Brave New Material World

About this Blog: Somewhere in the course of arguing back and forth on various LinkedIn groups, John Bullock and I decided to “take it outside” as it were, or maybe offline, or at any rate away from the fray so we could do a deeper dive into things that bother us, fascinate us, and compel us to rattle on forcefully. We hit upon the format of a “blogversation,” whereby we are free to trade thought in a somewhat free form way rather than concocting set pieces in a traditional web journalism style. Also, we’re both rather too loquacious and irrepressible on our own, so we thought that forcing ourselves into something that resembled a format may bear fruit. You be the judge of that, dear readers, we only mean to entertain, inform, and above all, to critically examine, well, pretty much everything! Here’ s our second installment, exploring our relationship with materials. 


John: My focus on material husbandry is a way of getting the lighting manufacturing folk who actually use the elemental stuff to appreciate that they're an important link in the old TAKE-MAKE-WASTE chain, and that they have the means to break with the old ways. Trying to demonstrate that their business model is threatened some way down the line by material scarcity (or escalating cost) is one way of kicking them awake - I hope. In a couple of weeks, I'm re-presenting a talk on Sustainability in the UK Lighting Industry that I gave last September to the Institution of Lighting Professionals - so either someone was listening . . . or no one was listening (though I haven't seen much from the manufacturing sector to suggest that any of those guys have woken up to it yet.)  Perhaps, being simple 'makers' they just touch their forelock to Greater Forces that they assume will get them out of the impending shit.

Clifton: Of course William McDonough has explored the Cradle-to-Cradle thing for a long time- this is pretty much where you’re coming from, right? Do you have a concern that we will paint ourselves into a corner where we come to depend too heavily on a single “Unobtanium”-type element as the weak link in a very big chain- the rare earth thing, or something similar? Is that one of your issues? If so it’s certainly an economic problem as well as a security problem, if, for instance, to indulge in an extreme weird dystopian fantasy, all the Unobtanium is in China and they want to make us their slaves. And this is not all about future dystopia either: the Vikings’ lust for iron was so great that they made “bog iron” by chopping down and burning large forests to boil the iron out of bog water. And there was that whole Trojan War thing, which I understand wasn’t fought over the pulchritudinous Helen but over access to crucial copper, tin or both- more heavy metal. It was the Bronze Age after all.

John: Obviously, if an industry is overly dependent on a single material, or on a single source of that material, then the jeopardy is clear. The common response to that argument is (as with climate change deniers) it'll all come good in the long run because The Wizard of Oz will find a replacement when it becomes necessary (ah - the omniscience and omnipotence that we give to our 'parents'!) But for me, it’s not about this metal or that lump of dirt, its about the entire system being wasteful at a time when wastefulness is being punished on a global scale.

Like a bicycle - my favourite current metaphor - the machine needs to work as effortlessly as possible. Any noise from the derailleur suggests friction around the crank and that's losing energy. When the guy in the saddle is a couple of stone heavier than he should be, that's a couple of stone of wasted effort (and its all coming from the guy in the saddle!) Riding into a headwind is knackering and you learnt to slipstream with your riding companions even though you're just pootling down Dorset lanes. And not everyone wants or can afford a carbon fibre machine, so 'super-efficiencies' aren't the answer - that's just a monetarist resolution to a personal transport issue.

Whether we base our argument on Cradle-to-Cradle or embrace Ellen MacArthur's Circular Economy or boost the BRE's approach to Responsible Sourcing in the Construction Industry (BES:6001) - or go politically nuclear and promote ISO26000:Guidance on Social Responsibility (Corporate Socialist Responsibility) its all the same thing if no bugger jumps on board.

We have a company in Scotland (Umicore) that is offering a leasing service to manufacturers for 'precious metals'. You lease an amount of material from Umicore, but they do expect to get it back once you've finished with it. 

Clifton: It’s also impossible to talk about materials as separate from energy- all the time I was at the LED startup Soraa, I never looked too deeply into what it takes to make GaN, although I know they’re working on GaN reactors to try to lower their risk from too few Japanese suppliers. It’s an energy intensive process for sure, but I don’t know how much embedded energy really goes into it. GaN may end up being a basis for very efficient power electronics, never mind its (still questionable) scalability for LED manufacturing. Perhaps the LED play was just a sideshow for ramping up GaN production to own the much bigger power electronics market- we speculated about this. In general the lighting industry doesn’t give much thought to energy, other than specsmanship over who has the highest Lumens per Watt.

I’ve always been intrigued by the biomimetic approach to manufacturing, where bacteria do the heavy lifting. It sounds really great but it still seems pretty far off. Face it, or culture is very Heavy Metal, or maybe it’s Death Metal. It’s definitely Dazed and Confused right about now. Sorry, but despite being a Led Zepplin fan, I know you know what I’m referring to! Janine Benyus calls it the “heat beat and treat” paradigm.

