The following piece comes from a SynEARTH reader. He does a great job of describing our human crisis, but then offers us a practical and intelligent solution to that crisis—squarely facing our great danger implied by the title of his piece, but then pointing out an equally great opportunity to solve our problems.
Donald B. Halcom
The recent history of the United States of America has indicated a propensity for economic “bubbles”. The “.com” bubble of the 1990’s, the “housing bubble” of the 2000’s and indeed the current National Debt crisis of the USA are all manifestations of bubbles.
The belief in bubbles is inherently tied to a false belief in the infinite. This is a false belief because there is nothing on the earth that is infinite. Infinite growth of money, property values, debt, the stock market or any other earthly resource is physically impossible. We all live on a finite planet with finite resources. There are those who will claim that the National Debt is not a bubble. This is profoundly not true. The payment of the National Debt is based upon the false assumption of continuous and unrelenting growth of the US economy. These false assumptions based upon infinite growth will produce monumental tragedies eventually.
This is being written with the intent of educating as many people as possible about a future that may be absolutely devastating or, if we execute well, a new dawn for mankind.
Short Synopsis of the Intent
1) Fossil fuels are finite resources.
2) Sunshine is a finite resource.
3) Fossil fuels stored the sun’s energy over millions of years.
4) We are about to consume all this energy over about 300 years.
5) Once this stored energy is consumed, the energy party is over.
6) Fossil fuels are also the sources for many chemicals.
7) When fossil fuels are gone, our chemical party is also over.
8) The infrastructure of the world will change post fossil fuels.
9) A new infrastructure must replace the old before the old dies.
10) Failure to do so will produce devastation.
The history of the world has always been about the exploitation of resources in one form or another. Before the year 1800, these exploitation’s were mainly about agricultural resources. Agriculture requires arable land and a consistent supply of water. Wild trees and grasses are also agricultural resources. Countless wars were fought over these resources. Resource wars over minerals such as precious metals and iron were also important. About the only exceptions to these resource wars were religious wars.
Using the year 1800 as a reference, mankind’s resources began to change. The exploitation of coal began and this initiated the Industrial Revolution. The invention of the steam engine led to larger scales of farming and locomotives plus much more. Mankind cannot exploit what he does not know exists.
Somewhere around 1860 the exploitation of oil began. Fossil fuel exploitation, including natural gas, really began to grow. Internal combustion engines were invented, without which the airplane would not exist. People like Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla and James Clerk Maxwell came along. These people, among others, led to the exploitation of hydroelectric power as well as fossil fuel fired electrical plants. About the year 1900 the exploitations of fossil fuels were in full bloom.
Fossil fuels lay in the ground for at least a million years before mankind discovered them. Before DNA created plant life on the earth there was no oxygen in the atmosphere. There were no life forms that used oxygen to live. There was no coal, oil or methane. The plant life took light from the sun, carbon dioxide and nitrogen from the atmosphere and water from rain to form hydrocarbons. The growth and death cycles of these plants repeated over millions of years and their residues were covered by dirt. Eventually the residues were under enough pressure to form coal, oil and methane down in the bowels of the earth.
The unique properties of the DNA that formed these fossil fuels are:
1) They genetically reproduced themselves.
2) They stored energy from the sun over vast time periods.
3) There is no infrastructure like this anywhere else in our solar system.
The key points here are that fossil fuels are irreplaceable and that they are an ideal storage system for energy. By default, there were finite amounts of them in the earth in 1800. Once they are gone, the party will be over. This is a fact that is irrefutable.
The only fresh hydrocarbon energy that we on earth are going to get is the yearly supply made by the green plants. This amount may be problematic with respect to the amount of energy we consume in the 21st century.
Two main problems that the people of the earth will face in the next fifty years are population growth and energy consumption. Table I gives the population of the earth for different years of our history.
Year Population (Billion)
An estimate of the population of the earth for 2050 is about 9.0 billion people. It becomes evident from Table I that since the beginning of the exploitation of fossil fuels, the population of the earth has shown explosive growth. The reasons for this growth must surely have something to do with the increase in the consumption of fossil fuels. The use of high efficiency farming equipment, mass production, fertilizers and other uses for fossil fuel consumption were instrumental in this growth. The population of the earth before the year 1800 took literally thousands of years to reach the level of 0.9 billion.
