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Our world, energy-wise, in 300+ years  RSS feed

 
pollinator
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I've been thinking on this today and was curious what you guys thought.

I've often watched things like climate change, pollution, and the very simple fact that fossil fuels are a finite commodity.

Even if they didn't pollute, they are still finite... yet our society is so incredibly dependent on them.

So I see one of two things happening - either we will be stupid and run ourselves into the ground, and the world has some sort of massive economic crash that throws us back to the dark ages, or we figure it out before that happens and somehow develop a society that isn't dependent on fossil fuel.

What will that look like? I've always kinda thought the former would happen, but I was just thinking about what if it was the latter? What would our world look like?

What do you think the end result is going to be?
 
pollinator
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I think about these things a lot.

I think that we will run off of biological solar power--that is to say, using energy from plants like we used to. Wood mostly, and energy from calories. A lot of my friends think the economy will look something like it did in the 1800s, or perhaps further back. I personally don't think solar panels or wind turbines can be made without fossil fuels--all the mining, refining, shipping, maintenance, etc.

I like to think of trees as a very efficient, sensible solar panel though. They capture energy from the sun and make it available to me, for which I'm grateful
 
master steward
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Bethany Dutch wrote:What will that look like?



I remember in one sci-fi book I read, the author casually mentioned how on earth, gasoline was saved for very rare things that could only be fueled by gas. It was government controlled and only used for certain situations. Since it was sci-fi, I'm pretty sure they had some other near-magical energy source that they used for their space-ships, etc. But, either way, the idea of the world sesibly agreeing to limiting the use of fossil fuels for only that which was necessary, made a lot of sense to me.

Of course, it doesn't look like the world has much sense. We just keep mining, destroying area after area that we drill...and using it to make little plastic wrappers on single-serve bags of "yogurt"-covered pretzels and on power that we use for the unnecessary tasks, like an elextric toothbrush and countless plastic toys that beep and boop.

Since we don't seem capable of becoming enlightened, I'm thinking James Landreth is pretty on target for what the world will look like in 300+ years.
 
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Bethany Dutch wrote:So I see one of two things happening - either we will be stupid and run ourselves into the ground, and the world has some sort of massive economic crash that throws us back to the dark ages, or we figure it out before that happens and somehow develop a society that isn't dependent on fossil fuel.



I expect more of the same of what has been going on for my entire lifetime... A gradual shift of society towards living within the solar budget of the planet. Perhaps there are fits and starts, but the overall trend has been towards being less able to afford increasingly scarce resources, and thus learning to get by with fewer extravagances. I expect that trend to continue.
 
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I expect some new power source that is so different,  it isn't even on our radar yet.  Think of the changes in technology in the last 300 years. I fully expect we will be exploring other worlds by then.  Who knows what we will find? Certainly new life forms.  Are new elements hard to believe? I think 300 years from now people will laugh at how primitive we are now,  especially in the field of medicine.
 
James Landreth
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A generation ago, my county didn't get hot enough to ripen certain varieties of apple. Now we are successfully ripening citrus, olive, and pomegranate outside and in the ground. I have a hard time believing that natural climate change is that rapid with something like an asteroid strike as a catalyst

I'm talking like twenty years here.
 
pollinator
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Being Canadian, I realize the resource is not very finite at all, if we would just stop selling it to the US and China. Canada is sitting on the world's second-largest reserve. If we could just agree to leave it in the ground and use it only for domestic purposes, and then be smart about its use, we would have vast amounts left when the rest of the world has already burnt their's. And maybe by then it would be seen as a chemical resource, and not just something to burn. Our great great great great grandchildren will have every reason to curse us if we sell it all to China.
 
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Trace Oswald wrote:Are new elements hard to believe?


While I don't doubt that new elements will be created, Tennessine (atomic number 117) was created less than a decade ago, useful new elements is another story. Seaborgium (atomic number 106) has been around for over 40 years, and it still does not have a useful application (outside the study of Seaborgium).
 
pollinator
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humanity is under constant bombardment of dogma, propaganda and disinformation about energy, the environment,climate and carbon in the atmosphere.

i think as permies, we're all doing our share but there is due diligence to be done and we must seek more information, educate ourselves, and ask: CUI BONO?
 
master pollinator
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Molten Salt Reactor

We don't need a new technology. We already have one on the drawing board for decades that eats the waste of the inefficient processes we're trying to move away from now. And we have something on the order of a thousand years of fuel for such reactors to supply power at today's levels.

