Let’s face it! The whole fossil fuel thing – widespread use of coal, oil, and natural gas could not have happened without technological advances. Without the steam engine, the coal age would have been limited to a handful of people living near surface coal seams and burning coal for heat and cooking, and perhaps a little metal smelting. All the rest of the industrial age – the internal combustion engine and nearly everything else grew out of some technological development coupled and the abundant energy from fossil fuels.
So entranced are we with the constant advances in technology many among us simply can’t believe that we will not find a technical fix for depleting reserves of fossil fuels. Some like hydrogen powered cars, others believe that nuclear fusion will soon be viable – there are many possibilities out there. The real question, however, is whether there are developments in the offing that can be brought into general use in time to prevent the obvious catastrophe that will result from the rapidly declining availability of fossil fuels.
There are of course many thousands of scientists and engineers around the world who are working on many aspects of how we can more efficiently utilize the remaining store of fossil fuels or replace them with renewable sources. One of the best sources of information on advancing technology as it relates to our energy future is an organization called Green Car Congress (http://www.greencarcongress.com) that for the last seven years has been accumulating posting to the web announcements, studies, reports, etc. that hopefully will move us beyond the automobile-as-we-know-it to a more sustainable age. What is of interest, of course, is that many if not most of the new technological advances being announced have a range of applications that go beyond the automobile. For example, a better battery for cars could be used in many different ways to store electrical energy for later use – think solar panels and wind generators.
Currently at the top of the list of imminent technological advances seems to be more efficient automobiles. Over the last five years there have been literally hundreds of announcements of improvements to efficiencies for internal-combustion powered motor vehicles. Most of these have to do with the design of the motor, but many deal with vehicle weight, aerodynamic characteristics and other factors which go into automobile efficiency. Proof of progress in this area lies with the recent announcement by President Obama, with the concurrence of nearly all the major automobile manufacturers, that new U.S. automobiles will be averaging 54 mpg in another 10 years or so. In order to reach such an average, the more efficient of the cars that will be for sale will have reach 60 or 70 mpg. Now doubling or tripling the average mpgs of newly manufactured motor vehicles is one thing, it will be quite another to replace the some 250 million light vehicles on US roads and the billion or so currently running around the world. Given the mounting global economic troubles, it is likely to become increasingly difficult to replace our current car and light truck fleet on a one for one basis in the next 20 or so years.
The next area where the laboratories seem to be making progress is in the generation, transmission, storage, and consumption of electricity. The advent of the LED light bulb which will use about one sixth the power of incandescent bulbs will be a good start.
Lighting, of course is only a small part of electrical consumption. For now the key technology issue facing the electrical industry is improving the ability to store power after it has been generated. Many labs are at work on improved battery technology and this is resulting in a steady stream of announcements of this or that scientific finding. If only a fraction of all the reported progress actually turns out to be useful, we should have far better and cheaper batteries for electric cars and perhaps the storage of energy from intermittent sources such as solar and wind within this decade.
From all the recent announcements, the world is shortly going to be inundated with electrically powered vehicles. Nearly every major manufacturer in the world has one or more models under development which will be offered for sale in the next few years. Surveys show that the average automobile user around the world can’t get too excited about electric cars so long as they are relatively expensive and have various range and recharging issues. These objections, of course, will melt as soon as gasoline becomes unaffordable for many or shortages develop. There is also much progress being reported on the charging stations that will be necessary if electric vehicles come into widespread use. Plans are even underway to reserve time at charging bays using smart phones.
The third major area where researchers are steadily reporting progress is biofuels. Much of this work is still at the test tube level and has to do with breakthroughs in understanding various kinds of esoteric enzymes. Whether or not this means that someday we can power a significant portion of our transportation from bio-mass has yet to be shown. While electricity might someday come to power many of our land-base vehicles, in the foreseeable future, aircraft and ships are going to require liquid fuels to move large numbers of people and large amounts of cargo.
There are of course many relevant technologies advancing other than those pertinent to cars, electricity, and biofuels. Advances in the efficiency of desalinization could prove vital as fresh water supplies run low. The key question remains as how quickly these technologies can be developed and whether there will be enough private and government resources left to bring them into general use. This could turn out to be one of the key questions of the coming century.
Tom Whipple is a retired government analyst and has been following the peak oil issue for several years.