The Infinite Resource

the power of ideas on a finite planet

Ramez Naam 2013

This is not a book review - it is a personal response, appreciative and extrapolative.


In Charle's Kenny's "Getting Better", we learn that the world is getting better; education and lifespans up, birthrates down. Robert Wright's "Nonzero" describes continuing improvement in the past. Stewart Brand's "Whole Earth Discipline" describes the tools we will use to continue this improvement. C. K. Prahalad's "The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid" shows how uplifting the world's poorest is the fastest way to make a profit. Matt Ridley's "The Rational Optimist" describes how specialization leads to prosperity, and how inventive human minds ("where ideas go to have sex") create new and beneficial specializations. Michael Neilsen's "Reinventing Discovery, The New Era of Networked Science", describes how the internet fosters collaboration - ideas having sex in digital networks. So why aren't more people aware of this? Arthur Herman's "The Idea of Decline in Western Civilization" shows us centuries of pessimism about the possibility of progress. Virginia Postrel's "The Future and its Enemies" explains why - the future is created by the upwardly mobile, while the downwardly mobile try to freeze us in the past - including past visions of the future, like state communism or the Von Braun giant rocket manned planetary expeditions.


Ramez Naam is a cartographer of, example of, and reason for progress. Brought from Cairo to America by his parents at age 3, he led projects at Microsoft, started a nanotech molecular modelling company, wrote three science fiction novels, and the visionary non-fiction book "The Infinite Resource". Naam has done (and will do) far more with his life than most men his age still living in Cairo - he is a product of opportunity, ambition (his parent's and his own), and global networking. The entrepreneurial history of the United States was written by immigrants and their children. Insane US post-9/11 immigration restrictions may cost the US a generation of progress. Fortunately, ideas cross borders over the internet, and global progress will continue to accelerate, the US scrambling to keep up. We are fortunate that Naam and his family, along with many more of my friends and colleagues, got in before the gates closed.


Part 1, "The Best of Times", describes many recent amazing advances.

Part 2, "The Worst of Times", extrapolates the end of cheap oil and tolerable levels of CO₂. Some may disagree with either or both. I agree with both, though I question "renewable energy" as such - forests and solar cells are incompatible, and the missing link for intermittent energy is inexpensive, recyclable, whole-year energy storage (many terawatt years needed because of annual variation).

Part 3, "The Power of Ideas"

Chapter 7: food as energy. Fish-farms fed land crops misses the point; the food productivity of the ocean (and the drawdown of CO₂) can be vastly multiplied if we bioengineer CO₂ resistant and phage-resistant plankton. Plankton making food, fodder, or fuel? Probably fodder - we can bioengineer fish that make (and store) fuel, perhaps with the aid of other gut bacteria. George Church, Craig Venter, and many others are working on the technology.

Chapter 8: Melt your Iphone -> a few pennies of materials. Romer, CNT, graphene.

Chapter 9: Whale Oil $1500/bbl in 1855, 1846 to 1854 Abraham Gesner development of kerosene from coal, 1864 whale harvest collapsed. 1865, whale oil $1.77/gal, kerosene $0.40/gal. By 1890, off-patent kerosene replaced it. Fertilizer: guano -> saltpeter -> Haber-Bosch, 1% of world energy. 1941, synthetic rubber Ameripol. "Innovation is our most important capability"

Chapter 10: 1999 to 2006, LED headlamp. Fig 10.1, energy per ton of steel from 58 BTUs in 1950 to 12 BTUs in 2005. Fig 10.2, Refrigerators 222W/19ft³ in 1972 to 51W/22ft³ in 2012. p141, 1970 carbon fiber ("5x stronger than steel") $330/kg, "today" $12/kg. Cuyahoga River, "privatized profits, socialized costs". Reducing weight, regeneration, and increasing efficiency (questionable, Carnot?) could improve cars 10x.

Chapter 11: Energy cost for desalination continues to decrease - 16 KWh/1000 liters in 1970, 1.8 KWh/1000 liters in 2008. (At $0.1/KWh, 100 cubic feet of water, 2830 liters, costs $0.51). More aluminum in landfills than in bauxite. The point of this chapter is that "we" (meaning the west) have already extracted the minerals we need to keep running forever, growth can come from efficiency, recycling, and miniaturization. That is not entirely true - copper can be recycled, but pennies wear away - but if we are maximizing and substituting, we will be wealthy enough to extract the replacement material from nonbeneficiated sources.

Chapter 12: Energy from wind - hrm. Well, maybe that is what you can do desalination with, but it is otherwise countercyclic. I have problems with this chapter - energy isn't the problem, power is. Naam shows battery energy "density" increasing to 200 Wh/kg for Li-Ion. Well, that's nice, but if we need to store a seasonal three months of 20TW for a wealthy world, 4.4e13 kWh ((8766/4)*(2E13/1000) or 1.6e20 J), we need 2.2e14 kg of batteries. At $200/kWh and 10 year lifetime, storing that much energy will cost 900 trillion dollars per year.

Part 4: Unleashing Innovation

Chapter 13: Government funded innovation - hrm again. "The government's $3.6 billion dollar investment in the Human Genome Project" ... and Celera did most of it with $300M of private investment. Celera's competition pushed the HGP into overdrive. Argonne Labs put big money into batteries for electric vehicles - and mostly failed. Solendra ... awww, that's not fair!.

Chapter 14 & 15: Naam points out that we treat the environment like a free garbage dump - "socializing" the costs of doing business. Prices on emissions is one way to fix things, maybe. But establishing a market is difficult for a negative-value good like pollution, and politicians are poor designers of markets. Naam suggests cap and trade at one end, and tax rebates at the other. But how does that work in a world with hundreds of tax systems? I think we are a few economic innovations short of a solution here. Nice try.

