Embracing Your Future: Flying Algal Ships

Hydrogenase design by Vincent Callebaut

You walk toward English Bay to the nearest Hydrogenase Hub, where you are meeting with your team to discuss the presentation.

The hub is a floating algal farm. The farm and the elongated seed-shaped airship docked at its centre both produce biofuel—essentially hydrogen—from the microorganism Chlamydomonas reinhardtii. Your mom, a former environmental consultant and algal scientist—now she writes science fiction—explained to you that this unicellular organism has both plant and animal properties; it carries out photosynthesis but is also heterotrophic (able to use organic carbon to grow) and will in the absence of oxygen produce gaseous hydrogen and metabolites such as formate and ethanol through hydrogenase enzymes. Chlamydomonas reinhardtii was first discovered as a clean source of hydrogen back in 1939 by German scientist Hans Gaffron at the University of Chicago (ironically the same year Germany invaded Poland). Gaffron called it “photosynthetic hydrogen production by algae”; and today it is a process that produces electricity and biofuel with zero emissions. 

The algae farm recycles CO2for the bio-hydrogen airship you will be boarding after your meeting in the hub. You enter the airy station, whose honeycomb circular design resembles a stylized lily pad and glance up through the high nano-glass ceiling toward the elongated seed-shaped transport rising ten stories above you. The sun glances off the diaphanous double helix frame that resembles a freshwater spirogyra. The hub you’re standing in is a floating algae farm with solar cells on top and hydro-turbines below to capture tidal energy. The algae farm recycles CO2 for the bio-hydrogen airship you will be boarding after your meeting in the hub. You enter the airy station, whose honeycomb circular design resembles a stylized lily pad and glance up through the high nano-glass ceiling toward the elongated seed-shaped transport rising ten stories above you.

The sun glances off the diaphanous double helix frame that resembles a freshwater spirogyra. The hub you’re standing in is a floating algae farm with solar cells on top and hydro-turbines below to capture tidal energy.

The concept is the “subversive architecture” of Belgian architect Vincent Callebaut and inspired by the principles of biomimicry, coined by Janine Benyus in 2002 in her book “Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature”.  Callebaut conceived Hydrogenase in 2010 as a 100% self-sufficient and zero-emission transport system using algae. He claimed that a hectare of seaweeds could produce 120 times more biofuel than a hectare of colza, soya or sunflower without consuming land needed for crops or forests. He called Hydrogenase a true miniature biochemical power station. Able to absorb CO2 as the main nutrient through photosynthesis the algae, under anaerobic conditions, produce hydrogen in vitro or in bioreactors. 

You swipe your PAL over the ticket booth sensor and the optional ticket-brochure pops out. You take it and read the specs between glances at the tall vessel loading in the dock of the hub. It’s really like a vertical dirigible, you think, studying the seed-shaped airship with self-cleaning “intelligent” nanostructured glass—inspired by the lotus leaf that doesn’t get wet. The semi-rigid unpressurised airship stretches vertically around an arborescent spine that twists like chloroplast ribbons 400 meters high and 180 meters in diameter.

You read that each Hydrogenase airship is covered with flexible inflatable photovoltaic cells and twenty wind turbines to maneuver and collect energy. The interior spaces provide room for housing, offices, scientific laboratories, and entertainment, and a series of vegetable gardens that provide a source of food while recycling waste.

You read that this self-sufficient organic transport flies about 2000 meters high at about 175 km/hr (twice the speed of a conventional ship). Given its ease in negotiating airspace and its ability to land and take off from virtually any location, the Hydrogenase is used by many groups in various capacities. Your friend Michael who teaches at the University of Victoria uses one as a mobile research station in his studies along the coast of northern British Columbia.  

The vessel is made of “intelligent layers” and “self-separable ceramics”. Its bionic coating draws inspiration from sharkskin that is self-cleaning and flow-efficient. 

Hydrogenase concept with algal farm pods and air ships

You head down the spiral staircase to the third subsea level toward the meeting room you booked earlier on your PAL. The view is spectacular from here through the nano-glass panes. Rays of shimmering light stream through a gently swaying forest of kelp. You glimpse the sun-glinted flickering of hundreds of anchovies as they school through the kelp. This floating farm is an organic purifying station of four carbon wells where the algae recycle the carbonated waste brought by the airships and, in turn, feed the airship with biohydrogen. It’s the new “gas station”, you reflect with a smile.

After your meeting with staff, you and three others of your team board the airship and settle in one of the skyview chambers. The journey is relaxing, like the BC Ferry used to be, but without the pungent smell and pollution of conventional motorized sea vessels. It’s a quiet and relaxing trip with a spectacular view of the Gulf Islands. Your team strategizes your presentation over a light lunch and Matcha lattes. 

Vincent Callebaut’s Hydrogenase

The PA system sounds and a woman’s voice informs you that the ship will be making an emergency landing on Saturna Island to rescue two hikers injured at East Point. This will only add twenty minutes to the trip, the woman assures you. You don’t mind and recall the disclaimer at the bottom of the ticket. Given the ability of this airship to take off and accurately land virtually anywhere, all Hydrogenases are by law mandated to be on standby for rescue missions in rough terrain.

