Monday, 11 June 2012

Industrialization of the home

The sci-fi movies of the future often include images of humanoid robots, vibrant megacities or post apocalyptic worlds. But while the real path to the future may have been completely over looked by the movie industry, one thing is for sure, with the monumental changes taking place in everything from the economy, energy, technology to globalization, the next 10-20 years probably won’t look anything like the last 100.

To get a sense of what effect these rapid changes will have on our near future, you first need to step back in time to the Industrial Revolution. At the very start of this revolution in the 1600s there was a dwindling supply of wood in England, which resulted in the increasing use of coal as fuel, up until that time there was little incentive to use coal because it was hard to extract, heavy to transport and required a special fireplace to burn. But then, once coal was in place as a common source of fuel, higher burning temperatures maid it relatively easy to smelt iron and produce new items like Cast iron kettles, along with another unforeseen by-product of the high temperatures - steam! In 1698 Thomas Savery was trying to pump water out of the coal mines, when he tried using steam to power a piston pump, this resulted in the development of the steam engine which powdered the Industrial Revolution, though it probably would not have happened if we had not chopped all the trees down! Which makes this is a great analogy for how quickly things can change once the world runs out of an important resource like oil!

At the time these steam engines were being developed, most of the people from this time either learnt a craft or farmed the land, but then the steam engines enabled a few wealthy individuals to build steam powered factories which automated the textiles industry, other developments like the steam traction engines evolved into today’s tractors. The result of all this steam powered automations was the mass production of cheep goods and food, which the regular farmers and cottage industry folk could no longer compete with on price, which ment they were forced off the land and into working for the very few individuals who could afford to build these large factories and their machines. By the late 1800s this had resulted in the highest level of inequality, probably since Roman times and caused a number of wars like the Civil War in America. By the early 1900s, the efficiency with which the rich could use this industrial machinery to siphon their profits out of the economy caused a significant decline in the circulation of money, which at that time was based on gold. To solve this problem the British ordered all Gold coins to be exchanged for paper based money in the early 1900s, this enabled England to print a lot more money than they had in Gold. A similar event happened in America with the great depression, when Roosevelt in 1933 ordered all gold coins and gold certificates turned in for paper money, this move also help the US to spend their way out of the recession, building for example the Hoover dam and giving people the first unemployment benefits. 

Nearly 38 years later and in the background of increasing automation, something else with the potential to siphon money out of the economy appeared on the horizon – peak oil.  As predicted by M. King Hubbert in the mid 1950's US oil production peaked in 1971. This now meant Americas had to start importing oil. As America was still on the Gold Standard the effects of a US trade deficit with the oil rich nations could have cause a continual decline in the money supply and plunged the US into a prolonged depression. So it’s no strange coincidence that in the same year 1971 on August 15, President Richard Nixon took to the airwaves and announced the government was banning the conversion of dollars into gold and effectively abandoning of the gold standard. This now enabled the US Banks to “Print” as much money as was required to prevent any depletion of the domestic money supply by the import of oil from the oil rich nations. Unfortunately, increasing the money supply isn’t as simple as just printing more money, since someone else has to lend it, into existence. Which explains the continual decline in Interest rates since the 1980s, which coninsided with changes in policies to encurage more home ownership and Student loans.

Following on from the lower rates of money lending In the late 1980s, a 3rd factor started to accelerate the rate at which money began to drain from western economies, called globalization. This was encouraged by the removal of restrictions on the movement of money out of the uk by Margaret thatcher. The effects of globalization originally started with the hollowing out of manufacturing jobs, but as the technology improved the internet also helped with the second hollowing out of software and information technology jobs. The faster that money is lost from a local economy the faster it needs to be replaced; unfortunately, instead of increasing Taxes on the supper rich, fixing Tax loop holes or implementing a global financial transaction tax, the corrupt politicians have instead helped the Banking system lend out more and more money to plug the growing hole at the bottom of the economy. For example, in May 1997, Gordon Brown, as part of his “New world Order” gave control of interest rates to the Bank of England, which lowered the rates from a reasonable 7.5% to just 3% before the 2008 recession, rates are now down to just 0.5%. So instead of taxing the rich or the poor, new labour instead opted for the third way!

The lower interest rates adopted by the central banks of the developed nations during the past few decades, has been we are told to help the economy out of the bad times by helping the public and corporations to refinance old debts. But far from helping people to get out of debt, this has done just the opposite and help people get into more debt, causing for example the housing bubble in America which helped to trigger the 2008 Stock market crash. Now that interest rates are near 0% in most developed countries, the Central Banks will hardly be able to lower rates a second time, so the central banks will be, more or less powerless to stimulate the economy as we now head into the second dip of this great depression like a repeat of the 1930s. A number of people believe the US Government, will be able to avoid a repeat of the deflation seen in the 1930s by borrowing more and stimulating growth, this is partly why the Fed lowered interest rates so low, but the Goverments can only borrow so much money before they cannot borrow any more. Just look at all the credit ratings downgrades being given out to debt ridden countries like Greece and Spain, the Central Banks are private institutions and will not lend money to someone if the recipient doesn’t a have a good credit rating, even if they are the US Government! 