I don't remember the exact numbers, and I will try to find the post where we were hashing all this out, but I think that MSRs were suggested to have the ability to cut the volume of current nuclear waste stores to ten percent of what they are. Not by ten percent. To ten percent.

In addition, there is thorium-based nuclear power, which is also a natural, as it is a byproduct of rare earth mining. But whereas China has started looking into it as a source of power, rare earth mining companies in California are "disposing" of their "radioactive waste product" by casting it in cement and sequestering it.

We could go backwards, but I doubt it, and I hope not. The only way, I think, that we wouldn't absolutely devastate (not decimate, to cut by a tenth, but devastate, to visit ruin and destruction upon) the planet is if a significant portion of the earth's polluting populations died in some cataclysm, and the remainder were all permies, or were quickly brought around to such, and before global communications cut out, too. It's hard to infect minds, or to have an online empire at all, without the internet, or some future analogue.

I, too, think that our power will come from biology, but probably the engineered variety. I might go with tree-borgs, personally. Imagine a suite of implants and an interconnected network to augment the functioning of trees and the forest as a whole. This has more applications on engineered habitats, on the inner surfaces of spinning cylindrical orbital stations and domed biospheres on colonised planets and moons than here on earth, but it has some applications.

What if we could simply monitor the needs of trees themselves to encourage them to do specific things, to grow in a particular way, such as, in the instance of a desert environment being regreened, minimally above-ground, while perhaps a tap root and subsurface infrastructure grow to gather, retain, and distribute water, until the surrounding environment is supportive of more vertical growth? What if we could increase the amount of energy trees took in from the sun, to store in the form of sap, which we could then distill into fuel?

And many people are black and white on the whole GMO thing, but honestly, as long as they keep it out of my food and the environment as a whole, I could see the use in a genetically-engineered coastal redwood engineered to thrive in a drier, hotter coastal environment than is typical, augmented to perhaps be able to thrive in salt marsh conditions, or in arid ones, to drop a tap root down to the water table, engage in hydraulic lift, or to drink seawater and sweat water vapour into desert areas with air wells and careful plantings of more desert-greening species.

I think that sea walls, oceanic sub-surface storm breaks and ultimately land masses will be grown out of biorock, drawing down the carbon, and therefore dealing with the acidification issues, in the oceans, and also providing prime supportive habitats for endangered corals. I think sea floor-based vertical maricultural projects will move people from being seasonally-flooded shack-dwellers to sea and sub-steading sea farmers, incidentally providing, as their surplus contributions, to the regeneration of the ocean food web by bolstering it's primary providers through wind pump-based oxygenation to combat areas depleted of such by industrial activity.

I think that ultimately this will result in islands being grown, giant, iceberg-scale growing platforms with a subsurface coral reef nine-tenths of the total mass, with floating mushroom booms forming a sheltered perimeter that would foster salt marsh and mangrove growth. These will be giant biological filters, cleaning the oceans as they grow, feeding more than just the people living on them, and with a surrounding buffer zone of hungry sea biology to eat any biological detritus that escapes our reuse.

I think the micro-satellite movement will culminate with swarms of solar panel-bearing satellite drones taking most of the sting out of the sun's heat while we deal with the insulating gasses heating our little ball. That energy will likely be transmitted to the surface to be used as electricity, weaning us further off remaining fossil fuel power generation as a solar-on-steroids.

Cheap power in orbit will spur industrial development there, and industry will slowly start moving off-planet with asteroid mining, probably tele-robotically at first, and then colonisation and settlement will begin, chasing the money.

