The Bottleneck Years by H. E. Taylor - Chapter 28

The Bottleneck Years

by H.E. Taylor
Chapter 27 Table of Contents Chapter 29

Chapter 28

UNGETF, December 8, 2055

I looked forward to the first meeting of Group 7 with some trepidation. According to my email update it was on the seventh floor of the MacDonald building which housed the municipal offices downtown. I had been there to pay taxes and once to attend a city council meeting, but I had never been above the second floor.

I was required to submit to retinal and DNA scans, on top of which my padd told me the elevator had a built in terahertz scanner. I restrained myself from waving to the technician monitoring the system. Feeling like a rat running a maze under the watchful eyes of some faceless minion, I made my way from the elevator to the designated room.

A long oval table dominated the windowless room. The lights were low. I was the only person present except for a technician behind a glass wall at the far end of the room. I plopped my case down on the table right in front of me and took a seat.

There was a click from the sound system and the technician said, "I'm sorry Professor, but you'll have to move to this chair." A spot light came on over a place on the other side at the far end.

"I'm not a professor," I replied as I stood.

There was no response.

"Can you hear me?"

Nothing. The technician had his head down doing something on the board in front of him, so I just moved to the lit chair. As I was about to sit down, holograms began to wink on around the table. There were nine of us bunched at one end of the table with the head seat conspicuously empty.

"Can you hear me?" I said to the room.

There was no response.

"Try again, please," said the technician from overhead.

"Can you hear me?"

Suddenly the room was full of babble. Everybody was talking at once, then spontaneous laughter broke out.

Peter Rhamaposa appeared at the head seat with a bundle of paper which he put down on his table. From my perspective, the paper seemed to disappear. "I see we are all here. Good," he said. "Perhaps we should begin by going around the room and identifying ourselves." He gestured to the woman on his left and sat down.

"Dr. Anita Carruthers, Princeton. I'm working on nitrogen fixation."

The fellow beside her leaned forward. "Dr. Peter Barnes, Johannesburgh. Exotic carbon design."

And so it went around the table. It was a distinguished, high-powered group and I felt I would have to be on my toes.

When it came my turn, I described myself as a post doc and said I was working on "optimizing photosynthesis." Nobody seemed surprised by this. Perhaps the information was in one of Rhamaposa's updates which I had missed. I resolved to set up a profile of each of the other participants so I would know who I was dealing with.

"Okay, fine." said Rhamaposa when we were done. "I think you all know me, but for the record, Peter Rhamaposa, nowhere in particular, but currently in New York. Cat herder."

That brought a round of laughter.

"I set this preliminary meeting because I wanted you to meet each other and to assay our task. We will eventually be spending a lot of time together. I don't know if it is clear to you, but you are the seventh group I have chartered. The other groups are aimed at known solutions. Group 2 is dealing with stratospheric injection of sulphates; Group 5 is focussed on the sunshade option and so on. The full list is in the docs. You will soon come to know them all."

"You are the wild cards. You are all people who have shown an ability to think widely, sometimes unconventionally. Partially that is because most of you are multi-disciplinary." He looked at me, "genetics and ecology." He looked at Aretha Makeba across the table, "computer and material science."

"I want you to think about everything I have missed, what I have got wrong and what the other groups have missed. I don't have any illusions of infallibiility and the stakes are too high for silly ego games."

"For every solution, I want you to ask what are the unintended side effects? What have we missed? Is there an easier way? A natural way? A better way?"

"And what geoengineering techniques are actually going to work?"

"I have set up a database to act as central repository for ideas as well as techniques in the literature. You should know I regard this database as a bureaucratic cover. I do not intend this venture to become an academic exercise. We need good ideas, proven ideas, not wild ass theories. We don't have the time or the money to waste. When an idea solidifies, I will form a group to implement it."

"We are going to build a new world. We have no choice. The alternative is too terrible to contemplate. Now, let's get to work."

Rhamaposa picked up his padd and said, "The directory where we will store our documents is here." I felt the padd in my pocket vibrate to announce the receipt of an email. "You can put the material I requested there."

Rhamaposa set his padd aside. "Now just to fire the synapses before we break, I want to throw a question on the table."

"Why can't we employ massive carbon capture technology to maintain a low CO2 concentration no matter what the feedbacks supply?" He looked around the table and settled on Dr. Barnes. "Peter?"

"Cost primarily. The cheap way to do it is to plant more trees, which people have been doing for decades. To set up industrial scale processes, whole factories to scrub carbon directly from the atmosphere would be prohibitively expensive."

"The secondary problem is what to do with the carbon. We are talking about gigatonnes of material. It would also depend upon the specific process used to capture the CO2. If it is a gas, it could be injected underground in conjunction with established carbon capture and sequestration processes. But if it is a solid material, such as limestone, dolomite or magnesite, then we would soon be in the mountain building business."

"Mountain building?" said Rhamaposa. He turned and looked at me. "Can we genetically engineer a plant that will absorb more CO2?"

I sat back feeling put on the spot. "I don't know. It might be possible. The limiting factor would be energy, I suspect."

"Okay," Rhamaposa shot back, "can we engineer a plant that will absorb more energy?"

"Not easily." I shook my head, feeling a shiver, as if I had just been given a mandate. "That is what I have been working on for the last 7 years."

"What about plankton or fungus?" asked Dr. Ellis across the table.

"I have not worked with them," I replied.

"I have," said Dr. Yu two seats to my right. "The problem is not so much energy absorption, as it is the availability of other materials -- iron, silica, phosphorus."

Dr. Wilson beside Rhamaposa smiled brightly and said, "As charming as the idea of CO2 sequestration is, we shouldn't forget that methane is currently an equally significant player."

"If I can throw an ecological angle in here," said Dr. More, "we need to think of the full life cycle of any processes we design and of any natural processes we are modifying. Where will the iron, silica and phosphorus come from? Where will it end up? How much energy from what sources will we expend in accomplishing the task? We don't want to create new problems."

"Well, I think we can safely say we have our work cut out for us," said Rhamaposa with a sardonic grin. He looked around the table. "Now, you know who we are, and you have an indication of my expectations. Unless anyone has something to add, I will close the meeting now."

Nobody said a word.

"In that case, I will see you in 14 days; same time, same place."

His image winked out and after a second, so did all the others. I was sitting alone in an empty room. Even the technician had disappeared. I collected my things and slowly made my way downstairs to head home. I could see how Rhamaposa had gained his reputation. He was a ruthless pragmatist.

Excerpted from _The Bottleneck Years_ by H.E. Taylor

For further information see:
A Gentle Introduction.

Last modified February 18, 2013

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