There’s (black) gold in them there landfills… or maybe not

Paul Raven @ 15-12-2010

Well, perhaps. Via William Gibson and a fair bit of Googling (as the Flixxy page he linked isn’t exactly the sort of thing I’d take on trust): Akinori Ito is the CEO of Blest Inc., a Japanese company that sells a device for turning recyclable plastics into petrol. In fact, this story’s been around since 2009; here, OurWorld2.0 republishes it in response to a renewed interest courtesy a mildly-viral YouTube video:

Blest’s conversion technology is very safe because it uses a temperature controlling electric heater rather than flame. The machines are able to process polyethylene, polystyrene and polypropylene (numbers 2-4) but not PET bottles (number 1). The result is a crude gas that can fuel things like generators or stoves and, when refined, can even be pumped into a car, a boat or motorbike. One kilogram of plastic produces almost one liter of oil. To convert that amount takes about 1 kilowatt of electricity, which is approximately ¥20 or 20 cents’ worth.


Continually honing their technology, the company is now able to sell the machines for less than before, and Ito hopes to achieve a product “that any one can buy.” Currently the smallest version, shown in the videobrief, costs ¥950,000 (US $9,500). [Note of 30 November 2010: Blest informs us that, since we visited them last year, improvements have been made to the machine and the price is now ¥106,000 (around US$12,700) without tax.]

So far as I can tell from sitting at a keyboard, this is a real working product, though I’m rather surprised it hasn’t been bigger news. Even so, I find my cynical side wondering whether this is some sort of snake-oil gig; as pointed out in the comments in a few different places covering the story, “1kW of electricity” is a unit of power, not energy, and without knowing how long it takes to reduce that kilogram of plastic to “crude gas”, it’s difficult to get any idea of whether there’s any real gain to be had from this particular recycling process.

I rather suspect that if this process were even vaguely profitable at scale, we’d have heard a lot more about it already, and would have people knocking on our doors offering pennies for our recyclable plastics. I have no doubt the gadget works as advertised, but I’m suspicious that it would take a long long time to claw back the purchase price once you factor in the amount of electricity it consumes.

Don’t get me wrong: I want this to be everything it seems to be. I just doubt it actually is.

Doom du jour: world without oil

Paul Raven @ 05-07-2010

Just in case the Monday blues weren’t quite enough for you, Wired UK‘s Andy Hamilton has provided his latest “What Would Happen If…?” column on a topical subject: what if the world’s oil workers went on strike forever?

We are utterly dependant on oil. Back in 2000 [in the UK] we had petrol blockades that showed us a brief glimpse of what would happen if oil workers revolted — people started panic buying, shops emptied of food and had to ration, bike sales rose by 400 percent, buses limited themselves to a bank holiday timetable or stopped running completely, schools closed and road use began to decline. This all happened in just over one week. So what would happen if oil workers just walked out and never returned?

The same, but this time the government would enlist the help of the army to ration food. A trip to the supermarket would be a whole different experience with armed guards following you on the way in, and strip searching you on the way out. Despite rationing, food would still not last for long and within a month grass seed, dock leaves and even dog and cat would all be on the menu. Desperate city dwellers would be swapping houses, cars, gold teeth, sex and anything they could bargain with for food. The whole of the western world would decline into a savage, uncivilised mess.

Of course, a strike by the entire oil industry is incredibly unlikely to happen, even in the wake of current events… and there’d always be people willing to break the strike. (Imagining the oil companies hiring unskilled workers isn’t exactly a stretch; operational safety doesn’t appear to be a major concern in those outfits, at least not when compared to profits and shareholder dividends.)

But the underlying point is that we’re hideously dependent on that foul black gunk, and it’s a situation we need to remedy for any number of reasons. Even if environmentalism means nothing to you, and you think anthropogenic global warming is a conspiracy*, the scenario above indicates we’ve got a real addiction problem. Oil is one of the adhesives that holds the world we know together. If you can look at the news coming out of the former Soviet Union, the Middle East and the Gulf of Mexico over the last few years and tell me that’s not a cause for concern, I’d like to get the contact details for your therapist.