Venus will be the surprise. We'll probably use Cloud City-style airship cities between 50 and 54 kilometres above the surface, where our normal breathing mix is buoyant and the temperatures are earth-like. The atmosphere is still corrosive, so the first industrial experiments will probably be tele-robotic and involve the production of carbon-based corrosion-proof building trusses, panels, and glazings. High-pressure industrial operations will take place in automated and tele-robotic factories running the length of a "tether" tipped with a power-generating rotor extending down to the higher-pressure levels nearer the surface. It will likely be the source for cheap carbon-fibre and other carbon-based structural and building materials throughout the system.

Ultimately, even with the use of arrays of solar sail-deploying drone craft, we will figure out how to reliably and predictably control the movement of, at very least, asteroids. Dropping celestial rocks with a large hydrogen content into Venus' atmosphere over time would result in water formation, and its gradual terraforming (into a form like Terra).

I don't think that the colonisation of Mars will be popular until there is a clearly defined financial drive for it. What would also help would be if it had a magnetic field. The only way I can think of setting that up is drilling a hole to the core of Mars, probably at one of the poles, and stationing a, well, station there, geosynchronously. It would be another rotating cylinder with habitats on its inner surface, but it would have a giant solar collector on one end, and would beam that on down through the drilled hole to heat up Mars' core. Once there is a fluid core, there should be a magnetic field formed. Or we can create artificial magnetic fields in the canyons, bubble them over, and inhabit them, but I like the whole-planet approach.

But energy won't be a problem, as long as we don't allow civilisation to descend into chaos and madness. Giving up on it, now, when we have tools to prevent that outcome, is foolish. The task is daunting, but play around with all the possibilities, and if you can take an innovative one for yourself and make it work, like for instance pioneering in the aforementioned sea-steading and sea floor-based vertical mariculture with biorock infrastructure, that's one step towards a future where no great number of people have to die, no great masses of people go unemployed, hungry, diseased, or turned into things less-than human.

-CK
 
Dale Hodgins
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Chris has obviously given this more thought than most of us.

I'd like to see solar panels made more efficient and at less cost. Because the sun will still be shining in 300 years, if we ignore the opinion of that guy on YouTube.

Then there's energy from biological sources, be it fuel producing algae, trees that grow very quickly or improved oil palms that are able to live in temperate zones.

I think that in a thousand years, space will still be something that we are exploring, but with a very low population.
 
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Chris has put a lot of thought into this, and I like where he is heading.  As he mentioned, any genetic improvement of tree taproot growth has the potential to increase tree utilization of groundwater, stop desertification, improve rainfall, and re-green the planet.  There’s a lot of potential for massive swale/pond construction allied with trans-genic dry-land trees gene improvement for ecosystem modification.  You would just need to market it properly and find a public or private economic incentive.

I guess I’m just pro-GMO and anti-Roundup.  Our current food problems are not directly due to GMOs.  It’s the regular tillage, fossil fuel fertilizer production, herbicides/pesticides, erosion, etc that are hurting our food and damaging the earth.  GMOs are just a tool that can be used for good or bad, much like a chainsaw (spoiler alert, Monsanto is not using them responsibly).  Actually, a chainsaw is a bad metaphor, because one would take centuries to break down in a junkyard.  Evolution works much faster against dysfunctional life.

There are GMO blight-free American Chestnut trees available right NOW waiting on USDA approval to restore the Great Chestnut Forest (starting in my Piedmont front yard).  Pure American Chestnut phenotype – just a small genetic modification (taken from other plants) to ensure blight resistance.  I think J. Russell Smith would be the first in line to improve tree genetics in the lab.

I don’t know how to support a population of several billion humans on this earth without extensive “terra-forming” to our ecosystem to maximize productivity.  Un-modified, Nature does not produce food in the density needed to foster humans at the billion+ level (while every human civilization and quite a few beavers have modified their environment to improve their species survival).  Humans have typically not understood their ecosystems very well, and their modifications have not always been positive to other life-forms.  I believe that our current knowledge (though not complete) allows us to make more mutually-beneficial modifications.

And on the climate change front, I don’t see how to solve that problem without some kind of nuclear energy (given our current levels of battery and renewable technology).  We don’t currently have the energy storage to use intermittent power sources, and I don’t really see how to get there.  Energy density for battery tech is getting good enough to power cars, chainsaws, and other relatively compact/high power devices.  But it’s not clear how we scale that up to store power over several days of cloudy weather.
 
