gas, the end product is carbon and water. Hydrogen gas has to be imported from outside Venus, but the water can be dumped on Venus itself, since there’s more than enough water in outer space.

At 50 km above the surface of Venus both temperature and atmospheric pressure are similar to those at Earth at sea level. But since carbon dioxide is has higher density than breathable air, the latter would be a lifting gas at Venus. A balloon, also known as aerostats, filled with air would float in the atmosphere of Venus. We can use such aerostats as a platform for our mining operations, and even as the site for processing the collected gases.

Though Venus herself is not suitable for colonization, her atmosphere is full of valuable resources for space settlements and their inhabitants. The greatest challenge to any mining activity in the atmosphere of Venus, is her relatively high escape velocity, which is slightly less than Earth’s.

Developments in Solar energy technology

The whole idea of space colonization is founded on two facts: the abundance of extraterrestrial mineral resources and the availability of huge amounts of cheap Solar energy. There are basically two approaches to harvest Solar energy for space settlements: photovoltaic cells and solar-thermal power plants. The latter uses the heat from our Sun to heat a fluid, which is used to drive a turbine.

A challenge for photovoltaic arrays, is their efficiency. But there is exciting news from this field, according to The Science Daily, scientists from North Carolina State University have designed a method to increase solar array efficiency up to 45%. This would mean less Solar cells are needed to produce energy.

A proposal for the animal friendly production of eggs

Recently the first hamburger made of in vitro meat got much attention, not in the last place because Google founder Sergey Brin was revealed as the primary funder of this project. Much of the appeal of in vitro meat, is because this development would allow us to reconcile our desire to consume meat with our commitment to animal welfare. In vitro meat eliminates the need to kill animals, and it also reduce the number of livestock needed to meet the demand for meat.

But meat is not the only popular food obtained from animals. Eggs and dairy are other much consumed animal products. Even if by switching to in vitro meat will reduce the number of livestock held for meat, a large number is still required to produce milk and eggs.

And not only the number of animals needed is a problem from the perspective of animal welfare, but also the issue of young male animals. Since the latter are mostly valueless for dairy and egg industry, they are usually killed soon after their birth. But the male young account for half of the new-born animals.

In case for dairy the solution is quite simple, instead of using animal milk we could switch to plant milk. To “improve” plant milk we could genetically engineer plants to produce animal proteins such as casein. From plant milk one could produce all kind of dairy products such yoghurt or ice cream. I once read an article about extracting proteins directly from grass, which could be used for subsequent human consumption.

Eggs seem to be more difficult to replace, but like meat most consumption of eggs is in processed food. Eggs are used as binding or raising agents in many food products. Vegans and other people who do not consume eggs, have found several substitutes for eggs for these purposes, such as flax-seed and starch flour. By using these substitutes, the number of animals used for the production of eggs can be reduced.

But even if we are able to replace eggs in processed food products, there is still the “direct” consumption of eggs. The question is of course, if we can culture meat in a lab, can we cannot do the same thing with eggs? After all, the eggs we consume are nothing else than big cells. In vitro meat is produced by growing stem cells and turning those into muscle tissue. And as we have discussed here and here, stem cells can be turned into egg cells.

Once we have “artificial” (chicken) egg cell, we have still no (chicken) eggs. The challenge is now to simulate the processes which turn an egg cell into an egg in the laboratory. First we have to grow the egg, by feeding it nutrients. And subsequently, we have to give the grown egg a scale. But if this technology can be developed, we have a method to produce eggs for human consumption in a truly animal friendly way.

See also

Space colonization and vegetarianism – this post discusses the importance of vegetarian diets in space settlements.

Space colonization and in vitro meat – this post discusses the prospects of in vitro meat for space colonists.

New developments in stem cell research

In our post Breakthrough artificial egg cells we discussed the possibility to create egg cells from skin tissue. In that article we asserted that one of the main advantage of this development is the possibility to avoid surgery to collect egg cells from a woman. However, this procedure still require a biopsy.

But science, especially in the field of stem cell research, is making fast progress. According to the science daily scientists have succeed in harvesting stem cells from urine. The importance of this development is clear, taking urine samples is one of the most convenient medical procedures (from the prospect of the patient/donor).

If scientists can succeed in creating egg cells from urine stem cells, then egg cell donation will become as easy as sperm donation. Since urine samples can be collected everywhere, this also allows to circumvent strict laws against (commercial) egg cell donation which are enacted by some countries.

