A possible counter to the Fermi paradox

If we were made of some rare isotope of Bismuth you might have an argument for us being alone in the cosmos

Neil DeGrasse

One of the things that often comes up when discussing topics related to space or future technology is the Fermi paradox. Quite simply put, this begs the question that if the universe has been around for billions of years, where are all the aliens? There’s been ample time for them to evolve and either travel to our planet, or for the radio traffic they generated (perhaps millions of years ago) to reach us and be picked up by the likes of the SETI institute.


Figure 1: Where’s ET?

As a result the Fermi paradox is often cited by those who favour the rare earth hypothesis (REH). This states that the chances of a planet evolving life, never mind intelligent life, are so rare its highly unlike to have occurred twice and certainly any other species will likely be a very long way away (as in, that we are probably the only intelligent life in this galaxy). We are only here because we live on a planet with a very stable orbit, in exactly the right orbit, a planet with a magnetic field and volcanic activity, we’ve a large stabilising moon (which stops the planet wobbling around, causing severe climate change) and Jupiter acts like a sort of planetary hoover, disposing of asteroids and comets that would lead to us getting hit more often. And had that big impact that killed the dinosaurs not happened, then neither would we have evolved, or a few dozen other events over the last few billion years.


Figure 2: An outline of some of the factors REH cite as essential for the formation of the earth and our evolution

This idea has never sat well with me. Indeed this whole concept of the REH seems to have been dreamt up by someone who doesn’t understand statistics. Any event, no matter how unlikely, will still occur over a suitably long enough time period, if a sufficient number of trials are held. The odds of winning the lottery are extremely remote, yet every week someone generally does win it. The odds of being killed in a plane crash are also very remote (you are more likely to slip in the shower on the day of the flight), yet planes do crash on a pretty regular basis and people do die (a few thousand every year are killed in plane crashes). Indeed the whole reason plane travel is so safe and cars and other products are increasingly much safer is precisely because we engineers understand these statistical truths and factor this into our designs (usually by making sure that no single point of failure should result in catastrophic failure of the entire system).

There is also a sort of Sliding Doors (a reference to the film by the same name) element to the REH. In that it is assumed that there is only one possible outcome that will yield a positive and all others possibilities lead to disaster. Its like trying to argue that you have to bake a cake exactly the way you did it last time. That if you don’t start at exactly 18:25:03 and if you don’t take exactly the same amount of time to prepare ingredients and you you have to put in exactly 54.56g of sugar and 303.56g’s of flour and the oven must be set to exactly 222.43 °and you bake for 1 hr 23 mins (rather than the 220 °C and 1.5 hrs the recipe says), otherwise baking a cake is impossible. As Douglas Adam’s in the Hitchikers Guide quibs, if you take the naysayers at their word the theoretical population density of the universe is zero and thus anyone you’ve ever met (including yourself) are all elements of you’re own over active imagination.

A useful counter to the REH is Jack Cohen and Iain Steward‘s “What would a Martian look like”. Their key point is that life on earth is a lot more diverse and capable of surviving in much wider extremes than we often realise. And as a consequence alien life could indeed be very alien to us indeed. An earth that was a bit warmer, colder or has a more variable in climate would be bad news for us or the organisms we evolved from, but there’s plenty of life on earth that would not be the least bit troubled by this. Indeed, given that such conditions would eliminate the competition (us!) they’d positively thrive. The authors also go on to argue that our narrow definition of a “habitable zone” might not be accurate, as there might be different habitable zones for different forms of life. Speculation about the possibility of life on Juipter’s moon Europa does pretty much blow the concept of a narrow “habitable zone” right out of the water.


Figure 3: Real aliens could be very alien indeed

Of course this brings us back to the Fermi hypothesis, if life isn’t extremely rare in the universe where are all the aliens? Well firstly, as I discussed in a recent piece, space flight is very difficult. Once we eliminate such fantastic sci-fi as warp drives, anti-gravity or transporter beams, getting from one star system to another is a monumentally difficult task. That only a tiny handful of species that evolve might actually do this isn’t that crazy a suggestion. And the odds of us bumping into any of these aliens (given the vast distances) are pretty low. Indeed this is probably closer to the point Fermi was actually trying to make than the rare earth hypothesis. But what about radio traffic, surely we should be picking up masses of radio traffic from various alien species?

Well not necessarily. Put it this way, when was the last time anyone reading this used a radio? Sent a telegram recently? Probably not. Most internet traffic, telephone calls and TV signals now go via fibre optic cables. And its likely that over the next hundred years our communications technology will change radically, using directional lasers (essentially fibre optics without the cable), short range wi-fi or even perhaps neutrinos. Bottom line, if you pointed a dish at the earth 150 years ago you’d hear nothing but static. Point one at the earth in another hundred years and you’ll probably also hear nothing but static (of course if Trump has his way you’ll hear only static in a year or two’s time!).

Assuming other species follow a similar trend, then the window of opportunity during which we could detect another alien species (by current means) is likely to be very narrow, 200-300 years, which is practically a rounding error on the time scales of the universe. The chances of two species (ourselves and someone else) both evolving to a point where we both have similar communications technology at more or less the same time, yet we are both sufficiently close enough to one another to establish communication links, before one goes off the air. Well that’s pretty remote.


Figure 4: Radio telescopes might not be the best means of finding ET

And radio signals don’t travel an infinite distance. The further away you are from the source, the larger the size of the dish you’ll need, the more sensitive instruments need to be. Beyond a certain distance it would be impossible to hear any of the signals we generate and thus impossible for us to eavesdrop on any aliens.

The drake equation is often cited in relation to this topic and what essentially I’m saying is that we might need to re-calibrate the last two factors in this equation Fc (the fraction of civilisations who attempt to communicate) and Fl (years during which communication occurs). Many assign values to these in the order of 1 and 1e9 respectively. I’d argue a figure of 0.001 (reflecting the low probability of them communicating in a way we can intercept and the probability of such a signal being actually picked up) and 200-300 years instead. Run those numbers and even assuming a reasonably optimistic values for all other factors, you get a very low result, perhaps only a handful in this galaxy, even in a scenario where we are otherwise estimating maybe a million civilisations within our galaxy alone (not that I think there are that many, I’m just pointing out that even if they existed, we are likely to encounter “technical difficulties” in communicating with them).