Dale Hodgins
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Deep tap roots are great if there's plenty of water to tap. Extensive plantations of eucalyptus have lowered water tables in many areas.

Work on trees that can grow in saltwater, shows promise. Mangroves do it, but they do it very slowly. All I am asking for is a high-quality hardwood similar to Black Walnut or African mahogany that can grow in saltwater, five times faster than a willow growing by a septic tank. :-)  And I want it to have hundreds of beach ball-sized pods containing very clean diesel fuel.
 
Chris Kott
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Compressed liquid hydrogen. We park solar panels atop the current expanse of pipelines, and convert them from high-capacity rivers of liquid bitumen to high-capacity rivers of liquid hydrogen. When there's excess energy coming into the system, it's converted to hydrogen through electrolysis.

Then we use slightly-tweaked propane and compressed natural gas technology that's been around for decades, at least, and retrofit our internal combustion-dependent civilisation for hydrogen while electric vehicle technology comes into its own. Or doesn't. It wouldn't matter by that point.

As I have mentioned in other places, and you brought up above, Josh, genetic modification is a tool, and what is important is how it is used. Monsanto's use puts more herbicides and pesticides into the environment. If the aim were to give the engineered plants the ability of some green manures to go from germination to shading out competition instead of barely surviving herbicidal armageddon, then the effect of GMOs on the environment, and our health, would be entirely different.

But yes, absolutely, I would love to be able to plant a forest of transgenic, drought-adapted, desertification-reducing trees rather than having to worry about what some idiot is going to spray up into the atmosphere to simulate volcanic ash. I think it would be brilliant to have GMO coastal species that drink salt water and sweat out fresh, reducing the need for desalination plants. Because real plants grow from seed, which should cost nothing to scale up to forest-scale, whereas a desalination plant that size would cost billions, not to mention the toxically concentrated brine by-product.

In the short-term, incidentally, we could nuke our power problems and our freshwater biosphere issues by covering shallow bodies of water with solar rafts. Instead of heating up water that is then too warm for fish species to spawn in, or to hold much oxygen, we get electricity and shaded lakes and ponds.

Part of the current issue is the recyclability of solar panels, electronic components, and batteries. There is an economic push towards materials that are more commonly available, and so cheaper, and a common subtext to that conversation addresses the end-life conditions of these things. A thing can only be truly permaculturally viable if the waste loop is closed.

-CK
 
Chris Kott
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Dale Hodgins wrote:Being Canadian, I realize the resource is not very finite at all, if we would just stop selling it to the US and China. Canada is sitting on the world's second-largest reserve. If we could just agree to leave it in the ground and use it only for domestic purposes, and then be smart about its use, we would have vast amounts left when the rest of the world has already burnt their's. And maybe by then it would be seen as a chemical resource, and not just something to burn. Our great great great great grandchildren will have every reason to curse us if we sell it all to China.



As to Canada, I agree completely with you, Dale. Actually, I think that the more that can be kept in the ground now, the better, and not just for the obvious carbon economy reasons.

The logistical bottlenecks facing the tarsands have actually driven some businesses to investigate the possibility of carbon fibre and other synthetic materials. If those ideas were capitalised, we could easily be the carbon-fibre producer of the world, making structural materials and cladding for heavy-lift cargo airships that don't need support infrastructure, or roads, or airports, or deafen aquatic life with their engine drone.

-CK
 
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Joseph Lofthouse wrote:I expect more of the same of what has been going on for my entire lifetime... A gradual shift of society towards living within the solar budget of the planet. Perhaps there are fits and starts, but the overall trend has been towards being less able to afford increasingly scarce resources, and thus learning to get by with fewer extravagances. I expect that trend to continue.



In one sense, this is a truism, or a mathematical inevitability.  When all the juicy fun joyjuice is gone, that's what's left. The interesting question for those of us alive today is "how gradual?" With some fascinating subsidiary questions along the lines of "what, in a solar budget world, will we consider to be extravagances?"  

