Scientific American published an excerpt from William McDonough and Michael Brangart’s new book, The Upcycle.
Can Soil Replace Oil as a Source of Energy? [Excerpt]
William McDonough and Michael Braungart suggest moving beyond sustainability and into practical design that can result in energy abundance
by William McDonough and Michael Braungart
Excerpted from The Upcycle: Beyond Sustainability—Designing for Abundance,
by William McDonough and Michael Braungart. Copyright © April 16, 2013, North Point Press.
Food as a battery—that is what we would like you now to consider. But before we get to the full expression of that proposal, we need to review exactly how batteries function, so you can appreciate the beauty, and potential innovation, made possible by thinking through this metaphor.
Batteries are not storage containers for electricity, as one might assume. They don’t provide power because somehow someone pumped in the electricity and locked it in, and now it’s ready for use. Instead, they contain the potential for an electromagnetic reaction, which, if engaged, creates power. The battery consists of a negative solution (the anode) and a positive solution (the cathode) separated by the ions of the electrolyte. The extra electrons in the anode want to move to the cathode, but there is no path through the electrolyte between them.
When a wire connects the negative end to the positive end of the battery, the electrons can flow through the wire, seeking their harbor in the cathode. These free-flowing electrons, in the middle of that path, power your flashlight or start your car.
The beauty of a battery is that it is potential energy, ready for your use, when and where you need it. Should the battery run out of charge, its power is recharged by reversing the process, forcing the electrons from the cathode into the anode. Then you can start again using your battery to provide electricity.
Now think of how humans conventionally create energy. We burn fossil fuels—i.e., carbon-based organic compounds (as we have said earlier, fossil fuels are ancient organic compounds)—and inadvertently turn them into carbon dioxide, among other things. Photosynthesis is an electromagnetic reaction that frees electrons from water to turn carbon dioxide into organic compounds.1 It is the reversal of the burning of fossil fuels. It is recharging the battery. It is recharging our power source. If people don’t allow the recharge of that battery, the world can’t recapitalize.
If one looks today at our organic battery, this biosphere, which has provided all the energy that people have used for their needs for millennia (the fossil fuels in coal and oil; the biofuels in wood), one might begin to understand the importance of recharging. Human beings have every reason to want to do so.
Read the full article here.