Eat shit and die

Paul Raven @ 17-06-2011

I know it’s all over the place already, but I couldn’t resist the opportunity to use this headline. So, um, yeah: Japanese nutritional scientist makes artificial meat from sewage [via MeFi]. I’d rather wait for vat-grown tankmeat, myself, but I guess the ol’ Soylent Brown would look pretty appealing after a few days of poverty-driven starvation…

Design for the Soul

Brenda Cooper @ 23-02-2011

Bangkok Airport, exteriorLast month, I talked about what the future needs from us. One of the things I mentioned was better governance. I suspect there’s no actual link, but people seem to be arguing for better governance, not only in Tahrir square but other places as well. This month I decided to focus on one frontier of the brave innovation theme I also think we need: sense-of-wonder design. I’m a science fiction reader, and a lot of the stories I remember best have excellent and fascinating design ideas. Rama. Ringworld. Stillsuits. Continue reading “Design for the Soul”

Commercial deployment for Soviet space relics

Paul Raven @ 12-01-2011

When you’re trying to get your new business off the blocks, keeping costs low is important. When that business is space flight, keeping to technology that has a proven track record is also important. Excalibur Almaz are combining that business wisdom with a bit of large-scale recycling, and are buying up old Soviet space modules and vehicles as part of their bid to grab a slice of the commercial space-truckin’ pie.

As elegant and sleek as the Space Shuttle is, I have an aesthetic affection for the more utilitarian approach to space – possibly born of the knowledge that, once you’re out of the atmosphere, you don’t need things like wings or an aerodynamic body. Indeed, probably the most redeeming feature of Stephen Donaldson’s Gap Cycle space opera series (not so well known as the inexplicably popular and interminable Thomas Covenant bore-fests) was the way his fictional spacecraft were ugly, practical things, built for function rather than form.

I’m also reminded of a number of Stephen Baxter’s novels, where gutsy defiers-of-bureaucracy blast themselves up the gravity well in vehicles so crude they’re little more than an unpressurised metal box bolted on to the top of a giant rocket, and the time-worn undermaintained habitats and vehicles of Bruce Sterling’s Schismatrix.  Safety and elegance are fine things, but they’re prohibitive obstructions when you’re breaking a new frontier.

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.

Recycling the Pacific Trash Vortex into an island

Paul Raven @ 15-07-2010

I don’t know whether or not Kay Kenyon heard about this before writing her Shine anthology story “Castoff World”, but if not, the similarities are uncanny. A Dutch firm of architects have proposed a project to turn the Pacific Trash Vortex into a habitable (and indeed arable) sea-worthy island, simply by recycling in situ all the plasticky crap that’s already there [via SlashDot]:

The Pacific Ocean trash dump is twice the size of Texas, or the size of Spain combined with France.  The Pacific Vortex as it is sometimes called, is made up of four million tons of Plastic.  Cleaning it up is going to cost a lot of money and require a great deal of either scooping up the plastic and shipping it back to shore, or some sort of onsite recycling for building something like Recycled Island.

One of the three major aims of the project is to clean up the floating trash by recycling it on site.  Two, the project would create new land for sustainable habitation complete with its own food sources and energy sources.  Lastly, Recycled Island is to be a sea worthy island.


Further aspects of the island would be: the creation of “fertile ground” from compost toilets.  The island would also be non-polluting, using natural resources.  Recycled Island would be 10,000 Km2 or the size of Hawaii’s main island.  It would be self-sustaining and not dependant on other countries.  The urban housing would be designed for future climate refugees. These are very lofty goals but if carried out, Recycled Island would turn the trash into a money making enterprise rather than an economic sink hole.

Hmmm… an ideal candidate for city-state status, then. But any nation-state along the edge of the Pacific is going to be a bit uneasy about a recycled island that can move itself around at will, and which isn’t dependent on anyone for anything. Compare and contrast to The Raft from Snow Crash: with the latter, refugees want to invade, assimilate themselves; on the other hand, a self-sufficient pirate island will attract away your own malcontents, weaken your authority.

Recycled Island is a great idea from a technological perspective, but the geopolitics are too horrifying to contemplate. Think of the way Antarctica is being scrabbled over, thanks to its oil reserves; the very same economic pressures and scarcities will eventually make a huge lump of plastic floating in the sea look like a natural resource well worth exploiting. But then, that might mean invading a moving country populated entirely by people displaced by climate change… so I wouldn’t plan for your invasion being a cakewalk if they’ve decided they want to stay.

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