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The Next Big Thing in Energy

There is no energy crisis, just a crisis of ignorance. – Buckminster Fuller Our material world is nothing but energy.

Contrary to what economists say, we don’t produce energy and we don’t consume it; we just reorganize it.  When we talk about energy production, we’re referring to converting energy in our environment from its existing forms into different forms that we can use to power certain technologies.  The amount of mass or energy we expend and the by-products we generate while doing this is a reflection of our relative knowledge or ignorance.  We see evidence of this knowledge when we look at how well we’re able to reorganize energy into forms that we can use to enhance our wealth.  The big questions are, how many tons of resources are necessary to get the energy we need and how well are our products designed to minimize the energy required?

We’ve been relying on specific forms of energy during the past 150 years because it was the only way to meet our needs with our nascent knowledge of how nature works.   Fuel is energy mass that is arranged (or configured) by nature in such a way that a portion of its embodied energy can be released with limited technology.  Oil was discovered in vast quantities in the ground where it was easy to procure and we figured out how to release a portion of its energy by burning it.   Since then, technologies have evolved around finding new and better ways to access and use that oil and similar fuels.

What we call a shortage or an energy crisis is a shortage of certain fuels that we’ve figured out how to get from the earth's crust and move around and burn with all kinds of undocumented costs.  But all of physical reality consists of a variety of energy forms; there is no shortage of energy.  If there's a shortage of anything, it’s in our ability to take our best knowledge about how nature works and apply it to designing usable forms of energy.

How will we do this?  Our energy future will not be about finding new ways to move around ever more of the earth's crust.  The next big thing will look quite different.  The next big thing will in fact be a lot of small things - very, very small, unimaginably small, even invisible things.

The future of energy will come from our new-found knowledge of how nature rearranges itself at the most fundamental level of reality.  It will be informed by the knowledge of how invisible, weightless energy fluctuations become matter and how minimal matter organizes into complex substances that we use to solve problems.  It will involve understanding how the most basic life forms organize energy to solve their problems.  With this knowledge we can eliminate our dependence on massive mining, refining, and marketing of fossil fuels, along with most other materials we use to manufacture products.

Already, we're applying this knowledge and replacing the technologies we use daily with new ones that use a fraction of the embedded mass per delivered unit of value.  Nearly waterless washing machines.  Houses that don't need furnaces.  Rooms that don't need bulbs or fixtures.  We need more people to recognize that this is the future and intentionally work toward minimizing mass in design and drastically increasing resource performance.

For more reading:

Find examples of dMASS thinking in our weekly newsletters.

Explore our earlier blogs, especially in the design category.

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Printing and Growing Products with Minimal Mass

Just when you thought every local print shop will go out of business (because everyone has an all-in-one printer) and when you thought there were no more local industries left to outsource, it appears that the future may well be, at least in part, local again – albeit in a whole new way.

As the need to reduce the amount of resource mass required to support our needs becomes even more apparent, it will become a major driver of product innovation, of business management, of government policy, and of “consumer” expectations.  The change will be driven by the unlikely convergence of new technologies and new economic realities.  Let me explain.

To determine the amount of mass tied up in a particular product, you need to know the mass of the product itself, but also the mass of the packaging and of the fuels that went into its manufacture and transport.  This is the embodied mass of the product.  A product’s embodied mass is much greater than the mass of the product itself.

Making this information available will cause some companies to change their manufacturing methods and even move a portion of manufacturing back to local communities, closer to buyers.  This new manufacturing won’t involve blast furnaces, injection molding, smelting, stamping or any of the processes that we normally associate with factories.  Nor will there be nearly as much pollution produced, as there will be little waste.  Due to the nature of the new technologies, economies of scale will shift from the production of products to the production of smaller-scale, modular manufacturing facilities.

Imagine local factories that are much like your local print and copy shop, but instead of printing documents they will produce the products you need, when you need them, to your exact specifications using 3D printing.  It’s the way computer circuits are manufactured now, and it will be expanded to many products we use every day.  Your shoes, your clothes, your bicycle, even building components or a replacement toilet might be made to your specifications using 3D printing.  Perhaps you’ll buy the rights to use a design that’s compatible with your local printer’s capabilities.  The design will include a 3-D image of the product down to the individual layers of molecules, though you’ll be able to work with your printer to customize it.  When you get the design right, the printer will produce the shoe, layer by layer, varying the composition of chemical components to create the characteristics you want – cushion, appearance, breathability, thickness, moisture control, color, etc.  Each shoe can be fit to account for differences in your feet.