The one thing I am not sanguine about is the notion, expressed in this thread, that nuclear power plants will let us keep enjoying a high-energy lifestyle for centuries to come.  When John Michael Greer was essaying weekly, he tried to grapple with the mathematics of the embodied energy of the capital equipment (power plants and associated technical infrastructure) and while I do not pretend to have understood the details of his argument, he seemed persuaded that a nuclear energy economy didn't pencil out without an oil energy economy to build and maintain it.  This is argument by "some smart guy looked at the numbers and shook his head sadly" I admit, but the world is too large to understand everything, and you have to place your bets based on the information you have.
 
Chris Kott
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I often wonder if we will end up engineering something like a fuel tree.

Imagine a species of, I don't know, engineered Sugar Maple, with conferred resistance to freezing by adding genes for winter-tolerant plant species that create antifreeze in their sap, and tweaking it so that the ethanol produced to lower freezing temperature was augmented to be concentrated enough to burn as fuel. Imagine if these trees were tappable for their sap from thaw to freeze, engaging in hydraulic lift for themselves and the plants around them and cranking out carbon-neutral fuel for likely more efficient internal combustion engines.

I mean, if we could breed or engineer a tree species that would suck carbon out of the air and turn it into fuel for our ready use, it would be carbon-neutral. We could simply shut off the taps in Alberta, Newfoundland, Venezuela, Texas, the Gulf of Mexico, Saudi Arabia. Imagine all the money that could be kept at home, and distributed amongst people who would otherwise be lining up at a gas station every few days, waiting in queue to line the pockets of some mad moron billionaires who care more about their pocket lining than their progeny.

And if they were spread to the thawing permafrost, up past the tree line, to the new grasslands, where the bison and Asian Mammophants would roam free, it would help to transition that biome from a nascent grassland to a savannah. More edge habitat, more food, more diversity, and more life locking carbon up in the north.

-CK
 
pollinator
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I think coal is finally going to be turned into Clean Coal.

As much as people might dislike coal, there is 400 years worth of coal ready to be mined...in North Dakota alone! Add in the other sates, other countries, and I just do not see a future without coal being used. There is just too much energy potential in a ton of coal.
 
pollinator
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I am going to jump in here as the history of energy is one of my obsessions, having done much research while working on my MA in history.  What that research did to me was make me an environmental heterodox.  What that means is that while I share many/most of the goals of environmentalists, I differ, sometimes drastically, on the means to those goals.  The following make up my informed opinion so please understand that when I make some statements that may not sound environmentally friendly.

Going back to the OP’s original statement, yes, all fossile fuels are finite resources.  However at present they are vast, even though there is widespread concern about running out.  Take oil.  We have approximately 30 years of oil left at current rates of consumption—and we have had about 30 years of oil left for the last 150 years.  I found this little fact very interesting in that when the very first modern oil well was drilled in Pennsylvania in the 19th century, at first the oil shot out of the ground like a fountain.  Latter it flowed out on its own pressure but did not leave the surface and finally had to be pumped.  By this point (only a very short time from the initial discovery) it was assumed that the well would run dry in about 30 years.  

In fact, those oil fields still produce oil today.  I had heard all my life that much of the US was covered in oil fields that had been pumped dry.  In fact, I could find not one single well that had been pumped dry.  In fact, they are pumped to the point that they may be uneconomical to pump, but the oil is still there.  As oil prices rise, those wells come back online and as oil prices fall they go offline, but they are not pumped dry.

This brings me to market forces.  Even in a cataclysmic future scenario, I can’t imagine that the last barrel of oil would get pumped anyway.  What would be the point?  To go another 50 or so miles down the road?  Then what?  More likely that other forms of energy will become cost competitive LONG before we get to the apocalyptic last barrel of oil.  Exactly what that form of energy is anyone’s guess at this point.  It may be a variation of a present renewable energy, it may be an exotic nuclear or it could be something not yet even conceived.  My point is that I cannot imagine that we will run out of oil.  Rather we will transition away as other forms of energy become affordable by comparison.

