The Re-Creation

This mornings essay is from a long time reader and careful thinker.

Donald B. Halcom

In the next sixty years the entire world will be forced to re-create itself. This is not a prophecy of doom but a fact.  The single event that will require this re-creation is the exhaustion of fossil fuels. The world consumption of energy per capita grows faster, with respect to time, than the population growth. This predicts the exhaustion of fossil fuels sooner than the optimists calculate.

The entire infrastructure created by the exploitation of fossil fuels will have to be replaced by a new one. Literally everything will need to be changed. The clothes we wear, the food we eat, the houses we live in, the lights we use, the heat we need, the transportation we use, the roads we use, the medicines we need, the energy we use—everything about the infrastructure will have to be re-created.  We are that dependent upon fossil fuels.

The desperation of this event cannot be minimized. Politicians, economists, businessmen, philosophies, governments, armies or the clergy will not solve this problem. Only one institution has any chance of performing this re-creation and that is science. Without science, all the other institutions are useless for this task.

Science and the exploitation of fossil fuels created our current infrastructure. Science and something new will have to re-create a new infrastructure. Any other path will only lead to a total collapse of modern civilization. If you believe that this is an exaggeration, then you are part of a group that does not understand the current world we live in. It is very easy to take our surroundings for granted and assume they will always be the same. The existential event that is about to confront mankind will swamp any other disaster in the history of the world. If you do not believe me just hide and watch it happen. If you do believe me then get involved with the re-creation. Procrastination will only lead to a condition that will not allow the re-creation to occur in a peaceful manner. We must have sufficient motive, resources and time to accomplish the re-creation. It is a problem of bootstrapping ourselves to a new world.

Get Involved

The major problems for the new world are all about new energy sources and substitute raw materials. “Frac Baby Frac” is not a solution to our long term problems. It drives the fossil fuel energy bus over the cliff even faster. It is a futile effort to maintain the status quo. People involved in politics and business have a vested interest in the status quo; they are not imaginative enough to work us out of this dilemma. Politics and business will be valuable in the implementation of the new infrastructure but will be next to useless in the creation of that infrastructure. People with a Law or MBA degree possess little understanding of what will be required for the creation of the new infrastructure. It is not all about economics. It is about reality.

Economics drive the current philosophies for the development of fossil fuels alternatives. Fossil fuels have essentially been a “free lunch” over the past two hundred years. The cost of getting fossil fuels out of the ground is currently the major cost; the costs of converting them to fuel or other raw materials are the minor costs. The businesses that produce the fossil fuel energy would like to perpetually maintain a monopoly on all the forms of energy from these sources. They would also like to monopolize any and all energy from future sources. This produces a conflict of interest in the development of future sources of energy. These companies would delay the conversion to future forms of energy until the world essentially exhausts the supply of the current fossil fuels. This would maximize their return on investments. This would also produce a condition where the development of future energy sources would be stymied by the lack of enough energy to transition from the old to the new forms. It is a Catch 22.

The conversion of the planet from a fossil fuel infrastructure to a non-fossil fuel infrastructure is a feat that boggles the mind. It dwarfs anything that mankind has ever accomplished. Most of the people on the earth are not even conscious of this fact. This ignorance, if not corrected, will destroy most of us. We are going to need new scientists to solve our problems. These scientists are not off the shelf items.

The emphasis should be that the education of the new scientists must be in areas that are not particularly popular at this time. Computer scientists, although useful, will not create the next “new” world. Scientists who are willing to get their hands dirty will be required. Thinking outside the box will be required. Applying old world solutions to new world problems will not always solve the problems.

A “new” scientist is not grabbed by the neck and forced into these professions. He or she must seek it throughout their entire education. We must learn that the true heroes of society are not the athletes, rock stars, movie stars, generals, commentators, bankers or politicians but the people who create the necessities of life. They may not get rich doing this, but their place in history will be there longer than any banker or rock star.