The second manufacturing technique in your future involves growing things.  Biotech companies are already growing bones and some organs for transplant.  Designer and biologist Suzanne Lee (video) is growing bacteria-based fabric and leather substitutes  In 1970, science fiction writer Arthur C. Clark predicted growing steaks without cows.  It’s coming.  Whether it offends your sensibilities or not, the potential of producing some portion of food without land, fertilizer, soil erosion, pesticides, and massive fossil fuel subsidies has benefits.

These new manufacturing techniques have enormous potential for reducing the amount of mass required to fabricate what we need.  I wouldn’t be surprised to see Japan's economic recovery fueled by new techniques that don't rely on land or imported resources to produce food or other products.

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Bubbles and Structures: Improving our economy’s resource performance

There’s been a flurry of new material science innovations associated with improving our economy's resource performance.  Many of these innovations are what I consider low-hanging fruit.   For example, a recent article in Fast Company describes an MIT-developed technology for reducing the mass of plastics by adding tiny gas bubbles.  The article raises potential problems with focusing purely on minimizing mass (including the need to ensure a design’s quality), and we'll discuss those in a future blog.  But let's talk about innovations in light-weighting plastics and how they relate to the underlying concepts of dMASS.   First, note that there’s a key relationship between form and mass.  When you get the form right - that is to say when you get closer to understanding how nature arranges itself  – you are more able to eliminate mass without compromising the value or desired functionality of a product. 

For the first time in decades, automakers are actively pursuing ways to reduce the mass of cars to improve fuel efficiency without compromising safety.  In fact, Ford has identified vehicle weight reduction as a major part of its plans to improve fuel efficiency. 

Mass savings can occur without a functional reduction in material performance for a number of reasons.  Most notably, but not surprisingly, many components of cars and other goods are simply overdesigned - way overdesigned - and improved understanding of how different materials perform under different circumstances allows for better matching of materials to needs.  Maintaining performance must also occur because of the way that the nitrogen atoms comfortably disperse themselves among the other organic carbon chain structures.  They are usurping a certain amount of the volume (space) within the product, which causes the polymer molecules to readjust their structural relationships.  Trapped gasses can obviously have structural characteristics.  The bubbles could allow the redistribution of compressive force around them similar to the way an arch allows for eliminating some of the mass of a wall or a bridge by efficiently redistributing the compressive force around it without weakening the structure.  (See our video, Design Matters, for more on how this works.)  For engineers and material scientists, the trick is finding the right arrangement of open spaces and structural elements that best perform a desired function.  

There are many other examples of bubbles (or empty space) being used to displace mass.  Small bubbles are being used in structural building materials like cellular concrete and a variety of foam products.  They are also beginning to appear in building and construction products as insulating material for both sound and heat, as in super lightweight insulation.  IKEA is using a technology that creates strong structural components in lightweight furniture by replacing the normally solid inner portion with a honeycomb arrangement of cardboard that has large open spaces.  The result is furniture that’s as strong as wood, yet has a mostly empty core.  It’s achieved by finding the most effective way to arrange the cardboard network inside.  In A Simple Lesson in Sustainability and Creating Business Value, Kristin mentioned a software applet that instructs printers to arrange tiny holes in the ink surface of printed letters, saving 25 percent of ink without noticeable affect for the reader.  A Dutch company called Freedom of Creation has several interesting designs, from iPhone cases to furniture, that reduce mass by using empty spaces.  

In most cases, this kind of mass reduction can be achieved because of an increased understanding and mimicry of structural arrangements in nature.  In the end it is form that determines the behavior, and therefore the value, of a given material or product. And mass can be reduced by better matching certain forms with certain tasks.  This is the beauty and direction of real design innovation.  For products where maintaining material volume is an important benefit, integrating space and structural elements is an important strategy for achieving dMass objectives.

MuCell, the lightweight “bubble” technology for plastics, is a great example of a strategy to improve mass performance.  The technology introduces nitrogen gas bubbles into plastic during injection molding.  The largely-empty gas bubbles are distributed among the otherwise regular molecular structures, reducing the total amount of plastic mass required to make automobile components or other products.  According to the company licensed to use it, the technology results in material that’s strong but weighs up to 50 percent less than comparable material.  Ford estimates it could reduce vehicle weight by 10 percent.  As we have seen with many examples in our newsletter, mass savings accrue not only through the reduction in material of the product itself, but in the multiplier effect of resource savings throughout the product life cycle - it takes less fuel, water, and capital to mine, manufacture, and transport fewer materials.

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