People quite regularly notice that I do use energy metrics and ignore economic realities in my assumptions. There are few good reasons for that. And let’s consider some aspects on an example of the problem of using smart matter on a large scale for megastructures like space lifts or other stuff.
A point about economics and physics.
Each solution consists at least out of 2 components. One is determined by the physics of processes which allow the thing to happen. Those are quite robust criteria, it is hard to bend them, and they define the best case scenario for any potential implementation.
The second component is economics and it depends on multiple unknown factors – the price of devoting sufficient resources to implement the particular implementation aka what it the costs to prioritize the direction against other activities we have to do and wish to do. This also includes operation costs – which depend on “efficiency” of implementation.
Efficiency not necessarily in terms of how good it implements particular physical processes, but the efficiency of establishing the particular implementation in the given conditions of technological development, the place, and other factors which affect the particular implementation when we compare it with other potentially possible implementations, but which not necessarily viable to be implemented in given circumstances. As an example – not enough skilled labor, not enough energy or expensive energy(that’s why producers of cheaper energy may prefer energy intensive productions), space available, some raw materials, or supply of sufficient quality some required components, safety issues etc. So a preferable, more efficient from the physical perspective process may be not necessarily the efficient way for the particular economic system.
The economics of implementation does not exist on its own but goes in the context of some particular economic system(world economics, countries economics), so not only an estimation of an implementation is vague by itself, but also it depends on market/global economics itself.
We try to minimize the cost by selecting a particular solution from different implementations, maybe for the same physical principle, and if we would have 0 cost solution(and there are such, some local and small cases) we would probably use it, and then we would be restricted purely by physics of the processes builtin in the implementation and to improve the situation we should select a better physical principle.
But roughly speaking cost of any potential implementation is unlimited(it is not true, more correct would be a projection of the cost is unlimited). As well know example is an estimation of the cost to build Death Star – $15,602,022,489,829,821,422,840,226.94 – no, it does not, just for the fact one does not have what is required to build even a 1:1 model of the thing. Not talking about the possibility that it might be the price of a hamburger at that time, and your pocket may be full of pieces of paper with a bunch of zeros on them, and exchange rate to one peso may surprise you.
There is no perfect way to estimate second component(price of implementation) because of their relative nature because of resources available, and because of it quite a relative thing by nature of economics and how we establish prices. However, it is possible to have some sort of metrics, and using energy as a scale to measure things isn’t a bad way to do so. We definitely need it to do things, and energy may cost something in terms of potential economics where/when the solution is implemented.
There are few directions to address the production of the components required – aka carbon nanotubes. One direction is seeking more efficient and better ways to produce CNTs and one of the potential sub-directions there is considering them as a chemical compound, and sub direction of that sub direction is using suitable machinery like genetically modified bacteria. There are known proteins which digest CNTs, so it kinda tells us that reverse process also potentially possible. So as one of the ways to solve the problems is to seek for the proper combination of amino acids which form proteins which can do the job we need. A good amount of computing power is a help here – so we can calculate stuff and seek for combinations which may work for us.
Another direction is to have bazillion amounts of energy and implement the technologies we already have – they aren’t great, but they are at least something, we capable to produce submeter size strands.
But what is common in those 2 situations – bazillion of energy helps them to achieve the objective. And it does not matter how much money do you have – if you do not have enough energy money does not matter. Money does represent what we have, they aren’t meant to do things by themselves. They are just a tool to manage our resources, and if you do not have enough of what it takes to make some implementation – no magic for ya.
Let’s take single-walled tubes as an example – the price is $250/gramm. Is it labor intensive production? Little kids in X place(ch…) assembly each tube one by one? Maybe(no). Or maybe it is an energy-intensive process? There are technologies which use laser shooting a chunk of carbon to produce different types of carbon stuff – expenses there probably 99% energy the thing uses. Not necessarily a case with SWNTs, but there are quite simple technologies of production, with good results, where energy is still one of the major components and btw if we extend the principle they use – we also may think about growing the stuff in carbon plasma, like crystals – could be nice niche for space which allows to have wast amount of volume to be used for that process to counter the rarefied nature of plasma and utilize the 0g which is helpfull in the case for those cabon nanotube crystell to be suspended in the plasma.
We can calculate the price of a megastructure under current conditions, ignoring for the moment that materials aren’t exactly what we need – by quality or other parameters. And we will figure out that it will cost us X amount of pieces of paper. But we do not have enough of pieces of paper to represent enough energy we need for those processes because we do not have the energy, on the scale we potentially would need.
But okay – fusion shuttles are a reality, so fusion energy is a reality. And if we have enough energy then – Will the cost of energy to be the same $0.1/kWh? – maybe, maybe not. but if it does not cost 0.1 anymore and is 0.01 as an example – does it mean the price of material has potential to be reduced? A single change in one variable, with the rest being the same(with no improvements in the technology of production) can change our price estimations. Proportion and effect will depend on the proportion of different resources used in the production, but when most of the cost is energy, for energy-intensive implementations, then we should expect some drop in prices(which may not happen because as an example nobody wishes to work but enjoy and celebrate the achievement)
But what if we find the way to really produce bazillions of energy, K1 style? Not by means of that smart matter, but a plan0 thing, for reasons let’s say to bust our computational powers which would help us to search for proteins :DD – which is useful capacity for food production, for medicine, and other GMO activities and other K1 uses. And a coincidence it is what we would wish for ourselves to
a) improve the technology of CNT production
b) to use energy instead of calculations for the production.
Is there some means to somehow to connect potential let’s say 170*10^15 W with that $250/gram technology. Energy price may be a way to make a somewhat meaningful connection in the case. To produce the named one gram of SWNTs we need different types of resources – human labor, equipment cost, maintenance cost, energy used, materials used etc. But the same way as we label everything in pieces of paper, we can label it in kWh’s. And in those units, 1 gram of SWNTs has the price of 2500kWh. And those 170*10^15W is enough “money” to produce 68000t/hour with technology and processes we use today. There will be bottlenecks, which needs to be solved, to actually realize that energy money in the product in the quantities it potentially can be realized based on currently used technologies.
Humans involved in those processes are a most obvious bottleneck and that is why automatization is absolutely essential for our future space activity, for us being able to realize even a fraction of what we can do in space, a fraction of what space offers to us even in near Earth locations.
Maybe oil and coal are not useful in space in the way we usually see them being useful, but it does not mean they can’t be needed there – they are a compact form of the element which is needed for technological purposes in our case, and with your old daddy tech for CNT production, it would be nice to have a good supply of named materials, which is another bottleneck.
But there are means to improve productivity by using old tech and GMO tech. Old tech does not need to produce exceptionally long tubes, it can produce short pieces, submicron size, but GMO stuff can connect them(and we can print stuff in the way to place each bacteria in its working place/workbench – isn’t it amazing? Each bacteria can have its individual working place 😀). So we may need even more supply of carbon-based material. So everyone rides fusion cars, fly fusion planes, fusion shuttles, and still oil and coal guys happy to continue to mine and pump 10 million ton a day of each product because it is required in space. I do not say it will last for long because once you can – Venus is a good source of carbon.
So generally, judging future technologies based on current price assumption may lead to a wrong conclusion and wrong preferences. It is not necessarily a pointless activity, but it should be understood that estimations heavily depend on available resources and technologies at that time, and we now can distinguish not only time but a place too when we consider space activity.
Space production does not necessarily make a hamburger cheaper on earth, but it may it cheaper in a space habitat you may be in at the time when you choose to satisfy your hunger with that old classical food.