Building a Non-Electrical Economy on Other Planets

Technological solutions used on remote space colonies need to be robust, easy to repair and ideally easy to build and maintain with local resources.

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Very few planets accessible to humans with current propulsion technology has anything resembling the environment of the earth with the possible exception of Mars. Building a large presence and economy on other planets would thus necessitate basing it on the usage of very different materials and resources.

We see the same thing on earth between different countries, how countries are built with different materials. In my home country Norway almost every house is built from wood, which is natural given the abundance of forrest.

In Spain in contrast houses are built in stone because there is not much forrest available.

Another noticeable difference is how in Norway a lot of the economy is built around the availability of cheap hydro-electric power. It means that despite Norway being a major gas producer we don’t use gas for cooking and heating like Britain and the Netherlands, where most houses have gas pipes going into the houses, which is used for heating the homes and cooking.

So despite the availability of technology is the same, what technology and materials get used will differ due to different economic situations.

When we colonize other planets this difference in availability on materials will cause big changes in how things are done.

Mars Brick Economy

While I will mostly write about Venus, there are some general observations about any planet in our solar system. We won’t have abundance of trees growing everywhere. Hence the ubiquity of wood based products would change dramatically.

I don’t rule out entirely the use of wood, because when we have a very small economy with lack of specialization, wood has the appeal of simplicity of production. You don’t need a complicated industrial based to grow things.

The issue is that space for growing things will be at a premium, hence food production will take precedence.

Unlike earth you can’t just start plowing the dirt. Everything grown will have to be grown inside the equivalent of a pressurized greenhouse.

That is not going to be cheap. Since one might not use money on Mars, what I really mean is that the amount of resources and manpower allocated to this will be quite large for every square meter.

Stones, sand and water (in the form of ice) will be quite abundant on Mars. So accommodations will be dominated by bricks and concrete. It is unlikely to be any wooden floors, walls or furniture.

No abundance of cheap wood also means the usage of paper will likely be different. While I search for alternatives to paper i actually discovered it already exists.

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Demonstration of how stone paper is water proof

It is called stone paper and is pretty neat. Stones is one of the major ingredients but the paper is very smooth, tear resistant and water resistant. Martians will most likely use that to write on.

Venus Fluid Based Economy

I’ve written extensively about colonization of the Venus cloud tops before. The idea is that above the Venus cloud tops, we have earth like conditions with respect to temperature, pressure and gravity. You can live inside balloons filled with regular breathable air because they would float in the dense Venus atmosphere.

What I’ve detailed in previous stories about Venus is how we will be limited in what types of elements we can access from the clouds. But we do in fact have enough to build a large plastics and carbon fibre based economy. Fortunately plastic is a very flexible material so we can use it for a lot of things.

There are several areas we do get a problem however with if we don’t have easy access to metals.

Any modern industrial economy needs access to power tools for drilling and cutting. We need some kind of motors for lifting heavy stuff or moving it laterally.

Without electrical motors this may seem difficult to do. As a home owner you usually use electrical drills e.g. However in industry there is a great variety of pneumatic tools, which simply run of air pressure.

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Example of the vide variety of air powered tools available today

Typically you need a compressor to run these.

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An air compressor, used to provide pressurized gas to pneumatic tools.

However you don’t need to have a compressor near by to use these tools. All you need is a pressurized tank so you these tools are portable.

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Pneumatic tools are portable, since you can carry a pressured tank rather than connecting straight to an air compressor.

Pressurized tanks can be made of carbon fibre composite. In fact the SpaceX BFR rocket is using carbon fibre composite tanks for propellant.

So we can do tools without electricity but what about computers? Any modern economy will need it. We need computers for flight control of our Venus airships. We need them to control 3D printers, plotters, robot arms, CNC machines or other equipment we use to manufacture things.

Computers are not really limited to using electricity for calculations. It is something we have ended up doing because it allows us to create highly miniaturized computers operating at high speed.

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The Difference Engine, a mechanical computer invented by Charles Babbage.

The earlier computers, such as the Difference Engine designed by Charles Babbage, were entirely mechanical. Later Computers such as the Z1 by Konrad Zuse, where electromechanical.

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First general purpose, programmable computer, the Z1 by Konrad Zuse. This was an electro mechanical computer.

A problem with mechanical computers is size and friction. But there are alternative ways of doing it. Electricity can be thought of as a fluid flowing through cables. Hence it is possible to mimic the operations of a computer with fluids.

In fact there is a whole engineering discipline devoted to this called fluidics and micro fluidics when dealing with extremely miniaturized devices. These devices work by using vacuum or pressure to pull or push a fluid through an intricate set of tiny pipes or tunnels.

Presently the field of fluidics is mainly concerned with making devices for chemical and biological laboratories. One actual has various chemicals going through the micro channels not just generic gas or liquid.

However it is quite possible to use this technology for computing devices, as was demonstrated all the way back in 1964 with the FLODAC, pure fluid digital computer.

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A fludics based computer

There are various advantages and disadvantages to using a fluid based computer. Perhaps not all the differences noted back in the 60s are relevant today. However the researchers then claimed fluidics allowed for much more robust and reliable circuits compared to electronics. These could also operate under much more severe conditions such as heavy radiation or high temperatures.

These fluidics devices can in principle be made out of almost any material, which allows small channels to be made, hence it can make something that operates under extreme temperatures and conditions. This is interesting with respect to e.g. building autonomous vehicles which could operate on the Venus surface, where temperatures are too high for regular electronics.

