In our previous article on Cities and The Environment, we showed how a city needs to be smart in order to respond to ever changing conditions, and how this is possible to achieve at a very detailed scale, even with today’s technology.
In this second part, which also concludes the entire AA World series, we will explore ways of making these cities autonomous, independent (energy and food production) and also discuss what landscapes could be ‘colonized’ with today’s technology.
TES: Total Enclosure System
Since we have already covered the construction, transportation, production & services, and ‘home’ aspect of this automated and autonomous future, we are left with two important topics to cover before we can think of these cities as being fully autonomous: food and energy.
If a city can produce all of the food necessary for its occupants and produce all of the energy consumed within the city, then we can rightly say that it performs as a total-enclosure system.
We have shown in this series how many types of food can be produced in fully automated ways, from robot chefs to vertical farming. We will now focus on the capacity of these technologies to locally produce enough food to feed thousands or more people, per city.
I realize that this particular subject depends on many variables: health and genetics, environment, people’s preferences, resources and more. For instance, a city that is situated on water is much more efficient in fish farming, and less efficient in the production of different kinds of crops.
However, by showcasing the efficiency and methods of different kinds of food production techniques, we can paint a more accurate picture of what can be achieved with today’s technology.
Farming marine life and plant food, artificial meat, insect farms, and ‘crazy food science’ – That’s what we will talk about.
Farming marine life isn’t a new thing. It’s been around for many, many decades, but doing it in a sustainable way is a different story. Consuming the water’s resources is not sustainable, unless you replace what you consume.
For instance, instead of fishing some types of fish directly from the ocean, it is much more sustainable to farm those fish in closed systems, thereby not impacting the fish population in the sea/ocean. This way, you can preserve a balance.
You can farm marine life on land (special enclosures), on closed systems in water or in the open ocean.
The Velella Mariculture Research Project has developed a 6-7 meter sphere cage that can drift in the ocean containing thousands of fish. Because the pod is drifting in the open ocean, with the current flowing through it, the fish waste is continuously carried off and dispersed. The brass mesh resists biofouling, so anti-algal chemicals aren’t needed. Also, much of the fish meal and fish oil in their feed has been replaced with sustainable agricultural proteins, such as soy.(source)
This way of growing marine life can be expanded in many varied ways, and with many types of ‘life’ (things that provide a nutritional value for us humans – and more): oysters, seaweed, shellfish, and prawns are just a few types of marine life that can be farmed in this way.
These methods that use natural environments such as oceans, rivers, or seas, are subject to potentially serious consequences (introducing a new species to a new environment, wastes, parasite transfer, etc.), which is why they must be undertaken with a highly educated scientific approach. You can read more about mariculture at Wikipedia to understand the risks and the benefits of such systems.
However, Aquaculture is a method of growing marine life in more controlled environments. Aquaculture is based on the same methods as mariculture, but they farm marine life under controlled conditions. Though it seems to limit the variety of marine life that can be farmed in these closed systems, the opposite may be true. Aquatic plants, fish, crustaceans, molluscs and other groups are already farmed using this method. The best part is that they recycle the waste of one species to become feed (fertilizers, food) for another. This way, you can grow plants and fish in the same enclosure, for instance. The fish waste becomes fertilizer for the plants, which then cleans and oxygenates the water that goes back to the fish tank.
There are multiple advantages of this farming method, such as a controlled climate, more accurate control of water flow, steady PH & energy usage, etc.. Indoor aquaculture systems can also be deployed in a wide variety of climates and a high degree of automation can be accomplished to make these systems autonomous. There are already projects for large scale deployment, such as Plantagon in Sweden, which began construction early this year.
It seems that there is no technological impediment to building such large scale production systems – only financial (fictitious) impediments – which is why there aren’t many large scale examples at present.
However, I made a youtube playlist with some of these systems (both large scale and small scale) that grow a wide variety of fish and plants, and some videos even show how the automation behind these technologies works:
If we imagine cities that produce their own food, we might also consider that food habits might change in the future. Currently, many people consume many types of meats as part of their regular diet, but this may decrease or change a lot in the coming years. It is estimated that a third of the land on planet Earth is used for farming animals and growing food for animals. Also, animal waste accounts for a huge 14% of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere, and thus is contributing heavily to global warming. More than that, many studies show some correlation between eating large quantities of some types of meat and health issues.(source)
With all that in mind, people may opt for a more plant-based diet in the future. Currently, there are many people whose diet consist solely of plant based products and that shows that this idea is not only feasible, but might be healthier and less energy and resource consuming.