I am also going to echo CK and say that there are forms of nuclear that are vastly more efficient than those at present and they produce a pittance the waste of current day reactors. I know that not everyone (or very many for that point) on these forums is copacetic with nuclear energy, but basically all operating nuclear reactors today are at best modifications of reactors first designed in the 50s.  Nuclear has a LOT of room for improvement but the political will to enact these changes is sorely lacking.

In summary, I cannot predict what energy will look like in 300 years, but I am certain that we will not run out of oil.  This makes for some fascinating thought experiments, and I have my own ideas, but they are just my own.  Please understand, I want to see energy usage in much less than 300 years to be some energetically dense but environmentally benign and cheap.  I just don't know what form that takes.

Eric
 
Chris Kott
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I agree, Eric. I think it's far more likely that cheaper and cleaner ways of producing and storing energy will make petroleum obsolete for energy production.

It will probably be worth more for some other purpose, like the formulation of advanced synthetics. There are already businesses in the tar sands adapting to export bottlenecks by producing things like carbon fibre, though I don't know that any have yet reached the commercially viable stage.

I like that idea, as that is direct sequestration for the life of the product. Plus, if automakers and aerospace took advantage of cheap structural materials with superior structural performance, they could design and build with that in mind, creating either much lighter vehicles, in the case of cars and aeroplanes, that require less fuel to propel, or larger vehicles that take advantage of economies of scale.

I understand the position of the coal lobby. They see billions of dollars in value in the ground, and they are being told that not only does it have a shelf-life in the current socio-political climate, but that the decades-long slide it has seen isn't just a bust before the next boom.

I wish for coal to become uneconomic to mine, except in the case of the type required for specific industrial processes(I forget the name, presently). Its mining will only benefit the tiny fraction of current energy sector workers who can be trained to operate the tele-robotic machines, or swarms of drones, that either mine underground, by far the most environmentally friendly option available to them, or that rip the tops off mountains and turns them into superfund sites.

I wish similarly for other sources of energy to supplant less environmentally-friendly ones, even solar, that has definite cradle-to-grave resource issues. Where does one recycle solar panels, and to what degree? Is the process environmentally-friendly in and of itself? Is it even possible? And what of the new ytterbium-based cells?

I think I would rather tap engineered sugar maples for ultra-clean bio-fuel, and maybe have MSRs generate most of our power, along with tidal and wind, while we work on either completely and cleanly recyclable solar panels, or ones whose operational life is so long that the cost of recycling pales in comparison to the value of their operational lives.

-CK
 
Eric Hanson
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CK, everyone,

So as I read some of the previous posts more closely I saw that they drift towards carbon sequestration as is normal with discussions on energy.  So with that thought, let me drift towards my own thoughts on C sequestration.

I want to focus on the under appreciated American lawn.  Fortunately, I read several posts about GMO plants and how GMO’s are a tool to be used, hopefully wisely.  My own thoughts revolve around my difficulties getting my lawn seeded/planted/established almost 15 years ago.  I live in the transition zone, an area too far south for northern grasses (like bluegrass) and too far north for southern grasses.  It is not that they cannot be grown, but getting started is rather difficult, especially for that first summer.

Around here, most people use lawn type fescue which has a good taproot, but does not spread like bluegrass.  There are some heat tolerant bluegrass but they are only so good against the brutal summers around here.

So my thought is to GMO the heck out of either a bluegrass or a fescue.  The the grass would have the following characteristics:

1). A deep, deep taproot, in excess of 6’

2). It would aggressively spread by rhizomes

3). It would be nitrogen fixing so as to need no additional fertilizer

4). It would not grow terribly tall so as to reduce the need to mow

5). It would be exceptionally vulnerable to vinegar so as to bring it under control easily

Grasses tend to lose about 1/3 their root mass each year, thus putting additional carbon into the ground.  While doing my masters research I discovered that soil fertility increases 25% for every 1% increase in carbon.  Basically I want a grass that will aggressively pull carbon out of the air, fill in gaps, fertilize itself and just look nice without growing out of control and becoming a weed itself.  I have no idea if this can be done, but this is my basic “fantasy grass”.

Any thoughts?

Eric
 
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