Chapter 16: Nuclear. Naam gets this right, but can make a much stronger argument for the Integral Fast Reactor. IFR combines clever reactor neutron chemistry with on-site electrochemistry, cycling the actinides through the core and breeding them to burnup. This extracts almost all of the U-238 (not just the U-235) fission energy, while the waste that leaves the plant is far lower activity than the spent fuel rods of normal reactors. The materials in-process are effectively proliferation/diversion-proof; it would be far more difficult to build a fission bomb with this material than starting with yellowcake. Yes, an IFR plant and its on-site materials can be made into a dirty bomb, but not the waste leaving the site. Guard the site, and armor the buildings containing the hot materials - a small addition to the heavy mass of radiation shielding needed. Besides being cleaner, the high uranium burnup fraction means that a little ore goes a long way, and that low grade ores become economically practical to extract. "Peak Uranium" might be millions of years away.

Chapter 17: Climate Engineering, geological storage of CO₂, and diverting sunlight with aerosols. Interesting ideas, but we can do better. To store carbon, grow LOTs of trees. CO₂ is a denser-than-water liquid at 3km ocean depths, pressures, and temperatures. CO₂ /will/ dissolve in water, but a small sea of it in an ocean basin, capped with a kevlar/plastic dome to prevent mixing, could store a LOT of CO₂.

Chapter 18: Bioengineered, low environmental impact food - yes.

Chapter 19: Rising Wealth, less pollution. Yes. As we get richer, and at least some of us get smarter and better organized, we learn to do more with less; and once we've learned how, we can always do so.

Chapter 20: The BEST chapter. More people thinking worldwide means more innovation. This sentence on page 281 is the most important in the book:

Except for this paragraph, the reason to build server sky:

Chapter 21 and 22: recap.


Missing from the book

Moore's Law microchips in everything. My friends at Intel know how to produce the next ten generations of Moore's Law. They just don't know which of many candidates to invest in. This isn't merely faster desktop computers and better smart phones - this is "smart" in everything. Distributed intelligence means cheap machines can do many more things that people do now - which means that people can supervise many of them while machines do those jobs slowly and efficiently, or fast, or small, or big. Our pallete of available options increases vastly, because operations no longer need to match the scale and speed of a human being. Machines can translate superfast or superslow, gigantic or tiny, to human scale, extending our reach. With telepresence, we can admire a bird, or milk a cow, halfway around the world.

Space. The earth captures only 1e-10 of the power emitted by the sun. We do not need to use nearly as much terrestrial energy as we do if we use space sunlight, in space, for processes such as computation and bioengineering. Knowhow substitutes for resource use, but information can substitute for energy and material consumption, and information produced in space can save data center power on the ground. Standardized shipping containers are an example; by reducing dock time, containers allow for bigger ships with less hull drag. Containers are made possible because they are optimized and routed by computer. Time is money, but in some cases not much money; a product that depreciates (through obsolescence?) 26% per year depreciates 0.5% a week. That product can cross the United States at 15 miles per hour in 218 hours, rather than 65 miles per hour in 50 hours. That reduces value by 0.5% - and reduces vehicle air drag by a factor of 20. If robots do the driving, perhaps on railroad tracks, the extra transportation time does not become high salary. Computation can also predict demand and schedule production, design products faster, make factories more agile, and many other things to shave time and cost.

We may someday collect power in space and ship it to earth. We will not do it in the 2.45 GHz or 5.8 GHz bands - that spectrum is far too valuable and the interference would kill radar and communication. But we might do it at 183 GHz to aerostat rectennas. That is unused spectrum, does not penetrate below the stratosphere, and permits much smaller power satellites and rectennas. However, that will need cheap high volume launch, and alternatives to rockets. However you slice it, the Tsiolkovskii equation is a bastard; carrying reaction mass is hellishly inefficient, and dumping exhaust is unacceptably dirty.

Land versus ocean. Most of the sunlight reaching earth evaporates seawater without doing much, and the world's plant life uses most of the rest of the energy for ... making plants! Big numbers about the solar energy miss the fact that most of the land (even desert) is plant life capturing carbon, in some cases geologically as carbonate exchane for nutrients. Land devoted to solar, and materials devoted to storing that solar, are delaying actions. To capture more CO₂ - put the coal back, and cover all of the land surface that we can with trees, not photovoltaics. We could use something like Stratosolar to capture sunlight in the stratosphere, reducing light levels to permit forests in the Sahara, perhaps. Most of the ocean is dead, and we can certainly use the energy above it withoug harming life.

Product Bioengineering A tree is a house that has not been genetically domesticated. A chopstick is a bit of dead tree too stupid to keep itself clean. A pharmaceutical plant is a factory that should be replaced by ... a plant. DNA builds giant redwoods and nanometer-scale viruses - and it can describe systems, from microchips to skyscrapers, that build themselves if fed with suitable nutrients and materials. Carbon is versatile, and we have a surplus; biomachines can turn CO₂ into skyscrapers, and others can eat iron and copper and excrete plumbing and wiring for the building. George Churches "Regenesis" describes the first steps.


Naam was prudent to leave out the more outlandish possibilities - most people will find his optimism too unbelievable. Most are ignorant and paranoid, and fear the imaginary threats of an empowered world. But education can eradicate these brain diseases, and build a world where Naam's "Infinite Resource" optimism will be considered timid. I hope he and his optimistic friends are able to share more breathtaking visions with each other.

InfiniteResource (last edited 2015-09-03 05:38:48 by KeithLofstrom)