Meat production is highly automated in today’s world. Considering today’s pig farms, cow farms and chicken farms, most of them possess the technology for being completely automated. Yet meat can also be replaced by alternatives that can significantly reduce the energy and resources consumed to produce traditional meat, while also being healthier for us.
In-vitro meat is a cutting-edge technology that is expected to be 45% more energy efficient to produce, uses 82-96% less water, produces 78-95% less greenhouse gasses, and needs 99% less space to be produced than conventional meat production.(source)
The process of developing in-vitro meat involves taking muscle cells and applying a protein that promotes tissue growth (genetic engineering techniques, such as insertion, deletion, silencing, activation, or mutation of a gene, are not required to produce in-vitro meat). Once this process has been started, it’s theoretically possible to continue producing meat indefinitely without introducing new cells from a living organism. It has been claimed that, under ideal conditions, two months of in-vitro meat production could deliver up to 50,000 tons of meat from just ten pork muscle cells. The technology to mass produce in-vitro meat is already here, but again, is held back by economic restraints. As a result, you won’t find any in-vitro hamburger on sale today to buy and try.(source)
On the other hand, plant-based meat replacement products are already on the market and BeyondMeat is one of the companies focusing on that. They were able to recreate the full texture and taste of chicken meat and beef. This is one small sample video of people trying to tell the difference between the ‘real’ meat and the ‘fake’ one – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q8Ny39MUQ50
Hampton Creek Foods is another company that has successfully created plant-based replacements for animal products, such as eggs.
However, plants and meat (or replacements for meat) are not the only source of food out there. The little bug you saw in your house (and perhaps ran away from) is completely harmless, and also tasty. More than that, it is also highly nutritional relative to its size. It might surprize you, but most of the world’s population (80% of the world’s tribes — countries) has already adopted insect eating. It’s simply a matter of cultural acceptance. I recommend this documentary to learn more about eating insects.
There are many advantages to eating insects. For instance, cattle require roughly 8 pounds of feed to produce a single pound of beef. Insects, on the other hand, require only 2 pounds of feed to produce 1 pound of meat, making them four times as efficient. Much of this efficiency comes about because bugs get their heat from the environment, instead of having to create their own body heat like typical mammals. Insect farming also lower the greenhouse emissions and also greatly reduce the space needed to farm them.(source)
Then we come to what I like to call ‘crazy food science’, which covers techniques of engineering food that are perhaps not yet mature enough for us properly understand their long term effects. Genetically Modified (GM) foods are both an awesome idea and quite scary at the same time. The awesome part is that humans can now ‘tweak’ the DNA of a plant to make it, for instance, resistant to a certain virus, thrive in different climates, be more nutritious, and so on. Livestock is another branch where GM is used to achieve similar goals. Although GM livestock is still more in the experimental stage right now, GM foods have been around for several decades.(source)
There is no doubt that the idea of genetically modifying plants and animals is promising some revolutionary outcomes, and although there has not been any direct correlation between GMO foods and any health issues, as so many scientific papers show, there still could be some long-term effects that are still under debate or not yet well understood, due to their dynamic world-wide effect, such as affecting non-targeted organisms, gene flow, etc.(source), and that’s the ‘crazy’ part, due to the subject’s massive complexity.
Still, what do you think of, instead of eating foods, you just take a pill once a day and that’s it – it provides all of your bodily nutrition needs?
People have been thinking about this for a long time, and I’m guessing that it would be fantastic to have this option. Imagine how much it would reduce energy and resource consumption if, instead of producing traditional food, there would be some pills that you can take to replace that. Unfortunately, there is no scientific study that I could find to support such a ‘diet’.(source)
On the other hand, there are some food replacement ‘meals’ (drinks), and one of the most well-known is Soylent. Soylent is a drink consisting of most of the things your body needs, including protein, carbohydrates, fats, and fiber, along with vitamins and minerals such as potassium, iron and calcium. It includes all of the elements of a healthy diet, without the ‘undesirables’ such as sugars, saturated fats, or cholesterol. All Soylent ingredients are certified GRAS (Generally Recognized As Safe) by the FDA (US Food and Drug Administration).(source)
It is much cheaper to produce and much more efficient. Just imagine drinking 3 glasses of this ‘magic’ drink a day and not worrying about food at all, or dishes, or even food shopping. This is not something that may or may not someday become reality; it’s something new that thousands of people are already using. Many use it as a complete replacement for food.
