4. Making the World

 

Fewer calories, more energy — A new design mentality — No limits to innovation — Distributing control — Organizations that learn — Getting as smart as clams — Repurifying Swiss drinking water — Ephemeralization — Born-again materials


Industry makes things. It takes materials—generally out of the ground—and processes them into desired forms. These objects are distributed, sold, used, discarded, and then typically dumped back in or onto the ground. Because economic consumption doesn't create or destroy matter but only changes its location, form, and value, the same tonnages that were mined from the ground as resources, treated, transported, made into goods, and distributed to customers are then hauled away again as waste or emitted as pollution.

For the average American, the daily flows of materials (other than water) total more than twenty times a person's body weight, nearly all of it waste. But that waste can be greatly reduced without compromising our well-being. Any improvement that provides the same or a better stream of services from a smaller flow of stuff can produce the same material wealth with less effort, transportation, waste, and cost.

MORE ENERGY-EFFICIENT MANUFACTURING
For centuries, even millennia, engineers have sought to reduce industry's use of energy and resources. The previous industrial revolution sped the transition from Newcomen's 0.5 percent efficient steam engine to today's better than 50 percent efficient diesel engines. For decades, the energy used to make a given product has been falling by typically a percent or two a year—faster when energy prices rise, slower when they fall. Yet at each stage of the industrial process, a host of opportunities still exists for doing more and better with much, much less. Even in the most efficient countries and industries, opportunities to wring out waste and improve product quality, as human ingenuity develops new technologies and finds better ways to apply them, are expanding faster than they're being used up. This is partly because technology improves faster than obsolete factories are replaced, but often it's just because people and firms aren't yet learning as fast as they could and should. The possible improvements will no doubt lose momentum at some point, but it's no more in sight than is the end of human creativity.

To look at only one example, chemical manufacturing uses heat and pressure, first to cause reactions that shift and shape molecules into desired forms, then to separate those products from undesired ones. Chemical engineers have been saving energy and materials costs for over a century, cutting U.S. chemical firms' energy intensity in half just since 1970. They've plugged steam leaks, installed thermal insulation, and recovered and reused heat. But there's still more to be saved—far more. "Pinch technology" helps deliver heat at just the temperature required for the process and then recover it. These two improvements can often save another half or more of the remaining energy, yet pay for themselves quickly—within six months in typical retrofits. Meanwhile, designer catalysts are being tailored to help make specific chemical reactions take place faster and more efficiently, yielding less mass of the undesired products that in fine chemicals often weigh 5 to 50, and in pharmaceuticals 25 to 100-plus, times as much as the desired product.

No industry lacks potential for radically better energy efficiency, not even the world's most advanced major business, the making of microchips—the highest-value-added sector of U.S. manufacturing, and soon to be one of the world's largest employers. Chipmaking plants are consistently designed so poorly that most of their energy can be saved with 100-plus percent typical after-tax returns on retrofit investments, better operations, and faster, cheaper construction of new plants. For example, a large Asian chip-assembly plant in 1997 cut its energy bills by 69 percent per chip in less than a year; a Singapore chip-making plant between 1991 and 1997 cut its energy use per wafer by 60 percent with half the paybacks under twelve months and four-fifths under eighteen months; another saved $5.8 million per year from $0.7 million of retrofit projects. Chipmakers, with $169 billion worth of new plants on the drawing boards worldwide, are just discovering that highly efficient plants, and the design and management philosophy they reflect, will allow them to outcompete their rivals.

The potential for saving energy, resources, pollution, waste, and money in the industrial realm would take many specialized books to describe, because its range of activities is so diverse and complex. The U.S. chemical business alone comprises more than 30 industries producing over 70,000 distinct products in more than 12,000 factories. However, if considered in sufficiently general terms, the methods to increase industry's energy and material productivity can be classified into at least six main categories, which often reinforce one another:

  • new technologies
  • controls
  • corporate culture
  • new processes, and
  • saving materials


DESIGN
The whole-system approach applied to Hypercars can be applied in the rest of industry, too: Virtually all the energy-using equipment now in use was designed using rules of thumb that are wrong. Asking different questions, much as the scientist Edwin Land did when he described invention as "a sudden cessation of stupidity," can suggest areas to be targeted for innovation. This can achieve large energy savings in such commonplace equipment as valves, ducts, fans, dampers, motors, wires, heat exchangers, insulation, and most other elements of technical design, in most of the technical systems that use energy, in most applications, in all sectors. This new efficiency revolution, much of it retrofittable, relies not so much on new technology as on the more intelligent application of existing technology, some of which dates back to the Victorian period.

Sometimes the best changes in design are the simplest. Enabling America's half million laboratory fume hoods to use 60–80 percent less fanpower yet become even safer is largely a matter of changing the position of one louver. In the mundane but very costly task of removing contaminated air from cleanrooms, a new mechanical flow controller, using a single moving part operated solely by gravity and airflow, can reduce energy use by around 50–80 percent, reduce total construction cost, and improve safety and performance. New geometries can double the efficiency of sewage pumps and quintuple that of aerators. Such simple but large opportunities abound in the heaviest industries, too. Steel slabs are normally cast far from the rolling mills that make them thinner, so by the time they arrive to be rolled, they need to be reheated; moving the two processes closer together saves about 18 percent of that reheat energy. The U.S. glass industry's goal of halving its process energy consumption by 2020 will depend partly on losing less heat from regenerative furnaces. R&D so far has focused mainly on the smallest loss—the 23 percent that is dissipated up the stack. But why not first address cutting the biggest loss—the 40 percent escaping through the furnace wall, which can be superinsulated?

It may finally take a wakeup call to bring about a shift of design mentality in some entrenched industries. Few believed that Weiss, a Hamburg oil re-refinery, could eliminate its unlicensed discharge into the harbor until Greenpeace activists got impatient, plugged up the pipe, and announced that the plant had two hours to figure out how to clean up before its tanks started overflowing. The plant shut down for a half year, completely redesigned its refining process, and hasn't discharged effluent since.…

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