The Lesson of Aluminum

Gaius Plinus Cecelius Secundus, known as Pliny the Elder, was born in Italy in the year AD 23. He was a naval and army commander in the early Roman Empire, later an author, naturalist, and natural philosopher, best known for his Naturalis Historia, a thirty-seven volume encyclopaedia describing, well, everything there was to describe.

In one of his later volumes, Earth, book XXXV, Pliny tells the story of a goldsmith who brought an unusual diner plate to the court of Emperor Tiberius. The plate was a stunner, made from a new metal, very light, shiny, almost as bright as silver. The goldsmith claimed he had extracted it from plain clay, using a secret technique, the formula only known to himself and the gods.

Tiberius, though, was a little concerned. The emperor was one of Rome’s great generals, a warmonger who conquered most of what is now Europe and amassed a fortune of gold and silver along the way. He was also a financial expert who knew the value of his treasure would seriously decline if people suddenly had access to a shiny new metal rarer than gold. “Therefore”, recounts Pliny, “instead of giving the goldsmith the regard expected, he ordered him to be beheaded.”

The shiny new metal was aluminum, which remained scarce for a very long time after the beheading. It was the creation of a new breakthrough technology known as electrolysis, discovered independently and almost simultaneously in 1886 by American chemist Charles Martin Hall and Frenchman Paul Héroult that changed everything. The Hall-Héroult process, as it is now known, uses electricity to liberate aluminum from bauxite. Suddenly everyone on the planet had access to ridiculous amounts of cheap, light, pliable metal.

Save the beheading, there’s nothing too unusual in this story. History is littered with tales of once-rare resources made plentiful by innovation. The reason is pretty straightforward: scarcity is often contextual. Imagine a giant orange tree packed with fruit. If I pluck all the oranges from the lower branches, I am effectively out of accessible fruit. From my limited perspective, oranges are now scarce. But once someone invents a piece of technology called a ladder, I’ve suddenly got a new reach. Problem solved. Technology is a resource-liberating mechanism. It can make the once scarce the now abundant.

So what do we have shortage of? Water? Energy? The Earth is a water planet covered 70 percent by Oceans, however 97.3 percent of all water on this planet is salt water. As for energy, there is over five thousand times more solar energy falling on the earth surface than we can use in a year. It is not an issue of scarcity, it’s an issue of accessibility. Yet the threat of scarcity still dominates our worldview.

Abundance

Excerpt from ‘Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think
By Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler

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