What is your reaction to the term, “Peak Oil”? Most people seem to think this is merely yet another doom and gloom message, but I do not see it that way. Much of our current oil production comes from some really giant fields, and these are running down. Yes, a lot of fields are being discovered, but they are relatively small ones, and in any case, as I put it in my ebook Biofuels, An Overview, oil is not being created. Eventually we must run out, and the fact that we do not know when is immaterial. Suppose we were to replace oil with biofuels. As I show in my ebook, it is physically possible to get somewhere close, but there are problems. The first is that the infrastructure we now have in place for oil is the result of 150 years of investment. Admittedly, some has been written off, but a lot is still there. The investment has involved a huge amount of money, and we cannot find equivalent investment quickly. That means that we have to start replacing oil over a long length of time. Some will say we are doing this already with ethanol, but we have problems there too. Quite simply there is a limit to how much corn or sugar we can devote to that.
Suppose we fail? In my ebook novel, Puppeteer, I outlined a future in which governments had done little about finding replacements for oil, instead, relying on market forces to come up with solutions. Unfortunately, the market has no inherent “interest” in our well-being, as can be seen from the numerous depressions that have occurred. The market is nothing more than a means of making transactions. The plot of Puppeteer assumed the following had happened. That by relying on market forces, not enough was done, and as the demand for oil rose, the price rose faster. Oil will not run out, but rather its price makes it out of the reach of most. Thus in one scene I had a car fill up with gasoline, and pay $1,000. With that sort of price, and no public transport replacement, only too many people could not travel to work, therefore the economy fell into a major recession/depression. Now the tax take fell away dramatically, and governments that were over-leveraged were now in trouble. Debt is a great thing in a rapidly expanding economy, or in a highly inflationary economy, but it is very undesirable in a rapidly contracting economy. Debt default becomes inevitable, public service salaries are cut back and people are fired, including from senior military positions. What happens next is that only too many resort to crime to make do, the bitter resort to terrorism, officials become corrupt, and only too much money is in the hands of a few. That is the background to a fictional work, but what part of that are you so sure could not happen?
So, what should we do? The first thing, in my opinion, is not to get too deeply into debt, because paying a high percentage of one’s income as interest when things go wrong takes away too many options. The second thing, if you want to produce fuels, is to carry out the necessary studies to work out what we have to do, and how to do it, now. I have worked in this area on and off for decades, the “off” periods usually being due to a decreasing lack of interest, and hence a lack of funding. One of the unfortunate aspects of chemical processing is that there is a very long development lead-time. It may take a week or so in the lab to get lucky and find a way to make a reaction go, although it often takes longer. However, then it may take a year or so to iron out all the wrinkles, because it is one thing to make something with carefully controlled pure materials, and another to do it under conditions that are desirable for other engineering reasons on material that can have a wide variety of compositions, such as biomass. The next step is to build a pilot plant, and run that for some length of time, because one needs to know how certain parts will behave under prolonged usage, one needs to make enough material under various conditions to test it for value, and one most desperately needs to find out about all the minor byproducts so that clean-up procedures can be designed. The next step is to design a demonstration plant, which will take some undefined time to find the finance (because we start to talk money in the hundreds of millions of dollars) design the plant, then build it and run it for several years. Under normal scenarios, this takes at least ten years, and it will often lose money for most of that time because it is still not big enough. It is only then that you can start building plants that will hopefully make money. As you can see, all of this is very time consuming, and money consuming.
Now, some of what is being done does not have to go through this route, e.g. making ethanol from sugar. That technology has been around for thousands of years, so we know how to do it. The problem here is, it is highly unlikely that energy from ethanol will even exceed 1% of oil energy because the raw materials are agricultural, and we have to eat. In my ebook, I suggest that there are a number of possibilities like ethanol that will make a useful contribution, and we should pursue them, but we still need to sort out something that will make a really significant contribution. Some will say there are such technologies, and we are putting these into practice. Certainly, there are a lot of encouraging brochures out there, but if you think all is under control search the web for “Range Fuels” and see what can go wrong. Yes, some things are being done, but is it enough? Really think about the size of the problem, and maybe you will agree with me that we need to put in more effort now. Remember, thinking is cheap; running out of fuel is expensive.