Monday, September 9, 2019

Breaking News: Lone Genius Saves the World with his Invention

 Another lone scientist ready to save the world

When I stumbled into this article, I thought it was a joke. You know, the kind that goes, "Scientists find a solution to stop forest fires in the Amazon: all that's needed is to cut the trees and turn it into a giant parking lot!"

But no, it was supposed to be serious. The author of the post informs us in all seriousness that "A self-taught French scientist bankrolled by a French actor has come up with a brilliant solution to the problem of plastic waste. His machine — dubbed "Chrysalis" — converts hard-to-recycle plastic trash into 65% diesel, 18% gasoline, 10% gas and 7% carbon." 

In case you are perplexed, let me explain to you what this guy is proposing to do: 1) you extract oil and gas from the ground. 2) send it to a refinery and turn into plastics 3) manufacture plastic items and sell them, 4) throw away the plastic objects. 5) collect and separate the plastic waste 6) send the stuff to the machine developed by the self-taught French scientist, above. 7) Turn the stuff into liquid/solid/gaseous fuels. 8) separate the fuels. 9) Sell the fuels. 10) Burn them in inefficient thermal engines. And that's called a "brilliant solution to the problem of plastic waste.

Now, what is the efficiency of this 10-step process? We have no data about the efficiency of the Chrysalis process, nor about how the inventor deals with the pollution it must necessarily produce. But, just looking at the number of steps involved, would you think that the whole chain could have an EROEI larger than one, the minimum needed for an energy-producing process to be viable? More likely, it would be way lower.

It doesn't seem that the self-taught genius (or the journalist who wrote the piece) could think it would have been way simpler to burn the plastics in a waste-to-energy plant or, much better: just don't produce so much of the stuff! At which point do people start understanding that there are ways to simplify your life rather than making it more and more complicated?

But, no. The archetype of the lone, smart, intelligent scientist is too powerful in people's minds. Here is another example, rather similar. This time it is two young ladies described as "Students Invent Bacteria That Eat Plastic From The Oceans And Turn It Into Water." Apart from forgetting that plastic is made mainly out of carbon and that turning into "water" only would need some kind of nuclear transmutation, it is the same problem. We have no data on the efficiency and the cost of a process that would imply collecting plastics waste from the oceans, collecting it, treating it, and turning it mainly into additional CO2 that goes into the atmosphere to create global warming. Wouldn't it be simpler just avoiding to produce the stuff that creates so much damage?

These are just two recent examples of hyped press releases all based on the same concept: a lone genius invents something that will save the world. It is an idea that probably comes from the "heroic" period of technology, about one century ago, when inventions were associated with the names of single inventors. So, the light bulb was invented by Thomas Edison, the telegraph by Samuel Morse, the telephone by Alexander Bell, the plane by the Wright brothers, and so on. But that was a different age, when it was possible to build the most advanced plane in the world on the budget of a bicycle repair shop. Today, you could do the same, but a propeller biplane built by amateurs would hardly make a splash in the international aviation market.

Today, the lone genius is as antiquated as biplanes: it is simply because the cheap things have been already invented and now we are left with expensive ones. As a result, most of these modern lone geniuses are inventing things already invented long ago. About the French Chrysalis, I have been hearing about turning plastics into fuel from the time when I was a student in chemistry, in the 1970s and turning carbon-based solids into fuels is a technology known from the time of Franz Fischer and Hans Tropsch, in the 1920s. Maybe the French genius of the article has developed some special trick but allow me to doubt that -- and even if that were the case, the whole idea remains flawed at its roots. 

Similar considerations hold for plastic-eating bacteria. They are a more modern technology, but well known, too. If you search on "Google Scholar," you'll find more than 44,000 papers and patents that mention the concept of "plastics degrading bacteria." The first attempts to develop such bacteria go back to the 1990s. Again, maybe the two young ladies cited in the article discovered some new trick that nobody had imagined before, but I would doubt that and -- all the same -- it is the concept itself that's flawed.

So, we are so desperate about the quandary in which we found ourselves that we can't find anything better than searching for comfort in these stories of scientists described as super-heroes from comic books. But these modern heroes can only reinvent things already invented. It is becoming one more form of pathological science. But how naive can people be?


By the way, about pathological science. Do you remember another flamboyant lone genius, Andrea Rossi, and his cold fusion machine, the E-Cat, that should have saved the world? After nearly ten years from the first announcements, even Rossi seems to have run into doubts about what he is doing because in a recent comment  he stated, 

I arrived to think that cold fusion does not exist. At this point of our theoretical and technological development, after 20 years of hard work, we think that cold fusion does not exist.

But don't expect that he will stop with his claims of being able to produce nearly free energy. If it is not cold fusion, it is something else, but nobody knows what, and he'll go on welding wires at random and boiling water in his strange contraptions while comparing himself to Christopher Columbus.

To conclude, one thing about Rossi that you may have missed: do you know how he started his career of world-saving inventor? Guess what, by doing the same thing that we have been discussing here: turning waste into fuel! Some things just never change.

(h/t Riccardo Zamolo)


  1. The idea to trasform oil into plastic tools one way use, then use those plastic stuffs one way use to have fossil fuel, to burn into engines, it seems a process quite foolish. May be, it is only another kind of synthetic patent, for producing a wide types of synthetic fuels (on using already made plastic wastes, around the world) instead of a traditional base coal for the synthetic fuels low gas serra emissions.

