Leftovers #004 - Super-Replicating Ideas, Energy, Plastics

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🧬 I just wrote a post on super-replicating ideas, exploring why some ideas spread even if they're not necessarily true or beneficial. You can check it out here.

Energy

  • 🚢 This a sad but also positive stat - 40% of all products transported by ship are fossil fuels themselves - coal, oil, and gas. Not end products, not even raw materials, but just dirty, one-time-use energy we're moving around to power our lives (and all our toys).  And yes there are downsides to the renewal economy - mining for lithium and cobalt and the like is a bad for most of the workers and bad for the environment, but once you've built batteries and solar panels, they're pretty much good for a few decades. And it's not just shipping. We'll start to retire, tanker trucks, pipelines, storage facilities, and all the other infrastructure built around the fossil fuel industry. (link)
  • ⚡️ Fusion is the panacea of the energy world - it's what powers the sun's seemingly limitless energy, and many people are trying to figure out how to create fusion reactions here on earth. Fusion research has been going on for decades, seeing numerous optimistic summers and pessimistic winters, but there's a lot of recent excitement around several new designs that are close to reaching 'net energy gain,' when the short reactions we've achieved so far start to produce more energy than they consume. Unlike nuclear fission plants in use today which break nuclei down, fission works by fusing nuclei together. This happens in the sun thanks to extreme pressures and temperatures. Here on earth it's even harder to achieve, since we don't have the sun's extreme gravitational pressure. But in May 2021 a Chinese reactor maintained a fusion reaction at 100 million degrees celsius for 101 seconds (that's 180 million degrees fahrenheit, if you're trying to do the conversion). In August a US facility came the closest yet to net energy gain. And in September a fusion startup in the US generated a new type of magnetic field that could potentially power new fusion designs. 101 seconds might not sound like much, but on a nuclear time scale it's an eternity, and it's possible to get from seconds to minutes to hours. And on top of all that, fusion is much safer than coal, oil, and existing nuclear plants - it's extremely hard to sustain the reaction, so if anything goes wrong with containment the fusion material will just expand and cool, stopping the reaction. (link)
  • ⚛️ I've always been bullish on nuclear (fission) playing a sizable role in our transition to renewable energy. Europe has been going full-bore on solar and wind, but energy prices have been spiking all winter due to their unreliable/intermittent nature. Back in December  the Netherlands announced they're keeping their nuclear plants and adding two more. That's beginning to look pretty prescient given the situation with Russia, which supplies a ton of Europe's natural gas, their main stopgap energy source for when renewables aren't cutting it. There are a lot of interesting new small, safe nuclear plant designs that I'll probably write about at some point. (link)

Plastics

  • 💪 Plastic gets a bad rap right now - oil byproduct, hard to recycle, breaks down in the ocean, etc. But it also has a lot of great characteristics. It's light, strong, moldable, and takes little energy to produce (unlike glass and steel). Things from your phone to airplanes wouldn't exist without plastics. So it's pretty cool that some MIT researchers just came out with a paper on a new form of plastic that is 2x stronger than steel at 1/6 the density. This means we could use substantially less of it in existing applications of plastics, or use it to replace steel in buildings. And, it can conduct electricity and block gas. It's also very easy to produce compared to other new materials like kevlar or graphene. (link)
  • ♻️ On the other end of the spectrum from super strong plastics we have super compostable plastics. Lots of "compostable" plastics today require specialized facilities, or come from energy- and land-intense materials like corn. A cool startup called Sway is working on seaweed-based plastics, which have a lot of benefits - they're stronger than today's lightweight plastics, and seaweed filters water while growing and sequesters carbon. Another startup, Intropic Materials, is working on plastics with embedded enzymes that activate with heat and water and decompose from the inside out, in weeks rather than years, and could potentially be either recycled or composted.

Finale

  • 🙏 If you enjoyed this, how about forwarding to a friend or two? I aim to make this one of the few newsletters you truly enjoy opening every week. And if you find anything interesting you think I should include next week, let me know!