Supposin': A Look at Progress, Part 5

I must admit, I am having an absolute hoot researching the prodigious discoveries and inventions that are taking place right before our eyes. The doom and gloom folks have almost blinded our vision from seeing this astounding progress in motion. We are not aware of what is happening, therefore, we are subtly being stripped of the joy and excitement of the remarkable adventure.

We have discussed how technology is breathlessly trying to keep up with the exponential growth of information and knowledge that now increases by the minute. Additionally, the progress is accompanied by affordability, because the price of the technology pieces keeps coming down through new concepts of mass production. Integrated circuits with super star chips that communicate by radio frequencies instead of electricity, smart phones that can perform from the palm of your hand what it took a building full of equipment to accomplish just months ago . . . all that, plus biofuels not dug from earth but harvested from the oil created by designer algae.

All things we have been discussing have everything to do with cultural economics. We are being able not only to observe the scientific breakthroughs— the effect of the exponential information and knowledge on our culture— but also, the behavior of the world citizens as the progress and adventures move forward. What an exciting time to be alive!

I hope you have been greatly encouraged through reviewing this litany of recent progress. There is presently so much going on that it is difficult to decide just what extraordinary examples should be included in our Supposin’series. It sometimes helps, however, to put things into proper perspective. But, before we finish our little detour, I feel that I must share with you two additional examples of recent progress.

Since my first hearing of the 3-D printer, I was hooked. “How in the world can they do that?” Carl Bass, Autodesk software’s creator, has successfully produced the latest generation of digital fabrication. In the past few years, while traveling through India and some countries of Asia, I marveled at the exquisite pieces of art produced with the precise aid of computer controlled lasers, cutters, and shapers. They were trimming away unwanted parts of the material, be it wood, steel, glass, jade, precious metals, ice, or coconut shells to create a breath-taking masterpiece of art.

The new generation of software, however, makes another aspect of fabrication available. Today, they don’t just whittle away what is not wanted; they also add to the project what is needed. The additive aspect of the manufacturing process includes the computer telling the printer to lay down successive layers of materials, such as steel, glass, plastic, or some new and unique composite into a precise computer designed shape.

Soon, the new 3-D printers will be as readily found in the shop, office, or home as the standard inkjet printers of today. When that happens, fabrication and manufacturing will change forever. Whenever something breaks you will be able to fabricate the spare part on your own 3-D printer. Either, you can design your replacement part or go to the internet and download the digital instructions to your own computer and it will instruct your 3-D printer to produce the desired product.

I am an antique car buff, and I can hardly wait to get my hands on my first 3-D printer. Can you imagine being able to simply make your own missing carburetor part or missing piece of trim with your computer and 3-D printer? You can let your creativity run wild. I suppose an astronaut could even remake a broken part of his spaceship while in mid- flight. And prototypes for yet-to-be-invented technologies will be made in a fraction of the time it now takes.

It is my understanding that the medical industry is not only presently designing and fabricating life-like prosthetic pieces with the 3-D printers, but also designing vital body organs for replacement parts. I recently watched a television presentation where they completed on their 3-D printer a complete human skull to be used as a replacement for a person’s crushed skull. Remarkable!

One unique function of the 3D printer is the ability to create new types of materials never before available by weaving and embedding unique substances into the fabrics to give them less weight but increased strength, flexibility, and resistance to outside elements.

I have saved my last example of astounding displays of progress to honor one of my childhood heroes, former president General Dwight D. Eisenhower and his Atoms for Peace initiative of the 1950s. One of the most effective contemporary organizations dedicated to carrying out the Atoms for Peace dream is TerraPower. On TerraPower’s web page it speaks of one of the brightest minds in today’s world of exponential knowledge and information.

“Dr. Myhrvold shares the views of his peers at TerraPower that nuclear energy is the only proven generation source that can provide the large-scale, base load electricity needed to meet the world’s growing energy demands while combating global warming.”

Nathan Myhrvold and his Generation IV technologies are committed to offering carbon free energy to everyone in the world. Nuclear energy as an option of choice has never been stronger in preference than now. The energy industry is now seeing the error in our ways for having been led down a path away from the safe development of nuclear power. Forty years of continual bashing of the nuclear resource’s reputation and potential has also exponentially put us behind in the development of safe nuclear power. Hopefully, that bit of jaundiced manipulation has ended.

Nathan Myhrvold’s TerraPower teamed up with Bill and Melinda Gates and developed the Traveling Wave Reactor (TWR) that Myhrvold claims is the world’s most simplified passive fast breeder reactor. The TWR cannot melt down, has no moving parts, and can shut down its own reactors without human help or interference, The TWR does not require any nuclear enrichment operations, it requires absolutely no spent fuel handling, and requires no dangerous waste storage facilities.

The small scale nuclear reactor (SMR), about the size of a refrigerator, can be manufactured, assembled, and sealed at a safely controlled assembly plant. It is designed to run safely for fifty or more years, and then use its sealed case as its own safe burial casket. TerraPower and the Gates Foundation want to supply a build, bury, and forget, safe, and convenient power supply. This supply would not only be for cities and locales in America, but for the people in all the developing world who otherwise could never wait for dams, windmills, and electric distribution grids to be erected around the world to supply the energy needs.

The hotter burning Generation IV technologies make a whole lot of sense. It is possible to design the TWR’s small reactors to burn liquid fluoride thorium that is four times more available than uranium and does not produce any long- lived nuclear waste. Additionally, you could solve two problems at the same time, should you so desire. You could meet the fuel needs of the TWR, and at the same time, design it to burn up all the existing supply of old problematic spent fuel rods. “We could power the world for the next one thousand years just burning and disposing of the depleted uranium and spent fuel rods on today’s stockpiles.”

When the peddlers of doom, gloom, and fear are hawking their wares at the top of their lungs, it is prime time for the brave, forward- thinking, and creative folks to kick in and begin to articulate the message of hope, possibility, and abundance. Thanks, President Eisenhower for your dream to harness the power of the atom for peaceful purposes, I still like Ike.

And thanks to the thousands of brilliant inventors and scientist who are working hard to harness the mass of exponential knowledge and information now available to show us that things on this old world are not always as bad as we are led to believe. I cast my vote on the side of the exciting possibilities of the future.

Next Week: Bridge Back

(Research ideas from Dr. Jackson’s new writing project on Cultural Economics)

© Dr. James W. Jackson  

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