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Ch. 3: Understanding Our Material World

#186: Jan. - March 2023 (Non-Fiction)
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Ch. 3: Understanding Our Material World

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Ch. 3: Understanding Our Material World


Please use this thread to discuss the above referenced chapter of How the World Really Works: The Science Behind How We Got Here and Where We're Going by Vaclav Smil.
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Re: Ch. 3: Understanding Our Material World

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Getting started on this chapter. I was fascinated by the history and current overview on ammonia and its key role in food production.

The overview of the Green Revolution was good. Some readers may be familiar with the controversy over sponsorship of the Green Revolution breeding processes by the Rockefeller Foundation. There was heavy suspicion that the foundation had promoted the plant breeding program of Borlaug and others in order to increase demand for its fossil fuels. This may very well be true, but the current picture makes clear that there was no viable alternative path to the kinds of high yields that took India (for example) from starvation in the late 60s to near self-sufficiency by the 90s. The industrialized countries took the path first, and only after their establishment of the method, of breeding plants that would convert more of the fertilizer nutrients into grain and would resist breakage from the added weight, were these varieties interbred with hardy tropical varieties for what we know as the Green Revolution.

Smil emphasizes the history and key role of the Haber-Bosch process (yes, the Haber of poison gas introduction), but I had my doubts as to whether its energy-intensity could not be reduced significantly by serious application of R&D. It relied on iron catalysis from the beginning, and we have seen huge improvements in knowledge of materials science that should offer opportunities to create substitute catalysts that are more efficient. But of course businesses lack the full incentives that would be present if the costs of global warming were internalized to the uses of fossil fuel.
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Smil goes on to discuss Steel, the fourth material pillar of modern life in his formulation. Those of us who are getting used to Zoom meetings as an improvement to life will have trouble with the fact that he treats demand for transport and skyscrapers as a given, but nevermind. It was a fun tour.

Maybe you have to be a certain kind of wonk to care that stainless steel is the only major category of steel that is not magnetic, (and actually our table knives are attracted to my iPad, so what's up with that?) but I found his long exploration of the ins and outs of steel usage and production to be very interesting.

I ended up with a strong impression that steel is so ubiquitous in part because it is cheap for the strength it gives (as we all know, aluminum delivers more strength per kg of weight) but also because it can be doped with various other metals to give a variety of alloys with properties that can be manipulated dramatically. Carbon composites can also give superior performance on dimensions important to, say, the fastest fighter planes, but I can't see steel being replaced anytime soon as the "go to" metal.

And would you believe it? Steel takes a lot of energy to produce! Smil continues to lay out the case. I was a bit overwhelmed when he got back into Gigajoules of energy without comparing to his previous uses of the numbers, but neither did I consider it worth going back to check.
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Fertilizer, plastic, steel and concrete are the four pillars. I did not get as much from the presentation about plastics, although the history and quantitative overview are both helpful. The key takeaway is that they are flexible (who knew?) so that rigid pipelines and see-through sandwich bags are just the beginning of a long list of how they are adapted to different priorities.

The first of my two comments would be that it has been noted recently that recycling plastic is nearly impossible. The Swiss incinerate them, at very high temperatures to avoid generating dioxins, but America has more land and basically buries them. The problem seems to be separating the various types, and so the flexibility of carbon-chain molecules creates the difficulty.

My second comment on plastics is that I accept their ubiquitous presence, but that the GHG cost of fossil fuel energy to cook them (and space to bury them) ought to be priced in so that they would not be taken for granted so much and chosen just because they are cheaper than some alternative. Consciousness helps some - grocery stores now charge for them and many people use reusable bags (as we do at my home).

Concrete was more interesting to me. I guess I knew that its resistance to compaction is its prime feature. Like the stone used to make Medieval cathedrals, it is preferred for its durability in building. But I learned a lot about the details. Cement, the "glue" of concrete, works by being dissolved in an essentially liquid mixture that can be poured to the shape we want, and then as the water dries out it forms very tough bonds and hardens into concrete.

Combined with steel reinforcement rods (or beams) to resist transverse forces, concrete makes up the physical infrastructure of modern life, from skyscrapers to pipelines to highways to airport runways. We all kind of knew that, but I only recently learned that cement is "sintered" (burned) limestone, and that academics are working on the slower alternative of organically producing the calcium compounds that give it such binding power. There is a group here in Colorado working on it, and Bill Gates is one of several investors who have backed the effort. As soon as it goes public I plan to invest.

I was charmed by the story of Thomas Edison trying (unsuccessfully) to get into the business, including constructing concrete furniture and even a cement-based phonograph. I was also surprised to learn how its durability can be cut short in many ways, requiring management that may be missing in many countries and many applications. The deadly earthquake damage in Turkey and Syria probably reflects inadequate technical preparation, and the somewhat less deadly collapse of a Miami apartment building reflects inadequate technical maintenance. Sometimes the solution is essentially the use of plastic to keep salty stuff out of the concrete. Inadequate sealing of a concrete parking structure in Minneapolis caused its collapse some 35 years ago when I was living there, due to the road salt off of cars running into the cracks and dissolving the steel.
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