This week I read three articles on materials and thought about justice.
The website Interesting Engineering reported on a new method to make transparent wood. The previous method, which removes the lignin from the wood, requires excessive time and high temperatures, produces excessive liquid waste, and weakens the wood. The new method uses hydrogen peroxide and light to change, rather than remove the lignin molecules. Transparent wood has potential application in stronger windows and roofs with better insulation properties.
NIST (the US National Institute of Standards and Technology) reported on a new method using nanoparticles of silicon dioxide (quartz) to create a gel of oil and water, two liquids notorious for being difficult to mix. The resulting gel has many potential applications, for example in filtration, in smart windows, in battery technology, and as scaffolds for cell growth. The new method can potentially be used with other nanoparticles to create other useful gels.
The 30 January 2021 issue of the science news magazine New Scientist contains a review by Simon Ings of a new book The Rare Metals War, by French journalist Guillaume Pitron, about the environmental, social, and political consequences of human success in creating and using materials. The review contains these intriguing sentences: “Before the Renaissance, humans had found uses for seven metals. During the industrial revolution, this increased to a mere dozen. Today, we have found uses for all 90-odd of them.”
What does it mean?
Transparent wood? Mixing oil and water? Those two stories sound, at first, like science fiction or a joke. What is next, liquid dirt? Or solid air? The existence of new processes for making transparent wood and for mixing oil and water amazed me, but I was amazed even more to learn that other processes to create those products already existed. The inventions described in the first two articles are new processes, not new materials.
Two points are relevant to almost any discuss of materials. First is that the history and future of science, technology, and engineering involves new uses of old materials and the creation of new materials from the limited number of elements that exist in nature. Second is that the creation of new materials requires also the invention and improvement of methods to manufacture the new materials. Note that those two points meet where scientists manufacture new elements, extending the periodic table.
I am excited by these developments about new materials and their importance in so many fields, including battery technology, renewable energy, medicine, building construction, and communication and computing technology. With the removal of hemp (cannabis with less than 0.3% THC) as a Schedule 1 controlled substance in the US farm bill at the end of 2018, I think that new uses of hemp will explode. Scientists and engineers are creating amazing new materials and amazing new process for making those materials.
Returning to Pitron’s emphasis on metals, rare or otherwise, prehistoric human use of gold, copper, silver, lead, tin, and iron was accelerated by an explosion of discoveries of other metals and a parallel explosion of inventions that often relied on creating new combinations and thus new materials. The development of the first metallic alloy, bronze, from copper and tin, is so important it has an age of human development named for it. The Bronze Age was named for an alloy and was succeeded in human history by the Iron Age, named for an element, but really only taking off when humans developed alloys of iron, notably steel, an alloy of iron and carbon. The timeline in this history of metals is fascinating.
The word for each of those metals (gold, copper, silver, lead, tin, and iron) can be and is almost naturally followed by the word “mining,” and human history can be described, with perhaps only some exaggeration, as digging stuff out of the ground, creating an object that to use for a while, and then throwing it back into the ground. Our knowledge of early humans to a large part relies on the fact that we seem to be continually shedding objects.
The review of Pitron’s book makes clear the costs to humans and the environment of this obsession with making new stuff and also makes clear that the geographical dispersion of those effects has political impacts. But even more, the review summarizes Pitron’s argument that our worthwhile efforts to be more responsible through the new of renewable energy may exacerbate these impacts. Many of the new technologies, especially for batteries, rely on the mining and refining of the so called rare earths (actually metals) and other elements such as tellurium, cobalt, and lithium. Those processes have been dominated by China, fueling both its economic success and its horrible air pollution. In his review, Ings writes that these effects on China “wouldn’t have been possible had the Western world not outsourced its own industrial activities, creating a planet divided, as Pitron memorably describes it, `between the dirty and those who pretend to be clean.’”
The historic steel mill in my hometown of Pueblo already uses only recycled steel and, with a solar field under construction, will be powered only by renewable energy by the end of this year. Our newly elected Congressperson recently objected to the US rejoining the Paris Accord with the tweet “I work for the people of Pueblo, not the people of Paris,” a laughably ignorant remark which resulted in predictable push back from a city that can be plausibly described as a renewable energy hub and “as a place that is leading the way in the transition to a clean energy economy.” We already host a factory manufacturing towers for wind turbines.
But Pueblo also hosts the Comanche power plant which burns coal to power Denver, 100 miles to the north. The electricity powering the computer on which I am writing this blog comes from my rural electric cooperative, but almost all of that energy comes from a cooperative of cooperatives, Tri-State, which is frantically trying to meet demands to move from coal to renewable energy. The State of Colorado is also struggling with how to help coal-dependent communities make a just transition. About 70 miles to the south of Pueblo is the site of the Ludlow Massacre, commemorating the deaths of 25 people in 1914 in the Great Coalfield War, described by George McGovern in his 1972 book with that title.
What does it mean for you?
At this point I want to energetically wave the word “system” and throw up my hands in frustration. Even if all actors are genuinely honest and caring and want to save our planet, the path for these necessary transitions is sometimes hard to discern because of effects both near and distant – in time and geography – of any action we take. I am, however, increasingly convinced that “justice” is a key word in that path. To state the obvious: different paths forward affect different people around the globe in different ways.
I joke that unless we do better, the pitchforks and torches will come out. I urge you to study the picture at the top of this article.
Where can you learn more?
An Internet search on the phrase “climate justice” will lead you to excellent material supplied by websites such as the NAACP (if you click on only one link from this blog, choose this one), the UN Sustainable Development Goals, the Climate Justice Alliance, the Indigenous Environmental Network, and many more. I am resisting my urge to quote at length from all of them.