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It’s twilight for extraction

It’s twilight for extraction

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If you work for decades in long range and strategic planning, and especially if you luck-up and get a job as a futurist telling decision-makers what’s coming, you sort of “come unstuck in time,” as Kurt Vonnegut put it in his 1969 dark fantasy novel, “Slaughterhouse Five.”

When you’re “unstuck,” you just don’t perceive what’s going on at the moment as being as important as those around you see it to be. On the other hand, you get deeply involved with what’s going to happen and how it will affect those you love and those whose well being is important to you — and their kids.

And their kids.

The musical says, “On a clear day you can see forever.” But that’s mystical fiction. Futurism is just an unusual learned thing, like riding a unicycle. But after you’ve ridden it long enough, you begin see a world that’s very different from those who’ve come by a different path.

In the last few weeks I’ve seen something new that stretches a very long way from the past and far into the future. It’s a trend, a paradigm shift and a tipping point: today!

The “past” end is the extraction epoch, anchored in the time when we learned to extract — to dig coal, to pump oil and to suck natural gas out of the earth — and to mix it with air and set it alight to get heat. In a short flash, on time’s long scale, we’ve used that magic to push trains across prairies, drive ships across the sea and fly planes wherever we chose to fly them.

But extraction isn’t forever. Sooner or later what you’ve been extracting runs out or else gets so scarce the market says it’s no longer worth the effort. Or, what comes along with what you extract accumulates and becomes unacceptable, like green house gases.

Like the magic wishes in fairy tales, extraction always gives you something you don’t want along with what you crave. Just now the carbon dioxide gas from burning coal, gas and oil is messing with our climate. The coal that keeps our air conditioners humming also leaves accumulated ash with toxic metal traces that can pollute our water.

We can fix that, pretty much. But we always have to keep fixing it because it accumulates. That’s the dark side of the energy “wish.”

But just now everything has begun to change. In trying to reduce the carbon dioxide greenhouse gas emitted in energy production, we’re steadily reducing the coal, oil and gas we extract.

The more familiar narrative is about greenhouse gas. But what’s really going on is that the very extraction epoch of civilization — that took us across the land and the oceans and spun our factories and lit our nights — has begun to be replaced by an epoch of synthesis.

We can run out of the stuff we extract from down in the earth but we won’t run out of the stuff that’s right around us. Here are a couple of examples.

In Germany, on a modest scale, for a few years they’ve been making “unnatural gas” by freezing carbon dioxide out of the air and combining it with hydrogen made by using wind and solar electric power. They put it right in the pipes with the natural gas they import from Russia and burn it. But they buy a little less from Russia. And, when it’s burned, that same carbon dioxide just goes back into the air it came from. There’s no increase, no accumulation, no climate impact.

Non-technical writers never tire of pointing out that “most hydrogen comes from natural gas” mined out of the earth. What they never mention is that it’s mined to make millions of tons of fertilizer and that, temporarily, a tiny bit is diverted to power newfangled hydrogen cars, planes, trains and trucks — but only until the green infrastructure’s in place.

Now those clever Germans have a great idea. They, and the Australians, are tooling up to make fertilizer out of carbon dioxide and nitrogen drawn from the air around us, hydrogen split from the water around us and energy tapped from the sun above us.

Nothing is used up! Nothing accumulates! The plants we grow with the fertilizer eventually become carbon dioxide and water again.

The UK and Germany have set the time to close the last of their coal power plants and the oily grip which Putin has on the Russians is slipping by the month. No fiddling with the constitution will stop it.

This is not a tree-hugging sermon. I’m a futurist, not a moralist (at least for this column). What I’m saying is that I see an inexorable current in technology’s history. It flows from extraction to synthesis and today — in our lifetime — is the historic moment of transition!

Nuclear technology is a good illustration. We extract uranium from the earth, split the atoms and then argue for decades about whose back yard will receive the leftover “hot” fuel rod residue.

But, in the epoch of synthesis, we will take only a few of the light atoms around us and add a huge amount of knowledge and capital to fuse them together (E=MC2 and all that). Vast amounts of electric energy will be produced but there will be no fuel residue left over to manage.

Just now, in our time, hydrogen’s ability to move and store energy harmlessly is tipping the balance from extraction to synthesis. But hydrogen’s just the dazzling scene as the synthesis epoch curtain rises, not the whole plot ... maybe not even the lead actor.

Only time will tell.

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