Certain types of signals would be detectable at a considerable distance. For example certain types of focused radio signals used to contact distant spacecraft or for planet to planet (or perhaps star to star) communication. There is also the concept of using focused and powerful beams of microwaves to shunt power from orbiting solar power satellites either to the ground (for electricity) or to propel distant spacecraft. Again, these would be detectable at a considerable distance.


Figure 5: Powerful beams to power spacecraft is the sort of signal that could be detected at a considerable distance

However the “flash light” of such signals would be very narrow and the odds of us seeing such a signal are very low and it would only be fleeting, not unlike the infamous “Wow” signal. More recently there’s been the topic of Fast Radio bursts (FRB’s), which potentially fit the signature of these sorts of signals. Fraser Cain from the Universe Today, discusses the ongoing investigation into FRB’s here. Suffice to say, it probably some natural phonomeon, but scientists have yet to come up with a conclusive explanation.

Then there’s the matter of deliberate communication. We’ve blasted out the odd signal ourselves that would be detectable some distance out, so surely it must have occurred to some aliens to do the same? Well no, not necessarily. Why would a civilisation which is perhaps tens of thousands of years old, maybe even millions of years old resort to using a technology they briefly employed thousands of years ago when they now have far better technology available?

It would be the equivalent of the Chinese trying to communicate with the Russians by lighting beacon fires or Trump sending a telegram (oddly enough Western Union only stopped doing those in 2006) to Putin (likely saying, when can I defect?). And as for aliens looking out for our radio traffic, that would be like the US spending billions on new high resolution cameras on its spy satellites on the off chance the Iranians go back to using signal flags to convey military intelligence.

It probably won’t occur to any alien species to do this, and they’d be well aware that if they did find anyone it would be primitives like ourselves. It would be like us going out of our way to communicate with some uncontacted tribe in the Amazon rainforest and I don’t see anyone rushing off to do that.

Indeed, one possibility is that alien civilisations are deliberately avoiding or limit any transmissions that might be picked up by primitive civilisations like ourselves. They would be well aware that the bulk of civilisations in our stage of development are going to be relatively dangerous (fighting wars, following crazy religious belief’s, have despotic leaders, etc.). Most civilisations in our stage of development probably eventually destroy themselves (via environmental degradation or war). Only those who learn to live within their means and to co-operate peacefully will survive beyond a certain point. So it would make sense to give civilisations like ours a wide berth until they’ve evolved to the point where you can get some sense out of them.

So perhaps a different approach is needed. Looking beyond radio traffic, or perhaps trying more direct means to search for ET. And fortunately some surveys along these lines are already being conducted.

A notable candidate is Tabby’s star, which has produced some unusual Kepler data. While this is likely to be nothing more exciting than debris from a planet that breached its star’s Roche limit. But its been speculated that the star might have a Dyson swarm around it (an alien mega structure!).


Figure 6: There is considerable speculation about Tabby’s star, likely just debris, but could it be an alien megastructure?

We’ve already found a number of exoplanets, some of them in orbits within the habitable zone around their host star. Trappist-1 for example might have 4 planet’s in its habitable zone (that said, remember what we said earlier about habitable zones, it could be broader than we assume and if a planet lacks an atmosphere then it may make little difference which orbit it is in). Within the next decade the next generation of space telescopes should allow us to scan these planets and inspect the atmospheres of these targets for signs of life, e.g. oxygen, water, methane or carbon dioxide. And of course efforts to find life in our own solar system continue.


Figure 7: Trappist 1 has several exoplanets that join a growing list of potentially life bearing worlds…

Needless to say if we find any hint of life (regardless of how primitive), either in our own solar system or those nearby, then basically the rare earth hypothesis is DOA. Two positives in this small corner of the galaxy, in a universe with more stars than grains of sand on a beach its pretty reasonable to conclude that alien life is fairly common, although intelligent alien life is another matter (between Trump and brexit I’d question whether it exists on earth!).


Figure 8: ….which future space telescopes might allow us to detect

This also raises another question (this is the problem with any space related topics, you end up with more questions than answers), are aliens aware of our existence? There are some who argue we should try and hide our presence, just in case any aliens show up looking to eat our leaders (well if they are here for Trump, I for one welcome our new alien overlords).

Jokes aside, the cat is out of the bag and has probably been so for millions of years. Using similar technology to what we are now working on, any aliens in our neighbourhood would probably be aware by now that the earth has an oxygen rich atmosphere. The smarter ones might well notice the increased air pollution and carbon dioxide levels indicating industrial activity. And later on, the fallout from atmospheric nuclear tests, indicating we’re tinkering with nuclear technology. So that ship sailed along time ago.

And since we’ve mentioned the topic of invading aliens, aggressive aliens are probably unlikely. And they certainly won’t show up with ray guns in city sized flying saucers. There’s a host of far more effective military tactics a space faring society could adopt, e.g. putting a mass driver on a kuiper belt object and using it to fling large rocks at us. A couple of months of that and you could annihilate every military base, industrial area and city on the planet without having to risk any ground troops or even air/space forces.

So why aren’t they here? Well A) they may not have the technology to get here. B) oddly enough they are reluctant to make contact with a bunch of nutters like ourselves. Or C) Given that it would take hundreds of years for light to travel from our star to theirs (and thus if say they were 1,000 ly’s away they won’t be aware of possible industrial activity on earth yet), it would take some time for them to learn of us and longer still for them to travel here or send a signal.

For example, let’s suppose there is a Dyson sphere at Tabby’s star. Even if that were the case, we shouldn’t expect any sort of signal until at least 4,000 AD at the earliest. Even if someone with interstellar travel was absurdly close, e.g. Trappist-1. And even if on the first sign of nuclear testing in the 60’s (which they would only have observed in the last decade or so), they jumped in a spacecraft straight away and headed towards us, even assuming a speed of say 0.5 LS (and of course we’re assuming that its possible to travel that fast, this again is probably more the point Fermi was actually trying to make) they’d not arrive until the latter half of this century. Of course if they are further away, or can’t travel anything like that fast, these time scales lengthen considerably.

