Unlike all healthy living ecosystems, which regenerate wastes back into living things in an infinite loop powered by sunshine (with fascinating but negligible exceptions), human-designed systems tend to just make new stuff out of stuff that we've either dug up or cut down, and then we just throw that stuff away when we're done with it. The problem is that we're running out of "away", and all that stuff we're making is piling up faster than it can be broken down again. Waste plastics are a particularly problematic example of this paradigm of consumptions, because very few living organisms exist that can break them down again, and none of them can do it as fast as we're producing them.
Yet, however dire our current situation may be, it is not unprecedented in Earth's history. 360 million years ago, plants suddenly evolved the ability to synthesize Lignin- which was up until that point the most complex organic compound that had ever been produced on Earth. For 60 million years (!!!) trees grew, died, fell over, and we're buried, but the solar energy trapped in their chemical bonds was never broken down and released, because no fungi or bacteria existed at that time that could break down woody biomass. (slightly oversimplified side note: That's why we have coal.) It wasn't until white-rot fungi evolved special enzymes that wood became the 100% compostable component of living systems that we know it as today.
Plastics are mostly made of the same stuff as wood (and all living things), and are extraordinarily energy-dense. A gallon of plastic has roughly the same energy content as a gallon of diesel fuel. So whether humans survive the Anthropocene or not, we'd be flattering ourselves to believe that we could stop ALL life on Earth, and that means that SOME living organism will almost certainly eventually evolve a metabolic pathway that can convert the nutrients and solar energy locked up in the plastics in our oceans and landfills, and use those resources and energy to synthesize the physical structures that allow them to continue to live, grow, and self-replicate. It's only natural. It's how we got here. It's what life does. But we don't have to wait for humans to go extinct for this to happen! We built the systems that made the plastic, we can build systems that break them down. We can build systems that meet human needs, break down wastes, and fulfill and create ecological niches rather than destroy them. Don't believe me? Great! That's what makes this project interesting!
Check it out:
It's possible to use plastic and biomass to make fuel that can power internal combustion engines.
It's possible to use an internal combustion engine to do things like shred waste and make electricity.
It's possible to use electricity and and shredded plastic to 3D print objects into very nearly any shape.
The Design Challenge:
This project is my best attempt to design a machine that mimics the metabolism of a living organism, that meets or strives to meet the following criteria:
-is capable of metabolizing all common household wastes (cardboard, paper, plastic, glass, aluminum, etc, etc, etc) into the resources and energy required to power itself as long as there is "food" available.
-that is capable of synthesizing and replicating ALL of it's own parts, enabling it to grow, adapt, evolve, and self-replicate.
-That is open-source, optimized for easy replication, and that is capable of monitoring and documenting it's own performance using a series of sensors that stream that data to the internet, so that successful systems can be replicated, and the success of improvements and adaptations can be easily quantified and compared by makers around the world.
Of course, what I am actually building is not that....yet. That is what I am TRYING...Read more »