The major disadvantages is that you can not achieve remotely the same performance as with electronic computers because fluids move so much slower than electrons. That means much lower clock frequencies. In the 60s it was noted:

Fluid amplifiers have one significant disad- vantage: their operational speed is relatively slow. Switching times are of the order of a millisecond, and signal propagation time is of the order of a millisecond per foot. Fluid am- plifiers, at present, are only approaching kilo- cycle rates of operation as opposed to the mega- cycle and higher rates common in electronic systems. Speeds can be expected to improve, of course, but nanosecond switching times are not foreseeable today.

This is further elaborated in the original FLODAC paper:

It should be pointed out that the speed of fluid signal pro- pagation in air is almost one million times slower than the speed of signal propagation in electric wires. Thus, from the point of view of signal wave length, a frequency of ten cycles per second using air as the working medium is analogous to a frequency of ten megacycles in electronics.

However present day 3D printing developments offer a lot of possibilities. Fluidics devices can made very cheaply and accurately with plastic in 3D. That means it is possible to create very compact designs. I imagine some of the problems with slow clock frequencies could be offset with heavier use of parallelization.

The human brain after all does not operate at a very high clock frequency but can still outcompete a computer in very many tasks through heavy utilization of parallell computing.

While not very well known today, a lot of computing in the past was done with analog computers. The Soviets used analog computer for a lot of their rocket control systems.

Analog computer have are making a comeback in the form of hybrid computers, where most of the operations are digital but specialized circuitry is analog. For instance they might use the analog part to solve differential equations.

In general, analog computers are extraordinarily fast, since they are able to solve most mathematically complex equations at the rate at which a signal traverses the circuit, which is generally an appreciable fraction of the speed of light. On the other hand, the precision of analog computers is not good; they are limited to three, or at most, four digits of precision.

Analog computers using water has been done successfully many times historically. MONIAC was a water powered analog computer used to calculate economic processes of of the United Kingdom.

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The analog water computer MONIAC, use to calculate economic processes.

The first computer for solving partial differential equations was in fact a Soviet water computer. This was not merely a curiosity. As mentioned in Digital Journal:

These water computers were used successfully in other areas such as geology, metallurgy, thermal physics, and rocket engineering. In the 1970’s these computers were still used in 115 manufacturing, research, and educational institutions in the USSR. It was not until the 1980s that digital computers came to surpass the functionality of the “hydraulic integrator” or water computer.

It might not be obvious how you get a tiny device with tiny amounts of fluids flowing through it to influence the real world. However as if electronics, we got amplifiers. Fluidics amplifiers are able to let a small stream of fluids to control a much larger stream.

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Different ways a small flow can control a large flow.

Fluidics devices are already used in avionics for trust vectoring.

Amplification means in principle we should be able to use fluidics devices to control other gas powered devices. Thus in principle it should be possible with a 3D printer of CNC machine running entirely on pressurized fluids. Such devices don’t exist today, because nobody has an economic incentive to create them. Technology naturally follows economics. It was easier to be a hunter than a farmer initially. People only began with farming because population density increased too much to support a hunter gatherer lifestyle. Likewise mineral oil only really got used because the world ran out of whale oil.

On Venus or any other planet we can imagine that certain equipment and materials can be delivered from earth. However that will happen at very high cost. Whatever can be built with local resources will have a huge cost advantage. This will drive technology development in a different direction. Fluidics based computers and gas powered machinery will have major economic advantage over electric powered machinery. Naturally electronics will exist on other planets since we can ship it from earth, however the relative price will be high enough that anything which can be accomplished without regular electronics will not use it.

Long Distance Communications

Ever since the telegraph we have used electrical wires for long distance communitions. What do you do if you don’t have metal wires to run electricity through?

We can in fact use carbon based wires in the form of graphene or carbon nanotubes. These actually do have some superior abilities compared to copper. There has in fact been experiments on using graphene in regular electronics and to construct anthenas.

An alternative for long distance communication is to use glas fibres, and communicate with light. An issue on Venus is that we lack easy access to rocks, however plastic optical fibres exist. These just require hydrogen, carbon, oxygen and fluorine elements which is all available in the Venus atmosphere.

A challenge might be how to generate light as light bulbs and LED’s require some kind of metal to make. Sun rays could of course be captured with lenses. Optical lenses can be made entirely in plastic.

Maintainability And Reliability

While a lot of electronics and electrical systems are highly reliable in the sense that they can keep working for a lot time without breaking down, they have the problem that these systems are not necessarily easy to service, repair and maintain.

An electric motor that burns out can not easily be repaired. In contrast pneumatic tools are much simpler, which means they typically last longer and can more easily be repaired.

That matters when something breaks down and you are 260 million kilometers away from the nearest service station or spare parts supplier on earth. The value of keeping things simple and repairable increases dramatically in value.

A fluidics device can be made with a 3D printer. A cool possibility this makes is for 3D printers which print their own parts. That was already the basic idea of the RepRap 3D printer project.

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The RepRap self replicating (or almost) printer.

Their idea was to make a 3D printer which was mostly made by parts which a clone of that printer had made. With Fluidics control logic rather than electronic control we could imagine a 3D printer which prints the computer used to control it, as well as most of the other parts. I imagine we won’t ever be able to get full replication because some parts need to be made out of a different material. E.g. it is hard to imagine the part heating plastic to melt would ever be made of plastic. Axels would likely need to be made from metal of possibly carbon fibre composite.

In this story I discuss how you would go about making a 3D printer using fluidics control and pneumatic motors.

Written by

Geek dad, living in Oslo, Norway with passion for UX, Julia programming, science, teaching, reading and writing.

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