    I think it could be a good idea, to tag this fact as a possibile Early Warning Signal, about the possibility of a world shifting into the Explosive Inertial Surrogation scenario.

  2. Ugo, it is not so much a problem of lone geniuses. Every innovation is invariably claimed to be "sustainable" and "green", but no one is presenting the general picture with supporting figures that help asses the real impact of these "innovations" from a global system's perspective. Because if they did, probably 99.9% of these solutions will appear to be insignificant at best. And this is also true of solutions proposed by many technical experts, who are very knowledgeable in their field, but fail to understand the overall picture (not to mention scientific journalists and communicators). The end result is that the public opinion is lead to believe a mixture of the following myths: "technology will save us all", "the solutions are out there, but the bad oil & gas companies try to conceal them", "it's just a matter of slightly changing our habits", "every small thing, added together, will do the job", etc.

    1. I agree and think too many researchers are part of creating such sustainability myths. I stumble too often over papers in which authors adopt the producers' perspective, as if to say 'Look here! This is sustainability.' I'm generally wondering these days if what we, as humanity, are doing in response to these challenges, is to fight symptoms with their causes.

  3. During the USA/NATO bombing of Serbia in 1999 there was shortage of PET bottles for edible oil, so for some time we had to use empty bottles. There was big canister of sunflower oil in the local shop from which we refilled empty bottles. Why would that be a problem to always use empty glass bottles and refill them at the point of sale? If one doesn't want to frequently refill one liter bottle he can use two or five liter glass bottle. Wouldn't that solve the problem of too many empty PET bottles? Wouldn't that solve the problem of recycling millions of tons of plastic waste?

    In that case less lone geniuses would be required.

    1. Reuse of existing bottles is the ideal, but of course that makes too much sense. Our modern capitalist marketing and advertising behemoth would rebel at such frugality. At one time in the USA, bottles were reused, but those times are long gone. The corporations have foisted the costs of disposal onto local governments and the public.

    2. From what I've heard, PET bottles start leaking harmful substances after the first use and are probably not very good for your health to begin with. In times of need, they are a help, but continuing that very long is not a good idea.

    3. I said in my comment that I propose GLASS bottles for refill and reuse.

  4. Hi Ugo,
    even in the "heroic" period of technology things were not quite as straightforward as many people nowadays assume: there have always been predecessors who did the crucial scientific and engineering work that the today well known people credited with actual inventions (while the others often remained in obscurity) could use. Here are four examples for some of the most well-known inventions from yesteryear :
    Frank from Germany

    1. Correct. But, at least, we had a sort of binary correspondence, one inventor - one invention

  5. The foolishness of a science reporter guilelessly transcribing this nonsense is surpassed only by the credulous public's ability to believe in technofixes as a way out of the corner we've painted ourselves into. In the meantime, so long as folks imagine escapes from the Laws of Thermodynamics are for real, I need some VC funding to bring my perpetual motion machine to market.

  6. Lone inventors are still possible, unconventional thinking still exixt, not so apparent now because patent sistem is quite different now,more convoluted an suited for corporations red tape.
    Burbank work can be replicated by lone agricolture experts ( without special equipment but can't be patented....
    Convertion of waste to fuel is, in my opinion, still a viable route to closed loop cycle,CO2 freed can be converted by plants more easily compared to complex compounds. Plastics are difficult to break because no organism is evolved to use the latent energy in their molecular structure, hi themperature burning is a clever route to solve the problem..... less use and energy recover better!

  7. This scientist is not the problem. The problem was described in 'Poverty and Progress' a book by Richard Wilkinson in 1973.

    Man innovates to get out of resource bottlenecks and then goes into a period where no thought or innovation happens until a new resource bottleneck creates new need. When solutions provide high EROEI man overpopulates and calls it wise.

    Innovation involving science, self taught or otherwise is a new twist. Innovation can be as simple as an irrigation canal or for people living closer to the earth, learning to burn dung as wood becomes scarce.

    The human animal does not think beyond the act of innovating consequently the silliness of this article results. The common herd also thinks in un-quantifiable symbols so little pressure is exerted to examine a future by numbers that do not add up. The common herd has no numbers. Hence no problemo.

    Perhaps generating the right rituals and dances to go along each step of the ten step process could make the bite of an EROEI less than one hurt less. Or we can just say the idea is silly enough as it is and move on to wait for the next silly idea to see if it works, or wait for a sky god to provide magic technology for us.

    A whole lot of waiting is going on.

  8. Ugo,

    I hope you are sitting down for this one.

    1. I think I like it. 43% energy conversion efficiency is quite astonishing. If we can use it to store excess energy from wind or solar plants, it would be quite an invention. The science looks solid, so what is it you try to say?

  9. "So, we are so desperate about the quandary in which we found ourselves that we can't find anything better than searching for comfort in these stories of scientists described as super-heroes from comic books." The evidence supports that hypothesis - Desperation and delusion. I am afraid we seem incapable of doing anything else as we consume the last of our precious resources and that means the earth that was, its plants, animals and minerals and having so polluted the earth with toxic inert chemicals and completed changed its atmospheric gas composition in the process - what is left, we cannot change and will not, those who could and did will be overwhelmed by the rest.

  10. Bad news every day:



Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome and the author of "Extracted: how the quest for mineral resources is plundering the Planet" (Chelsea Green 2014). His most recent book is "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017)