Invention and Innovation - by Vaclav Smil


Invention and Innovation - by Vaclav Smil

Read: 2024-04-24

Recommend: 8/10

This books serves a reality check for many so-called next big things. My favorite quote from the book is this:

In the grand scheme of things, improving what we know and making it universally available might bring more benefits to more people in a shorter period of time than focusing overly on invention and hoping that it will bring miraculous breakthroughs.


Here are some text that I highlighted in the book:

  1. In looking at the inventions that turned from welcome to undesirable, I could have added the story of hydrogenated oils, whose commercial success began in 1911 with the partial hydrogenation of cottonseed oil, giving Procter & Gamble its Crisco (crystallized cottonseed oil), fat that remains solid at room temperature. The use of trans fats (solidified oils) was expanded to an array of inexpensive butter and lard substitutes that had a long shelf life and made great baked goods and became a common choice for deep frying—until dietary research linked them to increased blood cholesterol levels and a higher risk of heart disease, and governments moved to control their everyday use.

  2. In little more than a decade these uncontrolled practices not only led to the emergence of DDT-resistant insect species, they were also linked to adverse effects on bird reproduction and eventually also to higher risks of premature birth weights or of low-birth-weight babies, and DDT became one of the destructive symbols used by the nascent environmental movement to spread its message of more responsible management.

  3. Knocking is caused by spontaneous ignitions (small explosions, mini-detonations) taking place in the remaining gases before they are reached by the flame front initiated by sparking. Knocking creates high pressures (up to 18 MPa, or nearly up to 180 times the normal atmospheric level), and the resulting shock waves, traveling at speeds greater than sound, vibrate the combustion chamber walls and produce the telling sounds of a knocking, malfunctioning engine.

  4. The capacity to resist knocking—that is, fuel’s stability—is based on the pressure at which fuel will spontaneously ignite and has been universally measured in octane numbers

  5. 2,2,4-trimethypentane (iso-octane), was taken as the maximum (100 percent) on the octane rating scale because the compound completely prevents any knocking. The higher the octane rating of gasoline, the more resistant the fuel is to knocking, and engines can operate more efficiently with higher compression ratios. North American refiners now offer three octane grades, regular gasoline (87), midgrade fuel (89), and premium fuel mixes (91–93).

  6. the large-scale production of cellulosic ethanol by new enzymatic conversions, promised to be of epoch-making importance in the twenty-first century, has failed its expectations, and by 2020 high-volume US production of ethanol (used as an antiknocking additive) continued to be based on fermenting corn: in 2020 it claimed almost exactly one-third of the country’s corn harvest.

  7. This effort began with Kettering’s insistence on the inaccurate naming of the additive (“ethyl gas”), which deliberately avoided acknowledging the presence of lead. This heavy metal, known for its toxicity since Greek antiquity, was sometimes claimed to have played a major role in the demise of the Roman Empire, and by the early twentieth century it was well known as a cause of health problems associated with various occupational exposures. But GM and its TEL suppliers were not just engaged in disregarding lead’s health effects, they made resolute and repeated claims aimed at minimizing or even entirely dismissing any concerns about the health effects of a compound to be emitted into the environment from car exhaust on such a large scale.

  8. Not surprisingly, some of America’s leading public health experts opposed the addition of lead to gasoline and asked for an investigation of likely dangers. GM and DuPont claimed, without doing any studies, that the average street would likely be so free from lead that it would be impossible to detect its absorption. But in late October 1924, thirty-five workers in the TEL processing plant in New Jersey experienced acute neurological symptoms, and five of them died.

  9. The first major source of these exposures was lead in household paints, added as lead oxide, carbonate, or chromate in order to resist moisture, increase durability, and speed up drying. Its danger was recognized at the beginning of the twentieth century, but only in 1977 were lead-containing paints banned in the US, and their use was permitted even longer in Europe and Asia. Lead in gasoline was a much larger source of toxic environmental pollution, but this massive use and resulting environmental contamination raised little or no concern during the 1950s (recall the raised maximum lead allowance) and 1960s, and it was only in 1970, after forty-four years of globally increasing lead emissions from TEL gasoline, that the US finally began the process of removing the toxic metal from the most important refined liquid fuel—and health concerns were not the decisive reason for this shift.

