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 that, nor about how the Chrysalis machine deals with the pollution it must necessarily produce. But, just looking at the number of steps involved, the whole thing must be awfully complicated and expensive. 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 an existing 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)


Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)