Saturday, January 08, 2011

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Please take a few minutes to wade through the following 9 paragraphs and see if you can come out the other side with a better understanding of how we could be living here on Earth, even with a collapsing biosphere.

Have we run out of room on... this planet? There are those who believe we have reached the overpopulation point. There is plenty of hard evidence that we may have done so: crammed cities, rampant poverty in rural as well as urban areas, malnourished people spread all over the less developed parts of the world, the whole situation complicated by any number of extreme weather events: drought, flood, wind storms, earthquakes, etc. and human caused environmental degradation, soil depletion, and more. It is becoming increasingly hard to provide the masses of humanity with clean water, nutritious food, waste treatment, and, in high pollution zones, fresh air to breathe.

The true picture is not pretty, especially if one looks at the poorest places on the planet. Climate change is going to complicate matters even further with an increase in unpredictable and extreme weather events including a steady rise in worldwide sea levels and the submergence of highly populated lowlands. Inland aquifers are being sucked dry after being poisoned by agricultural chemicals and industrial toxins. Deserts are expanding. Wars are proliferating. Oil is becoming more rare and expensive. We’re running out of power. Given the current data, prospects for a peaceful and abundant future do not look too good unless you are one of the few wealthy elite with the means to pay any price to purchase the remaining resources.

It doesn’t have to be this way. The future does not have to be grim. We do not have to scramble for scraps if we create a practical and affordable solution for dealing with the very real problems we actually face. Most thinking people know how bad it already is and can imagine how bad it might become if we do not change course and quickly. What is this course change? That’s the real question. Does it have something to do with massive population reduction and a return to some sort of primitive existence? Should we attempt a mass migration to Mars? The answer is much simpler than that. We need to recycle everything.

There is plenty of matter available on Earth to make life support miracles happen. The trick is in how we manipulate and shape it and for what purpose. Guns will not keep anyone alive if there is nothing left to hunt. I wouldn’t make more of those. Cell phones can be great communication devices yet I wouldn’t try eating one. I’d much rather step into a high intensity food production greenhouse and chomp down on a carrot than attempt to feed on sawdust and old shoe leather. Get my point? We need to make something new which can get us out of this mess.

The greenhouse is good. It’s part of the solution. Tweek it up a bit and that greenhouse can do more than provide food. It can turn dirty water clean, eliminate organic wastes, and provide fresh oxygen-rich air. Wouldn’t that be nice? Rich people might not care because they already have those things in abundance. Poor people are in dire need and the dwindling middle class is close on their heals. Whatever the economic case, remember this word: CELSS (Closed Ecological Life Support System). It is a NASA-derived term for a biological based machine which could keep a colony alive on Mars. I think CELSS has direct application here on Earth as well. We have a lot of people in dire need of sustainable life support.

I actually believe there is more than enough room on this planet for the current population, even an increase, if we employ CELSS to process our stale air, wash water, and organic wastes, using these “natural resources” in conjunction with nature and natural processes to provide us with the essentials of life. In fact, if we have a mind to, we can build life-supporting CELSS out of recycled materials, or mass manufacture them in every style from the developing world economy model to the middle class add-on edition. Custom jobs could be done for the rich and famous.

There is a nice side effect from employing CELSS. Once people start using them on a regular basis, they stop polluting and otherwise disrupting the surrounding environment which then regenerates! Yes, nature has a few tricks up her sleeve. She can perform them if we aid her in the process. The first thing we need to do to help the situation is to stop using Mother Earth like she was our personal milk mom. Aren’t we’re supposed to be adults here? The mark of a mature person is their ability to care for their needs without having to run home to mommy‘s breasts. If I was an ambassador from the Intergalactic Federation sent to Earth to determine whether or not humankind had an advanced enough civilization to merit official entrance into the Federation, I would have to say, “Not yet. They still haven’t learned how to grow up and care for themselves”. We could do so.

“We will transform the Earth from the garbage pit of civilization into its rightful place as the breadbasket of the solar system, plant propagator, green machine, exporter of fine food to the Moon, Mars, and world’s beyond.” - the Alchemist

The task before us is to design and construct small scale “closed loop” ecosystems which are capable of supplying all our basic life support needs on Earth. Advanced versions can be sent to the Moon or Mars once we’ve field tested and perfected CELSS. For now, I would be happy to have one in my yard. Just think of the food, water, and sanitation bills I wouldn’t have to pay! Now, don’t get me wrong. If you love to garden outdoors, by all means continue to do so. Mother Earth loves to be cared for. I’m not talking about having to live sealed in a bubble. Yet, wouldn’t it be nice if your home was outputting oxygen, food, and clean water while you were outside taking it all in? Instead of sucking it all up we could be putting back more than we consume. That is a mark of a highly advanced civilization worthy of Federation membership.

Can you help? We’re not asking for money. Most of all, we need your accumulated knowledge and research capabilities. There are many questions on the particulars of CELSS operations. I’ve built a couple of human scale CELSS-tech “test beds” to see for myself what works and does not. I’ve studied the literature, read the science papers, discussed the details with other researchers, lectured on the topic, presented my own papers, and am now asking if you would like to be involved in the process of perfecting CELSS. There is a whole planet in need of upgrading. It helps if we are working together cooperatively.

More information can be found in this group: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/andorprojex where people interested in sustainable systems and communities gather to cooperatively “think tank” viable solutions. We hope you can join us there.