The current mantra is to improve the education system for math and the sciences; this is needed but alone will not produce the scientist. Epithets like geek, twerp, nerd and dork are not encouragements to learn math and science. The ignorant hate the educated. The reverse is also true. Neither position solves anything. Peer pressure is a powerful force.

The New Sciences

New raw materials will be the most difficult problem to solve. The solutions for new raw materials will require the exploitation of plant life. All forms of plant life would have to be considered. The seas and land are the only places we have for plant life. The uses for plants are first to supply the oxygen we breathe, second the materials we need and third the food we eat. The first and third are mandatory and the second is optional. Since we will be out of fossil fuels in the future, the second optional choice becomes mandatory.

The sciences that become dominant for materials production are inorganic chemistry, organic chemistry, biochemistry and engineering. Math is a pre-requisite for all of these sciences. Sorry about that, you can’t indulge in science without math. It would be like getting a music degree without being able to read music. All the sciences and math require the use of verifiable logic. This logic must comply with the laws of nature and math.

The non-sciences do not have these restrictions. You can’t just make up stuff and have it be scientifically true. Many believe that this can be done, which is totally unproductive. The economists, in particular, fall into this trap. Others like the financial manipulators are also guilty; consider, for example, the Black-Scholes equation that the hedge fund managers worship; there is no science there either.

Oil refineries, that will be obsolete in the future, must be replaced with entirely new technologies that use plant life as the sources of some fuels and new organic raw materials. The biochemists will be useful in order to identify the plants which may supply useful organic compounds (or pre-cursors) in the future world. Organic chemists will have to invent new processes that will economically extract or convert the useful plant compounds to useful end products. Inorganic chemists may also be useful in these new processes, developing new catalysts are examples. Chemical, Mechanical and Electrical Engineers will be needed to scale up these new processes using new types of large scale equipment. Much of this equipment may be revolutionary and some adapted from old technology.

Vast amounts of energy will be needed to produce the new and old industrial chemicals and process equipment. The production of the new electrical energy will mainly come from wind, solar panels, hydro-electric dams and portable fuel sources. Electricity from nuclear plants will be useful but is limited by finite sources of uranium. Solar sources of energy are finite. This may surprise a lot of people who probably believe that solar energy is infinite. When fossil fuels are gone, the people of the earth will have to make do with the yearly supply of sunshine. We foolishly burned up the stored energy that took nature millions of years to produce. We must learn a new survival skill and live within our means. The days of “infinite” expansions of our economies will be gone forever. It is unrealistic to believe otherwise. The “American Dream” will be over. Instead of living within a “Fossil Fuel Bubble” we will have to live under a finite “Sunshine Umbrella”. Sunshine will be the energy source of all of the organic materials, portable fuels and most of the electrical energy.

The Competition for Sunshine

The greatest problem with converting sunshine energy to electrical energy is that electrical energy cannot be stored as is. The best way to store electrical energy is “chemically” and the next best is mechanically. Hydro-electric dams store energy mechanically. Various kinds of fuel can store the electrical energy or solar energy chemically.

Solar panels, wind mills and to some extent hydro-electric are moderated by average hours of sunshine per year, wind speed and rainfall respectively. These are events that mankind cannot control. They are all produced by sunshine. Solar panels especially are limited by day/night, seasonal and cloud variations. Wind mills are subject to not enough or too much wind and seasonal variations. Droughts and flooding can produce hydro-electric supply problems. Nuclear electric energy is rather constant and is not subject to the previously mentioned problems.

Chemical storage of solar energy will be required in the future. It will be necessary for at least two purposes. The first purpose will be to “steady out” power delivery on the electric grid; coal and gas currently supply energy for these functions. The second purpose will be to supply portable fuels for ships, aircraft, farming and land transportation.

Here is another Catch 22. Everything that I have just described about creating electricity and then converting it to chemical energy is very inefficient. There are too many steps and each step produces efficiency losses. There is a better way, use plant life and direct sunshine. Some of the first instruments mentioned earlier would be used to create electricity only and the electrical energy would not be converted to stored chemical energy. The direct conversion of sunshine energy to plant life energy is better. This is known by another name and that is farming.

