Omniphage

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    I originally composed this essay in Summer 1989 and I have updated it only slightly.

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    If Nature were a sentient person, one of the major complaints that she would register against Humanity certainly involves the tremendous amount of trash and other unhealthy substances with which we humans spatter her. Consider the fact that in Los Angeles County alone ten landfills currently (August 1989) take in 44,400 tons of trash and garbage daily, almost twelve million tons per year. In itself that fact doesn’t seem too horrifying. What makes it horrifying is the additional fact that once in the landfill the trash and garbage do nothing; specifically, they do not decay into simpler molecular species, such as carbon dioxide and water, that can be given back to Nature to be reused. By the turn of the century billions of tons of "solid waste" will fill those ten pustulent sores on the face of our land and others like them.

    That’s one, a very small one, of the many unpleasant consequences that attend the progress of civilization. We humans have been producing trash since the origin of material culture sometime back in the Pleistocene Age and every subsequent step in the evolution of civilization is marked by increases in both the quantity and the complexity of the trash produced. For most of history those increases have made little impact on Nature: most of our ancestors’ material possessions were made from natural animal- or vegetable-derived materials (such as leather or wood) that are readily rotted by processes that came out of more than a billion years of natural evolution. Virtually the only things that survive from past civilizations are those made of fired clay, worked stone, metal, or bone. Only in rare instances have special conditions preserved the perishable remains of our ancestors and their possessions. Only in the last century or so have we wrought a substantial change in that state of affairs.

    Sheer volume, like that described above, is one part of the difficulty. There’s simply too much of the stuff to make the use of natural rotting processes practical. And our increased use of artificial materials, such as plastics, that are immune to natural rotting processes, only adds to the difficulty. Those factors primarily, combined with a genuine reluctance to destroy the natural environment, are responsible for the current predicament of a civilization effectively stewing in its own filth.

    Of course we have all heard many of the solutions proposed for this problem, but most of them sound pathetically inadequate. Separating trash, for example, sounds like a bad joke. It’s extra effort in the service of futility. At best it’s a tactic to delay the inevitable arrival of the day of reckoning. No, we must have something better. If we sit and allow ourselves to fantasize for awhile, we eventually conclude that the ideal solution involves devising a well-contained artificial rotting process that will transform anything and everything to which it is applied into useful raw materials for natural and/or artificial constructive processes. The machine that will carry out that process is called an Omniphage (a none too erudite compound of the Latin word for "all" with the Greek word for "eater" (But we do have a precedent for such a hybrid construction. Consider automobile, from autos, which is Greek for self, and mobile, which comes from the Latin for moving.)) and those of us less than sixty years old may live long enough to see it in common use.

    The basic fact that we must keep in mind is that all matter is made of atoms stuck together like Tinkertoys® (indeed, a modified version of Tinkertoys® is used as a teaching tool in some chemistry courses). Each cubic inch of solid or liquid matter contains trillions of trillions of these little blobs of mass-energy. The actual composition of a given sample of matter is but one of the infinite range of possibilities in which the ninety-two naturally occurring species in Dmitri Mendeleyev’s Periodic Table of the Chemical Elements can be arranged. That’s all as true of trash as it is of treasure. Our artificial rotting process requires, then, a machine whose operations are fine enough and fast enough that it can rip trash apart atom by atom and sort the atoms into containers by type.

    We don’t yet have the "fast enough" but the "fine enough" was invented in 1985 and has already demonstrated some of the abilities we desire. It’s called an atomic-force microscope (abbreviated AFM) and as a research tool it works on the same principle on which the now-obsolete needle-in-a-groove phonograph is based. A splinter of crudely smashed diamond, sharp enough that its tip is only one atom wide, is mounted on a small piece of metal foil to form the needle of this atomic-scale phonograph. Then either the needle or the sample to be examined is mounted on a three-axis piezoelectric transducer (piezoelectric materials expand or contract slightly when a voltage difference is established across them, so minute changes in applied voltages can produce minuscule changes in the relative positions of the needle and the sample). With great care the needle and the sample are brought together until the electron cloud at the needle’s tip repels (and is repelled by) the electron clouds at the sample’s surface. That repulsion causes the needle’s foil to bend slightly, just enough to deflect a thin laser beam projected onto its top surface, so that as the needle is dragged across the sample the varying altitude of the electron clouds in the sample causes the repulsion to vary and that in turn makes the laser beam jiggle in a way that photoelectric sensors and a computer can translate into a profile of the sample’s surface. A series of such profiles, made by dragging the needle back and forth over the sample in a raster pattern, produces a three-dimensional map of the sample’s surface, from which researchers can infer the arrangement of the sample’s atoms.

