Field of Science

Beyond the rhetoric

I have been reading George Olah's 'Beyond Oil and Gas: The Methanol Economy' and even without having gotten to the part about the methanol economy, I can heartily recommend the book. At first sight, the book looks technical, but it is actually extremely accessible to the layman. The first half of the book is an extremely lucid and comprehensive account of the history, geopolitics, technology and future, of oil, natural gas, and coal, and also discusses the hydrogen economy and alternative fuel sources including atomic energy. The book is very much worth reading and buying for this half alone. All three of these commodities have become the Big Brothers of our lives, seemingly munificent, indispensable, and revolutionary. Yet all three, and especially oil, have made us utterly dependent on them in morbid manner. This is true in the many obvious ways in which we use oil in transportation and electricity and heating, but also in the not so obvious and yet ubiquitous ways in which oil based products are the basis of every part of modern life; from plastics to pharmaceuticals. Our dependence on them is appalling indeed, as demonstrated in the book.

These three commodities are like some of the thieves in movie scenes; the moment the thieves run in some direction where they think that have a safe haven, some insurmountable obstacle materializes. And so it is for fossil fuels. Whatever optimistic estimates and facts we discover about them are almost immediately thwarted by serious problems. Oil is convenient for transportation, is in large reserves, and is the most versatile fossil fuel. Yet, it is riddled by exponentially increasing demand and production costs, locations in regions of political instability, and most importantly, environmental problems. Wars and political regimes are made and broken over oil, and leaders will go to any lengths to disguise their aspirations for oil and the actions resulting from them. Non-conventional sources of oil need much energy input from natural gas, and again contribute to environmental CO2 levels. This last problem is gigantic for coal. Natural gas has momentous transportation and safety problems. So does the much touted Hydrogen Economy of Bush. Ethanol from corn seemingly needs more energy from fossil fuels than it actually saves and produces, and may not be worth it. The bottom line is, any fossil fuel source and many non-conventional energy sources that we can consider have such intractable problems that we cannot think of depending upon them for eternity or even in the comfortable future. Put the rhetoric aside and focus on the facts. Any decision about energy has already been made very difficult because of our aspiration to a high standard of living, our reluctance to give up creature comforts, and because of political lobbying which traps decisions in a cycle of profit and oneupmanship, and the last thing we need is trendy slogans about unlikely energy sources.

It does not matter what the reserves are; after all, predictions about oil reserves have always turned out to be underestimates and false alarms until now. But current predictions seem more true, and in the end, what will be the last straw would be the simple dominance of demand over supply. It would not matter if we have reserves then, but the production costs and the resulting oil price due to demand will be so high, that they would lead to a virtual breakdown in social infrastructure. If oil prices become 150$ a barrel, nobody would care how much proven reserves we have. And it is likely that it will happen very soon, with much of the developing world aspiring to US SUV standards of existence. What's important is that because of our utter dependence on it, such a situation will entail a fundamental shift in our standard of living, especially in the US, and we simply lack the social and mental capacity to make this shift overnight.

I haven't gotten to the part about methanol yet, so I will refrain from commenting on it until later, but what is clear is that oil and fossil fuels have to go, in some way or the other. I have said it before and I say it again, that nuclear energy is the cheapest, safest, and most efficient energy source that we can use in the near future. What to do about terrorists hitting a nuclear power plant is a complex problem, but surely Bush can take care of that, with all the extreme measures he takes for enforcing national security.

In any case, it is eminently worth taking a look at 'Beyond Oil and Gas' if you get a chance.


  1. sounds interesting. i am a little curious to see what methanol can do for us...

  2. sounds interesting. i am a little curious to see what methanol can do for us...


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