In my post Alternative for Abortion I discussed Robin Baker’s proposal for a new system of contraception. In this system people are sterilized at young age, while their gametes are stored ex vivo. However, this would involve two invasive medical procedures in case of women. The possibility of creating egg cells from stem cells extracted from urine, will make this system of contraception much more attractive

Space colonization and Open Source software

On August 25th, 1991 a Finnish guy with the name Linus Torvald made notice for the first time of what would be known as first version of the Linux kernel, which was released a few weeks later. Though Torvald claimed that it was just a hobby, Linux would become a popular alternative operating system (OS).

In contrast to many other operating systems, Linux is open source. This means that everyone is free to use it, to change it if one desires so and to distribute it to others. However open source software (OSS) shouldn’t be confused with free software, though much OSS is also free.

The primary advantage of OSS is that because the source code is free, bugs are easier to detect and if one has found (s)he is allowed to repair the bug, and to distribute this improved version. The result is that OSS, and open source operating systems in particular, are often more reliable and less vulnerable for attacks than proprietary software.

A second advantage of OSS is that the licenses to use it are much cheaper than proprietary licenses. This is of particular interest for space settlers. Space colonization is expensive, and we should do anything to keep the start-up costs as low as possible. And since space colonization heavily depends on computer systems, and all computers need an operating system, using an open source OS such as Linux will significantly to reduce to costs of colonizing space.

During the last two decades OSS has proven to be a good alternative for its proprietary competitors. More than 95% of the worlds largest supercomputers are running on Linux, and these computers are expensive investments.

Critiques of open source software often argue that the high prices of proprietary software licenses are justified by its development costs. Well, this holds true only to a certain extent. Once a piece of code has been written, it can be reproduced at virtually zero costs. Of course the writers of software codes should be paid a decent price for their work.

But you pay your lawyer only for the hours (s)he has used for your case. Similarly we can pay programmers for the time they have put in writing their code. And the price-per-hour should take into account the relative complexity of the job.

See also

Smartphones in space

Practical issues of space colonization: funerals in space

Today is the funeral of the younger brother of the Dutch king. It’s therefore a good moment to discuss the topic of funerals in space colonies. Since space colonization will not make man immortal, space settlers will die and hence proper funeral protocols has to be developed.The bodily remains of deceased humans are a health risk for the living. By burying or cremating human corpses, people are protecting themselves against the dead.

In space we have several option for the disposal of bodily remains. First, we can simply dump the bodies in space, thereby removing it from a space habitat. The benefits of this method are obvious, however by doing so we will lose valuable material. It would be better to recycle the bodies somehow. This will exclude but burial and immurement in space habitats as methods of disposal. Besides this methods also occupy a lot of space within a habitat.

A suitable method of disposal is alkaline hydrolysis also known as resomation. In this process the bodily remains are dissolved in an alkaline liquid, and gives:

The end result is a quantity of green-brown tinted liquid (containing amino acids, peptides, sugars and salts) and soft, porous white bone remains (calcium phosphate) easily crushed in the hand (although a cremulator is more commonly used) to form a white-colored dust. The “ash” can then be returned to the next of kin of the deceased. The liquid is disposed of either through the sanitary sewer system, or through some other method including use in a garden or green space. (Wikipedia).

Well, what would be better than to have a memorial park surrounding the funeral home? This would give the family and friends of the deceased a place to go to remember their lost ones. This video shows how resomation will work.

Another option is of course donation to science. Medical students need to dissect corpses as part of their training. After the students are finished with the corpses, these can either be resomated or preserved by plastination for future educational purposes.

Since the proper disposal of human bodily remains is a public health concern, it will be logical if the government of a space settlement will pay for the resomation of its deceased citizens. However, people will have to pay for their own funeral service.

See also:

Euthanasia and capital punishment

3D Printed organs: future or fantasy?

The Guardian has published an interesting article about using 3D printers for creating human organs. The idea is quite simple: if you have the required tissue types, the 3D printer is able to print the organ you want. Organs are three-dimensional structures, and because they are standardized, their structure could be stored in a computer file.

Combined with the ongoing developments in stem cell research, this technology might make organ donation obsolete by 2050. This is great news for space colonists, at least if they would need an organ transplant in outer space. If an organ needs to be sent from Earth, it would take months before it arrives at a space settlement in the Earth-Sun’s Lagrange points or in the Asteroid belt. Even if the organ would survive the transport, it might arrive too late for the patient.

See also

3D-Printing, a key technology for humanizing space

Manifesto part 3

3D-printing and space colonization

A review of “The Lights in the Tunnel” by Martin Ford

This post is a book review, the ideas discussed in the book reviewed here, do not represent the point of view of Republic of Lagrangia.