John: It’s my understanding that the GaN epitaxal layer is thinner than a nano-coating on a carbon-fibre bike frame, and that gallium is produced from bauxite, from which we get aluminium. So, on the face of it, that's not a problem because the earth is rich in bauxite. But our demand for aluminium is exploding all over the planet and we can't (realistically) improve on existing recycling rates. So new aluminium means more bauxite coming from the ground. And (here's a supposition) if we're using more aluminium in buildings, it'll mean that those buildings will trap that aluminium for many years to come - rather than consumer-driven aluminium use that sees a quick turnover. I have no idea what the figures might be.

Clifton: Right- GaN itself is not a rare earth material, but it’s certainly not easy to make in bulk, as very few companies were making it when LED commercialization got started. It’s an interesting history. The first LED materials were made on sapphire, as that was what was available. After the epitaxy science got good enough to make high output LEDs, some companies turned to optimizing substrates. That’s where Soraa came in with its GaN substrate LED, which minimized dislocation densities that resulted from material mismatch. Here’s a paper by GE on the rare earth materials situation; turns out that it appears like there’s plenty to worry about.

And you are spot on about the human cost of extraction- another little embarrassing “externality: of capitalism, right? Mining is still largely an extractive corporate colonial activity, carried out on (and in) the ground by poor people in poor countries to benefit rich countries. When those people move to the mother country, the political climate becomes quite schizophrenic. There’s a good analysis of Trump’s xenophobia-mongering in New Yorker this week- the author points out that Europe also is deeply divided and in considerable turmoil on immigration. We’re getting tribal about it, the same way we’re reverting to tribal (nationalist) thinking in dealing with global warming. So we want the immigrants to go home and stop stealing our jobs, but we’re fine with them “stealing” jobs extracting resources and despoiling the environments in their own countries, along with suffering disproportionately in the process of doing them, right? Never mind the fact that we’d never actually DO the jobs that they’re allegedly stealing from us in our own countries. Farmers in the South in the U.S. tried local labor rather than the Mexicans they were used to after several states passed particularly xenophobic measures that eliminated immigrant labor, and they found that locals simply couldn’t do the work physically as well as emotionally. A disaster. 

John: Let's just say that FEAR is the driving human emotion (it works for me, anyway). When times are good everyone's happy and glad-hands around and its all hail-and-well-met-neighbour!

But when the economy tanks (and it’s been tanking in the UK for a lot longer than the crash of 2008) it becomes a case of “get-off-my-land.”

The  European Union (EU) demands open borders between member states, so unqualified electricians in Poland, earning very little at home, come to the UK and work for a fraction of the rate charged by UK electricians (who still have UK mortgages and UK bills to pay). Employers haven't been obliged to pay a 'national rate' so they've inevitably gone for the cheaper option - the greedy bastards (no, not greedy - they're not making more money. They're just fearful because if they don't do it they don't get the job because someone will undercut them, so they drive down wages. Same old, same old. . . Add to that the fall-out from the love affairs between Bush and Blair and we have North Africa and the Middle East on fire and thousands and thousands trying to escape the conflagration. And now we're just trying to close our doors to the problem. By the way - I heard it suggested a couple of days ago that the US should also take on the burden of these refugees - best of luck with that. 

Clifton: Sure – you can trace a lot of the current geopolitical situation in the Middle East and North Africa to fallout from extraction-driven post war colonial politics as played out by the Allies and Russia. Underneath that layer of course are the ancient tribal power struggles underlying the Abrahamic monotheistic religions- Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Not to digress too deeply on this point, but I just made an important advancement in my thinking about apocalyptic narratives, which are so much at play today as always in human history. In the early stages of monotheism, which evolved largely but not exclusively with the Israelites, a key part of the narrative, after the hellfire and destruction part, was resurrection and salvation for the true believers. It’s a narrative of revenge, created as a psychological survival strategy. Today we’ve discarded the salvation to utopia for the believers part and are only focused on the zero-sum Game Over part, although there’s still plenty of desire for revenge to go around. An interesting situation.

John: I do wonder to what extent we’re ultimately screwed because of a combination of the Mosaic doctrine that we were put on this earth to assume dominion over it and the Christian trope that if we’re very good we get salvation in the shape of an eternal resurrection which, put together, led to the pseudo-pioneers in Washington giving us Manifest Destiny. (Other faith systems are also available and may assume as much or as little blame as may seem appropriate). Though now that God is more or less out of the picture (having left the building) we’re left with Science and Money as the leading deities – and bang goes any kind of external, omniscient (I-saw-what-you-did-there) control over our behaviour. Yikes! 