  10. as the lead phase-out proceeded, the median lead concentration in American children decreased by nearly 80 percent between 1976 and 1994, and by 2015 it was only about 5 percent of the mid-1970s level. A recent study led by Anna Aizer has shown that even further reductions in lead from historically low levels have significant positive effects on children’s third-grade reading test scores: every unit decrease in average blood lead levels reduced the probability of a child being substantially below proficient in reading by about 3 percent. Other countries followed the US lead. Japan banned leaded fuel by 1986, but in Europe the use of leaded fuel began to decline only in 1986 in Germany, 1988 in France, and 1990 in Spain. The EU finally banned leaded fuel in 2000, the same year as China and India. The two penultimate holdouts were Venezuela, which initiated a ban in 2005, and Indonesia, which did so in 2006, and it was not until July 2021 that Algeria stopped selling leaded gasoline.

  11. Fortunately, there are no worrisome adverse effects caused by burning a mixture of gasoline and ethanol, and crop-derived ethanol (in the US overwhelmingly from corn, in Brazil from sugar cane) became the leading antiknocking additive. The rise of US ethanol began in earnest in 2005 when the Energy Policy Act set the minimum volumes of biofuels to be blended with transportation fuels, and in 2020 blends of 90 percent gasoline and 10 percent ethanol (known as E10) accounted for more than 95 percent of all fuel used by the country’s gasoline vehicles.

  12. We have identified many facets of the cumulative exposure to low levels of lead among children: lower scores on general intelligence tests and on reading; compromised visuospatial functions, memory, attention span, processing speed, and language ability; and effects on motor skills (manual dexterity) and affective behavior. Moreover, research did not find any threshold below which lead remains without effect on the central nervous system, and a 1993 study by the National Academy of Sciences confirmed that lead causes neurobehavioral deficits even in extremely low doses.

  13. The book [Silent Spring] became an immediate bestseller (and remained so on the New York Times’ list for eighty-six weeks). It was seen as an unprecedented indictment, a “shattering tsunami” of revelations that “launched the modern environmental movement,” much as Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin had engendered antipathy to slavery and Thomas Paine’s Common Sense had summed up the radical sentiment at the outset of the American Revolution. Inevitably, books have been written about this book, and it has become one of those publications whose message became clear even to very large numbers people who never read it (and to generations born after its publication who heard about it): DDT kills and harms in many ways.

  14. The European and American DDT bans of the early 1970s did not apply elsewhere (and insecticide’s production for export continued in the US until the mid-1980s), and India, the leading DDT user and exporter (mainly to Africa) kept on expanding its output: a new DDT-producing plant opened in Maharashtra in 1977 and another one in Punjab in 2003. But by that time India was only one of the three remaining producers (together with China and North Korea, the latter in tiny amounts). During the late 1990s negotiations began on a global agreement to eliminate the most offensive persistent organic pollutants. They were completed in 2001, and the Stockholm Convention became legally binding in May 2004: initially it outlawed nine compounds, including the insecticides aldrine, chlordane, endrin, lindane, and mirex, and limited the use of DDT to malaria control in tropical countries.

  15. In the end, DDT became just one of several persistent organic pesticides that had to go. The retreat began in Sweden in 1971 and, most significantly, in the US with the EPA’s precautionary ruling in 1972, and by 2001 the compound headed the list of twelve chemicals tagged by the Stockholm Convention for complete or nearly complete elimination. Internal residual spraying is still going on in India and some African countries, but the trajectory of ascent (accompanied by marveling at the compound’s lasting insecticidal powers) and decline (generated by DDT’s effects on biota and by the rise of widespread resistance to it) is now nearly complete.

  16. DDT now belongs to the category of inventions that were not just welcome but seen as truly transformative, only to be relegated to the class of undesirable advances.

  17. the share of US households owning a refrigerator rose from just 10 percent in 1930 to nearly 60 percent in 1945 and to 90 percent in 1952.

  18. Chlorine destroys ozone but then is released to start a new cycle of destruction, and a single atom of the gas can destroy on the order of 100,000 ozone molecules before it is eventually removed from the stratosphere by downward diffusion and reactions with methane.

  19. the atmosphere’s topmost layer, which extends up to about 50 kilometers above the ground, with highest O3 concentrations at about 30 kilometers, more than 20 kilometers above the top of Mount Everest.

  20. CFCs from old refrigerators that were not properly disposed of (removed and incinerated at high temperature) but simply discarded continued to add to the atmospheric burden long after the ban on production went into effect. Most notably, in China releases of CFC-11 and CFC-12 reached maxima in 2011 and ceased only by 2020.