    How good is it? Applying about one millionth of a gram of force, it can detect a difference as small as one tenth of an Ångstrom unit in the altitude of an electron cloud. That’s not bad when you consider that the diameters of atoms range from one to five Ångstrom units (an Ångstrom unit being one ten-thousandth of a micron and a micron being one thousandth of a millimeter. For comparison, the wavelengths of visible light range from 4000 Ångstrom units in the violet to 7000 Ångstrom units in the red).

    The AFM becomes particularly interesting here when we consider what experimenters have been able to make it do simply by applying different voltages to its tip. One group used their AFM to pick a single atom off the surface of a crystal of germanium and move it to another site on the crystal, verifying the result of their experiment, of course, with the AFM in its passive scanning mode. Another group of experimenters used their AFM to attach an organic molecule to a graphite substrate. Such tricks are possible because the varying voltages make the electron cloud at the AFM’s tip expand and contract, thereby making the tip display a nonuniform electric field of varying strength. That nonuniform field pulls atoms off the substances to which they are attached just as static electricity attracts electrically neutral objects, such as bits of paper or lint (the electric field causes the positive and negative charges that make up all objects to separate slightly and the resulting nonuniformity makes the attractive force on one kind of charge a little stronger than the repulsive force the field exerts on the other kind of charge). That ability to pick up and move single atoms and molecules makes the AFM the conceptual basis for the Omniphage and the Omnifex.

    But it’s not quite enough to be able to pick atoms up with the tip of an AFM. It’s a too-limited ability and makes the AFM little more than a proof-of-principle device. In addition to picking atoms off a substance, the active elements of an Omniphage must also be able to move those atoms expediently to some mechanism that will sort them according to their chemical species. Gross movement of the tip itself to take the atom to the sorting mechanism is, as we shall see, not feasible in any workable Omniphage. Instead of the needle-like element bending to move its tip, the electric voltages applied to the element will be varied to make the nonuniform field at the tip appear to move down the element’s side (much as switching the bulbs on a theater marquee on and off in sequence creates the illusion of a moving light). Any atom in that field’s grip will thus be made to slide down the side of the element to the sorting mechanism at its base. In that, the element operates somewhat like the charge-coupled devices used in astronomical telescopes to move bunches of electrons generated by the photoelectric effect.

    So what will an Omniphage actually look like and how will it work? The typical household Omniphage will be a waist-high appliance that grows out of the floor and/or a wall in some convenient location in the house (mine will be in the kitchen). It will be anywhere from half a meter to a meter wide (roughly a foot and a half to three and a quarter feet) and its top will be a combination lid and minicomputer lock that won’t open for anyone not authorized to use the machine. For someone who is authorized opening the lid will reveal a shallow cavity whose bottom is covered with a paper-white plate that curves smoothly a few centimeters (an inch or so) up the cavity’s walls. If that person puts a piece of trash onto the plate and activates the machine, they will see the trash appear to sink into the plate until, several minutes later, it disappears completely.

    If we could obtain a magnified view of the plate from just above its surface (and we would have to use something other than visible light to get such a view because visible photons of all wavelengths are too big to resolve the plate’s structure and thus simply bounce off it in all directions, which is why the plate looks white), we would see identical needle-like structures rising like futuristic skyscrapers out of a square grid that extends to the horizon in all directions. Each of those needle-like structures is an Omniphage element and it sits one hundred Ångstrom units from each of its nearest neighbors. Each of those elements is built in a piezoelectric foundation, through which it can be made to wobble from side to side so that its tip scans a square area one hundred Ångstrom units on a side. Scanning that square along lines spaced one Ångstrom unit apart, the tip will traverse ten thousand Ångstrom units (one micron) in every scan cycle. To carry out one million scans per second the tip must thus travel at a speed of one meter per second (about two miles per hour).

