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Nylon Breakthrough: One Strand of Earth's Lifeline

02/12/2015 04:00 pm ET | Updated Apr 14, 2015

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"Optimism is a political act. Those who benefit from the status quo are perfectly happy for us to think that nothing is going to get any better."
-- Alex Steffen, The Bright Green City

A young, environmentally focused chemist sent me news of a breakthrough in producing nylon, that ubiquitous chemical used for everything from stockings to zip-ties to jackets, tents and sails. Described in a recent paper by researchers Hwang and Sagadevan from National Tsing Hua University, Taiwan, the new process, if it can be brought to industrial production scale, would use far less energy and reduce nitrous oxide emissions dramatically. This addresses an enormous environmental problem: considered over a 100-year period, nitrous oxide has 298 times more global warming potential than carbon dioxide, and nylon synthesis creates five to eight percent of those emissions from 10 billion pounds of nylon produced per year.

And that's just nylon...

It seems like everyone is working on a solution to climate change. The poet and naturalist Diane Ackerman summarized some of the grandest schemes for Wired: India has announced an ambitious plan to transition the entire population of 400 million mainly to solar power; a separate initiative will plant two billion trees along India's highways. In May 2014, Germany produced 74 percent of its energy from renewables. Sweden is now recycling a staggering 99 percent of household waste. China is about to invest $16 billion on electric car infrastructure. Ackerman concludes, "As a species, we've accomplished majestic things, and today is an especially exhilarating era of invention and discovery."

Even Republicans now favor action on climate.

So many people working to battle climate change in every corner of modern life, but still, is it enough? Last week, I was stunned to hear a staunch supporter of environmental causes disparage her giving habits: "I don't know why we give. It's too late anyway."

The science supports her. We're long past the 350 ppm carbon limit over which humans cannot survive long term, and we're nowhere near burning all the fossil fuels we'll need to support our energy needs. In the often-quoted statement attributed in a 2006 Christian Science Monitor article to Jonathan Overpeck, a researcher at the University of Arizona, "CO2 remains in the atmosphere for more than a century; even if we shut down every fossil-fueled power plant today, existing CO2 will continue to warm the planet."

And then there's the argument put forth by Google engineers Ross Koningstein and David Fork after that company abandoned their much-ballyhooed initiative RErenewable energy: "...even if Google and others had led the way toward a wholesale adoption of renewable energy, that switch would not have resulted in significant reductions of carbon dioxide emissions. Trying to combat climate change exclusively with today's renewable energy technologies simply won't work." Even more disheartening, "(Would) a 55 percent emission cut by 2050 bring the world back below that 350-ppm threshold? Our calculations revealed otherwise."

Does this mean we should, like Google, just give up? You'd expect Ackerman to dream. After all, she's a poet. But even these hard-boiled rationalists have faith:

... We're hopeful, because sometimes engineers and scientists do achieve the impossible. Consider the space program, which required outlandish inventions for the rockets that brought astronauts to the moon. MIT engineers constructed the lightweight and compact Apollo Guidance Computer, for example, using some of the first integrated circuits, and did this in the vacuum-tube era when computers filled rooms. Their achievements pushed computer science forward and helped create today's wonderful wired world. Now, R&D dollars must go to inventors who are tackling the daunting energy challenge so they can boldly try out their crazy ideas. We can't yet imagine which of these technologies will ultimately work and usher in a new era of prosperity -- but the people of this prosperous future won't be able to imagine how we lived without them.


We got that sustainable nylon challenge licked. Next up, the race to save the planet. We've lined up chemists and poets and engineers and inventors and even the Republicans. It's a race we just might win.

Photo courtesy of Stefan Mendelsohn via Flickr cc.