But why would the Central Banks lower interest rates so low leading upto the crises, get everyone into levels of debts they could not afford to pay back and then not have any way to resolve the situation, surly this would be like committing suicide? To answer this question, you need to realize, there are three types of Bank:
  1.     Central Banks with the power to create money.
  2.     Commercial and Investments banks, such as Hedge funds.
  3.     The savings banks such as the building societies.
The Central banks who are able to lend them selves the money to buy up their own Bad debts in a processes called quantitative easing should be ok. It is the high risk commercial banks which will be in trouble, unable to collect debts they will end up bancrupt be brought out by the larger Banks which form the main core of the Central Banks, this will only help to strengthen the global organisations these central banks have created, like the international monetary fund (IMF). This is just what happened 83 years ago in the great depression when 9,146 banks failed and where taken over by the central bank, this would represent over 100% of the 7932 banks in existence today. 
How will things be different from the Great Depression this time? In the UK and America, Interest rates during the whole of the 1930s never dropped below 2%, they are now at 0% in America. Also, before the great depression, the levels of private debt never went above 250% in America or the UK, they are now above 500% in the UK! So not only are we more debt this time, but the ability of our central banks to stimulate economic growth are at an all time low. Another main difference between now and the great depression is the lack of a manufacturing and export industry, with most jobs being either in the financial sector or the service industry. This means once bank lending dries up, through the build up of too much debt in the system, then we will be full dependent on an extremely weak export industry as a source of revenue for the economy and since this is much weaker than during the great depression things could get very bad indeed, especially now that most of our oil and gas is now imported. Another big difference for the majority of the population is the much high percentage of people who no longer work on farms, which in the 1930s was around 20% of the population, while now the percentage is more like 1%. This is important, because it’s said that a lot of those who survived the great depression escape to the country to find food, with the majority of the 5 Million people (10% of the US Population) who died during that time having lived in the cities.  I think a lot of people do not believe this couldn’t happen now, but look at Greece which already has 30% of the shops boarded up and like Spain 50% of people under 30 without work, if people are not buying food from the shops in Greece, then what are they eating? With reports of children fainting in class from hunger, it’s not a lot. This isn’t something which has to happen in one instant; like the 1930s, it could take up to ten years of Austerity before it’s affecting almost everyone at every level of society.

One interesting aspect to the Austerity will be its effects on technology, the focus for example on shops and supermarkets; will be on reducing costs now more than ever, resulting in for example more self service checkouts and a much greater reliance on the internet. As a lot of this cost cutting will include the replacement of jobs which automated systems, this will only help to reinforce the effects of the depression. With access to funding, credit and consumer demand  at an all time low, the advantage for larger corporations in building large factories, which can churn out million of the same item at low cost, will be significantly reduced, especially as higher fule prices will make more centralized production less affordable. This suggest small start-ups or the self-employed will finally have an advantage, using everything from 3D Printers and the Internet to kick start a new industrial revolution, but will this result in a return to the cottage industry?

The problem with the idea of a cottage industry renaissance as it might be called, is this trend towards more local and small scale production, would also support more home-made goods. So the transformation could be more akin to a transfer of the factories into people’s own homes. But then what would this future look like? To get an idea you only need to look at what people actually need on a day to day basis? Electricity, Gas, Water, Food, Medicine, Soap, Washing up Liquid and other items required at a lower rate of production, such as cutlery, clothes, furniture, electronics and other home appliances. Then you have the services, such as the postal system, the internet and the banking system. Although it may not be technically possible or economical for all these things to become products of the industrialized home, it's worth going through them all to see how far technology could progress in this direction. It may also be worth pointing out that if the future does take this path, then it would no longer be just a great depression, because the fewer consumers were dependent on the global economy the fewer products the global corporations would be able to sell and the less people it would be able to employ. This would result in a self reinforcing cycle towards ever more self-sufficient lifestyles.