The yearly rate of consumption of fossil fuel energy, nuclear energy, hydroelectric energy, solar energy, geothermal energy and wind energy have been measured over the same time period as that shown in Table I. These data can be used to estimate the total yearly energy consumption for these same time periods.
Some of the people reading this have no real “feeling” for the meaning of energy units. A metric unit of energy is the “joule”. It is hard to grasp what this means for many people. Another way of expressing energy is “power”. Power is the measurement of energy per unit time. One joule per second is a watt. The watt may be more useful for most of us in that practically all of us grew up using filament light bulbs that were rated in watts. We all have some feel for a 25 watt light bulb or a 100 watt light bulb or a 1000 watt light bulb and can somewhat visualize their power outputs in a way that we can intuitively “feel”.
It is time for a little game. Imagine a 100 watt filament light bulb. Turn it on at midnight Dec 31. Let it run continuously every second of every hour of every day until midnight of the next Dec 31. Shut it off. You have just consumed 3,155,730,000 joules of energy. That is about 3.15 billion joules.
Now it is time for a serious game. Add up all of the energy consumed on the earth in a year. Use all the energy from coal, oil, methane, nuclear, geothermal, solar, wind and fuels made from biomass. Make sure that all of the units for each are in joules. Divide the sum that you get by the number of seconds in one year. The answer you get is the yearly average power consumption for the planet in watts for the year’s data that you just used. This answer is a very large number. It is in the order of trillions of watts. For the year 2010 all of the people on earth consumed about a yearly average of 15 terawatts of energy (a terawatt is one trillion watts).
In order to personalize the world’s yearly average power consumption number that you have just calculated, divide this number by the population of the earth for that year. You have just calculated the yearly average power consumption per person for the entire planet.
Table II shows the results of such calculations starting in the year 1800 to 2010. If you wish, you can equate each year’s value to a light bulb of that power being held in one hand of every man, woman and child on the planet burning continuously for one year.
Year Yearly Average Watts per Person
These data show without equivocation that the consumption of energy grows faster than the population of the earth. This should not surprise anyone. Did the year 1800 have any trains, cars, trucks, airplanes, televisions, cell phones, industrial agriculture, etc. and the infrastructure to support all of these? The answer is obviously no. What happens when we run completely out of fossil fuels? We are living in a “Population Bubble” that is being fed by an “Energy Bubble”. If we do nothing before the “Energy Bubble” pops, say goodbye to most of the population. A reasonable estimate for the energy consumption in 2050 is about 3,500 yearly average watts per person with a population of about 9 billon people. Both growth curves are not linear but exponential in form.
My sainted mother use to say “Son, life is about only one thing. It is about choosing. The choices are what you will do and what you will not do. Either way, you have to live with the consequences. Choose wisely.”
The entire world is at a fork in the road. What it chooses now will determine its entire future, be it good or bad. The choices are to do nothing (preserving the status quo is also the equivalent of doing nothing) or do something really radical. In this case, the radical choice is definitely the preferred one.
The current signs all point to the fact that we are in the twilight of the collapse of the fossil fuel powered world. Oil, coal and methane prices will continuously rise as we proceed to their extinctions. As a consequence of these price rises, the entire economy of the world will continue to inflate and it will take more and more money to buy the essentials of life. The scramble to convert to coal will only lead to the eventual extinction of coal. The same thing goes for methane. We must create an entirely new infrastructure not based upon finite fossil fuels but upon “stuff” that nature supplies us that is not subject to near term exhaustion.
Not only do fossil fuels supply energy to run the world, they are the building blocks for the chemical processes that create most of the materials that we use every day. These chemical processes will have to be discarded and a whole new “chemistry” infrastructure built to supply the needs of mankind.
Americans have almost an absolute faith in science. They falsely believe that science can solve anything. Finite resources are forced upon scientist just like everyone else. It happens that sunshine is a finite resource too.
There are basically only three energy sources on this planet. They are solar, nuclear fission and geothermal. Wind power, hydroelectric and electric solar panels are all manifestations of solar power. The sun evaporates water which eventually falls as rain to power hydroelectric dams. Temperature gradients in the atmosphere produce the winds.