CELSS (Closed Ecological Life Support System) is a “living machine” which, ideally, provides it’s inhabitant(s) with 100% of their life support (organic food, fresh oxygen-rich air, clean water) by recycling the waste p...roducts generated by the inhabitant(s) and by the CELSS itself. We call that “closing the loop”. As it has been said, “the devil is in the details”. CELSS is relatively new in the world. Now, of course, the planet-wide life supporting biosphere it a large scale CELSS. By studying what nature does to recycle we may apply these principles on a much smaller personalized scale. It helps to design for the worst possible scenario in the harshest environments (like Mars) and then it becomes easier and simpler to build robust systems for kinder climates. So, to start, imagine we have landed on a barren planet with no air, water, or food to eat except what we brought with us. Here’s what we have to work with (this can get gross):

MATERIAL INPUTS

1) HUMAN BODY: feces, urine, farts, belches, vomit, snot, spit/saliva, phlegm, sweat, tears, earwax, milk, sperm/semen, smegma, menstrual blood, blood, pus, nail clippings, hair, dead skin, water vapor, CO2, trace gasses, heat, medicine residues, and (if someone dies) dead bodies and body parts

2) PLANTS: unused biomass, garbage, plant oils, O2, CO2, ethylene and other trace gasses, water vapor

3) ANIMALS: much the same as what humans output

4) MATERIALS & PROCESSES: oils, soaps, worn out clothing (composed of natural fibers/dyes only), laundry & wash (gray) water, out-gassings (solvents/trace gasses from materials used in the CELSS shell construction and other items inside the CELSS).

That’s what we have to work with in the “hermetically sealed version“. Of course, on Earth or anywhere there are some useful outside resources, our task would be easier. Yet, if we design the hermetically sealed version, I‘m sure, on the way to the final design, we will cover just about any condition or environment we can imagine. While we are brainstorming this “ultimate CELSS” we need to be aware of the amount of energy required to make the whole thing work. The less energy required the better. Also, technologically complex systems tend to break down faster than simple systems. We adhere to the engineering principle of KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid). We don’t want to design anything which requires a lot of repairs, maintenance, or spare parts. The number of human hours spent per day keeping the system fully operational should also be considered. We’re not into this to work ourselves to death. We shouldn’t have to spend more than a hour or so a day doing our chores in an optimal system. Remember, we’re on a planet’s surface so we have gravity on our side. In space we would have to spin the whole thing to simulate gravity. For now, let’s stay grounded and focused on the transformations.

The MATERIAL INPUTS listed above must be transformed into the following:

1) nutrient rich water and soil for plants, fungi, and symbiotic micro-organisms
2) CO2 and trace gas-rich air for the plants, fungi, and symbiotic micro-organisms
3) clean water for humans and animals
4) oxygen rich air with few trace gasses (ethylene, methane, carbon monoxide, and other exotics) for humans and animals
5) continuously and regularly producing organic food supply for humans and animals

Get the picture? What goes around comes around. There is a dynamic relationship between humans, animals, plants, fungi, and symbiotic micro-organisms. What we are trying to do is optimize this relationship by building containment vessels which provide optimal conditions for each of the above. We want to make everyone and everything involved very comfortable and in a state of being nurtured at all times. We also want to do this in a way which prevents pathogens from thriving. We’re aiming for a high oxygen level (aerobic) conditions throughout the CELSS. Anaerobic conditions (such as found in septic systems) are to be avoided because they breed disease and poisonous gasses like hydrogen sulfide (rotten egg odor) and methane. Plants out-gas ethylene which is, at certain concentrations, a growth inhibitor for the plants. It too needs to be converted or a hermetically sealed system will die.

How large should a fully operational CELSS be? As small as possible and small is possible. Here are some optimistic figures from the CELSS life support research community:

ESTIMATED GROW SPACE REQUIRED PER PERSON
(may be stacked into multiple levels for more efficient operation)

14 m2 - Gitalson
56 m2 - Bios3
20-30 m2 - Cullingford & Schwatekopf
13-50 m2 - Bugsbee & Salisbury
56.9 m2 - Oleson & Olson
8-20 m2 - MacElroy & Averner
15-20 m2 - Eckhart
24 m2 - Hoff
15 m2 - Vasilyew

As you can see, the above figures are tiny compared to the amount of space the average human being requires for life support in both hunter/gatherer and agriculture-based civilizations. Since the Earth’s “carrying capacity” is already exceeded because of the rapidly expanding human population, anything we do to reduce an individual’s “footprint” (space/resource required to keep a person alive) is a step in the correct direction. Lab work (NASA Ames) has already proven that all the air, water, and food for one person can be grown in a 16’ x 16’ space under optimal conditions with controlled atmosphere, temperature, lighting, and nutrients. Of course this was a highly engineered “hydroponics” style system which required considerable electricity for the lighting, pumps, and climate control plus an outside source of plant nutrients. So, it cannot really be called a CELSS but it sure is an encouraging experiment. I bet we can do pretty good together too!

That’s enough for the moment. Read through the above a few times and start dreaming of how you might turn each of the MATERIAL INPUTS into what we need to get in return. If you have any ideals fleshed ot in some detail, please share them with the group. My job here is to facilitate the “think tanking” and keep us on course to building a functioning CELSS. I’m going to be poking and prodding so don’t take it personally when I question you input or put a new twist into the puzzle. Doing so is part of my job facilitating this group. One thing I’m going to be stressing is INTEGRATING FUNCTIONS. If one piece of hardware can do 3 things simultaneously, I’m probably going to suggest it.

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