Friday, 17 May 2013

The end of the carbon era

Friends, terrible news, it looks like oil and other fossil fuels might be finite after all. Surprised?

Well I know that people who read this blog are probably not surprised by this. I certainly am not. It is something that I have been saying for years, and where I have met little differing opinions. We know that there is an end to oil. We know it, but we choose to ignore it. That is our right, as long as we know that there will be consequences to our attitude. So far so good.

Why am I writing this you might wonder. Well, for all of those who are not sure whether they should go on ignoring the fact or what to do about it I wanted to say a few things. And for the ones that already know about this I think there are some facts that you might have not though about and to give you some ammunition for the next debate you have with your oil crazy friend.

We have to look at our situation from an outside or rational perspective. I always find that this helps in order to make decisions. So let's look at a couple of things:

1) Is oil running out in my lifetime?

This is a contemptous point really. Most people choose to ignore the fact that we are runnning towards an energy crisis with high speed because they think it doesn't effect them or will not affect even their children. Because "there is so much oil left, we don't have to worry for another 100 years", right? Wrong! Even conservative estimates peg our oil reserves at maybe another 40 years. This is at the current rate of production and consumption. The truth is, that there is probably far less oil left than what is claimed. A short look at the reserves of the different countries will make this obvious. The reserve has maintained a constant level, despite production. Which is to say, that for every barrel of oil we have taken out of the ground another barrel was found. Sounds pretty fishy to me really. The second important factor to consider is the rising consumption. With countries like India and China enjoying the fruits of industrialistation and economic development, the need for oil in those countries is rising exponentially, eating away our reserves at an even faster pace than we calculated with. So 40 years is actually an optimistic number. The former vice presedint of Saudi Aramco said at the 'Oil and Money Conference' in October 2007: 

"[World] reserves are confused and in fact inflated. Many of the so-called reserves are in fact resources. They're not delineated, they're not accessible, they’re not available for production."

2) There are no signs that fossil fuels will ever end. All these prognosis are humbug, how do you know that it is finite

I have actually heard this argument and besides the knowledge of the origin of oil (which makes it finite) I have another hard fact that demonstrates that fossil resources are finite. Did you try to get a helium baloon lately? Maybe you should try. I think Disney has already stopped to sell helium balloons in their resorts. The reason is, there is hardly any of this precious gas left. I know this because I work as a chemist who uses Helium everyday as a carrier gas for our gas chromatographs. Well, we are in a pickle, because even as a lab we have problems getting helium to run our instruments. There is a huge push in the scientific (mostly the anlytical chemistry) community to switch from helium to hydrogen. Every big supplier is currently running seminars and advertising campaigns pushing hydrogen and hydrogen generators to facilitate a liberation of analytical labs from the helium trap. Helium is a by product of natural gas production. The grotesque thing about it is that it is actually one of the most abundant elements in the universe. We just have a problem keeping it here on earth. It simply dissipatees into space. Literally. 

3) They will come up with electric cars anyway once the oil is gone, so no reason to worry.

That might be true. Afterall there are already electric cars that have phenomenal performance and can cover up to 600km before needing recharging. But transport is only one of the things made possible by oil. Most people know that plastics are oil derived, so here we will be looking at another bottleneck if there were no more oil. Plastics penetrate every aspect of our lives. They are literally everywhere. To see just how dependant we are on plastics I urge people to watch "Addicted to platic" a pretty good documentary about plastic in our world. 

You can watch it here:

I spoke of helium earlier. You might not care about helium balloons or even analytical chemistry processes because they don't directly concern your life (although I am pretty sure that the analytical chemistry part has interfaced with nearly every person in one way or another), but there are other things like MRI that rely on helium. MRI stands for Magnetic Resonance Imaging. A huge superconducting magnet is used to create a magnetic field which using the correct hardware can be used to make images of organs and muscle tissue. The superconducting magnets have to be cooled to 4.5 K (-425F or -269C roughly). Only helium can do this. There is no other gas that can be used as a substitute. So say bye bye to modern medicine. Because no helium = no MRI, no oil = no plastic for syringes, drips, sterile packaging etc and most pharmaceuticals are also produced from petroleum products. 

So what is the conclusion
Oil has literally penetrated our lives and we are totally and utterly addicted to it.

What to do? I really don't know. I have been trying to live without petroleum products and while I certainly reduced the usage of these products I am far from being petroleum free, and wouldn't even know how to do so. No more computers, internet, car, fancy clothes, plastics, electronic gadgets, how is a person to survive? Well survive is a strong word, but maybe live a modern life. 

I remember that there was a TV series in Ireland where families that were living a really decadent lifestyle were filmed for one day of their lives with no power. That means no cars, electricity or gas. I distinctly remember one family, where the teenage daughter didn't even leave her room for the day, because she couldn't have her hot shower, blow dry hair routine in the mornings and she didn't want to walk to the bus stop and 'be seen' taking the bus. 

I think we need to change our behaviour and attitude to modern life first. We need to understand that a world without excessive power is not only a theoretical inconvenience, but an imminent reality.  I am confident that we will find solutions. But we need to start!

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