So does this mean that anyone involved with SETI is wasting their time? Well no. Everything I’ve said is speculative, as is everything that is said by SETI’s critics. And as noted they have constantly changed tactics, so just because the first few attempts failed doesn’t mean further efforts will also fail. Without some concrete evidence either way we can’t be sure. Frankly if we’re going to spend hundreds of billions a year for a bunch of guys to sit in a bunker waiting for orders from the president to start world war III (then when Trump calls, point out to him that no we can’t nuke the New York Times just because they said you’re a tax cheating Russian spy), then we can spare a few million for SETI activity.

And one has to look at the bigger picture. One thing I liked about the old computer game civilisation was how if you built the SETI institute it doubled the output of all of your science labs. Big science projects often lead to developments in related fields with all sorts of unexpected benefits. If it weren’t for projects like SETI or CERN, you won’t be reading this blog post.

Playing the long game is key. As noted these FRB’s, or the Wow signal (or the mystery of Tabby’s star), don’t add up to much, unless all natural phenomenon can be ruled out (and they can’t). But if say, in a decade’s time, similar signals were to be received and we still can’t come up with a convincing explanation as to what natural phenomenon could be behind them, well that’s a different story.

Of course this also suggests we may never get a definitive answer to this question. Short of aliens landing on the Reichstag lawn (post-Trump and brexit Germany is now leader of the free world), we’ll never be 100% sure. We might get to the stage where scientists are all but certain that one of the Trappist-1 planets has an oxygen rich atmosphere with signs of advanced life, or we’ve yet to come up with a conclusive answer to FRB’s despite decades of trying. All of this would be a lot of smoke, but we won’t be able to call it a fire.

So all in all the answer to the Fermi paradox can perhaps be summed up as “like Duh!”. Weighting up all the different factors it would be more likely than not, even in a galaxy with millions of other civilisations that we won’t have heard from any of them.

And for the record, while I don’t discount the possibility of advanced alien life, I would personally guess that there aren’t nearly that many and if there are any out there, they are probably some considerable distance away. They might be aware of our presence, or they might not (given the hundreds of millions of stars, that our planet was simply overlooked isn’t that unlikely). They might simply not care. Such contact might be forbidden under the terms of some sort of intergalactic treaty. Or the invasion fleet might well be on its way (what’s the bet if aliens ever did show up that the Daily Mail will say they are only here to claim benefits). Or its possible that having witnessed us polluting our atmosphere and testing nuclear weapons, they’ve concluded we’re doomed and plan to wait till after the inevitable apocalypse before moving in.

The point is that there are several perfect rational explanations without us having to torture statistics to get the answer we want.

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The trouble with trade: Walmart


One has to worry about the consequences of a US/UK trade deal. As I’ve said before, getting a trade deal isn’t the problem, its the concession the UK will inevitably be forced to accept as part of that deal.


This week Liam Fox tried to argue that on the one hand they’d ban chlorinated chicken from the UK and in the same sentence so what if we do allow it. Well if you adopt the first position, banning US food products and cars (many of the larger SUV’s will fail current UK/EU environmental standards) the Americans will respond in kind and what exactly will we be trading with the US? On the other hand, if you allow Chlorinated chicken or steroids in beef, you’ll be cutting yourself off from the EU market.

A case in point of everything that is wrong with the US is Walmart. For…

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To shoot and terrorise

One I wrote a while ago, thought I should re-blog it here….



The shocking murder of a Australian women at the hands of US police last week has highlighted the massive problem that American gun culture has created. If being killed by one of the millions of people with guns in the country wasn’t enough of a risk, there’s also the risk of being killed by the cops who are supposed to be there to protect them. The statistics speak for themselves, you are 70 times more likely to be killed by the police in American than you are in the UK and 28 times more likely than in Germany.

Of course, was this story about someone who was black, or a migrant from Mexico rather than Australia, it probably won’t have attracted this much attention. But at least the cops in Minneapolis are being consistent in their cover up (equal opportunities incompetence). The body cameras were suspiciously turned off at the…

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Fusion power always 30 years away, now its more like 50 years away

When it comes to dealing with global issues like climate change or peak fossil fuels, I’d argue we’ll need to focus technology we already have, or what can realistically be developed in the near future. Relying on more fantastical high tech solutions, such as fusion power, LFTR’s, space solar power or biofuels produced by synthetic biology, is risky because we simply cannot predict when these technologies will become available, if ever! There’s no harm in continuing research into them, but life is about priorities and clearly arguing that we should go slow on renewables, in the forlorn hope of something new emerging would be a risky strategy.


Figure 1: DEMO, a key step on the road to fusion powerplants is now likely to be delayed until the 2050’s

And we have yet more evidence now as to why waiting for a technological holy grail to be found is a bad idea. The latest projections from EuroFusion are that ITER won’t complete its construction until the 2030’s and the next step beyond that, DEMO, won’t be up and running until the 2050’s, with 2054 as an implied likely start up date for DEMO. And this assumes no further delays in ITER. However, with the related JET program now likely to implode due to brexit (already I’ve heard stories of key staff leaving this project due to concerns about impending changes to immigration, they worry they won’t be able to bring over family members, etc.) even this schedule might now slip.

For those unfamiliar with the roadmap to fusion power (for some reason the fast track to fusion page on the ITER website seems to have been deleted!), ITER is essentially a proof of concept device that will generate overunity fusion pulses (that is more energy out than in) in the Megawatt range for periods of up to 1,000 seconds. ITER will also function as a sort sandbox for testing out various theories related to fusion power to help with the design of the reactors to follow. A massive step forward from what current technology can achieve, but a long way from a working commercial fusion power plant. This is why ITER will work concurrently with IFMIF facility in Japan, which will test out materials to ensure they can survive the enormous neutron fluxes that a fusion reactor will need to survive.


Figure 2: “Fast Track to Fusion” route over a 30-40 year timeline with the important milestones [Credit: Hoffelner 2013]

Once the IFMIF and ITER experiments are completed, its here that DEMO comes it. As the name implies it will be a demonstration plant of a working fusion powerplant. Of course it will be a first generation plant, it likely won’t be commercially viable, nor capable of operating with anything like the sort of capacity factor an existing nuclear plant can sustain. In many respects will will merely serve as a design tool for PROTO, the first commercial prototype nuclear reactor.

