A challenge well suited for the composites industry

Originally titled 'One with Mother Nature'

I believe climate change is at least partly caused by the increase in CO2 from the burning of fossil fuels.

In late August, the remnants of hurricane Harvey deposited 48 inches/120 cm of rain in 96 hours on the house in Houston, TX, US, where I grew up, and where my parents still live. Two weeks later, hurricane Irma lashed the Fort Myers, FL, US, home of my eldest son with greater than 100 mph/161 kph winds shortly after making landfall. Fortunately, while streets were flooded, rain did not make it into my parent’s house and they were able to ride out the storm. My son evacuated Florida, but his house came through fine, although power was out for close to a week. As one can quickly deduce, I have been more than a casual observer of the weather this year. 

Readers of CompositesWorld certainly know that Irma was responsible for the postponement of CAMX in September (now rescheduled for December), disrupting lots of careful planning and anticipated interactions in Orlando. It’s been a wild year for weather in the US, from exceptionally high snowpack and spring rains, ending a six-year drought in the western US states, to the damage wrought by hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria. However, an exceptionally sizzling summer in the far west created a new drought and precipitated a record outbreak of destructive forest fires in late summer. In Indianapolis, IN, where I live, the first day of autumn recorded the highest temperature of 2017, exceeding anything seen in July and August. Clearly, we are in a new reality.

That was on my mind in September, when I participated in the Partner Week event at the National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL) in Golden, CO, US. NREL, a core IACMI partner that heads up R&D in wind turbines, is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year. Founded initially as the Solar Energy Research Institute during the period of oil embargoes, NREL focuses on renewable sources of energy, including wind, hydro, photovoltaic solar and bio-mass, among others, and has extensive capabilities in measuring and forecasting energy demand. Like many of my fellow Partner Week participants, I’m in the camp that believes climate change is at least partly caused by human activity — in particular, the increase in CO2 from the burning of fossil fuels. I also believe composites can play a role in helping to limit the further increase in greenhouse gases, via production of clean energy or reductions in energy usage.

In last month’s column, I quoted from Carl Sagan’s book, Pale Blue Dot, in which he notes that we must preserve the only home we have ever known, referring to Earth. David Houle, a noted futurist and author of the book, This Spaceship Earth, provided a compelling keynote address at the NREL conference, emphasizing that we must all see ourselves as crew, rather than merely passengers, if we are to sustain life on our planet. He believes sustainability is only meaningful if pursued on a planetary level. Houle forecasts that, when we look back 10 years from now, we will see the 2015-2017 period as “the beginning of the end of the fossil-fuel era” and that humanity must reach for 50%+ non-extractable energy by 2030. We no longer worry about running out of oil or natural gas — in fact, it is, today, both plentiful and cheap. We are, however, entering a period where renewable energy growth will accelerate, driven by rapidly declining costs and improved technology.

Composites already play a dominant role in the wind energy arena, and the energy used to produce the turbine is recovered in a couple weeks of turbine operation. The use of lightweight composites will extend the range of battery electric vehicles, and, perhaps just as significant, future battery-powered aircraft, both of which will expand sustainability. Increased use of bio-derived resins and reinforcements, more energy-efficient buildings enabled by composites, and the development of a viable recycling infrastructure for composites will help even more.

To do the above on a grand scale, however, will require an enormous investment in capital and people, be that for developing lower energy carbon fiber production capacity, molding machines, 3D printing capability and/or other technologies. Puon Penn, executive VP and head of technology capital for Wells Fargo, and a speaker at the NREL conference, believes we (worldwide) must make an additional investment equivalent to US$1 trillion annually toward sustainability over the next decade to have a chance to save ourselves from long-term climate effects. Notably, the money to finance this appears to be available. His biggest concern is that we have neither the infrastructure nor the talent to do it. “There are a lot of people ‘interested’ in sustainability,” Penn says.  “We need more people ‘committed’ to it.” I think that is a challenge well suited for the composites industry and one we ought to — in fact, we must — take up as a united, worldwide community.