  21. The UN’s 2018 assessment concluded that the continent’s ozone layer was on the way to recovery and that pre-1980s levels might return by 2060. But the area of substantial ozone depletion (the “hole’s” size) keeps fluctuating. In 2019 it extended over only about 8 million km2, the smallest on record since its discovery: in 2020 it was three times larger, peaking at about 24 million km2 in October (for comparison, Antarctica covers 14.2 million km2), and in 2021 it was even larger, at 24.7 million km2, the eighth largest since record keeping began in 1979

  22. By 2020 there were some 1.8 billion air-conditioning units in operation, with more than half of them in just two countries, China and the US. But this is only a fraction of the potential total because among the nearly three billion people living in the world’s warmest climates, fewer than 10 percent have air conditioning, compared to 90 percent in the US or Japan.

  23. Most of the world’s countries have not considered any commercial nuclear development—major economies that have stayed away from nuclear power include Australia, Indonesia, Italy, Poland, Thailand, and Vietnam—and fission produced only about 10 percent of world’s electricity in 2020 (with national shares ranging from 5 percent in China to 70 percent in France), a small fraction of its contribution anticipated half a century ago. Moreover, the two disasters, at the Chornobyl Nuclear Power Plant in 1985 and at the three Fukushima Daiichi reactors in 2011, reinforced—that is, exaggerated and misinterpreted—fears of nuclear fission: the Japanese plant failure led Germany, the largest EU economy, to terminate its nuclear program, and even the fission’s claim to a carbon-free electricity generation has not sufficed to make it a key ingredient of the recent global quest for decarbonized economies.

  24. The French program was by far the most successful Western attempt at converting electricity generation to fission. Électricité de France based it on standardized designs of American pressurized water reactors. It enjoyed broad public approval, and its fifty-nine reactors, sited throughout the country, eventually supplied nearly 80 percent of all electricity in France (a lower share more recently) and made possible considerable sales to neighboring states. But the company placed its last reactor order in 1991. The Soviet nuclear program, forever marked by the Chornobyl meltdown, continued in Russia after the USSR’s demise, but by 2020 Russia was producing only about 21 percent of the country’s electricity. Japan, devoid of domestic oil and gas, embarked on a major expansion of nuclear energy generation, and eventually derived 30 percent of the total demand from fission. The meltdown of three reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi station in March 2011 led to the complete shutdown of all reactors and halted further nuclear expansion, so that by 2020, fission’s contribution was just over 5 percent.

  25. Supersonic flight did not displace subsonic aviation; it has not taken even a small market share from it because, for many reasons, it is not an inevitable next step in airplane development and because its few advantages cannot outweigh its many drawbacks. This reality is not going to change anytime soon.

  26. A reality check: in 2022 there were no fully self-driving cars; fewer than 2 percent of the world’s 1.4 billion motor vehicles on the road were electric, but they were not “green,” as the electricity required for their operation came mostly from burning fossil fuels: in 2022 about 60 percent of all electricity in general came from burning coal and natural gas.

  27. A linearly growing variable increases by the same amount during the same period of time, while an exponentially growing variable increases by the same rate during the same period, and if that rate is very low it will take a long time to see any substantial difference.

  28. “We are entering an age of abundance. The first period in human history in which energy, food, computation and much else will be trivially cheap to produce.” This reminds me of what I heard in grade school under the Evil Empire when our rulers were promising a similar kind of earthly nirvana as soon as they were done with building communism.

  29. In 1900 the best battery (lead-acid) had an energy density of 25 watt-hours per kilogram; in 2022 the best lithium-ion batteries deployed on a large commercial scale (not the best experimental devices) had an energy density twelve times higher—and this gain corresponds to exponential growth of just 2 percent a year. That is very much in line with the growth of performances of many other industrial techniques and devices—and an order of magnitude below Moore’s law expectations. Moreover, even batteries with ten times the 2022 (commercial) energy density (that is, approaching 3,000 Wh/kg) would store only about a quarter of the energy contained in a kilogram of kerosene, making it clear that jetliners energized by batteries are not on any practical horizon.

  30. The real cost of PV panels should also include their dismantling and disposal or, preferably, their recycling. And if the costs of renewable electricity generation have been plummeting, why do the three EU countries—Denmark, Ireland, and Germany—with the highest share of energy from new renewable sources, wind and solar, have the continent’s highest electricity prices? In 2021 the EU mean was €0.24/kWh, but the Irish price was 25 percent higher, the Danish price 45 percent higher, and the German price 37 percent higher.

  31. Breakthrough patents in the furniture, textiles, and apparel industries, in transportation equipment, machinery manufacturing, metal manufacturing, wood, paper, and printing, and in construction all peaked before 1900. Mining and extraction, the coal and petroleum industries, mineral processing, electrical equipment production, and plastics and rubber products had their innovative waves and peaks before 1950, and the only industrial sectors with post-1970 peaks have been agriculture and food (the wave dominated by genetically modified organisms), medical equipment (from MRI and CT scanners to robotic surgical tools), and, of course, computers and electronic products.

