Energy. Fuel. Water. Food. Universal Energy and the systems that it powers can sustainably deliver all of these resources to nigh unlimited extents. Yet even with them provided, we still need materials in which to construct our ever-advancing economy and society. Materials are themselves a resource, and as such cost money while also remaining subject to the same laws of scarcity as energy resources. Forests get cut down, quarries run dry and both metal and composites are subject to market forces driven by the scarcity of other critical resources.
To address this problem, Universal Energy’s final function is the powering of systems that synthesize and recycle materials. With these materials, we can build things better, stronger and less expensively than we can today. This begins with two concepts: advanced synthetics and superior recycling systems.
Previous chapters of this writing have alluded to technological breakthroughs that have allowed us to manufacture sophisticated systems on scales and at prices that were previously impossible. These breakthroughs have also included the invention of high-performance plastics and synthetic materials. When we think of plastics, we often imagine substances we’d see around our homes or workplaces: grocery bags, containers, sidings of appliances, etc. These materials, commonly consisting of polypropylene, polyethylene and/or polyvinyl chloride (PVC), are used in manufacturing because they are easy to produce at low cost.
Yet plastics are not without their problems. For one, they don’t biodegrade well – nor can they be easily recycled. So once we’re done with them they’re stuffed in landfills or end up in our oceans, both of which cause varying (often terrible) environmental damage. Additionally, plastics that can be recycled at all have a low “percent yield” – the amount of final material produced from the original supply material. That means that it might take 100 lbs of source material to make 1 lb of plastic, which is way too inefficient to be viable on a large scale, especially if the 99 lbs of material lost as waste is environmentally toxic.
We’ve made headway in solving this problem, but making plastics that have both a high percent yield and are easily recyclable is highly challenging. Yet recent advances have made this less so, and before we get into the materials and recycling methods made possible by Universal Energy, we’ll take a minute to detail these here.
The first advancement is one that’s made Universal Energy possible to begin with: sophisticated computing. Since computers became prevalent in personal, industrial and research settings, their performance has increased at a truly exponential rate. Today, computers are capable of processing data extremely quickly, including models that help chemical engineers create ever-better synthetic materials.
This becomes all the more possible through quantum computing, a potentially revolutionary computing method that uses quantum physics to dramatically increase processing speed. While still in its infancy, scientists estimate that the technology could soon far surpass traditional computing. This is because computers today can only process one calculation at a time, whereas quantum computers could, in theory, process millions of calculations simultaneously. Considering that modern computers can still process quadrillions of calculations per second – even at one piece of data at a time – speeding this up by a factor of millions would allow for nigh-instantaneous data processing of presently daunting calculations.
What that allows us to do is model material synthesis with more insight, and predict how to create recyclable materials with a higher percent yield at increased efficiency and at reduced cost.
Combined with the second advancement we discussed last chapter, genetic modification of algae and bacteria to produce specialized hydrocarbons, this can give us an increased capability to tailor material synthesis to fit our needs. We would both have finer control over the chemical composition of source materials, as well as detailed models of how to manipulate them into forming bonds that produce plastics and other synthetics that meet demanding performance requirements.
Add in Universal Energy’s ability to dramatically increase energy supply while lowering energy costs, and we have three self-perpetuating circumstances that can combine to revolutionize the materials we use to build and improve our world.
And although that future is just on the horizon, we’re making headway to realizing it already as today’s latest synthetics are impressive in their own right – even with current technology and material limitations. Consider a list of some standouts in this area, and why they are remarkable:
Nanocomposite plastics. Researchers have discovered that by layering ceramic nanosheets (really thin sheets made from clay) over each other and combining them with a polymer that works similar to white glue (the elementary school kind), they will interlace with each other like bricks at the molecular level and bind together like Velcro to create a structure as strong as hardened steel. This allows nanocomposite plastics to have a wide array of potential applications, of which aerospace, transportation, defense and civil engineering are all examples.
High Strength polyurethane (Line-X). polyurethane is a type of polymer that has an extremely high impact tolerance, which makes it extremely durable and useful for shock absorption. A commonly sold product of this variety is Line-X, which is a nigh-indestructible spray-on coating often used to line the beds of pickup trucks. It's difficult to explain just how impressive this material is, so I'll let the following video put things in perspective:
Keep in mind that this is a spray-on material that's commercially sold today. Imagine what materials we could make in a world with unlimited energy and a larger, more advanced supply of customized chemicals to make synthetic materials. Indeed, NASA sure has been.
