Geologic Column: Blockbuster solutions

by Fred Schwab
Sunday, March 13, 2016

LED light array. Credit: Copyright

I see a lot of movies. By “a lot,” I mean about 250 per year. Since retiring, one of the activities my wife, Claudia, and I have enjoyed is traveling around the U.S. attending film festivals. When you see as many movies as we do, you tend to forget most of them. Occasionally, though, one sticks with you. Such is the case with “The Imitation Game.” The 2014 film recreated the innovative efforts of British scientists, led by Alan Turing, to cleverly reverse-engineer the Enigma cipher machine used by the Axis powers in World War II and break their secret codes. The film dramatically illustrated how novel ways of evaluating or explaining data can reveal new answers. It reminded me of how science makes leaps forward when practitioners take unconventional steps. This happened repeatedly in geology in the 1960s and ‘70s.

Starting in the ‘60s, the plate tectonics revolution snowballed thanks to innovators willing to examine existing data differently. The pioneering work of Frederick Vine and Drummond Matthews on magnetic anomalies over ocean ridges, reported in Nature in 1963, led to the International Ocean Drilling Program and confirmation of seafloor spreading. The definition of plates and our understanding of the basic mechanics of plate movement crystallized with seminal papers by D.P. McKenzie, Jason Morgan and Xavier Le Pichon. Bryan Isacks et al. published seismic evidence that also confirmed plate tectonics. Finally, J. Tuzo Wilson, John Bird and John Dewey applied this new model to ancient mobile belts. We’re still awaiting a blockbuster film on this topic, but that doesn’t make these pioneers' research any less unconventional and worthy of celebration.

I often wonder if we are capable today of taking unconventional steps to find innovative solutions to some of our biggest problems — for example, greenhouse gas emissions and climate change, shortfalls in important ore minerals and resources, and energy issues.

Do simple methods for mitigating climate change exist? We’ve heard mention of emplacing giant shields to block incoming solar radiation, of shooting the equivalent of volcanic aerosols into the air to block or diffuse solar radiation, injecting carbon dioxide deep into rock formations or deep in the sea, and instigating giant algal blooms in the oceans to take up carbon dioxide. But these aren’t as pie in the sky as one I read about in the New York Times just over a year ago: Olaf Schuiling, a retired Dutch geochemist, suggests a unique way to battle climate change using olivine. Exposed to rain and air, this mineral slowly removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere through chemical weathering. Schuiling proposes ramping up this natural process by spreading sand-sized fragments of olivine on surfaces like sidewalks, beaches and roofs. Amid his enthusiasm for the idea, he concedes that mining, processing and transporting billions of tons of olivine could generate significant carbon dioxide emissions in its own right, and he recognizes that the olivine might operate slowly and might not be feasible globally. Although Schuiling’s proposal might not be the best idea, it’s a good example of the kind of innovative thinking we might need.

In terms of mineral resources, can anticipated shortfalls in ore minerals be compensated for by mining the seafloor, or even asteroids in space? In a 2012 article in the Wall Street Journal, J.W. Miller argued that the ocean floor and asteroids are logical backups to terrestrial mineral reserves. Numerous companies, including Nautilus Minerals, are already looking into seafloor prospects. Meanwhile, equipment to mine asteroids — and the moon — is being developed jointly by NASA and Caterpillar, Inc., and the venture firm Planetary Resources is launching a series of probes to determine the feasibility of asteroid mining. Practical difficulties, expenses and environmental concerns may combine to put both seafloor and space resources out of reach, but shouldn’t these pioneering efforts proceed?

Will future energy concerns disappear thanks to breakthroughs in nuclear fusion? This technology unleashes virtually endless amounts of power and produces negligible toxic byproducts. Obviously, fusion warrants continued exploration — and it is being pursued by several international consortia, albeit without much success so far. What other ideas are out there, especially for transportation energy: Will we see better electric cars, better batteries or something we haven’t even thought of yet?

How about conservation? In Denmark, where the city of Copenhagen plans to be carbon-neutral by 2025, engineers are developing intelligent city lighting — a rather innovative plan if you ask me. Arrays of sensors embedded in light fixtures control the whole system: LED streetlights brighten only when vehicles approach; green lights embedded in bikeways direct bikers on paths to systematically avoid stoplights; synchronized signals minimize traffic congestion. Cisco, IBM and Phillips are all working to develop similar setups for other municipalities.

Remedies for complex global problems mushroom when innovative approaches are sought. You never know what seemingly hare-brained idea might turn into a global problem-solver — and potentially a blockbuster movie.

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