PROTO should appear about a decade after DEMO (so about 2064 on the current timeline) although this assumes its developed concurrently with DEMO, rather than its design waiting until afterwards (which would push the date back about another decade). This should be the equivalent of the Shippingport reactor for fusion and there might end up being more than one competing design.

Roll out of fusion power stations worldwide should then follow. However, as it will take sometime to build this network of reactors. Even if we assume a construction rate of 30 GW’s per year (after a decade or two to ramp up to that production level), it will still take several decades for nuclear fusion to have any significant impact (i.e. more than 5% on energy supplies).

In short, much as I predicted some time ago, we are unlikely to see Fusion based energy making any significant contribution until the latter half of this century, or perhaps even the early 22nd century. This has a number of profound implications.

Firstly, as far as almost everyone reading this is concerned, you will probably be dead before fusion power becomes available in any significant quantity. And as we have only a decade or two window in which to achieve major cuts in carbon emissions, its clear neither nuclear fusion, nor the proposed generation IV nuclear fission reactors will be ready within this time frame, making them largely irrelevant to the debate.

Its worth remembering that we don’t need to switch to a 100% renewable world. Strictly speaking we’d only need to cut emissions by 80%. Its just a matter of cutting out the carbon emissions (e.g. carbon capture and storage) or perhaps only using fossil fuels sparingly. So for example, rather than completely trying to backup a grid with energy storage to ride out the worst case scenario for a winter cold snap with no wind (which is certainly possible with existing technology), you use CHP plants to provide heating and back up the grid. Even if these plants ran on Natural gas (rather than biogas or a stockpile of hydrogen built up over the summer) and even with no CCS, with good energy conservation and cut backs in other areas, you’d still fall well within the 80% window of cuts the IPCC is calling for.

However, by the 2070’s, even the most optimistic projections say oil and gas supplies will have peaked and be well into terminal decline (the less optimistic voices say all oil and gas, conventional and unconventional will peak between the 2020’s and 2040’s). Even coal supplies will have peaked and its likely Uranium supplies might also have peaked as well. And keep in mind a business as usual approach (i.e. an expansion of fossil fuel consumption or nuclear energy) brings forward the date of these events (to closer to the 2030’s and 40’s). So its likely that all non-renewable energy sources will be tapped out before fusion power is available.

In short, if the critics of renewable energy are correct, that a 100% renewable world is impossible, then civilisation as we know it is probably not going to survive in its current form beyond the middle of this century. So either renewables and energy storage can be made to work, or we’re going to have to face some tough questions and live with our means in terms of what sort of energy we can get out of renewables. Its a case of renewables or bust.

Does this mean fusion research is a waste of time? We’ll again, I’d argue no, as a long term project it certainly is still a worthy goal. One of the problem’s with our society is our inability to think long term. Fusion power is one such long term goal. Frankly if were going to spend hundreds of billions a year on defence, or on leaving the EU, or building and maintaining a border wall with Mexico, you can spare a few billion for Fusion research. Nobody is that broke or hard up.


Figure 3: Fusion power is basically a “we’re sorry we screwed up” card to future generations

But this is essentially going to be a gift from our generation to one in the distant future. A sort of sorry we destroyed the environment, but…. present to people whose grand parents are only now being born.

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Why tuition fees have to go

No sooner than I wrote this, Corbyn backtracked on the issue of student fees, indicating how he doesn’t understand the issue…..


I’ve long argued that exorbitant tuition fees English students are required to pay are a generally bad idea. I’ve described before the impact they’ve had on the running of universities and how they’ve turned universities into money hungry corporations. How it has resulted in students increasingly seeing their degree as a commodity to be bought, not something life changing they are earning through hard work. I certainly see the benefit of students making some contribution towards their studies, after all not everyone gets to go to uni and fees do make universities less dependant on the whims of government. However, the more and more I look on it, the more I feel that given the choice between the no-fees system of Scotland or the supermarket uni’s of England, fees are just not a good idea and should be scraped.


The arguments put forward for fees are that…

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A review of Arcologies


Figure 1: Arcologies could drastically reduce the environmental impact of cities

One concept for how to reduce the environmental impact of cities is arcologies. The word itself is a combination of the words “architecture” and “ecology”, which neatly sums up the idea of developing self sustaining buildings with the minimum of environmental impact. Such buildings would not only provide housing, public services, shops and businesses, but would also grow their own food within the building (or on the grounds surrounding it), even recycling all of the buildings waste and manufacturing much of its own goods. If you are unfamiliar with the concept this TEDx by Jeff Stein should help. Also I’d recommend this pod-cast by Issac Arthur.


Figure 2: China’s proposed forest city will use trees to help reduce air pollution and smog [Credit: BOERI, 2017]

In theory given that the plants inside such a structure could produce enough oxygen to sustain the population you could theoretically put such a building on the moon if necessary, or in a dome at the bottom of the ocean. This concept was first introduced by the Italian architect Paolo Soleri in the 1950’s. While no true arcology exists in the world, its certainly a concept that has influenced eco-building designers for quite sometime, as well as also being a stable of science fiction. So I thought it would be useful to look at the concept of arcologies in a bit more detail.

One misconception we need to get away from is that arcologies have to be tall mega structures. Certainly quite a few of those proposed over the years have tended to be fairly large. For example the NOAH (New Orleans Arcology Habitat) concept, which would be 1,200 ft tall and house 40,000 people. Or the X-seed concept, a 4km high 800 storey building that would support up to a million people.


Figure 3: The X-seed concept from Japan is an example of an ultra tall arcology

However, there’s no reason why they can’t be smaller or have a lower floor count. Arcosanti, Soleri’s own arcology concept, is only few stories high. And it isn’t a single building but a cluster of them. Probably the closest to an actual arcology we’ve come is Dubai’s Masdar city where most of the buildings are only a few stories high. However, certainly quite a few of the proposals have been fairly tall, as often the goal is to change how densely populated cities work.


