Hydrogen produced from renewable energy is coming to the fore just as the world exits an epoch when extraction and exploitation give way to a more benign future of synthesis, argues Stan Thompson. This change has major implications for an extractive economy such as Australia’s.
It is hardest to see a profound transition when you’re right in the middle of it.
Just now the world is at the change point between the declining epoch of extraction and the dawning epoch of synthesis.
Much of what has historically been brought up from beneath the earth’s surface will, beginning now, be instead synthesised from our ambient surroundings through the use of renewable energy and—increasingly—data technology.
Metals and minerals have been extracted from the earth’s surface, and beneath, since before recorded history.
At the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, we began extracting energy, as well as material, in the form of coal and then oil. Coal, extracted from the earth, moved us along rails and across seas; extracted oil moved us on roads, across seas and through the skies.
- Energy extraction made civilization, as we know it, possible, but the process of extraction entails three intractable problems:
- Extractibles are inherently finite. When all of a thing that can be commercially extracted has been found and used up, the process stops.
- Almost everything that’s extracted also brings something unintended along with it, which has to be dealt with. Just now, CO2—the residue of extracted energy—is on everyone’s mind.
- Unlike water and air, the materials on and under the earth are not at all uniformly distributed. Tight control of extraction economies can fuel the domination of the many by the few in geographies where centuries of commitment to democratic government have not “immunised” populations against it.
One of the early harbingers of the epoch of synthesis has been Germany’s making “unnatural gas” for their mains from hydrogen, electrolysed using wind energy, and carbon dioxide obtained from air cryogenically.
The emergence of fertiliser made from renewable-energy-sourced green manufactured hydrogen, combined with nitrogen from air, supplants natural gas from the earth, eventually eliminating millions of tons in CO2 emissions.
The planet’s natural gas is nowhere near depleted but neither is it infinite; with how many future generations of mankind does it need to be shared? Has that ever appeared as a line item in a business model?
It’s not yet conspicuous, but the plunging price of oil is probably already prying loose the illiberal grip on power in Russia, Venezuela and Iran.
Making fertiliser, steel and concrete are among the most climate gas intensive processes. Each of these is now being re imagined, using green hydrogen.
There is wide consciousness, if not a universally shared vision, of the menace of human-caused climate change. Taken as a whole, the issue is seen as one of avoidance.
But there is a very different way of viewing the situation. It’s as the dawning of an epoch of synthesis, when what we need and use is drawn from, and harmlessly released back into, our ambient surroundings continuously as a matter of underlying system design.
The essence of this change can be illustrated by the rapid evolution of the ink jet printer into additive manufacturing. I think those printers will someday be regarded as symbolic of the extraction/synthesis transition, just as the expansion steam engine heralded the Industrial Revolution.
The synthesis epoch trends to crafting the most anodyne ways of producing material and artifacts as opposed to the least costly. The cumulative effect over time becomes an underlying design parameter.
Compared with the epoch of extraction:
- Almost nothing tends to depletion.
- Little is introduced into the ambient environment that did not come from it. This is a simplification; chlorofluorocarbons are synthesis artifacts. More attention, not less, is paid to processing. But that’s what Big Data, a pillar of the synthesis epoch, does especially well. What began as recycling morphs into resourcing to avoid extraction.
- Geography, and wars waged to seize and defend it is a hallmark of extraction but it becomes a smaller consideration as people create synthesis economies wherever they happen to be.
The computer-controlled turret lathe, precisely removing matter from a work-piece, is emblematic of the extraction epoch.
The familiar inkjet printer, scaled-up to “print” the foundation for a new apartment complex, symbolises the new epoch of synthesis.
It is a brave new world. Where synthesis is going to take us is no more obvious than an Aston-Martin was to James Watt or an Airbus 380 was to Robert Fulton.
Stan Thompson is an American and former company futurist for BellSouth Telecommunications (now part of AT&T). He is a proponent of Hydrail, an electric rail transit system powered by hydrogen fuel cells. Stan has spoken internationally on hydrail and today lives on Lake Norman in North Carolina.
Picture: Stan Thompson
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