Can we afford our technological salvation?

Bad news for techno-optimists: New research suggests that advanced manufacturing technologies are ever-more energy intensive.

Published May 5, 2009 6:34PM (EDT)

Techno-optimists believe that we can innovate our way out of the fundamental resource constraints that threaten to strangle the Industrial Revolution. And why not? The record of technological progress over the past couple of centuries -- or past couple of decades -- is astounding. Add a few hundred million hustling Chinese and Indian engineers and scientists to the global mix, and I have no doubt that my children will be just as boggled by what their children take for granted as I am by their own smart-phone/wi-fi/YouTube existence. Solar-powered smart-grid-connected electric cars riding on the California highway, here we come.

But technological progress ain't cheap. In fact, according to the MIT scientists who authored "Thermodynamic Analysis of Resources Used in Manufacturing Processes," published in the January issue of Environmental Science & Technology, (found via Energy Bulletin), the further up the chain of advanced manufacturing technology you go, the more energy you use, as measured by "electrical work per unit of material processed." (US News & World Report has a nice summary of the research here.)

So what we might think of as the classic standbys of old-school manufacturing -- machining, injection molding, metal melting for casting -- actually are less costly in terms of electricity consumption than new school sensations like semiconductor manufacturing and nanomaterial processing. Indeed, write the authors, "It is apparent that electricity use per unit of material processed has increased enormously over the past several decades."

New manufacturing processes can improve and furthermore can provide benefits to society and even to the environment by providing longer life and /or lower energy required in the use phase of products. Furthermore, they may provide any number of performance benefits and/or valuable services that cannot be expressed only in energy/exergy terms. Nevertheless, the seemingly extravagant use of materials and energy resources by many newer manufacturing processes is alarming and needs to be addressed alongside claims of improved sustainability from products manufactured by these means.

To choose just one example of how this thermodynamic bottleneck could pose some real problems for humanity, consider solar power. Photovoltaic solar power relies intensively on semiconductor-manufacturing technologies, and newer thin-film solar is part of the nanotech revolution. But producing enough solar power to make a dent on human energy needs will require energy-intensive manufacturing on a massive scale.

And judging by comments reported in a story on the carbon footprint of the Internet in the UK Guardian, we're going to need more and more electricity, not just for the electric cars of the future, but to sustain our own Internet-entangled lives right now. The Web's demand for electricity is growing "exponentially" faster than the revenue models for Web-based businesses. YouTube alone requires so much server space and bandwidth usage that it is supposed to be sucking down Google's profits at an alarming rate.

"In an energy-constrained world, we cannot continue to grow the footprint of the Internet ... we need to rein in the energy consumption," said Subodh Bapat, vice-president at Sun Microsystems, one of the world's largest manufacturers of web servers...

"We need more data centers, we need more servers. Each server burns more watts than the previous generation and each watt costs more," he said. "If you compound all of these trends, you have the perfect storm."

The Guardian reports that "scientists estimate that the energy footprint of the net is growing by more than 10 percent each year." Combine that with the increasing energy-per-unit-of-material-processed cost of manufacturing the technologies at the heart of the computer age, and you are faced with a pressing question: How long will we be able to keep affording our brave new world?

Not a week goes by when one of my children doesn't have something to show me on YouTube. The library of culture, high and low, accessible through just that one interface is beyond anything humans have ever known. And my kids take it totally for granted. Like wi-fi itself, it is as normal a part of household existence as water coming through the kitchen faucet or lights turning on at the flick of the switch. But it's all predicated on an endless supply of cheap energy, which last I checked, is not one of the inalienable rights granted to us by nature or the Constitution. I myself, am a techno-optimist, but keeping this show on the road looks like more of a challenge every nanosecond.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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