Figure 4: Masdar city in the UAE is a good example of a low rise arcology [Credit: Foster & Partners, 2008]

Perhaps the best way to illustrate the pro’s and cons’ of arcologies is to throw around some numbers. So firstly, how much floor area do you need to create a “self sustaining” community? Well in the UK the current recommendation is 50m2 for a single bedroom flat and about 85m2 for a three bedroom flat. So let’s assume 70m2 per person, as I want to assume we’re not cramming people in like sardines. This would also exceed the average flat size per capita in most countries. That said there is an argument to be made for making flats smaller for environmental reasons, but we’ll overestimate all the same.


Figure 5: Average flat size per person [Credit: Shrinkthatfootprint, 2012]

Next let’s assume about 50m2 per person for public services (e.g. schools, a medical centre, council offices, library, etc.), shops and other amenities and 50m2 per person for gardens, green spaces and public areas. Growing food within a building would most likely involve using greenhouses and hydroponics. These can intensive grow crops, often stacking plants into a very small area, growing them under red light in climate controlled conditions to increase the yield. I’m going to assume 30m2, because I came across a paper sometime ago from some NASA study suggesting that was about enough to support a single person. I’ve lost that paper, but this source here implies 49,210 people could be sustained by 1km2 of aeroponics (implying you’d need just 20m2 per person).


Figure 6: Hydroponic or aeroponic farming can intensively grow food indoors to help feed residents of an arcology

Now granted these studies assume you’re eating nothing but porridge oats or potatoes, while I’m assuming we’ll be more interested in growing fruits and vegetables, which would wouldn’t be as efficient. However this is where I’d question some of the concepts behind an arcology, notably the issue of being completely self sustaining in terms of food production. This “Juche” like concept has never sat well with me. I see the point of trying to reduce environmental impacts, but at the end of the day its going to be a lot easier to grow most crops outside in a field rather than inside a building. So my assumption of 30m2 probably isn’t enough to make the building fully self sustaining. But its likely to be enough to supplement the occupants diet. And we are devoting remember a further 50m2 for gardens and other green spaces, which could include allotments  and urban farms.


Figure 7: Allotments, a type of urban farming that became popular during and after world war II in Europe, are starting to become popular again

I’m going to add up these areas and add on an extra 25% to represent the area taken up by services, e.g. risers for lifts, stairs, service floors, etc. One problem with ultra tall builds is the so-called lift conundrum. This states that the higher a building gets, the more of its useful floor area gets devoted towards fitting lifts. An arcology gets around this problem to some degree because we’re spreading people out more, as compared to a normal high rise building. And given that such buildings incorporate shops and offices within them, often on intermediate floors between residential floors, people won’t need to leave the building that often, meaning most journey’s will only be between a few floors and we would probably encourage residents to simply take the stairs.

Either way, adding up all of these areas we come up with about 250m2 per person. Taking this number I will consider three basic designs. For the first one, which I’ll call “arco-cylinder” ,we’ll assume a cylinder 50m in diameter and about 400m high. Such a building would have a floor area of around 250,000 m2 and could therefore house 1,000 people. Next we’ll look at the Sky City 1000 concept. This proposes a building 1,000m high and 400m in diameter, with a total total floor area of 8 km², which could accommodate 32,000 people. Rather than a simple skyscraper, the Sky City consists of 14 dish-shaped ‘Space Plateaus‘ stacked one upon the other, inside which the residents live in a self contained community.


Figure 8: The Sky City 1000 concept [Credit: Utopicus, 2013]

As a contrast to these two skyscrapers I’m going to also include a low rise building just 6 floors high and 40x40m square (likelihood is we’d probably go for more rectangular blocks around a central garden or forum, but it will occupy the same area on site) built to passivhaus standards which houses just 80 people. This will include a further 4,000m2 of garden space on site (e.g. central court yard and park land or allotments around the edges) rather than putting this area within the building itself. I’m only going to assume for this concept that the ground floor is occupied by shops, public services and offices (e.g. about 16% of the overall floor area, v’s the 20% assumption made with the other two). In place of hydroponic farms we’ll put some greenhouses on the roof, where there would be room for up to 1,600m2 of them (about 20m2 per person, so again slightly less than with the previous two, but we’d be using some of the green space around the building for an urban farm as well). We’ll call this one the “eco-block” and its worth noting its not that dissimilar to some existing developments.


Figure 9: Bedzed eco building concept [Credit: Zedfactory 2007]

Land area

So the first question is how many of these would we need to house the current UK population? And what level of population could they support? Well the UK’s cities occupy 27,400 km2 of land area (about 11% of the UK’s total land area). So in theory, taking just 10% of the UK’s existing urban area, our “arco-cylinder” concept could house 700 million people and the Sky city concept could house 350 million. So with just 1% and 2% respectively of the UK’s urban land covered with these, you could house the entire UK population.

The eco-block concept could house 34 million people, which means that using 20% of the UK’s urban land area you could house the entire current UK population with eco-blocks. This is one of the advantages of arcologies, even relatively low rise ones surrounded by green areas are still able to house a large number of people, yet still providing them with a larger floor space in which to live.

Arguably the above comparison wasn’t really fair as it compared the ground footprint area of the two taller ones with no provision for any gap between them, while we factored in a large area of green space around the “eco-block”. So let’s recompute, we’ll take the maximum dimension of the two taller buildings (e.g. the height) and space them that distance away from one another (likely they’d be built as a cluster of several towers closer together, but we’ll assume the same land area allocated to each of them).

So assuming we then built one arco-cylinder spaced 400m apart across all of the UK’s urban land, you could accommodate 230 million people (or just the UK’s current population using 30% of all urban land). With Sky city’s spaced 1 km apart, you could house 890 million people within the UK’s existing urban areas (or the whole of the UK’s current population on just 7% of all urban land). Replace all of the UK’s cities with eco-blocks and you could accommodate 340 million people.

And remember, we’re assuming each of these buildings is now surrounded by a lot of empty space. The footprint of each arco-cylinder will occupy just 1.6% of the land area we are assigning to it, the Sky city only 12.5% and the eco-block 25%. So that’s lots of empty green space that could be used for other purposes, such as urban farms and allotments, or renewable energy systems.