It’s an awesome idea, and a ‘crazy’ one, since it seems almost too good to be true. So far, it seems to be a ‘proper’ product and I’m very inclined to try it myself.
Ok, so we have seen that there can be smart ways of producing vast quantities of foods by integrated systems that can grow both animal and plant life in a way that recycles the waste and becomes self-sustainable. In-vitro meat looks quite promising and plant based replacements for animal products seems reasonable and healthier. Also, insects could be the new ‘meat’ in the near future.
Each of the above consumes much less energy and resources than their traditional counterparts and can be managed at a local level; meaning cities can adopt one or more of these methods to provide food for its occupants. Now, if scientists can learn how to more fully understand any potential long-term effects of GMO foods, perhaps new types of foods that are safe to eat can become ‘superfoods’ and grow in less-demanding (in terms of resources and energy) environments, produce greater quantities, and be much healthier. Then, if products like Soylent are further tested and proven to be a complete replacement for the ‘normal’ meals we all eat today, and our perception about food evolves in a direction that looks more for health and efficiency, then that could bring about a huge shift in producing and consuming ‘food’.
Clean water also represents a huge problem. Although we live on a ‘blue’ planet, fresh water (water with minimal concentrations of dissolved salt and other solids in it) is only a small percentage of this ‘blue planet’ and is only accessible in some parts of the world. Additionally, most of it it is not exactly ‘ready-to-drink’, first requiring purification to remove contaminants, but that is much less energy consuming than purifying salt water.
Oceans (saltwater) represent 71% of the Earth’s surface and more than 96% of all of the water on Earth. This leaves lakes, ponds, swamps, rivers, and rainfall as the predominant places from where we can extract and purify fresh water for our needs.
First of all, you have to understand that the context matters here. For instance, if farming methods adjust to use much less water than today, global water consumption will be greatly reduced. As a result, more water will become available for drinking, bathing, etc. than we have at the moment, alleviating many scientific concerns over the increasing scarcity of drinkable water.
With that in mind, let’s check out some new and efficient technologies for purifying fresh and/or salt water for human use.
When it comes to water, I think of it in terms of: transform, recycle, collect and store.
Desalination is the process of separating salt from water, and since most of the water on the planet is salty, this process is very important to master. There are currently two important methods of getting ‘rid of’ salt from water: boiling it (vacuum distillation) and reverse osmosis which is basically a method of forcing water through membranes to separate salt and other minerals from it.(source)
WaterFX, for instance, uses sunlight to produce heat, with the heat then separating the salt and water through evaporation. The salt solidifies after the separation, allowing it to be removed and used in other industries, such as building materials, metals, or fertilizers. In order to operate continuously, the solar trough is made very large so that it collects extra heat during the day. That energy is stored and used to continue running the system at night when the sun isn’t shining. By using sunlight as the fuel source, WaterFX uses roughly one-fifth of the electricity consumed by traditional desalination plants.
The process of reverse osmosis is only able to extract around half of the total input saltwater as fresh water, but WaterFX’ approach can produce up to 93% fresh water. Their first demonstration plant can produce around 100 liters of fresh water per minute. The WaterFX system also has fewer environmental repercussions than traditional methods of desalination that rely on fossil fuels to generate electricity.
WaterFX is not the first company to experiment with solar desalination. The Sahara Forest project in Qatar and an Australian company called Sundrop Farms are using the technology to grow food in greenhouses.(source)
The recycling of water is likely to bring about huge water consumption efficiency, and since there are so many ways of recycling the many different types of water usage, it’s easiest to point towards the International Space Station (ISS) to examine a completely functional multi-purpose system in place. There, water is so scarce that they had to invent new ways of recycling it. Urine, oral hygiene, hand washing, and condensed humidity from the air within the station are all recycled.(source) The ISS can recycle about 93 percent of the liquids it receives.(source)
Now imagine putting human brains to approach the situation on Earth in the same manner.
