Thursday, October 10, 2013

A vision of the future

Throughout my life, I have seen interesting visions of the future. Donald Fagan's song, "What a Beautiful World It Will Be" suggests traveling from New York to Paris in 90 minutes in suborbital flight. Arthur C. Clarke's "2001: A Space Odyssey" imagines a life with routine space travel to orbit and to the moon and back. The Tom Cruise film, "Minority Report" envisions a world with amazing user interfaces for computers that will soon be a reality.

Today, I want to offer a vision of the future. I believe that there are three key technologies on the horizon, in the lab or in our history that can reshape the world into a cleaner, brighter future.

Perhaps the most interesting development is graphene. A miracle material by any measure, graphene has 200 times the tensile strength of steel, is the best conductor known to man and possesses a plethora of capabilities that we are just beginning to characterize. Graphene is a mono-atomic layer of carbon, with the bonds of each atom creating a sort of chicken-wire pattern. Graphene was discovered to be a component of graphite, what we commonly know as pencil lead, and has escaped our detection for thousands of years until recently. Now that we know about it, there is a worldwide scramble to bring the capabilities of graphene to businesses and consumers.

Graphene has shown promise in a variety of fields including but not limited to energy storage, data transmission and processing as well as super strong materials. There is no apparent limit to the range of applications that graphene can serve.

The Hyperloop is a new transportation technology invented by Elon Musk, but it is derived from the idea of a vacuum tube. You might remember the vacuum tubes used to send documents to and from the drive-thru tellers at banks in years past. Yeah, that vacuum tube. They still have them here in Utah.

The Hyperloop is a vacuum tube with "cartridges" that carry people. The concept is simple. Send pods of people, six to eight at a time, at high speed through a vacuum. Getting the pod up to speed will take much less energy because the pods travel through vacuum rather than having to push through the air like cars do. Promoters say that one Hyperloop tube can replace a 32 lane freeway or provide 700 mph travel around the world.

It is a goal worth achieving because, like the moonshot, the technologies that spin off the effort to create the Hyperloop will spread benefits all around the economy. Building the Hyperloop network will help us to gradually replace our roads with something that requires less maintenance, is far more efficient and will generate jobs like no other transportation technology.

I can't say enough about thorium. It's not a new technology in the strict sense of the word. That's because in the 1960s, the Oak Ridge National Laboratory ran a thorium molten salt reactor for more than 22,000 hours (more than two years) with no accidents, no spills and very little waste to clean up.

Thorium has 300 times the energy density of uranium, a million times the energy density of oil and coal (one ton of thorium will replace 31 billion barrels of oil - we burn about 20 million barrels a day in the US) and will last us thousands of years as a source of power. We're just not going to run out of thorium any time soon - thorium is 4 times more abundant than uranium and fairly equally distributed around the world. In addition, the problem of nuclear waste with thorium is about 1% of the volume of uranium fuel cycles and the waste products will yield valuable materials that are not produced in uranium fuel cycles. The radioactive elements left over will remain radioactive for 300 years or less compared to 10,000 years for uranium waste.

Thorium molten salt reactors don't require the high pressures and layers of security found in uranium reactors. There is no runaway reaction, no meltdown, very little proliferation risk, and the reactor shuts down passively in the event of a problem. It's about as safe as you can get for a nuclear reactor.

Thorium can replace all of our uranium power plants and more with enough power to replace all of the electricity demand met by coal and oil at a fraction of the cost of uranium. The power generated from thorium can also be used to desalinate water, split hydrogen from water, scrub carbon from the atmosphere and power electric cars while producing a tiny fraction of the waste from uranium. Oh, and by the way, much of the waste from uranium plants can be burned into safer elements in thorium molten salt reactors.

But none of this new infrastructure is going to happen (graphene is going to be just fine, but a lot of that research is government research). Why? We're dependent on private banks with selfish private interests. The interest payments charged by private banks and private investors are far too high to permit any of these dreams from being realized, let alone rebuild our crumbling infrastructure. No, we need a new, sometimes old way of thinking about banking.

Japan, Germany, China, Switzerland, Chile and the state of North Dakota all use public banks to help finance their governments. The government puts money received as taxes and fees into a public bank rather than a private bank and the public bank issues loans against that money just like a private bank, but with lower interest rates and greater transparency. The interest returned as profits goes back into the general fund for use in state projects. Public banks can compete against private banks and help to keep private banks honest. Public banks are transparent so people can see that public banks are not gambling with their investments.

The Bank of North Dakota returned a profit of $300 million in one year to the state general fund in a recession. This from a state with a diminutive population of 600,000. Imagine what can be achieved in a state with 30 million people and a $100 billion budget, such as California. Public banks scale up very nicely - just ask China. Instead of realizing budget deficits every year and having to borrow private money, states (counties and even cities) can each have their own public bank to acquire loans against their own reserves.

Public banking can rebuild our crumbling infrastructure, and build the infrastructure of the future for communication, transportation, schools and energy to name a few. Public banking will lower our taxes, provide relief from private banking speculation and market manipulation, and reduce unemployment. But only one state in our Union has a public bank because private banks have enough political power to keep the concept hidden from mainstream media.

That can change and it's up to us to make that change. Already, 20 states are considering the creation of a public bank within their jurisdictions. Maybe your state is one of them - Utah is not one of them. Why? Their highest paid public employee is a football coach. Utah is not alone. Many states have placed commercial interests above the interest of the people and that is what has to change.
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