John Robb, in his work on resilient communities, says “Localize production, virtualize everything else.” Marshall Savage wrote about self-sustaining ocean colonies, and people are still working on it. My question: How hard would it be to build a self-contained community or ocean colony around FF, producing everything it needs for its own sustenance?
My thinking so far:
Water of course is easy. Desalinize sea water, or easily purify any other source. Or recycle your water, and pull enough from the air to handle losses.
Boron can be extracted from seawater. I don’t know how hard it would be to turn into decaborane locally.
With cheap power, food could be produced like people grow marijuana: intensively, indoors with artificial light, year-round. We could use aquaponics for something close to a complete ecological cycle, with no need to import fertilizers, producing lots of protein in a small space. An ocean colony can use Savage’s idea of fertilizing the surface waters with biomass pumped from below
People on these boards have discussed ways to cheaply generate fuels from atmospheric CO2. Gasoline might be a challenge to make locally, but diesel should be doable, since people do that in their backyards today. There are other options.
That pretty much takes care of consumables. Wastes can be blasted into their constituent elements with a plasma torch and sold as raw materials.
To go beyond that, you’d have to start turning waste elements back into usable materials: plastic, steel, glass, etc. I don’t know how hard that would be. Then you start using those materials to manufacture complex goods. That’s actually getting a lot easier to do at a small scale, as 3D printers get cheaper and more capable.
The goal: an ability to support high population densities with very little impact to the environment. Increased economic and political freedom, with extreme resilience to economic shocks, due to a lack of reliance on large interconnected systems. Ultimately, to colonize the oceans, and to gain the skills necessary to colonize space.
(I’m assuming for the sake of argument that FF works as planned. I’m aware that’s nowhere near a given, but I think discussion of that matter deserves its own thread.)
The scenario you lay out is attractive, but it really has little to do with FF, since it could also be realized with any sufficiently power-dense renewable power source. For example, you could replace FF in your scenario with fission plants powered by seawater-extracted uranium, and little would need to be changed. Ditto for a solar/tidal/wave/wind/geothermal/OTEC-powered community. Ditto for a community powered by solar-power-satellites.
While FF is hugely interesting, it isn’t ultimately magic — it’s just a potentially somewhat cheaper source of electricity and heat.
Sure, if another power source arrives which is non-polluting, non-radioactive, works at small scales, doesn’t require a steady input of large amounts of fuel from external sources, and is one or two orders of magnitude cheaper than anything we’ve got now, then that would work equally well. You could say the same thing about half the discussions in these forums.
I’m not aware of anything like that in development, so I think my question is fairly well focused on FF. (Cold fusion might qualify but seems less likely to work, and polywell works best at large scale. Fission is much more expensive than FF, and is mostly large-scale. The Hyperion reactors are small but you have to go buy a new one every ten years or so. Pretty much everything is more expensive than coal.)
I’m not sure that “works at small scales” is all that necessary — distributed power generation has some advantages, but certainly isn’t necessary to achieve the scenario you lay out.
Don’t get me wrong, I do think that of all the possibilities currently at play or under research, FF seems by far the most attractive. But subsets of its attractive features are also possessed by other power sources.
There’s nothing else remotely that cheap. Of the other capabilities, there are subsets, sure. But it’s the combination of features that allows for new possibilities.
A power source that requires neither a lot of land nor external inputs, but produces a lot of power cheaply, is a new capability. The only thing remotely like it is Hyperion nuclear, but that’ll cost a lot more.
Small scale is important for ocean colonies, unless you only want to build huge colonies. It’s hard to go directly from nothing to huge.
Cheap is important for things like plasma torches or indoor hydroponics. Right now recycling is expensive and farming is best done on lots of land with free sunlight. FF could make recycling cheap and farmland more expensive than grow lights.
The way we produce energy drives a lot of our social organization. FF is fairly unique in being cheap enough to decisively outcompete everything else, and working only at small scale. You could pile a lot of them up at a centralized plant, but that wouldn’t give you any significant economies. It seems likely to me that this would have a dramatic effect on the way we organize ourselves.
I think “colonies” is the right word. While fascinating experiments, I doubt they would go mainstream due to how people think about home ownership, neighborhoods, etc. Logically, we should live in underground houses nowhere near a flood plain or the end of a runway.
Well let’s say I’m writing a science fiction book about it. What’s possible?