Collect and Store:
Huge reservoirs can be used to store water, with multiple systems to collect it.
Rainwater can be collected using a wide variety of methods (and there is plenty of rainwater: floods are quite often a result of not applying well-known science and technology to collect rainwater), but while rainwater could be a major fresh water source, water can also be extracted from underground or from the atmosphere.
As an example, GENius is a machine that collects water from the atmosphere and converts it to drinkable water at a cost of two cents worth of energy per liter, and it can produce 250-800 liters per day depending on the climate conditions. A litre of water produced by these machines is 10 times cheaper than bottled water.(source)
So much technology and knowledge exists for extremely efficiently managing water for our use: from collecting it and storing it, to methods of purifying it. Only the immense short-sightedness of a primitive social system could continue to allow, and worse, support fresh water scarcity on “The Blue Planet” for the ‘most intelligent species on the planet’.
I hope we have shown you that food and water can be managed, even with today’s technology, in a very smart and efficient way. However, the key factor to every technology we have presented to you in this series comes down to energy.
Sources of energy come in multiple forms; you can ‘extract’ energy from the Sun, from Earth’s underground heat, wind, water movement, chemical reactions, and so on. One key point to keep in mind is that for it to be part of a sustainable society, energy has to be extracted from ‘renewable’ sources, which means energy that comes from resources which are naturally replenished on a human timescale, such as sunlight, wind, rain, tides, waves, and geothermal heat.
Given that there are numerous types of renewable energies and multiple methods for managing each type, I will try to show you some of the latest breakthroughs.
A new type of transparent solar panels is being developed. Since they are transparent, they can be used on windows, mobile phone screens, or any other surface that needs to be transparent. They are currently at only 1% efficiency, but researchers say they can be made 5% efficient when fully developed.(source) Solar panels can be installed directly on the ground, as well. Solar Roadways has developed a prototype of this sort which they claim to be 15% efficient. Today’s most productive solar cells are 44.7% efficient, which means they can convert 44.7% of the total energy they receive into energy that we can use.(source) However, we can get to 50% efficiency if we stack solar panels in a new innovative way, as one company has recently proven.(source)
Perovskite solar cells is a type of technology that appears quite promising. They currently have an efficiency of only 11%, but they are very cheap to make, in terms of energy and resources consumed, and also seem to be much more durable.
There seems to be a number of ways to ‘extract’ energy from sunlight: From direct conversion of sunlight to energy, using the sun’s rays to heat water or to produce electricity, or using solar energy to directly heat and light buildings, all of these approaches are experiencing rapid rates of technical improvements and overall efficacy, while technologies like transparent materials, bendable surfaces, and solar panel stacking significantly multiply where solar power can be used.(source)
The Archimedes: Weighs 75 kg and can produce 1500W/year at winds of 15m/s.
With its unique blade design, it is capable of capturing wind from any direction and is quieter than traditional wind turbines. Also, it claims to “turn as much as 80 percent of harness-able energy from wind into electricity, a conversion rate on par with the world’s top performing systems.”(source)
Additionally, wind power can be harnessed even without blades. Dutch researchers have created a bladeless wind turbine with no moving parts that produces electricity using charged water droplets.(source)
Another method of harnessing wind power is to use huge kites at high altitudes. The height that normal wind turbines reach is 200 meters, but these kites can operate at more than 9,000 meters above ground and are far less resource and energy hungry when it comes to building and maintaining them.(source)
Rivers, tides, and underwater currents can also be harnessed to produce energy. As in the previous section, there are a plethora of technologies and methods to accomplish the task. Geothermal, ocean thermal energy converters, and even extracting energy from the human body are some of the many, many ways to extract energy in a sustainable way. The list is too long to name them all here, but I will show you why there’s no need to do that. You can run your own research on that if you prefer to know more, starting here.
I watched a talk at NASA Ames Research Center by Mark Z. Jacobson, professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Stanford University, director of the Atmosphere/Energy program. His talk focused on how we can power the entire world using only renewable energies. His research was conducted by a team of scientists using highly complex computer simulations and taking into account many variables. They analyzed the impact of these variables on climate and the overall environment, and even the materials that can be used to regionally and globally build a 100% renewable infrastructure. I will outline the highlights of this research for you, but you can also find it all here if you want to learn more about the details.