FR-4. The common name for a high-strength, flame-resistant composite made from glass-reinforced epoxy, FR-4 is one of the strongest synthetic materials available today. Not only is it highly resistant to chemicals (including acids), ultraviolet radiation and electricity, it is both lightweight and extremely strong. For comparison, the tensile strength of structural steel and aerospace-grade aluminum are, respectively, ~40,000 PSI and ~43,500 PSI. The tensile strength of FR-4 is ~45,000 PSI. This strength allows components made with FR-4 to retain fine detail (such as threads) and be built to tight tolerances, making them qualified to operate in demanding applications such as aerospace.
Synthetic wood. Advances in polymer science have brought multiple types of artificial wood to market. Made from plastics, recycled organic wood and other composites, synthetic wood is used for decks, framing, siding and supports for millions of structures worldwide, and is already a $3.4 billion industry and growing. Fire-resistant and lasting far longer against the elements than traditional wood, its strength also stands apart, as the image to the left of Ecotrax™ synthetic railroad ties shows.
As the material can support the weight of a locomotive, it can be used to replace traditional wood in the construction of houses, buildings, bridges – anything, really. Cost remains a limiting factor presently, but these are costs that like many other materials would fall dramatically in a world powered by unlimited cheap energy and abundant resources, allowing for an indefinite supply of yet another building material.
Graphene. As mentioned previously, graphene is a material that has great potential to improve our way of life. As concerns the Universal Energy framework, graphene’s first use was next-generation battery technology to store electricity generated by solar roads. However, this application is far from the limit of what graphene is capable of. Examples include:
- Consumer electronics. As an ultra-strong and ultra-conductive material, graphene can be used to create sophisticated electronics that are highly durable. The following images show prototype mobile phones with graphene screens that are both flexible and thousands of times stronger than today’s mobile phone screens.
Beyond mobile phones, tablets and computer screens, electronics made with graphene can also store large amounts of data in small physical spaces. The following images show a concept for a new type of jump drive that works like sticky post-it notes.
Graphene’s conductivity also gives it high capacities for data transfer. Researchers have conducted experiments that show graphene antennas can transmit and receive data up to 100 terabytes a second. A high-definition feature-length film generally ranges from 3-9 gigabytes in size. There are 1,000 gigabytes in a terabyte. Assuming an average size of 6 gigabytes, this translates into a transfer capacity of approximately 166 high-definition films a second.
- Structural material. At 200 times the strength of hardened steel, graphene is the strongest-known material, as well as one of the lightest. Engineering Professor John Home of Columbia University said in 2008:
“Our research establishes graphene as the strongest material ever measured, some 200 times stronger than structural steel. It would take an elephant, balanced on a pencil, to break through graphene the thickness of Saran Wrap.”
This gives graphene nearly unlimited potential for use in structural engineering. Imagine an automobile, train or aircraft with a structure that is 200 times stronger than what we are using today, but reduced in weight hundreds of times. Or for buildings, one of the largest limitations to erecting taller skyscrapers is the strength to weight ratio of the structure: the taller it goes, the weaker it gets. Graphene significantly mitigates this problem, especially since its melting point, at more than 4,500 °C, is far greater than steel. Ballistic vests that stop high-powered rifle ammunition require heavy ceramic plates, yet a far lighter and thinner graphene vest could do the same. And if you’ve ever dreamed of flying cars, advanced spacecraft or a space elevator, the largest material obstacle to making them a possibility can be overcome through graphene.
- Filtration mechanisms. As a one-atom-thick lattice as a base material, graphene is highly non-porous, meaning it can prevent permeation of substances at the molecular level. This would have notable applications in National Aqueduct filtration, in addition to HVAC filters and filtration systems in other systems (airplanes, vehicles, cleanup of toxic spills, etc.).
- Medicine. High strength and conductivity with low weight and reactivity gives graphene excellent potential for medical applications. Examples include: stents to prevent arterial restriction, high strength and lightweight casts for broken bones, and providing both the structural and neuro-electrical framework to help paralyzed people walk again.
These are just a few of the synthetic materials we can make easier through the Universal Energy framework, and future research will undoubtedly discover more to add to this list, as well as the list of potential applications they can serve in. But not only are we able to make new materials with the advances discussed thus far, we’re also able to recycle them to far greater ends.