Science fiction is full of stories in which people design and build robots with the purpose of serving their creators, but in the end the robots revolt against humanity. Most of those take over stories picture a violent and often rapid overthrow of mankind. Actually these traditional take over stories are often nothing more than retellings of (real) slave revolts, with robots substituting for slaves. Not much people do think about a gradual and non-violent robot take over in our time.

However such a gradual and non-violent take over, is the subject Martin Ford’s The Lights in the Tunnel. Well, to be fair Ford is not writing about robots who feel being oppressed by their human masters and therefore decide to wage war on humanity, nor is his book about man being governed by machines. No, The Lights in the Tunnel addresses a rather serious subject: the economic consequences of automation.

Ford begins his narrative with a powerful analogy of how the mass market works. He ask us to imagine a tunnel, in this tunnel there are lights, each of them represent a person or a company. The intensity of these lights is measure of how much money they earn, when people or companies spend their money their lights will dim proportionally to the amount of money spent. Conversely when someone receives money, his light will become brighter. In a typical economy, consumers will buy stuff they desire, their money is transferred to the suppliers of these goods. In their turn the suppliers will pay their employees salaries, the latter become then consumers and so goes the economic cycle on. These streams of money transfers are represented in Ford’s analogy with the continuous fluctuations in brightness of the lights.

It does not matter for understanding Ford’s message, who gives money to whom. We have only to understand that employees are consumers, producers are employers. Consumers transfer money to producers, employers transfer money to their employees. This cycle, however, is not perfect. Some of the money earned by the producers, is “extracted” from the cycle as profits (some will, righteously, remark that producers has to pay their suppliers too, but this just another consumer-producer relation for the purpose of this model). Basically producers wants to maximize their profits, because this the primary reason to be in business in the first place.

One way to increase profits, is to reduce wages. But this also implies a decrease of purchasing power of the consumer. When the employee/consumer receives less income, he has also less to spend on goods and services. If employees as a class suffer from reduced wages, the producers of goods and services will suffer of a decreased sales. It is evident to everyone this becomes a vicious cycle.

But one may ask what this analysis has to do with automation and its supposed harmful effects to society. There are several ways to reduce the total amount of wages to be paid by a producer: first, one could simply decrease the salaries of the employees. This approach, however, suffer from several legal (minimum wage) and practical (trade unions) problems. Therefore a second alternative is more common, moving production to countries/areas where lower wages has to be paid. And the third manner is substitution of labor by capital (a technical term for machines).

Method 2 is known as outsourcing, method 3 as automation. It is not without reason that Ford made a clear connection between outsourcing and automation. Suppose you are an employee working and living in the USA, then it doesn’t matter whether you lose your job because your job is moved to India or that your job has become obsolete as result of automation. In both cases you are fired and left with no income to spend.

Basically this is the problem as presented by Martin Ford in chapter 1 of The Lights in the Tunnel.

In the next chapter Ford investigates the question whether automation can lead to permanent destruction of jobs. More precisely he asks whether in the year 2089 a significant portion of jobs currently performed by humans will be done by computers and machines. In order to answer this question he gives us an overview of the historical development of technology.

In particular Ford focuses himself on what is known as Moore’s Law: the fact that each 18 months the capacity of computers doubles. From this law, he argues that at some point in the future computers will be able to everything humans can do. The basic problem here, is of course that no one know for how long Moore’s law will be true. At some point computers cannot be made smaller, that’s a physical fact. This impose a theoretical limit to Moore’s law, but there might be an engineering limit to this law which might come sooner than the physical limit.

But the point Ford addresses is still an important one, computers are able to perform more and more tasks, which where until recently exclusive for humans. And when technology will continue to develop, computers will be able to do even more jobs. In general if a job can be performed by a computer or robot, it will be cheaper to buy such computer or robot than to hire a human employee. And as Ford has discussed in chapter 1, employers seek to maximize profits and hence they have an incentive to replace employees by machines.

So we can summarize Fords argument as follows: machines are increasingly capable of doing the same jobs of humans; corporations seek to reduce employment costs, therefore they replace human workers by machines; consequently more and more people will become unemployed. But if an increasing number of people lose their jobs, they will also lose purchasing power. So automation, according to Ford, will lead to less consumption, and decreasing consumption will cause an economic downturn. And if the loss of employment is permanent, a permanent economic crisis will be the result.

Then Ford pays attention to what economists call the “Luddite fallacy“. Economists generally rejects that technological progress will lead to systematic unemployment, instead, they argue that technological progress will create jobs. However, Ford argues that this faith of economists in the Luddite fallacy, is itself a fallacy. He argues that the conventional economists make two fundamental assumptions: 1. machines are just tools and 2. all human workers can become machine operators. According to Ford these assumption will fail if machines became workers. In that case (human) workers will be replaced by (robotic) workers, and human employment will decrease.

