And isn't it Holonic? (Don't'cha think?)

A project log for Metabolizer - A recycling center powered by trash!

A deployable power plant that eats trash and turns it into energy, electricity, fuel, and eventually very nearly anything else.

Sam SmithSam Smith 10/22/2018 at 13:490 Comments

The metabolizer is made up of at least 7 distinct sub-systems- the Hearth, the Turbine, The Shredder, The Printer, the Gasometer, and the Generator. Like the organs in your body, and the cells inside the organs in your body, and the organelles inside the cells inside your body, the individual machines that make up the metabolizer all have unique chemical roles to play, and while they can each be considered as distinct systems, they are also dependent on the other machines in the system in order to complete the metabolic process, and so they can also be considered as part of a larger system.

All living things are best described as processes rather than things- life is, by definition, a thing that is constantly happening. And all lifeforms, even the simplest ones we know of, can be described in terms of their sub-systems, things like hearts and cells and mitochondria, and those things can also generally be described in terms of their sub-systems, like ventricles and organelles, and all of those things can all be described in terms of what they take in and what they put out- they are all processes. This may seem kind of obvious, but it’s an important distinction to make, because our language categorizes most of these things as 'nouns', when really they are verbs.

This concept of things as processes nested within larger processes, is called a “holon".  A holon is any thing that can be accurately described as BOTH an individual thing, like a heart, AND also as a component of some larger whole, like a human. A lot of people that I talk to have never heard the term ‘Holon’, but when I tell them what it means, they often have an immediate recognition of the concept. Anyone who’s spent any time looking around this world knows that nature functions in this way, even if we don’t have widely-used words to describe it (yet).

When we're trying to talk about complex systems, it’s important that we make this distinction, because it’s a fundamental part of of how complex systems work. Some things are things that are actually things, like a pile of rocks, or a gallon of water, and some things are better described as processes within a system, like an engine, or a human. A generator and a human can both be described in terms of how much fuel they consume, how much O2 they inhale, how much CO2 and H20 they exhale, and how much work they produce. 

This is not very different from what the Mitochondria in your body are doing (that is- the cells inside your cells inside your organs inside your body). Mitchondria play a pretty specific chemical role- as we all learned in high school, “The mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell”. Mitochondria take in a complex hydrocarbon- in this case glucose (C6H12O6), and react it with Oxygen to produce CO2, H20, and energy, stored in a highly refined, and easy to access from- ATP.

Chemically speaking, there’s no fundamental difference between what a Mitochondrion does in a cell, and what the metabolizer does in my backyard- it takes in complex hydrocarbons, like sugar or polyethylene, and breaks them down by reacting them with Oxygen from the air to create H2O, CO2, and a refined, readily available form of energy. In cells, that refined energy is ATP. ATP is Adenosine Tri-Phosphate- it’s a simple molecule with a 3-phosphorus “tail”. Breaking the third phosphorus molecule off this tails is easy to do and releases a relatively large amount of energy. ATP is the energy that powers all of the chemical processes inside the cell. In the Metabolizer, electricity plays the same role as ATP does in a cell- it’s a highly refined and readily available form of energy that can easily and efficiently power the rest of the system.

In both cases, the energy released from those hydrocarbon bonds is ultimately solar power. All life on Earth, with fascinating but negligible exceptions, is powered by sunlight in one form or another- wind, rain, sun, food, biomass, and fossil fuels are all just flows and storages of solar power. Photosynthesizing organisms build chemical bonds from sunlight, water, and CO2, and everything else breaks them down again. It is the fundamental metabolic relationship that powers life on Earth- build up and break down, production and respiration.

The other half of this reaction is photosynthesis. In plant cells, photosynthesis takes place inside chloroplasts, which use solar energy to vibrate the chemical matrix of chlorophyll in such a way that it catalyzes the production of sugars- some of the simplest hydrocarbons. This is a fundamentally and necessarily reciprocal process- break-down cannot occur without build-up.

Many organisms, like plants and algae, contain BOTH chloroplasts AND mitochondria within their cells, which makes them “photo-autotrophs”- which means they are capable of feeding themselves directly from sunlight- making them independent, autonomous, basically micro-biospheres. Many other organisms, and most notably humans, ONLY have mitochondria within their cells. They are not photo-autotrophs. They are “heterotrophs”- the energy they need to live must come from outside of themselves.

This is why it’s so important to think (and communicate) in terms of holons and processes instead of arbitrary labels like "species". If you think of humans in terms of chemical processes, you quickly see that humans cannot, and do not exist by themselves, in exactly the same way that your heart doesn’t exist without your body. 

Humans do not exist without an ecosystem, made up of a wide range of different species of plants, bacteria, animals, and fungi. By ourselves, we are just an incomplete chemical reaction- breakdown with no build-up. In order to exist, we need each other, and we need a diverse web of other, non-human organisms that have chemical superpowers that we don’t- like turning sunshine into food or decomposing our poo into fertilizer.

The metabolizer, as it currently exists, is basically a meta-mecha-mitochondrion (meta-chondria?). It's still a heterotroph- it requires food, and that food is the chemical bonds embodied in trash and waste biomass. But in the future, isn’t it fairly easy to imagine the system evolving to incorporate new systems, like open-source hydroponic grow towers, algae photo-bioreactors, or water-filtering reed beds, that can perform photosynthesis?

And if it did, the Metabolizer would become a photo-autotroph- capable of sustaining itself (and it’s endosymbiotic human operators) directly from sunshine and other locally available flows of solar energy, without ecological damage.

My dream for this project, ultimately, is to get there- I believe that there should be a globally-available open-source library of disruptively-useful, easily-replicable, small-scale, low-cost, open-source, ecologically-regenerative infrastructure components that enable people anywhere in the world to easily build autonomous, decentralized, autotrophic communities that can provide for as many universal human needs as possible- like clean air, pure water, nutritious food, comfortable shelter, abundant energy, workable material, and useful information, and do it from shine alone, forever, for free.

That’s a big goal. Bigger than me, bigger than you. I don’t know how to do it, I’m not saying I know how to do it, and I’m not saying you should care. But what I am saying that I believe that goal it is possible, and it seems to me to be a difficult and worthwhile goal. The Open Hardware challenge challenged me "Choose a challenge facing the world today and design the best plan possible for the boldest solution you can envision.“

Well, this is the boldest solution I can envision. What I would love more than anything else, is to be able to easily share designs like this with other folks around the world, and work to together to make disruptively useful information as available as possible to as many people as possible as quickly as possible. 

In 1961, Buckminster Fuller proposed the idea of a “World Game”- which he envisioned as a mass mobilization of people and resources on the same scale as a world war, but with the goal of trying to “Make the world work for 100% of humanity in the shortest possible time through spontaneous cooperation, without ecological damage or disadvantage of anyone.”

I couldn't have said it better myself. Game on!