Now I’m not advising covering the entire country in arcologies as a realistic planning strategy, I’m merely pointing out that when someone tells you that “Britain is full” that’s baloney. You could double or triple the UK’s population and not have to build a single home on the green belt. The reason why the UK has a housing crisis is that since the 80’s the rate of house building has been falling and the country’s stock of council houses was decimated by the Thatcher government. Also the population is rising (only recently due to immigration, generally its been people living longer) and household sizes are shrinking (more people living alone) which has increased demand for homes.


Figure 10: UK housebuilding [Credit: Shelter, 2012]

Isaac Arthur in his podcast on arcologies estimates that if you put one 125m diameter arcology with 5,000 people in it, one per square mile along the US coast you could house half a billion people, leaving the whole of the US interior either devoted to farmland or as national park land. Its worth noting that Issac applies a larger amount of floor area than I do. In his calculations, he assumes more than enough to render an arcology fully self sufficient, so it won’t really need much farmland to support these buildings. Putting one down every square mile (i.e. one tower occupying about 0.5% of that square mile) across the whole of America and you could support a population in the tens of billions. So no, America isn’t full either, not even close.

Heating and cooling

Isaac Arthur’s video also mentions how arcologies might have a major cooling problem. Well not necessarily, it depends on where you build it and how its designed. But certainly heating and cooling of any buildings is often the main source of energy consumption. This is in fact the very element of the arcology concept that has been most heavily incorporated into modern buildings, as I discussed in a prior post.

Good insulation can limit heat losses in winter while good use of solar shading can limit solar gains and reduce overheating in summer. Natural convection can also be utilised to reduce energy consumption. For example, the double skinned facade can be used to either heat a building in the winter. Or by using natural convection, we can create a stack effect that will draw hot air out of the building.


Figure 11: The Double skinned facade [Credit: tboake, 2009]

By positioning the inlets at the ground floor and drawing the air through the ground (which will always be about 10-12’C) we can effectively cool the building naturally. Solar PV facades can perform a similar function, with the added benefit that the air flow will help to cool the PV panels and improve their efficiency. Similarly Masdar uses wind towers to help naturally cool the city down.


Figure 12: Earth connection cooling [Credit: Readon & Clarke, 2013]

The layout of a building can help reduce its energy consumption. Clustering the hydroponics or greenhouses towards the top of our structure (where it tends to be warmest) would produce an immediate energy saving, as well as resolve a number of the issues I mentioned with regard to lifts (as people won’t need to get off on these upper floors as often). Harvesting rainwater and storing it in tanks higher up would also reduce the energy consuming with regard to water pumping (both for irrigation and the needs of occupants). Although it would mean the support columns would need to be a bit thicker to account for all that extra weight (making the building a bit more expensive to build).

Isaac mentions putting a fusion reactor in the basement of arcologies. Well if you do have a cooling problem the worst thing you could do is put a reactor in the basement (for every unit of electricity that reactor generates, its going to pump out at least 2 units of heat!). Of course there’s nothing to stop you building one nearby and then shunting the energy it produces back to the building or neighbouring buildings clustered around it. And while we don’t have fusion power, we do have biomass CHP and fuel cells which can essentially do the same job.

Any sort of thermal power plant can also help heat the building in winter and using the absorption chiller effect you can use waste heat from your power plant to provide cooling in summer. The same applies to solar thermal collectors mounted on the roof.


Figure 13: Solar thermal energy is rapidly becoming one of the key sources of domestic renewable heat generation [Credit: Ariston Thermo, 2014]

You will notice how many of the heating and cooling options I’ve mentioned can do both heating or cooling. This is important because in reality we often face both problems, the need to both cool and heat a building at different times of the day or year. Even in Dubai you’ll need to heat buildings on occasions (it gets pretty cold in the desert at night you know!).

The rookie mistake of many architects is to emphasise one of these two at the expense of the other. E.g. they’re designing an office building, they know that cooling tends to be a big problem with office buildings, so they design the building to leak heat away like a sieve. Only trouble is, on Monday mornings in the winter (after the building has been left unoccupied over the weekend), or around Christmas time (when the weather’s cold and occupancy will be lower) its freezing inside and the female staff are going around with massive coats on mumbling something about “winter is coming”.

In another example the double skinned facade concept is only as good as its shading device. Install one without a proper shading device (and I’ve seen plenty of examples of this) and you might actually increase the buildings carbon footprint, because it will be at risk of overheating in summer or on sunny winter days.

So all in all, there are ways we can heat or cool down any building, be it a single story house or a 1km tall arcology, but it does require some careful analysis from the design team. And generally it means considering options that can perform both heating and cooling.


So how much energy would the occupants of our arcology use? Well the current best practice in the EU is 115 kWh/yr/m2 for residential property, 80kWh/yr/m2 for a passivhaus, 125 kWh/yr/m2 for commercial property. These figures include the energy load for heating and cooling, assuming best practice (as outlined above). Hydroponics energy use is a bit harder to estimate, I’ve seen a range of figures going from 12-100 kWh/yr/m2, so I’m going to pick a median value of about 50 kWh/yr/m2 and 20 kWh/yr/m2 for our gardens and green spaces (we’ll need lighting during the night and water pumping). I’m going to slap a further 250 kWh/yr on each occupant to cover things like lifts, shared utilities and parasitic loads. Do the maths and this suggests each occupant of our arcologies would use around 17,500 kWh/yr, against a UK average of 37,750 kWh/yr, so that’s a reduction of 54%.

That said, keep in mind the arcology figure, while it includes some of the transportation, services and food production energy consumption, it doesn’t include all of that allocation. On the other hand, we’ve probably overestimated the floor area and essentially assumed a higher standard of living on the arcology side. Its also going to be a lot easier to incorporate public transport into the arcology model than the way we current plan out cities (the larger ones will have a subway station in the basement, the smaller ones will be clustered around a transportation hub). Making it easier for people to live car free, which significantly reduces energy consumption. We’ve also ignored the benefits of economies of scale that the larger arcologies would benefit from. So my guess is these weighting all these factors, the residents of an arcology should have a lower rate of energy consumption, but by how much lower is the question.