Nuclear fission is limited by a finite and rather small amount of fissionable material. Some people have a great hope for sustained nuclear fusion but this is not realistic. Nuclear fusion requires a very large gravitational field. If you look out at all the “burning” stars in the universe you will quickly discover that they all require a minimum amount of mass to sustain a fusion reaction. The earth does not have the mass required to produce a gravitational field strong enough to hold together a sustained fusion reactor.
The logistics of geothermal power are only possible at a small number of places on the earth. We come back to wind power, solar panels and hydroelectric. I have left out focused light that creates steam for a boiler used to drive a generator. These devices must have direct sunshine without clouds. One cannot easily focus diffuse light.
The sun is the master of our solar system. It appears omnipotent and has been worshiped by many cultures. Even the sun is fettered by finiteness.
In our modern times we are capable of flying above all of the clouds covering our planet. At those altitudes we can measure that the sun shines on our planet with a radiance of about 1000 watts per square meter of area. This is called a “flux” of energy. No matter what we do we can never obtain a figure higher than this number and in fact it will always be lower than this due to physical factors that make our planet what it is.
The earth is blessed with rain. Clouds cover parts of the earth virtually every day. We have days and nights. We have seasons. We have mountains, deserts, productive land, fresh water rivers, fresh water lakes and salt water oceans. All of these things are very important for they provide the system that supports life of all forms on this planet.
A typical time averaged solar panel capacity (over every second of every day of a year) is about 150 watts per square meter. This value reflects cloud cover, seasons and night/day averaging.
Wind turbines and hydroelectric are not nearly as “area” efficient as a solar panel. Most of these energies come from the ocean’s surface.
Hydroelectric dams must use the water falling on many square miles of land to mechanically convert the potential energy of elevated water to electric energy as it falls through a water turbine. The very act of raining wastes most of the solar energy of evaporation contained in the water vapor. This condensation energy alone is a large heat loss. We have all seen rain storms.
Enormous wind turbines must be built to capture wind energy.
Wind power is even less “area” efficient with respect to its solar source of energy than hydroelectric.
At this time, except for green plant based solar conversion to hydrocarbons, manmade solar energy is entirely electric. Solar panels, wind turbines and hydro produce electricity which cannot be stored. The manmade capture of solar power does not have the infrastructure that green plants have to store the energy in its chemical form. The chemical form of energy is by far the most desirable form of energy. This form of energy powers our own bodies. Batteries are also a form of chemical energy.
The infrastructure required to convert electric energy into chemical energy would be enormous. If the entire world ran on electricity alone, there would be no aircraft or ocean shipping of cargo or passengers as currently practiced. Large portions of our land based world could be run directly off of electricity. Vehicles like farm tractors, trucks etc. would have to be run off of some sort of chemical energy.
Let’s do some more calculations. The entire land area of the earth is 13 billion hectares. A hectare is 10,000 square meters. A hectare is also about 2.471 acres. Taking a figure of 150 watts per square meter for the yearly average value of a solar panel, this is 1.5 million watts per hectare. These solar panels would have to be continuous with no space between them. Physically that would not be possible. Assume about 1 million watts per hectare for spaced solar panels as a yearly average power output. This computes to about 13,000 terawatts as the average yearly power from solar panels covering the entire land area of the earth.
The consumption of power for the entire world in 2010 was 15 terawatts. This looks like things are just fine. Not so, green plants cannot be grown underneath solar panels. The result is no food and very little oxygen in the atmosphere of the earth. Except for the oceans and lakes there would be very little plant life on the planet to make oxygen.
At first glance the above calculation looks absurd; it is not. Now 13,000 terawatts is a number that shows the absolute limit of our future exploitation unlike the unknown amount of fossil fuels present in the earth around 1800. 15 terawatts versus 13,000 terawatts says we have room to play. Science uses numbers called “orders of magnitude”. An order of magnitude is a factor of ten.