In chapter 3 Ford asks whether the transition as described in the previous two chapters will occur gradually. He beliefs the answer is no, instead he argues there will be a “tipping point”. During the first years unemployment will only grow slowly, but after a certain moment, the tipping point, unemployment will rapidly increase. According to Ford the danger is that during the period before the tipping point policy maker, economists and politicians will deny that anything bad is going on. But after the tipping point there will be a catastrophe. As an example Ford mention pay-roll taxes, if more and more people become unemployed they will be a huge reduction in revenue from pay-roll taxes.

For so far the doom thinking. What solutions does Ford offer?

In chapter 4 Martin Ford proposes a remarkably simple solution for solving the economic problems as sketched in the previous three chapters: a basic income guarantee. The idea is that, when people lose their jobs and therefore their income, whilst they cannot take just another job, they will receive a regular cash payment from the government instead. By instituting a basic income guarantee (BIG) the government will ensure that a minimal purchasing power is maintained and therefore that the economy does not collapses.

Of course Ford realizes that such BIG scheme has to be funded. In order to do so, he proposes that the government should recapture the wages which are lost due to automation. After discussing several potential ways to arrange this, he concludes to impose a consumption tax which would equal the amount which previously paid as wages. If for example wages are reduced by ten percent, the consumption tax should be raised by such percentage that the increase in tax revenue should be equal to the lost wages.

The reason why Ford opts for a consumption tax instead of other taxes, is simple: even if people do not work, they still need to consume. Further he argues that wages are currently part of the price of goods and services. Since automation will allow producers to lower the prices of their products, and still being able to increase their profits, raising the consumption tax will keep prices at the pre-automation level.

Ford states that the wage-compensating consumption taxes should be earmarked, i.e. they should be reserved for only the payment of the basic income-scheme and not general government funding.

An interesting feature of Ford’s alternative income scheme, is the concept of virtual jobs. Although every one should receive a basic income, Ford believes that strict equality is a bad thing. He argues that inequality motivates people to self-improvement, but how do we establish such incentives in a world without jobs? For Ford a job a set of incentives, a virtual job is creating an alternative set of incentives.

One of the incentives he wants to create is education. The better the citizens are educated, the better society as a whole will be. So Fords wants to stimulate people the pursue an education and to continue to learn by offering them a supplement to their basic income. Another area Ford suggest are community and civic activities, further he considers journalism as a candidate for virtual jobs (this one would be great news for bloggers). And finally he suggest to use virtual jobs for improving the environment.

The lights in the tunnel is a cleverly written book, full with interesting ideas and I would recommend this book to everyone; but there are a few critical remarks I want to make. First, though his “wage recapture” by increasing consumption taxes makes sense, it might not be the best way to fund the basic income and his virtual job program. In fact the government does not need to raise money to fund its activities, as we have argued in a previous post. As long as government created money can be used to pay taxes, people will accept this money. It would be better to replace all current taxes with, for example, a single energy tax: for every kilowatt-hour you has to pay, say, 10 cents in taxes or you will be cut off from the grid.

References

http://www.thelightsinthetunnel.com

Space based solar power?

Introduction

Since the 1970s advocates of space colonization have believed that building space power satellites and transporting space based solar power would be the raison d’être of space colonization. However we do not believe that space based solar power (SBSP) will have any future for terrestrial application.

Public acceptance

The first reason why SBSP will not be a core export product for Space Settlers, is public acceptance. A central part of all SBSP proposals is microwave transmission of power, although this wouldn’t be dangerous for people, a lot of people are afraid of anything related to radiation. An example, in the Netherlands there is broad concern about the health effects for people living in the neighbourhood of overhead power lines. Given that the Netherlands are a densely populated country, a few million people live within two kilometers from an over head power line. Although no scientific study has ever been able to provide conclusive evidence that living near an overhead power line is actually bad for your health, many people believe it is.

Some space advocates believe that we can “educate” the masses through tv shows like man-made marbles, I think this will be a dead-end. It is quite unlikely that it will be possible to educate the masses in this way. First of all, only a selected group of people actually watch this kind of tv shows, and these people are probably already convinced of stuff like SBSP. Secondly, the stronger one’s beliefs are the harder it will be to change these beliefs. Especially beliefs related to health issues are quite strong and therefore difficult to change.

Changing public opinion is difficult and we believe that space advocacy groups shouldn’t waste their time and funding to attempt to eradicate radiophobia.