In order for the human species to advance to 100% renewable energies, we would need:
- 3.8 million wind turbines (5-MW each) – 50%
- 720,000 wave devices (0.7-MW each) – 1%
- 5,350 geothermal plants (100-MW each) – 4%
- 900 hydro plants (1300-MW each) – 4%
- 490,000 tidal turbines (1-MW each) – 1%
- 1.7 billion roof photovoltaic systems (3-kW each) – 6%
- 40,000 solar photovoltaic plants (300-MW each) – 14%
- 49,000 concentrated solar power plants (300-MW each) – 20%
A small percentage of these technologies are already in place.
To put it in perspective, 60 million cars are produced each year. Humanity can easily produce 3.8 million turbines to cover half of the world’s power needs, especially given that it wouldn’t be a repeated yearly need like cars.
It is estimated that it will cost 100 trillion of today’s dollars to make the world 100% renewable, keeping in mind that the cost of technology drops while its efficiency increases, both exponentially. To put this number in perspective again, if the world could just stop fighting for 50 years, they would save the money needed to make the world entirely renewable.
However, it isn’t about the money at all. Money is a fictional tool that humans invented, therefore the main requirement is that we now have the technology to do all that. Also take into consideration that these numbers reflect today’s ‘consuming culture’. In an intelligent TVP-like world, overall energy consumption needs would likely be reduced a lot, so keep that in mind, too.
The team of researchers focused more on the US, showing that it will only take 1.7% of the US landmass to make US rely only on renewable energy. The map shows a relevant distribution of the technologies used to collect energy, taking into account the environment. So, for instance, in areas where there is more wind, there will be more wind turbines than in areas where the sun is more abundant and relying more on solar energy capturing devices.
Their studies also revealed a ‘side effect’ of great importance. For instance, they simulated hurricane Katrina and what would happen if the 170,000 turbines had been in its path, as their plan proposes. It showed that the turbines significantly slowed down the hurricane, reducing the storm’s surge by 80%, while the turbines captured even more energy for the grid. More importantly, they also slowed down the hurricane’s winds by 50-60% and no turbine was destroyed. They did this simulation for many other hurricanes and it showed a similar pattern.
They also concluded that the 3.8 million wind turbines would have no significant negative impact on the world’s climate.
Another graphic shows how they could predict the weather with greater accuracy, so that we would know in advance if a region is going to have enough supply of renewable energy for a period of time.
Jacobson says that there is no technological problem or lack of materials holding this back; it is only a lobbying and political problem.
What is even more remarkable about this study is that the entire project can be accomplished in a way that 98-99% of the energy can be utilized without storage. That is a huge deal! It means that we won’t have to rely much on (battery) storage.
You can see a detailed map of their project at thesolutionsproject.org.
However, new technologies, like those we have showcased so far, are likely to vastly improve the efficiencies of the approaches that Jacobson and his team are proposing, significantly reducing the energy and resources needed to realize such a project.
I hope that we have proven that there are many solutions to both growing food locally and for relying on renewable energies to power entire cities, all in a sustainable manner.
Of course, cities are not only about food and energy, but those are the most essential aspects that have to be properly managed. The rest, such as entertainment places, sport arenas, recreational areas, etc., are an emergent process that depends on the ‘sanity’ of the world.
COLONIZING DIFFERENT LANDSCAPES
In this section, we will try to show you some current examples of cities built in different kinds of environments. Since most cities of the world are emergent villages, or they were not build with the idea of a ‘total enclosure system’ in mind, there won’t be many such examples.
Masdar city is a project to build a self-sustainable city in a desert. The project started in 2006 and final completion is scheduled to occur between 2020 and 2025. The city is envisioned to cover 6 square kilometres and will be home to 45,000 to 50,000 people.
Parts of the city are already completed and Masdar is already inhabited. It is expected that around 4,000 people will be residing there before the end of 2014. Masdar predicts that the city’s population will hit 10,000 in three to five years.
About the city’s infrastructure:
The entire site is raised above the surrounding land to create a slight cooling effect, while the buildings are clustered close together to shield streets and walkways from the sun. A 45-meter high wind tower sucks air from above and pushes a cooling breeze through Masdar’s streets. The position of the city and it’s buildings with their narrow streets can keep the entire city 15-20 degree Celsius cooler than the ‘outside’ temperature. Just think about the difference between a 45C temperature outside and a 25C inside the city.