Growing Transportation Fuels and Backup Electrical Power Fuels

I would like to present a proposal for “a” new source for portable chemical energy. This source of energy is not really new but is currently being worked on by scientists all over the world. I am going to do this in order to demonstrate, beyond question, the finiteness of our planet. After this finiteness is shown, it is hoped that a new awakening will occur concerning our future. The new survival infrastructure will not be what most people are wishing will happen but a grounded solution.

The first assumption I would like to make is that we set up a program (over time) to eliminate all gasoline powered engines and replace them with the equivalent diesel engine. If we do this then all forms of future transportation can be run with one type of fuel. This fuel is called BioDiesel and it is produced from plants that supply triglyceride oils.

Hexane solvent is used to extract the triglycerides from these plants. This process is what is currently used and will not need further development. Hexane will also have to be produced from an appropriate plant material but that is just another problem to be solved by another future process. See how things get complicated. Right now let us concentrate on making BioDiesel.

The French are working on a new continuous process for making BioDiesel that kills many birds with one stone. The chemistry for the BioDiesel production is as follows:

The methanol can be made from waste plant material (like saw dust, corn cobs, etc.) in another Bio to methanol process that also needs development. Here is another complication; see again how the world is going to change. This only hints at the beginning of our future problems.

For those of you familiar with chemistry, note that the molecular weights of the triglyceride and the methyl ester differ by only four hydrogen atoms. The molecular weights of the starting triglyceride and finishing esters are all quite high and differences of four hydrogen atoms in the masses are negligible. For that reason, assume the weight of triglyceride into the process equals the weights of the methyl esters out of the process. This simplifies calculations enormously and makes translation of the starting triglyceride compound to the BioDiesel compounds (methyl esters) a snap.

In order to give credit to the developers of the process that will now be discussed, here are their names:

Here also is a pictorial presentation of their continuous process:

A short description of the benefits of this process is given here by the mentioned authors.

In my opinion this process is as close to perfect as can be expected. It should even be possible to burn some of the glycerol that is formed in the process as fuel to supply the steam heat needed to run the process. This process is better still in that the burning of the BioDiesel and even the glycerol are “carbon neutral”. The carbon dioxide put into the atmosphere by burning these fuels is recycled to new plant life and nature stays in balance. Methanol could even be mixed with the glycerol to enhance burning in a steam generator.

I then used the principles of this process as well as other data to do some simple calculations. I obtained crop yield data for the most prevalent types of triglyceride sources (palm oil, rapeseed oil, soybean oil and sunflower seed oil, etc.). I converted the yield data to the yearly kilograms of triglyceride per hectare of farm land. In the real world the palm oil can only be grown within +- 10 degrees off the equator. Because of the nearly identical relation between kilograms of triglyceride and BioDiesel, I could make the two equal. These calculations are shown in Tables 4 and 5. Some of the data in Table 4 are used to calculate results in Table 5. These two tables are presented this way for compactness in the presentation. Table 5 is about the current consumptions of crude oil derived fuels.

Table 4

Oil source




Land Use


(million metric tons)




Total Ag Land



















































    Sum %


Avg Cooking Oil kg/hectare 


Total Agricultural Land


Cooking Oils Land


km^2 = 1E+6 m^2

hectare = 1E+4 m^2

Table 5




































Current world population is 7 billion people

Jet Fuel Though Gasoline Total kg/yr



Total World Land Area



Total  World Agriculture Land Area


1 Barrel = 42 US gal

Avg Cooking Oil kg/hectare 


1 US gal =3.785 liters

Ag Land Required to Replace Crude Oil Fuel



Percent of Total Ag Land


The most startling information from all of the calculations is in the highlighted cells in Table 4 and Table 5. These are highlighted in blue and red. They show that the current world production of triglycerides occupy about 3.27% of the total agricultural land of the earth. This seems reasonable.