    As it scans, the tip will encounter atoms jutting down from whatever piece of trash has been put onto the plate. Using its electric fields, it will pull each such atom free and send it sliding down to the sorting mechanism. In this way the elements of the Omniphage plate will utterly disintegrate whatever we choose to put on the plate, from the most harmless scraps to the most poisonous pollutants, and thereby render it completely inoffensive. If we take two Ångstrom units to be the average distance between successive atomic layers in our trash, then one million scans per second will make the machine devour trash at a rate of two tenths of a millimeter per second. That’s twelve millimeters per minute or seventy-two centimeters (about two and a third feet) per hour.

    The sorting mechanism into which the atoms are fed serves a large number of the Omniphage elements. The mechanism sorts atoms entering it according to their masses and the sizes of their electron clouds, the properties sufficient to determine the chemical species to which they belong. Having been thus identified as, say, carbon or silicon, or some other chemical element, each atom is then shunted into one of ninety-two channels that run horizontally through the Omniphage plate and draw atoms from a large number of sorting mechanisms.

    Here and there each of those channels runs alongside a vein through which one of a small variety of chemical solutions flows. Molecular mechanisms built into the walls separating the veins and the channels will then grab atoms from the channels, combine them with other atoms or molecules (some drawn from the solution, others drawn from other channels) to make them compatible with the solution, and then inject them into the vein to join the other atoms in the solution. The ultimate output of the Omniphage is thus a small number of chemical soups that will then serve as raw material in our Omnifices.

    One of the first and most important tasks that will be assigned to the Omniphage when it is developed will be the cleansing of our planet. Robots will transport portable Omniphages to landfills, chemical dumps, and other polluted sites and set them up, connecting them to power lines and the hoses and pipes that bring in fresh solutions and carry away the saturated chemical soups that the machines will produce. Once the Omniphages are established and activated the robots will dig up the waste and pile it onto their plates. Quietly and continuously, each square meter of Omniphage plate will devour over seventeen cubic meters of waste per day, between ten thousand and twenty thousand tons per year depending on how densely the waste is packed. We can also use the Omniphage to remove toxic waste dumps, such as the fly-ash impoundments, such as the one that collapsed near Kingston, TN on Dec 22, 2008. The concentrated solutions that come out of the Omniphages will be piped to nearby cities and towns to be stored in large underground tanks as a resource on which an Omnifex-based economy will flourish.

    As the relevant technology advances we may see the advent of self-constructing Omniphages, a combination of Omniphage and Omnifex that grows itself like a plant. Self constructing Omniphages will mine out landfills, trash dumps, and junk yards. Set one of these things loose near the end of a creek, such as Ballona Creek in West Los Angeles, and let it feed on the trash that gets washed into the creek by rainstorms. A free-floating version could roam the oceans as a weird kind of predator, one that eats trash, mostly made of plastic, and powers itself by converting the plastic into water, carbon dioxide, and other simple and relatively harmless chemicals.

    And we can use Omniphages to generate electricity. We need only feed it materials that contain an excess of chemical energy. Organic material, such as the leaves we rake off our lawns and lawn clippings, will work perfectly well: the Omniphage will draw the necessary oxygen from the atmosphere. The elegant beauty of this application comes clear in the fact that it works at the atomic level, so it can tailor its output to the needs of its users.

    While Omniphages strip-mine waste dumps in preparation for full restoration of the land they occupy another army of robots will advance on our municipal sewage treatment plants. Those robots will drain each plant’s settling ponds one by one, clean them and install the necessary cables and pipes, and then cover the bottoms and sides of the ponds with Omniphage plates. The Omniphages will devour the raw, untreated sewage pumped back into the ponds and convert it into chemical soup to be piped to the city’s storage tanks. Thenceforth, nothing that enters a treatment plant will pass into the rivers or oceans beyond with the occasional exception of chemically pure water. Eventually the treatment plants will become obsolete altogether as waste water and sewage generated in our homes is fed directly into Omniphages built into our houses’ and apartments’ foundations.

    Thus the advent of the Omniphage will deprive us, at least here in Los Angeles, of such things as sewage spills upon our beaches and the prospect of eventually being buried in our own filth. In addition, it will deprive us of the weekly experience, of the sight, the sound, and the smell, of garbage trucks trundling through our neighborhoods. No more will we wrestle filthy, broken, and corroding trash cans to the curbside and then, after they have been emptied, back to their woefully inadequate hiding places. Likewise, we will no longer find our larger buildings accompanied by dumpsters and their halos of ugliness. In short, the advent of the Omniphage is going to rub out a sizeable portion of what we regard as the seamy side of civilization.

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