In Masdar, there are (almost) no cars. They designed an underground network of self-driving cars and, on the ground level, they use bikes or just walk from one place to another. Cars are banned from the city, except for some electric vehicles that are used inside the city for mass transit between distant points (perhaps those vehicles will be self-driving as well). The connection between Masdar and other cities is handled by rapid mass-transit systems.
Masdar looks like it has heard of The Venus Project :), because their first occupants were
a group of scientists. The Masdar Institute of Science and Technology (MIST) is a graduate-level research university focusing on alternative energy, environmental sustainability, and clean technology. The Venus Project’s plan for the first RBE city is similar, in the sense that the first occupants must be scientists who can work on the further development of the current city and plan for the next cities.
MIST is constantly gathering students from around the world to work on plans to focus on renewable energy, smart grids and smart buildings, energy policy and planning, water use, environmental engineering, and electronics.
As an example of efficiency, the MIST research center building uses 70% less electricity and potable water than normal buildings of similar size and is fitted with a metering system that constantly observes power consumption. There are other buildings inside Masdar that are very energy and water efficient.
The city is powered by nearly 90,000 solar panels and the city produces more energy than it needs. There are no light switches or water taps in the city; movement sensors control all lighting and water, which has reduced electricity and water consumption by 51 and 55 percent, respectively.
Wind-blown sand has been a problem for its solar panels, so Masdar has been working with other companies to engineer surfaces with pores smaller than sand particles to stop them from sticking on the panels. Scientists at the Masdar Institute are also working on coatings that repel sand and bacteria for use on solar panels and in other applications.
Approximately 80 percent of the water used in the city will be recycled and waste water will be reused “as many times as possible”, with this greywater then being used for crop irrigation and other purposes. Masdar even plans to grow its own food in the desert, as EnergyAcademy describes.
“All aspects of city life are integrated, so entertainment, recreation and home are all in close proximity, for convenience and to minimise use of transportation.” says the official website of Masdar city.
The website goes on to say, “Another unique aspect of the city is that walking – even within buildings — is encouraged as a way to reduce energy use and promote a healthy lifestyle. For example, stairs are always prominently featured, while elevators are hidden.” Again, well, it sounds very much like what Jacque Fresco has been talking about for so many decades. I cannot say that they were inspired by The Venus Project, but there are certainly some similarities.
However, the similarities end there, because Masdar is still a commercial city; they still have shopping centers, they are still limited by money and laws, and their educational perspective and cultural values are nowhere near what TVP is about.
You can read extensively on Wikipedia about many other sustainable villages or communities to see what methods and tools they used and what their current state of applied technology towards sustainable cities is like.
Since they are only ‘on paper’, it will not serve the purpose of the AA WORLD series to include them here, since we wanted to show you real examples, or at least working prototypes of technology, to prove the feasibility of TVP technological concepts with today’s technology.
The South pole station, the International Space Station, and even NASA’s plans for building colonies on the Moon or Mars (and the prototypes they developed) are a proof that many environments can be ‘conquered’ by humans. From extracting energy and growing food, to methods of on-site construction and smart automated systems that can maintain such clusters of ‘things’, anything seems to be possible with today’s technology.
The overall technologies presented in this two-part, AA WORLD series finale article, Cities and The Environment, are, we believe, a very important showcase of technology and its capacity to create and handle the needs of complex cities in different environments.
As a final note, the AA WORLD series is not about promoting Masdar city, Hyperloop, Cisco, or any city, company, or group of people. It is not even about how these technologies are being applied in the current social context. It is, as was stated at the beginning of this series, about highlighting the potential of present day technologies to demonstrate that The Venus Project’s technological concepts have a very real basis in present-day technological development.
There are far more and far better technologies than those that have been presented in this series and we ask you to think deeply about the potential of human brain power when we really want to do something. Just imagine if people put their minds on creating a Venus Project type of society as much as they put their minds together 50 years ago on sending people to the moon with technology that is regarded as primitive today. Imagine the potential!
Next month, we will release a Special edition with all of the AA WORLD articles together in a single Issue, perhaps alongside a second special article reflecting on all of the technologies we have presented so far.