10X10X10 = 1,000 = 3 orders of magnitude
Our current consumption of energy is “about” 3 orders of magnitude away from an absolute ecological disaster using solar panels covering the entire land area of the earth. This has nothing to do with global warming but with asphyxiation from lack of oxygen. How much solar panel energy capture is too much? There is no way of knowing exactly. A suggestion is that we stay away from total disaster by at least 2 orders of magnitude. This means we should “never” produce more than about 130 terawatts from solar panel energy. This would consume about 130 million hectares of land. This is about one percent of the world’s total land area.
Solar panels should be set up in areas that are essentially devoid of plant life. Obviously one percent of the world’s total land area is still a very large chunk of real estate. A maximum of one acre per 100 acres of total world land area could be dedicated for solar panel electric generation. This is a practical upper limit for solar panel power. This could generate about eight times the world’s current demands.
Putting solar panels in barren areas has its problems. Such areas are very susceptible to wind and rain erosion. They are usually quite isolated from where the electricity is needed.
Back in the early days of electrical exploitation, Thomas Alva Edison hired an employee named Nikola Tesla.
Nikola was a very smart man from Serbia. Nikola knew more about electricity than Tom and developed some electric motors for Tom with the promise that Tom would pay him about $60,000 if they were successful. The motors were successful but Tom refused to pay him. Nikola quit working for Tom. Nikola understood AC (alternating current) very well. Mr. Edison only wanted to exploit DC (direct current) electricity.
Tom wanted to electrify New York City using his DC current technology. The problem was that DC currents could not be transmitted very far without very large power losses due to heating of the wires. After quitting Tom, Nikola later figured out that AC (alternating current) was the way to go for electrification in that it could be transformed to high voltage AC and transferred over very large distances with substantially smaller power losses. This made Tom very angry. Tom initiated a massive propaganda campaign trying to stop the company that Nikola worked for (Westinghouse) from implementing his AC technology. Tom let business overcome science.
Nikola then went on to build the world’s first AC power plant at Niagara Falls Ontario. Nikola Tesla won the power transmission war and Thomas Edison came in dead last. The rich man is not always the smartest man. Well, you can’t win all the time.
Back in the days of yore, there was always a favorite question that college chemistry professors used to ask. Starting with coal, fire and water how would you make “Compound X”? This was used to test the ingenuity of the student. In the future the question will change. Starting with biomass, electricity and water how would you make “Compound X”? Our entire infrastructure is set up for the days of yore, not the future.
Getting solar panel power from barren areas to where it is needed is no small feat. First we have to convert DC to AC (94% efficient), then increase the voltage of the AC to very high voltages (98% efficient) and then transfer large amounts of power over very long distances (93% efficient). At the end use points, the high voltage AC will have to be converted back down to useable voltages (98% efficient). The overall efficiency is about 84%. We will start with a maximum of 130 terawatts at the solar panels but when it reaches its use points we will only have about 109 terawatts. Some of the same restrictions apply to hydroelectric and wind power. This is about 7.3 times the worlds current consumption.
If we are going to maintain current forms of air, sea and land transportation, we will have to find forms of chemical energy storage to run them. Portable chemical energy solves a lot of problems.
If we choose to do what we have always done, then we will let “economics” decide how to proceed. That would be the greatest mistake ever committed by mankind. As fossil fuel amounts decrease, the amount of money to buy them grows faster than we can manage. The price of literally everything necessary to live also grows faster than we can manage. This is called hyper-inflation. The economies of the entire world will collapse. The subsequent struggles for survival will lead to nothing less than a return to feudalism with about one billion people surviving. Existence from that point forward will be exactly like we returned to pre-1800 societies. We will not have built the infrastructure to do otherwise. We are already seeing signs of proceeding down this path. We must do something about altering this trip to feudalism.
One of the signs of marching down the path to feudalism is the current mantra of “Drill Baby Drill”. This is mindless and only shortens the time until we run completely out of fossil fuels. There are things that can be done to lengthen the time to fossil fuel extinction. Some of these are higher fuel efficiency requirements for automobiles, more use of electrified railroads for public transportation and the list goes on. Increasing the efficiencies of fossil fuel consumption does lengthen the time to extinction.
The challenge is to change our entire way of life while losing a minimum number of lives. Even then, we may not be able to save everything.
