Displacing Hydrocarbons

The end of the nineteenth century spawned what was known historically as the industrial revolution. This gradual evolution sought to maximize the output of consumer goods and take advantage of what was thought to be an endless supply of natural resources in a world that no man could radically alter. This mindset set in motion practices and ways of thinking that would be carried into the next two centuries of production resulting in massive amounts of deforestation, air and water pollution, elimination of species diversity, and a laundry list of other negative impacts. Now that or limits and consequences are becoming more transparent designers and manufacturing are turning towards other means of production.

The carbohydrate material sphere may displace more ubiquitous conventional means of production. Products that were formally produced on the “cradle to grave” model are being gradually displaced by materials modeled for the “cradle to cradle” model. One example of this gradual displacement can be seen in plastics. Plastics typically produced from petroleum are gradually being replaced by bioplastics, or plastics manufactured from plants like soybeans. This is not new technology; Henry Ford used bioplastics made from corn and soybeans in his original Model T. The transition or displacement is occurring for economic reasons as well as closing resource loops. Besides lessening the amount of waste and diminishing the use of irreplaceable natural resources, carbohydrate materials are creating other opportunities to improve the current system. Relocalization or using materials that are on hand is being readopted. Besides diminishing the cost and energy use in transporting materials around the world Relocalization is as Blaine Brownell writes about in his blog Materials for the Carbohydrate Economy, have the potential to “enlighten the creation of new products”. These new products branch off into areas such as carbohydrate materials that surpass properties possessed by metal, and even more perplexingly produce their own energy.

The displacement of hydrocarbon materials for carbohydrate based materials raises some unique questions. The first will it happen at a magnitude that we can say a full or major displacement has occurred. Will these new materials present their own set of problems that are not being addressed properly? Only time can tell, but it’s our job as designers to anticipate these problems and bring stasis back into this system.


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