The big surprise is that to produce BioDiesel to replace the current jet fuel, kerosene, diesel and gasoline would require about 60.23% of the world’s agricultural land. This is astounding and clearly indicates the finiteness of our planet. This situation is something that we can never allow to happen. We still have to eat and produce other chemicals from organic matter in order to have raw materials that will disappear with the extinction of fossil fuels. We literally cannot have our cake and eat it too.

The combination of plant DNA and sunshine is absolutely the most magical thing that ever happened to this planet. If we think that science can create a more efficient system than this one, then we are dead wrong. Solar panels and wind mills cannot capture the conversion of sunshine to electricity followed by the conversion of electrical energy to “chemical” energy nearly as efficiently as the plant DNA/sunshine combination. Entropy will not allow it. DNA and sunshine will trump anything that mankind can conceive. Sorry folks but this game is rigged. Do you think that God may have had something to do with it? Certainly evolution was at work.


The most important conclusion is that massive energy consumption is the creator of population growth. We cannot support 7 billion people (or more) without the use of fossil fuels energy. There is only a finite amount of sunshine and land to create the future energy requirements.

We must reduce our current crude oil energy equivalent consumption by an estimated 80%. About 20% of our current crude oil energy consumption should support a world population of about 1 billion with a life style similar to our current system.

Here is the most difficult part to execute; we must initiate controlled population reduction in a planned way over about the next sixty year from about 7 billion to about 1 billion. Population should stabilize at about 1 billion. Our grand children demand it. Religion will be the major obstacle here. In my opinion, wars are not ethical solutions.

About 12% of the earth’s agricultural land could be devoted to BioDiesel production. This is about four times the current land used for cooking oils. Remember that at least 60% of the earth’s agricultural land is required to maintain the current status quo of crude oil based energy equivalence. I did not include coal and natural gas in these calculations which will also become exhausted in the future. To replace the latter two will require even more agricultural land. The game only gets more intractable. We will have to determine the plants we want to use to replace the coal and natural gas. Got any good ideas? I will guarantee that no “computer” scientist or economist or banker or politician or stock market analyst or pure mathematician or justice of the Supreme Court will solve these problems.

Diesel engines and jet turbines will be the only engines in the future. Electric motors/generators will also be used.

We are no longer going to have the energy resources to employ all of our current working population when fossil fuels become extinct. We are already seeing hints of this. All of the infrastructure will be smaller as well as the goods for sale from such a system. All of economics is the result of the real physics of the planet and not the reverse. We can only use what we are given.

Failure to abide by the above suggestions will result in the ugliest set of wars we can imagine and will kill most of our grand children in a short period of time. Stupidity is not an excuse.

I apologize for presenting such a dark calamity but it is better to know about it now than to wake up one morning and find WWIII erupting outside our windows. It will happen if we do not wisely execute the transformation of our existing infrastructure and that begins now, not 50 years from now. Time and resources are the enemies.

I fully realize that our current ways of thinking and living are opposed to this transformation ever occurring. We do not live on a planet chocked full of infinite resources. I repeat; stupidity is not an excuse. Our current crop of politicians and economist may, in fact, be that stupid. Infinite growth requires infinite resources which do not exist on this planet. If your daddy told you that this is not true, then your daddy was wrong. Do your own thinking. Make it scientific thinking this time and not just another fairy tale about the princess and the knight in shining armor living happily ever after. We cannot have everything, we only imagine we can. This is dangerous thinking. The world is changing too rapidly to day dream about the good old days. Make our dreams about tomorrow realistic. Please help modulate our lusts.

Erie, PA, December 2012

Don Halcom has a Ph.D in Chemical Engineering. He is 74 years old and retired.  He is available to respond to any follow up questions you may have. You can reach him here: drdon (dot) halcom (at) verizon (dot) net

You can read two earlier essays of his here: The Return to Feudalism, What Makes You Think We Can Grow Out of This?