  32. But could not we come up with a manageable number—say, a score or two—of the most desirable items based on the two overriding needs: to improve the fundamentals required for dignified life of the world’s population, and to do so without excessive impacts on the biosphere? In physical terms, this means securing adequate supplies of food, water, energy, and materials needed to lead healthy lives with decent life expectancies; in mental, social, and economic terms it would mean ensuring the opportunities for education and employment and providing generally accessible, good-quality health care; and all of that should be done while leaving sufficient resources for the long-term survival of other species—even as the total number of the human species is still increasing.

  33. Age adjustment is an imperative part of any historical comparisons because cancer death rates rise with age (from about 10 per 100,000 for people in their early thirties to just over 200 per 100,000 for people in their late fifties) and because the populations of affluent countries have been steadily aging.

  34. These advances in treatment were accompanied by more widespread screening and early diagnoses, and they helped produce some substantial increases in five-year survival rates compared to the mid-1970s: most impressively, from 47 to 74 percent for non-Hodgkin lymphoma, from 75 to 91 percent for breast cancer, and from 82 to 94 percent for melanoma. But major site differences remain: pancreatic cancer’s five-year survival rate tripled, but it is still only 9 percent; the esophageal cancer survival rate has more than quadrupled, to 21 percent; while 98 percent of patients with thyroid cancer have survived longer than five years. And despite the declining rate of smoking, lung cancer remains the leading malignancy (even among females it is about 45 percent more common than breast cancer), and its five-year survival rate rose from 12 percent to only 20 percent.

  35. “Biden-Harris Administration Sets Goal of Reducing Cancer Death Rate by at least 50 Percent Over the Next 25 Years, and Improving the Experience of Living with and Surviving Cancer.” At the same time, the rising US mortality caused by drug overdose is a perfect reminder of the fact that the hard-won gains could be largely negated by mounting losses elsewhere. American drug overdose deaths totaled about 48,000 in 2015, but in the twelve months ending in April 2021 they had doubled, to about 98,000, compared to about 320,000 deaths from all cancers and 142,000 deaths from lung cancer. Given the age difference of the two kinds of mortality—overdoses occur mostly among people less than forty years old, while cancer deaths occur mostly among people older than fifty—the recent rise in drug-related deaths might have completely negated the years of life gained with the latest cancer treatments.

  36. if we got batteries whose energy density was an order of magnitude higher than today’s best lithium-ion batteries, their energy density would still be less than a quarter of the energy density of the refined liquid fuels (gasoline, kerosene, diesel fuels) that now dominate all forms of transportation.

  37. The predilection of grand global meetings (as well as of national strategies) to set decarbonization targets at years ending in a zero or five (45 percent less carbon by 2030 globally; no carbon emissions from US electricity generation by 2035; net zero carbon globally by 2050) is an obviously arbitrary exercise and meeting these goals would require extraordinary technical and economic transformation on the global scale.

  38. We know perfectly well how to remedy all of these undesirable or outright demeaning realities without any brilliant inventions but with the determined extension of known and reliable methods, skills, and procedures. In the grand scheme of things, improving what we know and making it universally available might bring more benefits to more people in a shorter period of time than focusing overly on invention and hoping that it will bring miraculous breakthroughs. To forestall the obvious critique, this is not an argument against the determined pursuit of new inventions, merely a plea for a better balance between the quest for (perhaps, but not assuredly) stunning future gains and the deployment of the well-mastered but still far from universally applied understanding and achievements.

  39. I have always felt strongly about doing first things first. And that means, to choose two notable examples, doing away with the micronutrient deficiency blighting the lives of hundreds of millions of children before deploying supersonic transport. At the same time, I have always been a realist and a skeptic, and I know that resources for invention and innovation are never allocated on the basis of such rationally comparative needs, and that my priority plea could be assailed as misplaced and insufficiently ambitious or aspirational. Moreover, it might be easier, for many reasons, to support quests for even dubious inventions rather than to carry on with alleviating human misery.

  40. we are not going to stop inventing new materials, products, processes, and procedures and this means that we will have to keep reckoning not only with inevitable design failures stemming from unprecedented challenges and from the lack of experience but also with repeated, and major, failures resulting from human preferences, priorities, biases, and irrational attachments to certain quests. In that sense, and contrary to mistaken claims of the ever-faster pace of invention, nihil novi sub sole [nothing new under the sun].