And we are all complicit, even smug non-drivers like myself – sat surrounded as we are by the petroleum industry’s less-considered products, plastics. As with energy and fuel, though, there are ways we could make plastic without needing oil [via BoingBoing]; the way things stand at the moment, I hope someone finds a way to build a good profit margin on that real soon.

In the meantime, with the notable exceptions of Paolo Bacigalupi and Bruce Sterling, where’s all the post-oil near-future science fiction? Are people not writing it because they can’t make a good story from it, or is it just too grim to contemplate such a plausible future, even in the framework of fiction?

[ * As regards “the AGW conspiracy”, you’re welcome to believe whatever you like. But if you fancy leaving a response, do read the Futurismic comments policy first, please. ]

A Most Fundamental Substance: Oil and Oceans

Brenda Cooper @ 23-06-2010

Every month, I spend about a week with an ear to the news, specifically sifting for ideas for this column. I like to plan around something that resonates with me. This month, I’m sick at heart about the catastrophic oil spill. It feels like death. But there are already a lot of people writing about it. Besides, it would make me sad to research it extensively. So I turned my attention to the oceans in general. I was surprised to find out how much they feel the same as the oil spill. But I’m going to write about them anyway. I normally hope you’ll enjoy my column, but in this case, I think I just hope you read it. It’s tough to feel enjoy news about our oceans right now. Continue reading “A Most Fundamental Substance: Oil and Oceans”

Digital travel and the price of oil

Paul Raven @ 16-03-2009

rusty old oil barrelsIt may be mercifully low again at the moment, but it’s safe to assume that once the global economy adjusts to recent events, the price of oil will obey its historical trend and start climbing once again.

Over at The Guardian, Charles Arthur suggests one of the major outcomes of increasing oil prices will be that travel – be it for work or pleasure – will become much less of a reflex action, at least for those of us who aren’t ridiculously wealthy:

If you need a shorthand for thinking about the future, then, it’s this: analogue will be increasingly expensive; digital will be increasingly cheap. Getting in a car or on a train or a plane? Analogue. Expensive. Non-renewable. By contrast, downloading an album, watching a webcast concert, watching TV: digital. Endlessly replicable, virtually instantly transmitted, cheap.

What, in turn, does that mean for our society? Apart from fewer cars on the roads (though possibly with more people sharing rides in them), it means more time working at or near to home, if your work involves things that can be done digitally. For all those jobs that need to be near to physical things – that is, where you make things like cars or food or whatever – you’ll have to be based nearer the place you work.

I hasten to point out that this is not exactly a new suggestion, but what would have been delivered as a slightly comedic tongue-in-cheek piece of journalism ten years ago (doubtless complete with a reference to “sci-fi futures of virtual travel”) seems much less ludicrous in the light of our new-found interest in frugal living. [image by Atli Harðarson]

I seem to remember one of Stephen Baxter’s Destiny’s Children books featuring a very-near-future Earth where travel is achieved by a kind of mash-up of telepresence and VR technologies. Can anyone think of any other sf stories or books with a similar theme?

Don’t burn all the fossil fuels (yet)

Tom James @ 19-02-2009

icebergAccording to Professor Gary Shaffer of the University of Copenhagen we should stop burning fossil fuels now so that we will have enough coal, oil, and gas left when we need to fend off the next ice age over the next several hundred thousand years:

…for a management scenario whereby fossil fuel use was reduced globally by 20% in 2020 and 60% in 2050 (compared to 1990 levels), maximum global warming was less than one degree Celsius above present. Similar reductions in fossil fuel use have been proposed by various countries like Germany and Great Britain.

In this scenario, combustion pulses of large remaining fossil fuel reserves were then tailored to raise atmospheric CO2 content high and long enough to parry forcing of ice age onsets by summer radiation minima as long as possible. In this way our present equable interglacial climate was extended for about 500,000 years, three times as long as in the “business as usual” case.

Nice to see some people are cranking up their Buxton indices into the 100, 000 years range.

[via FuturePundit][image from nick  russill on flickr]

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