But could an arcology completely generate all its own power? Well if we cover about 50% of the south facing surface area of each of our arcologies with PV panels or solar thermal collectors (for domestic hot water), installed a ground source heat pump, put some wind turbines on the upper parts of the taller ones we could meet between 25% (for the Sky City) and 60% (for the eco-block) of the resident’s total energy consumption.

I would note that I’m not saying that making an arcology completely self sustaining from an energy point of view is impossible (because there are buildings that are capable of doing that right now, earthships for example). It depends on the consumption rates and also to what extend are we willing to compromise the design of the building or increase the construction costs to allow a higher yield of renewable energy. This is often the dilemma faced with BIR’s (building integrated renewables). There’s also the option of a CHP plant (running on hydrogen or biomass), either within the building or nearby (likely feeding power and heat to a number of nearby arcologies), which would easily bring the power levels up to 100%.


Figure 14: Building integrated renewables encorporate renewable energy systems within the building itself

And given that our buildings only occupy between 1.6% to 25% of the land we’ve assigned to them, there’s no reason why some of this land couldn’t have solar panels or wind turbines mounted on it. And yes a few quick sums shows that all three easily exceed 100% if we do that.

Although that said, in the same way its always going to be more economic to grow crops in a field outside of urban areas, its always going to be more economic to put a solar panel in a desert or stick a large multi-megawatt wind turbine on a hill in Scotland than incorporate it into a building. Even so generating some significant proportion of a building’s energy use via renewables, in a building where the occupants already consume a lot less energy, is definitely going in the right direction.

Fire safety

Its perhaps worth briefly mentioning fire safety. One issue with draping plants over the side of the building (as some arcology designers like to do), is that this is a potential route for fire to spread. Now, so long as precautions are taken to contain the fire, i.e. there is no way for the fire to get inside the building, or we put the plants inside a glazed facade (but with open windows that can be closed off automatically in the event of a fire) with a sprinkler system (we’ll need to be able to water the plants anyway!), then there’s no reason why this should be a show stopper. Similarly the double skinned facade I mentioned will need fire dampers to seal it off and a set of fire breaks every couple of floors on very tall buildings.

This is all important, because as I’ve discussed before, we’d like to use as much low-embodied energy materials (and easily recycled material) as possible, such as wood for example. Fire isn’t a show stopper for this, so long as adequate fire protection measures are in place to limit or slow the spread of any fire (e.g. fireproof cladding around any flammable material, sprinklers, fire doors, adequate evacuation routes, etc.), giving residence’s time to get out and fire fighters to get in.

The upside down skyscraper

Another idea is the concept of inverting our arcology and building it downwards rather than up. Would this be a good idea? Well its not going to be easy. As I discussed before (with regard to underground nuclear reactors), building underground is expensive and time consuming. Often the phase of any construction project that you try and minimise is the phase involving deep excavation and building the foundations, as this tends to be more prone to delays and unexpected cost overruns.


Figure 15: Earthscraper concept [Credit: BNKR, 2011]

We also need to consider the issue of water intrusion. Dig a pit in your garden, go in for lunch and you’ll probably come out to find the pit has flooded. So the walls of our upside down skyscraper will have to be fully water tight to stop the building flooding (which isn’t an easy thing to do with concrete, hence why flooding in basements isn’t that uncommon). And the deeper we go, the worse the problem gets because of the rise in ground pressure and thus the head of water trying to push into our building increases.

There’s also the matter of heating, cooling and ventilation. The soil in the UK is generally (as noted earlier) around about 10-12’C year round. Given that soil has a much higher rate of thermal conductivity compared to air, this means we’re going to have a major heating problem year round. Now in a warmer climate this lower ground temperature would have advantages (although note the ground temperature in these countries is usually a bit higher although it will generally be lower than the surface air temperature) as it could help keep the building cool.

But we’re still going to have to provide hot water to residence and ventilation. And given that we now need to pump all of that air and water up and down from the surface (in the other arcologies we can get by with a service area every couple of floors or use natural convection as described). So we’re probably still going to end up with reasonably high energy consumption.

All in all, my guess is that such a structure will be more expensive to build than existing skyscrapers and probably more expensive to run.

Urban planning in reverse

So as we’ve seen, arcologies are significantly more land area efficient. Even the low rise option (the eco-block), where the building itself only occupies 25% of the actual land area assigned to it, would still have a higher housing density than most of the UK’s existing cities, 12,500 people per km2 against London’s current population density of 5,500 people/km2. With shops and public services essentially on site or nearby, we can help reduce (or eliminate) the dependence on cars.

And as noted its not too dissimilar to a number of current or proposed housing developments. Arcologies are more energy efficient, more ecologically friendly and potentially self powering (up to a point!). And while we probably can’t produce all of our food for the resident’s on site (but then again, my point isn’t so much could we? but more should we?) we can certainly significantly reduce the resident’s food miles. So why aren’t we building arcologies?


Figure 16: We face something of a choice between low rise concepts like the Organicity…..[Credit: Jones, 2017]

Well quite simply put, only 50% of the floor area of our arcology can be sold on by a developer, while if he eliminates those green spaces and growing areas, this rises to 80% (the balance being taken up by services). There is little economic incentive to build them.

And even this idea of mixing commercial property, public services and residential areas in the same building can be difficult to justify. If you put a building up in the central business district of most cities its going to be more profitable to fill it with commercial property (with maybe a few penthouses on the upper floors). Outside the CBD, the value of commercial property falls and its more profitable to fill it with residential units. Also there’s the small matter of zoning laws. So there is a lack of joined up thinking here.

Building regulations can also be an issue. In most countries the building regulations for an office building or commercial property are often different from those for a residential block or factory. In any sort of mixed development we generally have to apply the most stringent standards across the entire building. This is particularly true when it comes to fire safety. So that’s going to push up the costs. So there would be a need for incentives from government to encourage these sorts of developments. And if anything, the problem in recent years has been that government’s have done the complete opposite.


Figure 17: …or more strip mall development

Governments, both sides of the Atlantic have for too long encouraged strip mall development. Not only is this bad as it creates urban sprawl, but it also decreases the efficiency of public transport and thus increases car ownership, which pushes up carbon emissions. Keep in mind the figure for population density given for London above represents the average for central London. The average population density across the whole of the London metropolitan area is just 1,500 persons/km2. And most UK cities are a lot less densely populated than London.