Clifton: The idea of dominion is also deeply Christian, you’re dead on re: Manifest Destiny, and digging into into these impulses and narratives uncovers some of the underlying logic. Al ot of this is about the transition from tribal organization to larger states. The brain invents ways to explain things and to fool itself with quick explanations when these are the only ones available. Danel Kahneman calls this the availability heuristic. Collective brains doing this is a big part of what we call “culture.” Maybe we can call these narratives and tricks “memes” – cultural ideas that have an evolutionary behavior all their own. Dawkins coined the term, and I’m not sure people really get it yet (I’m still struggling with it). But the invention of the dominion and salvation memes was kind of brilliant in a way, and they are especially potent in combination as you point out. They’ve lasted for close to three millennia, so one might be tempted to conclude that we’re rather hardwired to think and feel this way. Unfortunately I don’t know enough about the eastern religions to draw comparisons – we westerners habitually ignore eastern cultures and history in our existential musings – but I would guess that to the extent that any human culture is aggressive, military, and imperialistic, there’s a strong element of the “dominion entitlement” meme at play. It would be quite interesting to follow this idea in examining what Ghengis Khan did, as it turns out that he was not at all the inhuman monster that later European propaganda made him out to be. Delving into history can be sobering when you realize how bloody long these kinds of propaganda campaigns last and how incredibly effective they can be!

I am fascinated by what’s going on in materials science, and the crew down in Santa Barbara with Steve Denbaars and Shuji Nakamura (both of whom I knew at Soraa) are one of the hot spots on the planet for cutting edge research. 

John: I 'd like to learn a bit more about this as its new to me - but my question to them will be the same . . . when YOU’VE finished with the stuff, how do WE get it back? NO - Just answer the question please and tell me how we get it back. Let's assume for a minute that all the raw material on this planet belongs to the planet's inhabitants; when that stuff gets taken out and used by some corporation or other, it is beholden upon them to replace it when they've finished with it, so the global stockpile is not diminished by TAKE-MAKE-WASTE behaviour. And at this point I have to name-check my favourite social philosopher, Douglas Adams, who, as ever, thought of this before anyone else.

 And all that means that, referring back to your recent post on Global Warming, I’d like to suggest that as well as considering the 'downstream consequences' we must also start looking very closely and with a very concerned eye at the “upstream consequences.” The tendency of the designer (I include myself “in” on this one) is to look at pre-existing available technology (that's the stuff that someone else has already designed and made for us to use) and then we can use that tech in interesting and vibrant ways to help improve our overall way of life.

Clifton: I would argue that considering consequences of decisions and scale is very much about upstream consequences as well as downstream (let's call it "streaming"). It’s also conceivably fundamentally an argument for efficiency. My favorite way to visualize a very physical relationship to energy is when I’m backpacking in the Sierra, get to camp late, and have to decide whether I have enough physical energy in my body to trade off for gathering (and chopping) wood and carrying water. (Fortunately there’s still wood to chop and water to carry). And my ability to chop and carry and do something with the wood and water is utterly dependent on advanced materials in my titanium ax, microfiber composite boots, and coolest high efficiency stove from REI or whatever…right? Anyway that’s a good way for me to understand embedded energy. 

John: Yes - yes - yes: as with the bike-riding business. It’s been an exercise in efficiency to lose some weight, develop some muscle and keep the bike ticking over as silently as possible.

And its all dependent on how good the engineering is in the gearing (though decent brakes help as well). I think I'm starting to see the world more as a System, rather than as a series of individual acts. I notice that Annabel (ma femme), while we're out riding at this time of year, occasionally disappears off the back, only to appear a few minutes later with a few more windfall apples in her bag. I guess that, while you're out in the Sierra, there's the occasional opportunity to do a bit of wood gathering and keeping your water supply topped up - same thing. We see the world as a System because we're able to anticipate what might come next. That's why someone invented brakes for a bike - when you first get on the machine, why have brakes? You're more interested in moving than stopping - braking can come later. Anticipation and imagination - OK, and experience - did that!

Clifton: When I look at what the Narcissitects build and, even worse, unintentionally promulgate - the inconceivable amounts of embedded energy expended in making all that glass and steel in cities, for instance - I mourn, I am humbled and ashamed. Since I’ve been exposed to really important thinking on building envelopes by an under-appreciated building science guy in Canada named John Straube, it’s particularly hard for me to be neutral about this, and in my cohort I must constantly tread very carefully and not go on a Narcissitect bashing spree quite so freely. Architects tend to be rather terrified of the Narcissitects and to squirm when anyone questions their aesthetic (and of course material) excess, despite the fact that it’s about as non-sustainable as we can possibly get. It’s more than a little disturbing. I’m talking about close personal friends…it’s bad. 

John: During the plague years in Mediaeval England there was the phenomenon of Orgies in the Graveyard - now there's a gothic notion. But, after all, it was an Eat, Drink and Screw for Tomorrow we Die scenario! I see some architecture like that - either that or its a group of exhibitionists who never grew up and now channel their teenage tantrums into building design; though sometimes the buildings are quite exciting - just to confuse us.

Given the level of general decadence in our lives, I’m really not sure about the design concept of Hedonistic Sustainability that’s being pushed by Danish architect Bjarke Ingels (or Danish Architectural Genius, as we’re obliged to call him) but an article from the UK Guardian dropped into my inbox a few days ago, arguing that we should give ‘having fun’ a break from any sustainability concerns, so allowing us all to get along enjoying ourselves rather than worrying about tomorrow – though no one mentioned the Gig in the Graveyard, which suggests we’re dealing with lightweights here.