How hard would it be to make decaborane from elemental boron? What kinds of materials could we make on a small scale, given cheap power? How small and cheap could we make a fuel production plant? Etc.
Whether it will actually happen depends in part on the answers to these sorts of questions. Robb argues that, for various reasons, it will likely happen anyway. I don’t know if he’s right, but I think FF makes it a lot more likely. Right now though I’m just playing with ideas.
dennisp wrote: There’s nothing else remotely that cheap.
Is there a good source for solid cost estimates of FF? I’ve seen some general statements made about being one-tenth to one-hundredth the cost of current electricity, but I don’t know what’s behind those figures.
Colonising deserts is much more doable and desirable than any onwater or underwater scenarios.
Onwater land-maintenance is expensive (boats, tanks, or what), for a desert that’s free. Desalination is needed for both. Desert colonies need water transported by pipelines, but so does New York.
Doesn’t rule out a onwater/underwater/inspace tourist resort. But there self-sustainability is not a real goal.
I like the desert idea. Super cheap land that nobody’s using. It might be cheapest to close the water cycle as much as possible, rather than piping a lot in and just discarding it. But with cheap desalination it won’t be hard to find fresh water.
On cost, I’m just going by what I’ve seen on the focusfusion.org webpages. Between negligible fuel costs and half a million bucks for a 20MW reactor, with no need for a steam cycle, it seems reasonable that it would be quite cheap. (Assuming it really does work, at that price, is the starting premise for my question. If it somehow ends up costing more than coal that would totally change things.)
Your email address seems to be causing a glitch.
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This may be related to a problem just reported by Brian in which he is getting repeat notifications on posts.
I tried to send you emails via your profile (private message, and actual email) and both seem to have bounced.
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dennisp wrote: How hard would it be to make decaborane from elemental boron? What kinds of materials could we make on a small scale, given cheap power? How small and cheap could we make a fuel production plant? Etc.
scanning wikipedia, i find this sequence of reactions…
Boron trifluoride, BF3, “is manufactured by the reaction of boron oxides with hydrogen fluoride:
B2O3 + 6 HF → 2 BF3 + 3 H2O”
Diborane, B2H6, “is made industrially by the reduction of BF3, and is the starting point for preparing the higher boranes.”
Decaborane “is commonly synthesized via the pyrolysis of smaller boron hydride clusters. For example, heating B2H6 or B5H9 gives decaborane, with loss of H2.”
however, i’m not absolutely certain that the fluorine is a necessary intermediary.
With cheap power, any process that consumes lots of electricity will benefit. among them are recycling and refrigeration. Any process that needs x-rays will benefit, as well.
Electrolysis becomes more economical, leading to cheaper chemicals: aluminum, hydrogen, chlorine, etc.
A chemicals/fuel production plant will benefit from cogeneration of both heat and electricity. However the plant will not necessarily become smaller in size, since its bulk is chemical storage and reaction chambers. But cheap energy would allow such operations to scale up.
I just wanted to say “more power to dennisp and put me down for several copies of the book”
dennisp wrote: Well let’s say I’m writing a science fiction book about it. What’s possible?
… Right now though I’m just playing with ideas.
Although Tulse is right that any “equivalent” power source would do, it’s thoughts about “what’s possible” and playing with ideas around it that will make it a must have rather than a technological side show. Write the book and bring the masses (and their investment shillings) on board. 🙂
Thanks PD 🙂
Just came across this external combustion engine that runs on any fuel…biodiesel, gasoline, propane, coal dust, whatever:
With good efficiency and power density, too. If it burns, you can run your car on it. And the car will likely be inexpensive, because it won’t need a transmission, starter motor, oil pump, radiator, muffler, or catalytic converter.
If this were to catch on, it’d be easy to use locally-produced fuels. You can have an FF making hydrocarbons from atmospheric CO2 and you don’t need to bother with a refinery.
Just to get back on topic I totally see underwater communities appearing after dream of FF is realized.
It is because human imagination is currently limited by energy requirements in most areas.
After we get cheap energy, well get cheap materials and probably cheap labor due to robotization so everything becomes possible.
Other types of communities that I think would become also possible:
Desert cities (think Las Vegas, but smaller many in numbers and self sustaining),
Flying cities or at least castles,
Moon/asteroid/other planet cities and communities,
Cloud cities in gas giants
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