You pull out the ticket and read again: The Hydrogenase is affiliated with the International Red Cross and BC Coastguard. The Hydrogenase must by law respond to any distress call at sea or rough terrain associated with coastal waters. Because of this service, we cannot guarantee a timely schedule.  

You recall how Hydrogenases were deployed in the last hurricane disaster off the coast of Florida last year, saving countless people trapped in the flooding that accompanied the storm. The International Red Cross uses them as flying hospitals.

Bernard frets over the time delay. He is concerned about the lack of preparation and set up time once you get into Victoria. You assuage him gently. The best preparation is sincerity, you tell him. The landscape architect Thomas Woltz, whose work you highly respect, saw himself as someone who embraces the complexity of modern life while seeking meaning and narrative in both natural and human-made environments.

“We’re storytellers,” you tell Andre. Invoking metaphor through design. “They know we’re coming and they know we’re helping someone; they’ll wait for our story. And it’s all about harmony.”

The lines of Henry David Thoreau come to you: Man’s life must be of equal simplicity and sincerity with nature, and his actions harmonize with her grandeur and beauty.

Then you point your PAL at the ServiceBot and order three more lattes. You lean back in your bamboo fabric chair and cross your legs over the leg rest. 

It’s a brave new world. 

Pine forest in Jackson Creek Park, ON (photo and dry brush rendition by Nina Munteanu)

 

Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press(Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

Investing in The Future by Embracing (Climate) Change

Wir müssen uns immer verändern, erneuern, verjüngen; sonst verhärten wir.—Goethe

 

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Nina reading “How to Read Water” on Algonquin Island, Ontario (photo by Nina Munteanu)

In his book, How to Read Water, Tristan Gooley describes a phenomenon called clapotis gaufre. Also known as “waffled clapotis”, the term comes from the French word (clapotis) for “lapping” and describes a standing wave phenomenon created by the troughs and crests of waves as they hit and reflect back from a barrier. The incoming and reflected outgoing waves, in passing each other, form a waffle-pattern that bobs up and down but otherwise appears stationary.

In fact, it is far from stationary.

But we like “stationary.” So much so that, despite the magnitude of planetary-scale change, everything appears stationary to us. People go on with their daily lives as they have for generations: driving cars; living profligately; wastefully consuming energy, disposables and water; bickering about fuel taxes and job security. But this is an illusion, a very dangerous one. Surface inertia hides a depth of motion. In a river, where high-velocity water roars over a steep river-bottom depression, a frothy stationary breaker forms; it is the most dangerous part of the river. What we can’t see, we think won’t hurt us. But what if we could see the ominous dark cloud of carbon dioxide and methane blotting more and more of our sky? What if we could see the fumes billowing out of our cars and the heat radiating from our homes? Or smell the toxins spilling into our rivers and lakes? Or the quiet extinctions happening by the minute in the wilderness?

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Photographs of same Beijing location over a year showing smog days

 

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Old oak tree in Deer Lake Park, BC

What if we could see the fractal signs of change?

Nothing in nature stays the same. If it does, that’s because change has brought it back to what it once was. Trees move. They grow wider and taller; they just do it at a pace beyond our impatient lifestyle. Because their motion is invisible, they are invisible. We think of trees as stationary objects, not living beings. Like a standing wave of frozen time. We observe through the hurried lens of human impatience and self-preoccupation. A quick glance takes in a scene. We forget that we can “see” with other senses. Smell. Touch. Taste. Hearing. As hyposmia and disinterest dulls our senses, we grow less able to recognize the verisimilitudes of Nature’s trompe l’oeils. Trapped by our preordained notions, we no longer see the changes we’re not prepared to see. And that’s the change that kills us.

In witnessing the collapse of fish populations on the west coast in the ‘90s, UBC fisheries biologist Daniel Pauly noticed that people just went on fishing ever smaller fish. The collapse occurred through what he called “creeping disappearance.” Pauly named this impaired vision “shifting baseline syndrome,” a willing ignorance of consequence based on short-term gain.

One could argue that the inability to feel and connect beyond our immediate line of sight can be a good thing—a kind of selective memory that allows us to adapt to each “new normal.” Mothers of several children can testify to the benefits of “forgetting” their hours of labour to give birth. Hence the ability and willingness to repeat this very painful experience. Is this part of successful biological adaptation in all of us? The ability to reset?

Nina-Kevin playing

Author and her son enjoy an outing

Or is it rather that our mother chooses not to forget but to relegate her memory of the previous birth behind something far more beautiful and wondrous to remember and something she is deeply connected to: the miraculous birth of her child—her investment in the future. Shifting baseline syndrome is part of a larger amnesia, one that encompasses many generations; a selective memory driven by short-sightedness that comes mostly from lack of connection. But to successfully invest in our future, that is precisely what we must do: connect.

If only we could see the fractal signs of change…

Bill McKibben wrote in The New Yorker, “Climate change isn’t just a threat. It’s an opportunity for us to live happier, more fulfilling lives.” True happiness comes with long-term fulfillment, not short-term material wealth and comfort. When we focus from ourselves to embrace the changing world—to connect—we discover a well-spring of altruistic happiness. When we embrace, we transcend. When we transcend, we become fluid with change. That is when we succeed.

quote by Goethe: “We must always change, renew, rejuvenate ourselves; otherwise we harden.”

 

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Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press (Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” will be released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in 2020.