One of our challenges is replacing fossil fuels with other portable fuels. Coal was moved by trains and ships; petroleum moved by pipe lines, ships, trains and trucks; methane moved by pipe line, ships, trains and trucks. If we still want to have aviation, ships, construction equipment and farm equipment to do the essential things, we must have new portable fuels. Automobiles were left out for in the end they may have to be abandoned.
Mass transportation may be the only kind that survives. On land, electric power should be sufficient for heating, cooling, manufacturing, mass transportation, electronics etc. Aviation and sea shipping speak for themselves.
The trick is to produce a fuel that does not consume DNA produced hydrocarbons. We will have trouble enough feeding people without compounding the felony by burning up DNA produced material for fuel. A guiding principle here is that nature always uses what is at hand to perform its duties. Mankind should do the same.
The plant portion of the DNA system uses the earth’s atmosphere and sunlight to work its magic. The atmosphere contains nitrogen, oxygen, water (in the form of clouds which produce rain) and some carbon dioxide. Magnesium ions along with other minerals found in the earth are crucial for the formation of chlorophyll which is the magic wand in DNA’s capture of solar energy. Except for some rare exceptions, all the life on this planet is dependent upon this system. It will surprise some to learn that nitrogen is by far the largest component of the earth’s atmosphere. The second largest component is oxygen. Oxygen is in fact a “waste” component from the DNA system’s manufacture of hydrocarbons. Carbon dioxide is a relatively small component of air. Without the plant life waste component oxygen, animal life would not exist.
The nitrogen in the atmosphere is just as important as the other components (excluding oxygen) for the production of DNA that produces life on this planet. The atmospheric nitrogen gets into the soil by what is called the “nitrogen cycle” A picture best describes what happens. Study Figure I to better understand the processes.
The trick is to get the nitrogen into the soil so that the plants can absorb it through their root systems. The primary mechanisms for these are from lightning in the air, nitrogen-fixation bacteria and modern fertilizers like ammonium nitrate. It all starts with nitrogen in the air.
In 1909 a chemist named Fritz Haber invented a process that took nitrogen and hydrogen to form the compound ammonia.
The Haber process uses the following chemistry:
N2 + 3H2 –> 2NH3
Ammonia is the starting material used to form ammonium nitrate. This process is one of the most important industrial chemical processes in the world in that modern crop yields would not be possible without it. The first industrial production of ammonia began in 1913.
The hydrogen used in the formation of ammonia does not usually occur free in nature. It has to be manufactured. The current methods of making hydrogen are to “hydrocrack” portions of petroleum in an oil refinery or to use methane and water to form carbon dioxide and hydrogen. In the future these sources will no longer be available as we will be totally out of fossil fuels.
Another source of hydrogen is the electrolysis of ordinary water.
2H2O –> 2H2 + O2
An electrolysis cell is used to make hydrogen and oxygen. Since we will essentially be running on an almost totally electric world, this should be easy to do. This process is about 85% energy efficient. Electrolysis is not as simple as written in the above equation but is developed to a high degree.
There are many that would like to use hydrogen as a replacement fuel for all types of applications. This has its problems. The properties of hydrogen make it very difficult for it to be used as a portable fuel. You either have to move it around in very high pressure gas cylinders or in cryogenic tanks. Liquid hydrogen has a boiling point of 20.3 degrees Kelvin. This is a temperature approaching absolute zero. 20.3 deg K is equal to -423.2 deg F or -252.4 deg C. Something better should be found for a portable fuel.
An excellent candidate for a portable fuel is liquid ammonia. It has some interesting properties. Some of these are:
Temp (deg C) Vapor Pressure (Atmospheres) VP (Psig)
4.7 5 59
25.7 10 132
50.1 20.5 282
Liquid ammonia can be transported around in relatively low pressure tanks. Ammonia can also be burned according to the following equation:
4NH3 + 3O2 –-> 2N2 + 6H2O
The density of liquid ammonia is 681.9 Kg per cubic meter. This is about the same density as gasoline. The energy content of about three gallons of liquid ammonia is equivalent to about one gallon of gasoline.
