This post is more about alternative fuels than it is about peak oil, but it's pertinent to the peak oil discussion, as it lists our options for fuels
in a post-oil world.
As we all know, we're running out of oil. We have, at best, assuming we NEVER increase our oil consumption again, 50 years of oil left. More
realistically, figuring in the typical increase in oil consumption over the past 25 years, we only have about 25 years of oil supply left.
Where do we go from here? What fuel are we going to use to power our homes, cars, and other needs? I know this is a discussion that has been visited
many times on ATS, with many different opinions. What I hope to achieve here is some scientific and practical evidence as to what alternative fuel
sources are going to be.
The first option is a newly developed technique of recycling discarded oil-based products into burnable gasoline, no different from the gasoline we
burn now. While the process is efficient and practical, we still have the issue of burning highly polluting oil-based fuel, and additionally,
recycling oil-based products still relies on a finite base of source material. We only have, at best, about 100 years worth of petroleum-based
products to draw on. Estimates on the lifespan of this process are meager, at best, at only about 20-30 years, given current oil needs of the world.
What do we really need to focus on for renewable and efficient fuel sources? Well, obviously, renewability is a key element, but we also need to look
at emissions and environmental impact, as our current fuel usage causes a great deal of harm to the relatively fragile ecosystem of the planet.
We need a fuel source that is clean burning, and at least as efficient as the oil that we have all come to need. This brings me to my second option:
Alcohol is a highly efficient fuel (100% pure alcohol is roughly equivalent to 115 octane gasoline), and can run in most cars existing today without
any alteration (though less efficiently than gasoline). To make a current car run efficiently on pure alcohol (Ethanol is the preferred alcohol - the
same alcohol found in alcoholic beverages), requires not much more than a tune up, simply replacing a few filters, altering the timing, and replacing
a few hoses (typically costing only $100-150 at an average auto shop). Alcohol is also infinitely renewable. As long as we have fertile soil, we
have a source for Ethanol. Ethanol can be made from corn, sugar, molasses, sugar beets, tomatoes, and any other vegetation containing sugar. Recent
advances in ethanol production have made it practical to make ethanol from ANY plant, including basic lawn-variety grass. I see this as being the
most immediate solution to the energy problems, as it's easy to make, infinitely renewable, doesn't make our current cars obsolete, and has zero
emissions (the only emissions from burning ethanol is water vapor). Additionally, high-performance racing cars have been running on ethanol since the
birth of auto racing - almost 100 years. Ethanol can also replace oil in our power plants with minimal cost (roughly $300,000 per power plant to
convert, and when looked at over a cost distribution to all customers of that power plant, means only a slight increase in power costs initially [to
the tune of only a few cents per month], with an overall cost reduction, because of the inexpensive nature of ethanol). It's also interesting to
note that Richard Nixon promoted ethanol use during his presidency, and was largely rejected by the American public until the oil shortage of the
early 1970s. Whatever the cause of the shortage (popularly thought of as being falsified by oil barons and oil companies in search of better
profits), it still spawned the use of gasahol, which is a combination of regular gasoline and ethanol. To this day, most gasoline American consumers
buy is still at least 10% alcohol, and in the midwest, use of gasahol, even as much as 85% alcohol, and sometimes pure ethanol, is common.
There's many other solutions out there. Another popular one is electric power for cars. While
has proven that electric cars can be sexy, high performance, and offer a
GREAT range, the power to charge the cars must come from somewhere.
This power is provided by power plants, most commonly burning oil or coal to generate power. What other sources can we use to generate power? With
current technology, we have a few options for clean burning alternatives for our oil and coal power plants. Nuclear power is one. With current
technology, nuclear power is actually VERY safe (we'll never see another Three Mile Island or Chernobyl event). With current technology, especially
in containment, even in the event of a catastrophic meltdown, the radiation would never escape the primary containment chamber. We've also learned
enough about nuclear power to keep the reaction running with minimal chance of a catastrophic meltdown. Nuclear is a good source, but once again,
we'll eventually run out of Uranium 238, which is the fuel for a nuclear reactor. What else is out there?
Solar power is something that has been in use for many years, but never really proven effective enough to be a practical power source. Well, that is,
until now. Modern solar cells, using only a minute amount of petroleum products to produce, and using mostly water for light focusing onto the solar
cells, have proven to be almost 800 times more efficient than prior solar cells. With this new advancement, solar energy becomes viable as a power
source. It's still not that effective, though, as even with the new technology, it would still require roughly 200 acres of solar cells to replace
just one oil-burning power plant.
Another alternative is wind power. We've had wind-farms worldwide for decades, all providing power at only fractions of what oil plants can produce.
Recent advances in power generation have made wind power viable as a primary power source. In a package that's roughly the same size as the average
current wind generator (roughly 350 feet high, with blades of almost 150 feet, tip to tip), we're now able to produce almost eight times the amount
of power that was previously generated. This advance makes wind power practical.
Finally, and we'll probably live to see this in large scale practical applications, there's the hydrogen fuel cell. This is certainly the
technology with the most potential in the long term. Hydrogen can be produced from water (after all, every molecule of water contains two hydrogen
molecules). This is a fuel source that can be gleaned from basic water, the most common substance on the planet, and when burned, releases only
water. This is a fuel source that actually renews itself. The process is actually remarkably simple. First, a plant splits water molecules,
releasing both oxygen and hydrogen. The hydrogen is captured for fuel. It's also now possible, thanks to recent advances in the process from
scientists in Denmark, to generate hydrogen directly at the pump (thus saving transportation costs). The process at the other end - burning hydrogen
to create energy, effectively only combines the hydrogen atoms with oxygen atoms, creating an exhaust of only water, thus renewing itself through the
environment. Most of us will likely live to see this in action, but it likely won't become commonplace for roughly 20-30 years, as the evolution of
cars occurs, replacing internal combustion with hydrogen-powered electric.
Beyond that, there's a million theories, with no conclusive evidence to support them. Who knows what we'll discover in the future.
The most likely future energy tech will be nuclear fusion. CERN labs has recently installed a new particle accelerator for the sole purpose of
testing fusion theories. At the moment, they are able to generate a reaction that regains 60% of the power. Think about it.