Sometimes there is a confluence of similar topics from different sources that makes the writer feel that it is time to make sense of that merger and draw a valid conclusion or two. This is one of those times. This junction of inputs is from the physical sciences and their applications that will save the world a whole bunch of bad times and wasteful outputs from the stewards of the planets, humans. Ultimately, the goal is to be a human DOING rather than just a human BEING. More on that later…
The first bit of input comes from a professor friend of mine who continues to look for new ideas regarding protecting our environment from the rape of the “extraction” industries plaguing our nation’s physical aspects and beauty for profit. The information came from an article describing the possibilities for using carbon in its most intriguing form, graphene. This stuff is not unfamiliar to any of us who use carbon fiber products like golf club shafts, automobile fenders, bicycle frames and even hockey stick shafts. Carbon fiber/resin matrices have been used for years in making wing panels and struts for modern commercial and military aircraft. It is half the weight of aluminum and five times stronger. Next time you’re flying in a commercial jet through turbulent air and see the wingtip flexing, be thankful for carbon fiber technology.
So how does this matter regarding the environment? We’re already punching more holes in our country than a Swiss cheese maker could even imagine for gas and oil embedded in rocks thousands of feet below the surface. Isn’t that where the carbon we need for these products resides? Well, yes. Carbon also resides in our coal beds. It is MUCH cheaper, to obtain and, if we don’t burn it, we can turn it into graphene and carbon fibers at a fraction of the cost of oil conversion to plastic and molded products. Here’s where it gets interesting.
The ability to mold graphene into virtually any shape is, well, virtually unlimited. Instead of cutting trees for furniture our house siding, why not use sheets of carbon fiber? It will last longer than wood, the woodpeckers won’t know what to do with those embedded, decorative knots in the panels and the color won’t chip, crack or peel off. We’re already seeing this stuff used to make patio decks and the furniture on them. Weather doesn’t seem to affect this stuff the way it does wood. The deal here, though, is to have the carbon fiber industry reach volume levels as to be price competitive with lumber. Moreover, the coal industry, forever nervous about alternative, clean energy, will be assured of extraction security and domestic sales. Imagine a carbon conversion complex adjacent to the coal mines in Appalachia, Wyoming, Colorado and all those other coal mining places. Think of the number of new jobs that would create as oil is ferreted out of the plastics business in many cases. Mind you, recovering the depleted mines will still be an issue, much less coal will be needed for this new industry than is currently burned for heat or electricity.
Meanwhile, we have another burgeoning commercial/industry potential in developing high-speed rail lines across this entire country. These trains would have passenger cars made, in part, with carbon-fiber, thus lightening the load being pulled. They would be electrically powered, thus removing the diesel pollution from commercial and passenger train transport. Transportation costs would plummet because a six-day truck ride from one coast to another would be reduced to three days or less. Furthermore, the new, positive train control (PTC) technology would be implemented to control the very high speed trains. Europe and Asia have average train speeds exceeding 100 mph, while ours poke along at about 48 mph. Even though it is illegal, commercial train traffic bumps passenger train priority thus making passenger train travel less attractive. People like trains. People like the commute better on trains where they can read the paper or prepare for their work day. The demand, I read, is there for this overhaul of oil-driven transportation philosophy.
Will the oil and gas companies be shut out of the future? Of course not. But if they’re smart they will invest in the new carbon-based technologies that will provide cleaner use, add more jobs, make more money and save our natural resources for those areas where we absolutely must have them. The lumber industry will feel the pinch, but then it only takes 20-30 years to re-constitute a forest as long as care is taken to make those forests multi-species so that the ecosystem works for all life in the forests. The need for paper and wood products will not disappear, but the pressure on our forests will be greatly reduced.
Yet another vector of information crossed my desk in the form of an article about thorium energy generation of electricity instead of uranium-based power plants. Why? Well, thorium is not as dangerously radioactive as uranium, is more abundant and is cheaper to process. The technology for using thorium to generate electrical energy has been around for decades. Building a thorium power plant is half the cost and size of a uranium plant to produce the same electrical energy and is MUCH safer to operate. I promised myself not to get into the egg-head stuff this time, but the technology hinted at here is available NOW.
In conclusion, we have a scenario where consumptive pressure on lumber and oil is shifted toward using coal as a source for non-burning industries that can manufacture virtually anything we use in the home, on the job or in the military. Removing great quantities of carbon dioxide from our daily burning of carbon will help reduce our national carbon footprint and upgrade our manufacturing capability several fold. Oil will still be a player, but the game will be different. The creation of jobs that would not only absorb displaced workers from the timber, lumber and drilling industries is there for the taking; chronically un- or underemployed people will have new opportunities to build quality lives. By including a massive new rail transport philosophy, the pressure on truck damage and traffic to our roadways is reduced as well as the diesel pollution caused by our current trains and truck consumption and burning.
All these suggestions coupled with the things that are currently developing gives me hope that we can find our way out of this oil-driven economy that is, by its very nature, self-destructive. What is needed is the political and social will to do these things. Squabbling amongst ourselves will solve nothing. Creating new jobs and technologies will reach into the geographic pockets of the poor and fill their pockets with pride and the ability to consume and turn this country into a rich place to live rather than the stratified oligarchy it is. Every politician extolls the virtues of hard work and self-starting, yet few actually walk that walk. What is needed from our population are visionaries as leaders who DO have the political will and drive to accomplish things never before dreamed…like going to the moon and back. These projects, and all the others, will be on a national scale and will create a better life and environment for our citizens no matter where they live.
Who is willing to go forward and do these things instead of retreating backward into times that never were and ideas that have gone stale? Who will step up and actually become the visionary leaders we need to do this not only in government, but industry as well? Anybody? Somebody? We can already see what will happen if nobody steps up to lead.
– Vern Turner lives in Marble Falls, TX and is a regular contributor to The Oklahoma Observer. His latest book, Racing to the Brink: The End Game for Race and Capitalism, is available through Amazon.com.