Tuesday, March 02, 2010

The energy density of oil

"When you draw 10 gallons [45.46L] of fuel into the tank of your car, in the sixty seconds it takes the energy flow is equivalent to the full output of a 25 megawatt power station."

- James Lovelock, The Vanishing Face of Gaia:
A Final Warning
(London: Penguin, 2009), 64.

We have never found a substance as useful and powerful as oil. It is the distilled power of thousands of years of ancient sunlight poured into your petrol tank. Of course, oil is indeed a natural and renewable resource. It is just that the oil we use globally each year takes about three million years for the earth to replenish.*

Happy driving.
*This claim comes from How Earth Made Us, a fascinating BBC documentary series hosted by Prof Iain Stewart (and available on iPlayer to UK residents if you are very quick). I've also just read (amongst other things) this article in New Scientist, which gives a useful update on the state of "non-conventional" sources of oil. These include Canada's tar sands and large amounts of oil shale in the US. Bottom line: there are truly huge source of unconventional oil still in the ground, but getting them out will be very tricky. At the moment, they still do not represent a silver bullet for an impending energy shortfall.


Anonymous said...

I would suggest that water is perhaps more useful than oil - and probably what the major wars will be fought over in the next 30-100 years.


byron smith said...

Yes, I've recently read a little more about water and am inclined to agree that it will also be (and already is) a significant site of conflict, particularly where significant rivers are shared between nations.

I've also read more of Lovelock's book and am feeling less confident about his numbers (which I always took with a grain of salt in any case. I am reading him as a classic example of a doomer/extreme pessimistic perspective on climate change). For instance, later in this same chapter he says that we are depleting oil at one hundredth the speed that the earth replenishes it, which is many orders of magnitude different to the estimate from Prof Stewart. I don't know which is correct, but a few other instances in Lovelock's text have made me wonder about his sources (which are often not mentioned).

Unknown said...

I don't believe a word of this new age science that cannot be proven... you're talking theories here...

Anonymous said...

I think as a civil engineer there is something that things about water.

I recently heard from someone who had heard Lovelock speak - and he is now proposing that it's too late and we've gone to far. He may be right, but there is an increasing voice which doesn't connect carbon emissions with climate change, making it very diffiult to know what to think. I however, am of the opinion based on two things 1) the rigour in the IPCC reports, which are vetted by the chief scientist in every country is too great to either be harbouring hidden agendas or hiding a conspiracy; and 2) even is carbon emissions are not linked ot climate change the fact is we are using fossil fuels which I think is actually a bigger problem - as you point out in your post.

If you want a really good report filled with lots of data take a squizz at http://event.concepglobal.com/accounts/register123/concep/clientaccounts/ice/events/brunel/brunel_report.pdf

Also, have you been particupating in the Royal Society of Edinburgh's Climate Change Inquiry. http://www.royalsoced.org.uk/enquiries/climate_change/index.htm

We went to the Dundee event - it wasn't great, and tehre was a distinct skew in the representation there but it was interesting nonetheless.

See you Sunday.!

byron smith said...

LoveFights - can you explain in a little more detail what you mean? Which theories are you referring to? And why are they new age? By quoting Lovelock I do not intend to either endorse or criticise his fascinating and controversial Gaia hypothesis.

Unknown said...

you replied..."...please explain..." How do you explain 'perception'? Certain words you wrote jumped out at me and that was the picture that my mind perceived at that instance. There was no need to deliberate or digest or analyse the contents from different angles. I commented on my first impressions and that can never change, those impressions are now history. If I were to read your message again and again my perceptions would only gain more depth and dimensions... but an apple is an apple. The core of your message is rooted in 'new age' and 'evolutionary theories'.

byron smith said...

LoveFights - Your comment here was, I assumed, intended for this discussion, so I will bring it across:

...here's a hint... "oil was created by God the Creator". Oil did not evolve by 3 million years of compressed transformation. (I read your quote again)

Now I see that apparently you are a young earth creationist. While I reject this position for exegetical, theological, scientific and historical reasons, even without entering this debate, I think it is quite possible for someone who believes the earth is not millions of years old to believe that humanity may be using a particular resource many thousands or millions times faster than it is replenished. That is, even if one thinks that God created the earth a few thousand years ago with a few trillion barrels of oil underground, it is still possible to calculate the rate at which oil forms today though the deposition of living tissue on the ocean floor under certain conditions and to calculate the rate of extraction and to note the massive discrepancy between those two rates. Thus, while I personally have little problem with the concept of evolution or with the scientific bases for an old earth, I do not think that anything in my post depends on those assumptions.

As for new age, I assume this comment is based on the appearance of the word "Gaia" in the book title? If so, you might like to read this brief introduction to the Gaia hypothesis, which is a scientific hypothesis in the earth sciences about the proper way of understanding the relationships between geology, climatology and the biota on earth (or how the rocks, air and living things interact). Despite using the name of an ancient Greek goddess, this is merely a vivid metaphor for the scientific claims being made and which are currently being tested in a variety of ways. Although still quite contentious, the hypothesis is accepted by a number of earth scientists as a theory with predictive power.

Unknown said...

I will echo what King Solomon said... "...nothing new under the sun..." In the future there will not be one ounce of NEW oil generated... even if you wait 3 million years. Let there be Light. Light is good.

byron smith said...

This fascinating documentary (How Earth Made Us #5: Human Planet) is available here.