Necessity

Another issue is whether SBSP is actually necessary. Back in the 1970s photovoltaic technology was in its infancy, solar arrays had low efficiencies and were quite expensive. It was in this time that people like Peter Glasser and Gerard O’Neill were proposing to solve the global energy problem (the 1970s were the age of the oil crises). However, since then both the efficiency of solar cells has been improved and their production costs have been decreased.

In order to provide the world with sufficient energy, we need actually a surprisingly small area: some 62,500 square kilometers or about 2.63 percent of the surface area of Algeria. Of course it will be bad idea to concentrate all of the world’s power plants in the Sahara, but we could spread the solar power plant about the world. In the USA, we could cover a great part of Nevada, Arizona and New Mexico with solar arrays, Western Australia is another place suitable for solar power plants, in Latin America Chile’s Atacama desert will be an attractive site.

An exciting development are the so-called solar islands designed by a Swiss company. Oceans cover two-thirds of the surface of the earth, and are exposed to a large portion or our intake of solar power. So it is a logical idea to harvest solar power at sea.

In a previous post we have discussed the future of Japan’s energy supply, in that post I mentioned the possibility of using synthetic fuels:

One way to do this, is by producing hydrogen through electrolysis. But hydrogen has some severe drawbacks. First the very low density of hydrogen gas requires either storage under high pressure or liquefaction to very low temperatures,  which might cost more energy than can be delivered. The storage problem of hydrogen is one of the greatest obstacles for the transition to a hydrogen economy.

An alternative for hydrogen would be the production of synthetic fuels through the Fischer-Tropsch process from hydrogen and carbon monoxide gas. CO gas can be obtained by electrolysis of CO2 from the atmosphere or sea water. There is also current research of creating fuels directly from water and CO2. Both methods will produce hydrocarbons, like methane gas [main component of natural gas], or alcohols like methanol. These synthetic fuels can easily be transported and because the synthesized fuels are chemically similar to “mineral” gasoline, they do not suffer from the transition paradox. This is the problem that no one will buy hydrogen cars if there are no hydrogen gas station, but no one will build hydrogen gas station if no one drives hydrogen cars.

There is no reason why the production of synthetic fuels couldn’t be done on solar islands.

For more information about solar islands see:

http://solar-islands.com/

Conclusion

It is hard to imagine that Space Based Solar Power will ever been accepted by the broad public, due to concerns about radiation. Any effort to change this attitude is probably wasted energy. Further it is questionable whether SBSP is actually a necessary part of the World’s future energy supply.

Public transportation in O’Neill cylinders

In a previous post I discussed the spatial planning of the interior of O’Neill Cylinders. In a note I promised to make another post about (public) transportation inside O’Neill cylinders. For the sake of the argument, I will assume here that the chosen spatial planning is either the Broadacre cityGarden city or Colombia design. Further I want to recall that a O’Neill cylinders has a length of approximately 35 kilometers and a diameter of 6 kilometers (specific dimension may vary among different sources, however the difference is usually only a few kilometers).

A key feature of the design of the O’Neill cylinder is the alternating arrangement of “valleys” (stripes of land) and windows, three of each. It follows from the given dimension that each valley is approximately 3 kilometers wide and 35 kilometers long. Gerard O’Neill himself proposed that there would be parallel to the valley’s heartline a subterranean maglev line. This would function like most subway systems on Earth and would enable (long distance) rapid transit in an O’Neill cylinder. However this system, would not quite suitable for short distance travel, therefore a second transportation system is required.

While the maglev subway will serve as the core of the framework of intra-habitat transportation, there will be finer second network. What requirements do we look for? Ideally we would like an on-demand service, great amount of privacy and the ability to choose our destination. However do not like to waste a lot of time for searching for parking lots. Personal Rapid Transit (PRT) is a proposed idea which would combine the best of private and public transportation.

In order to show what a PRT system might look like, I have selected two YouTube videos about personal rapid transit systems. The first YouTube video (of 8.45 minutes) is about the personal rapid systems as designed by Swedish company Vectus.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S1rf_lOb3b0&list=PL4229DA20757B7CD6

This second YouTube video (5.55 min) is a promotional video of Vectus, in which they explain how their product will work.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V5W3OSZu9oA

Yes, I do realise that Vectus is a commercial company which seeks to sell its concepts. Nevertheless, I think that this “sales man videos” give a clear picture how PRT systems would operate in practice.

The prospects of personal rapid transit systems are bright. They will enable to establish the first car-free society in history without sacrificing the individual freedom of movement.