By contrast Paris or Athens, historic cities with relatively few skyscrapers (but equally less strip mall development) have a population density of 21,000 person/km2 and 19,135 persons/km2 respectively. Indeed, its interesting to note how the planners of cities like Paris, or Edinburgh’s New Town, were closer to the arcology concept than our modern urban planners, given that they incorporated green spaces, commercial property and residential space all within the same development. And they were doing this centuries ago. Indeed, so close is Edinburgh’s Georgian New Town development to the eco-block concept above, I’m wondering if I should just rename it “New Town 2.0”.


Figure 18: Edinburgh’s Georgian era New Town is now a world heritage site

So the major obstacle to arcologies, or eco buildings in general, is the fact that we have gone backwards in terms of urban planning and development over the last few centuries. If there’s anything conclusion we can draw from this analysis, its the need to reverse those policies.

Posted in Biomass, CHP, clean energy, climate change, environment, future, housing, Passivhaus, peak oil, politics, power, renewables, space, subsidy, sustainability, sustainable, technology, transport | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

E is for Euratom, C is for post brexit chaos


When article 50 was declared, both the bill and letter sent to the EU clearly stated the UK was leaving Euratom (the EU’s nuclear agency) as well as the EU. I was slightly confused by this as it seems to contradict something I’ve long noted about the Tories, their illogical devotion towards nuclear energy. I did wonder whether this represented a moment of clarity (that nuclear power is a waste of time and money), or was it just another sign that they haven’t got a clue with what they are doing. I think we’ll have to conclude it was the latter.

Euratom is a European agency that has various responsibilities. They act as a single market for nuclear energy components, nuclear fuels (i.e uranium supplies), medical isotopes, regulation of the nuclear industry (notably its safe handling procedures) as well as research into long term nuclear projects such as the ITER fusion project.


The sticking point for the UK is that two key components of Euratom are free movement of people (so nuclear scientists can move around unobstructed) and accepting the rulings of the ECJ. These are not minor points in the small print, but central to how Euratom works. As the UK is leaving the single market and specifically going out of it way to restrict free movement and the dominion of the ECJ, this means they will have to leave Euratom on brexit.

The consequences of leaving Euratom could be rather serious. As some nuclear scientists have pointed out it could mean a go-slow (if not an all stop) to nuclear energy projects across the UK, it could lead to shortages of nuclear fuel, qualified experts and medical isotopes. I mean I’m not exactly a fan of nuclear energy, but a messy disintegration of the industry is hardly something positive.

It dawning on them that leaving Euratom might actually be a bad thing, only now are the brexiters starting to panic. Dominic Cummings, who was campaign director for vote Leave, sent out a furious tweet condemning this decision, as did several MP’s who voted for article 50, despite the fact that leaving Euratom was included in that bill. So one must conclude that Cummings had no idea what he was campaigning for (the dog who caught the bus and all that) and many of the Tory MP’s didn’t even bother to read the article 50 bill before voting on it.

Meanwhile Dave2 has suggested the UK could remain an “associate” member of Euratom. This indicates many of the brexiters are still acting under the “have our cake and eat it” delusion. While it is true that Switzerland, America and China are associate members of Euratom, their circumstances are very different.

Switzerland has only a handful of reactors, which they are planning to decommission without replacement. So any impact of free movement and the domain of the ECJ doesn’t really effect them much and it won’t effect them for much longer. The US and China are only in the club so that they can ensure their scientists can attend conferences or work on projects such as ITER. The aren’t particularly concerned about a couple of Europeans scientists coming over to their country to do the same and the ECJ element of Euratom is unlikely to ever effect them.

But the brexiters seem to think that in 2020 they can just self-invite themselves to the next Euratom board meeting and nobody will mind. Well no, they will be marched off site by security and thrown out onto the street. In order for the UK to gain associate membership all of the existing members will have to agree. And if the UK has just undertaken a messy exit and refused to pay its exit bill then I can guarantee you that someone will black ball them and they’ll be told to take a hike.

Now in theory, the UK could set up its own version of Euratom. There are agencies such as the UK Atomic Energy Authority or NNL (national nuclear laboratories) who could take over some of its responsibilities. However they lack the infrastructure, staff and international agreements to perform that role. Now if the government were to accept the reality that they’ll be chucked out of Euratom upon brexit and started the process to prepare for that now, its just about doable for them to be ready in two years time. But there’s the problem. The penny hasn’t dropped with them yet, they won’t and hence the risk of chaos.

Homer Simpson

The UK’s post-brexit Euratom solution

And of course spending a few hundred million to replicate work which the EU does anyway is hardly sensible use of taxpayers money. But it is merely one of a dozen other EU agencies whose work will have to be replicated here in the UK at a cost of probably a few billion a year. And again, its not as if we can just hit a light switch, recruiting all of those staff, building up the infrastructure to support all these agencies is going to take time and time isn’t something the UK has in abundance. And what most of those agencies will be doing is googling the relevant EU laws and basically plagiarising them, much as the so-called repeal bill, won’t repeal a thing, but will simply plagiarise lots of EU legislation.

For example, take the airline industry. The UK will lose access to the European open skies agreement on brexit. Already in anticipation of this Easyjet has set up a subsidiary in Austria and is applying for an EU based operating license. Also they are already 49% owned by European shareholders (they have to be 50.1%) so its not too difficult to envisage them becoming a European airline post-brexit. Ryanair have warned of serious repercussions post-brexit. BA might be okay, as they don’t fly to many European destinations, but there will inevitably be knock on effects, given that their parent company IAG is not majority European owned (probably they and Ryanair will need to hold a share buy back and then fire sale after brexit to retain access to the EU’s skies). But its likely all in all that far from UK airlines expanding their operations, the opposite will happen, which kind raises questions as to what’s the point of expanding Heathrow.

So while I suspect many of the UK’s anti-nuclear campaigners will react with glee to this little fiasco, it contains some very worrying news as it suggests a very messy UK exit, post-brexit.

Posted in economics, energy, environment, nuclear, politics, technology | 4 Comments