The eternal oil crisis and possible alternatives

At the Wall Street Journal, Daniel Yergin claims that the peak oil fears are exaggerated considering that the Earth didn’t run out of oil during the last five “Oh my God, oil is running out” crises either.

In the early 1960s, Addy wrote a paper at college about the impending end of the global oil reserves. The worldwide oil reserved, so he wrote in that paper, would last only for another twenty years. The sources he quoted were internal papers from the oil industry, to which he had access because his father operated a gas station.

Fast forward twenty-five years to the late 1980s. The global oil reserves had failed to end. Cora is a teenager in high school and the subject of her chemistry class is, once again, the impending end of the global oil reserves. And once again, global oil reserves will only last for another twenty years.

Fast forward another twenty years: The world has changed, except for one little fact. The global oil reserves are still going to run out in twenty years time, only they’ve changed the wording a little and are calling it peak oil crisis now.

Should I believe that the prognosis is right this time? Frankly, I know enough about extracting oil to know that “the global oil reserves” won’t run out so quickly, even if the easy-to-extract oil will dwindle. And here’s another bit of information that is surprisingly little known: It is possible to make oil from coal in a process that was discovered in the 1930s. And the global coal reserves are not in danger of running out.

But even though oil won’t run out any time soon, it’s a valuable resource and therefore conserving it and looking for alternatives is the wise thing to do.

But what are possible alternatives? Nuclear is out for obvious reasons. I have already devoted every second post on this blog to the dangers of nuclear power, but here’s yet another link confirming that nuclear power is on its way out. For Siemens AG, who have been a major player in the nuclear power industry so far, are quitting their involvement in nuclear power, because it has no future. Instead they will focus on systems for the non-nuclear energy industry, whether conventional or renewable.

Hydrogen often comes up as a possible alternative to fossil fuels. It’s nearly limitless and clean – when hydrogen burns the only combustion product is water vapour. However, there’s a catch. Hydrogen also happens to be highly explosive (remember the Hindenburg), difficult to contain and difficult to extract, since elemental hydrogen is fairly rare on Earth. Most of it is bound up in water and other substances.

Now the BBC reports that a team of US-researchers has developed a cell that can generate unlimited amounts of hydrogen, powered by microbes. So far, the process is much too expensive for any commercial application, but it’s still a step forward.

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  1. Pingback: The Emmy Awards, America is losing its taste for contemporary stories and some writing links | Cora Buhlert

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