The burning of ammonia can be complicated by the unwanted side reactions of forming nitrogen oxides (NOX). The engines of the future will have to be developed around the problems of preventing these unwanted NOX side reactions. The problems with the creation of SMOG for the large cities will have to be addressed again on an even larger scale then the past. Fuel cells would also constitute new types of “engines” that could exploit the portable fuel ammonia. A great deal of research and development would have to be performed to make these concept engines viable in the future.
It is easy to forget that two different internal combustion engines were developed to run on fossil fuels. They use gasoline and diesel fuel respectively. These engines cannot interchange fuels. The development of an internal combustion engine that uses ammonia would probably have to start from scratch. This engine may be of a radically new design. The jet engine may have to be altered radically to allow it to run on ammonia. Aircraft could revert back to the ammonia burning internal combustion engine.
The development of a fuel cell that converts liquid ammonia and air back to nitrogen and water in order to generate electricity would also be time consuming but feasible.
The consumption of fossil fuels took about 200 years to go through the first half of the supply. The second half will disappear much faster because the energy consumption per person keeps increasing. Market forces keep driving this consumption continuously upward.
The fossil fuels not only supplied our energy, they supplied most of the raw materials for the production of goods for our society. Imagine a world without our current plastics, many of our drugs, current construction materials (like asphalt and paint), clothing material and the list goes on. Virtually the entire chemical production system will have to be reinvented to cope with these changes. This new system is likely to be based upon biochemistry.
The transformation of the infrastructure to satisfy future needs will be even larger than the infrastructure created from 1800 to the present. It took 200 years for our old system to evolve. We do not have that much time for the future reconstruction. A realistic estimate is about 50-100 years.
There is another lesson from history. This lesson is that the more complicated that governments or societies become, the greater is the strain upon the resources available to that ruling body. All of the ancient empires fell because of this problem. The Egyptian, Sumerian, Greek and Roman empires are examples. They all became larger or more complicated than their resources could sustain. This problem is now facing the entire world not just a single government.
In order to transform the infrastructure of the world, the governments of the world (at least the major governments) are going to be forced into scientific cooperation as never before. There may be healthy competition between the scientists of various countries but the “best” work must be shared by all the countries. To do otherwise is to invite more wars. The monopolization of resources and new technology must be avoided at all cost. There are no “free market” entities that can accomplish projects of these magnitudes. Research and development must be conducted on a “wartime” basis like the Manhattan Project. Time is the enemy.
Whatever the new infrastructure is going to be, it must stay in balance with nature. The systems proposed here attempt to sustain carbon, nitrogen, oxygen and water “neutrality”. This should help prevent us from killing ourselves. Doing nothing to create a new infrastructure will guarantee that most of humanity will die in a struggle for survival.
The route to overcoming the loss of fossil fuels will eventually involve the politics of many countries. It is sad to say that this may be the greatest impediment to success. Programs enormously larger than the space programs and the Manhattan Project will be involved. Research and development will require worldwide cooperation. Financing these endeavors is beyond the scope of private enterprise or a single government. Mankind may not be capable of such cooperation. Nationalism may destroy success.
The outline presented here for creating an exhausted fossil fuel world infrastructure is certainly not the only one possible. More ingenious solutions may exist. The route to these solutions must not be decided upon by political or economic methods but by scientific ones. Politicians are not likely to accept these restrictions of their power. Business leaders are also not good choices for directors of such projects. Military leaders would be problematic also.
The time allowed to complete a restructure of our old infrastructure will be measured in decades and not centuries. An overarching program of this magnitude has never been attempted. Such things are accomplished in Science Fiction but not in the real world. The end result of doing nothing is to return to the feudalism of the past. Living in a new world based upon the old paradigm of “one man, one mule, one plow, one gun” is not a happy consideration.
It is hoped that mankind will begin to take action now to replace our entire fossil fuel based system. This not only decreases global warming, it actually preserves some of our irreplaceable resources. Population control will also have to be initiated. Population expansion is limited by the resources from the sun.
Don Halcom has a Ph.D in Chemical Engineering. He is 73 years old and retired. He wrote the above epistle about fossil fuels exhaustion with some indication about what has to be done to replace the infrastructure currently supported by fossil fuels. He tried to divorce himself from the economic and political problems involved with fossil fuels exhaustion as much as possible, but does touch upon them toward the end. 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