1. Electricity, this can be replaced by solar, today efficiency is 12-18% providing 4kW but 99% efficient solar printed on cheap paper is in the lab which could provide 20Kw - about 5 times more energy than most households ever use. The only problem here is energy storage for night time use, but solutions using unique materials involving carbon nanotubes or graphene are on the horizon such as Ultracapacitors with energy densities similar to Li-Ion car batteries. As these don’t have any electrolytes or chemical reaction taking place, they have virtually unlimited charging cycles and can charge up in an instant! The technology for doing this is also getting cheaper; a few companies have already started mass producing nanotubes and sheets of graphene.  I also expect the price to drop significantly, because unlike Lithium used in most electric car batteries today, Carbon is not in limited supply. 
2. Gas for cooking can be replaced by hydrogen from splitting water molecules, catalysers as efficient as plants now exists in the lab, no need for companies like British gas!
3. Water, dehumidification systems can produce around 50 litres per day, while another system I just read about uses a wind turbine to extract as much as 1000 Litres a day in the dessert using a condenser and refrigerant processes. When combined with Rain collection, water recycling, UV water sterilization, efficient filtration systems and 3D Printing technology to reduce costs - there might be no need to pay a water company for water!
4. Food. Most of the energy in the sun’s rays are within the visible wavelengths, which plants can't even use since they need UV Light, this means converting the energy from Visible light to UV rays with highly efficient LED Bulbs can enable a lot more plant growth than would be possible with direct sunlight, at the moment prices for these LED Bulbs are too expensive but prices are dropping and a few small companies have already gone into the production of vegetables in inner city arias, using LED Bulbs to grow vegetables for the local aria. Hydroponics also enables highly efficient use of water, reducing wastage to almost nothing, with 1kg of plant mass being produced for every kg of water. One good example is the Omega Garden system which involves rotating plants on a perforated wheel around a central bulb and underneath a nutrient solution of water. This carousel system yields five times the weight of plant mass per watt of conventional flat Hydroponics and can produce enough to feed one person or as much as a 450 square foot green house, in an aria just 2 meters by 2 meters. This is only possible because the plants grow both larger and 10 times faster than in their natural environment. The only real problem here is with the confined space of a home where the only efficient plants to grow would be those which are completely edible like cabbage. Crops such as wheat take up a lot of space with only the grains being edible, but even here the science of plant cell cultures might help, since the grains are a seed, which contain plant stem cells which have the potential to replicate indefinitely, given the right environment. Though it might not be necessary to use to cell cultures, some types of single celled plants like algae contain a lot of nutrients not found in vegetables like Iodine and Vitamin B12. Algae can also grow 20 to 30 times faster than food crops, some forms of algae are even composed of as much as 80% fat, useful for making anything from cooking oil, biodiesel, homemade soap or even biodegradable plastics at home.
4. Soap, with Electricity from Solar it becomes possible to make your own Soap using the readily available ingredients Salt and Oil. The processes for doing this involves passing an electric current through Salt water where the sodium chloride breaks down to form sodium hydroxide and chloride gas, this gas then bubbles out of the water to leave a solution of sodium hydroxide in water. If this liquid solution of sodium hydroxide is then mixed with oil such as could be obtained from Algae, then it will form Soap! In theory a small device could perform this process at home.
5. Biodiesel, as oil becomes increasingly expensive; it may become cheaper for people to "Grow" their own. Creating Biodiesel involves a process called transesterification which involves using caustic soda to accelerate a chemical reaction between alcohol and oil. To do this you heat uncooked vegetable oil which might be obtained from algae to around 130c, then with some eye protection and gloves, measure out ethanol at around 20% of the weight of the oil and caustic soda (Sodium Hydroxide) at just 1% of the weight of the oil being used. Then dissolve the Sodium Hydroxide into the ethanol, before adding this to the warm vegetable oil, after leaving this to cool for few hours a mixture of Biodiesel and glycerol is formed, the glycerol then separates out and sinks to the bottom of the container, forming a dark layer underneath the Biodiesel. Compressing Algae like olives, doesn’t just squeeze out all the oil, but also leaves behind fermentable carbohydrates which can be combined with yeast to form Ethanol, though it is best to use an Ethanol still, since ethanol can poison yeast and prevent all the carbohydrates from being converted to ethanol.
6. Plastic, according to the web, various starch based biodegradable plastics can be 3D printed. But how would you obtain lots of this at home? The first ingredient you need is obviously starch, since potatoes are around 95% starch, hydroponically grown potatoes could provide the first ingredient. Next you need glycerine which is formed when you make Biodiesel or Soap. By mixing and heating a solution of glycerol with starch and an acid like vinegar it creates a liquid plastic which can be formed into anything from plastic bags to bowls or cutlery.
7. 3D Printers continue to get cheaper, faster and more accurate with time; some can even combine as many as 60 different types of materials from metal, ceramics, plastics and rubber to create anything from cups, cutlery to items which require a combination of materials like a tooth brush or electronic circuits. Other possibilities include whole houses printed layer by layer.
8. Clothes, many 3D Printers are already using Nylon and a few people have also demonstrated the ability of 3D Printers to print a chainmail like cloth. Since the only difference between this and the actual fabric, is the resolution the gradual increase in resolution of 3D Printers over time should enable them to print clothes.

9. Postal system, quad copter are currently being tested as a possible solution to deliver everything from pizza to post using GPS navigation.
10. Internet - Wireless Hubs could form an alternative to the internet, rooting data through a global web of home based wireless rooters. In this system, P2P Software could replace the centralized search engines and other internet services like ebay and Facebook, by distributing the storing accross many different nodes. 
11. Money - A P2P Network implamenting a solution for the distribution of money without the need for banks has already been developed in the form of Bitcoin.

1 comment:

from Lorraine said...

Whow that is all very interesting Jim