Wouldn’t it be great if we could find and energy source that was actually better than oil? It would be incredibly terrific if that new energy source was so abundant that we could not even begin to calculate how long it would last. Perhaps if we were able to do that, we could figure out a graceful way to pull out of the Middle East. Though we do not want to seem to be acceeding to the demands of terrorists, it is not very American to insist on an intrusive presence in a place where we are not welcome.
First let’s talk a little about the characteristics of a “better” energy source. After all, about 90% of the world’s commercial energy demands are currently being met by oil. Though there are some weird fringe elements that think that situation is caused by skillful marketing on the part of rich oil companies, the fact is that oil is superior to its competition.
Oil is more portable than its competitors. Since it is a liquid, mechanical pumps can move it from place to place. The variety of pumps involved is incredible, ranging in size from massive ones that push crude oil through massive pipes that are thousands of miles long to the tiny fuel pumps in those obnoxiously loud leaf blowers. In contrast, coal is a solid that is not as readily moved from place to place. Natural gas requires compressors that are mechanically more complicated and more expensive than liquid pumps. Wind, waves, water, and the sun are not portable at all; the only way to use that kind of power somewhere other than the original location is to convert it (generally at very low efficiency) to electricity and to send it over wires that can be extremely expensive to put into place.
Oil is more energy dense than its competitors. One reason that Winston Churchill decided to convert the British Navy from domestic coal to imported oil was that oil powered ships could carry at least 30% more energy, giving them higher speed and increased range. Natural gas is not energy dense at all; even under extremely high pressure a tank of gas contains less than 40% of the energy that would be contained in the same tank if it was oil or one of its derivatives.
Oil burns cleaner than coal; oil furnaces still supply large quantities of heat to homes in neighborhoods where coal fired stoves would be exceedingly unwelcome because of their sooty residue. Of course, on this measure of effectiveness, oil is not the best alternative; a furnace using natural gas produces almost no waste products other than carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide and water. Its supporters use this characteristic widely in their promotional efforts, but even gas is not perfect; please do not hook up the exhaust of one of those “Powered by Clean Natural Gas” vehicles to your home ventilation system as a source of heat. There are essentially no emissions from solar, wind, and hydro power, but please do not accept any claims that biomass is cleaner than oil. I have smelled too many fires, sneezed too much during the leaf and crop residue burning season and seen way too much data to buy into that propaganda.
Oil costs less than its competitors. In the Middle East, it is still possible to produce oil for a cost of less than $3 per barrel. On a cost per unit energy, that is far below the production cost of the cheapest Wyoming coal. Of course, the price of oil on the open market is considerably higher, but that is because even abundant Middle Eastern oil is not enough to supply all of the world demand. The mechanism for establishing the price is way too complicated to discuss here. Suffice it to say that most OPEC producers can still make money at a price that would drive all other competitors out of the market if they could get their volumes high enough.
Oil based products are widely distributed throughout the developed world and they can be used any time and any season. Oil makes it possible to survive in Antarctica, drive powerful vehicles for pleasure trips and fly almost anywhere in the world. Coal and gas cannot reasonably perform those tasks, and it is laughable to even suggest a solar powered passenger plane.
Though there are perhaps other measures of effectiveness for energy sources, the main ones that motivate sales are portability, density, cleanliness, cost, and availability. Oil is simply the superior product. For almost a hundred years, people have found it valuable enough to fight over. Today, is is difficult to overemphasize the relationship between our desire for oil and the conflicts in the Middle East, Indonesia, West Africa, and the area between the Caspian Sea and major oil markets.
There is an energy choice that is completely overlooked in the above discussion. It is also ignored in almost every other hand wringing discussion of what we should do to reduce our involvement in an unwinnable battle to retain control over a valuable substance that belongs to someone else.
It is no secret that I like atomic power. Heavy metal fission is, by all reasonable measures, far superior to hydrocarbon combustion. Uranium contains somewhere between 2 million and 6 million times as much energy per unit mass as oil, the most energy dense competitor. Its density makes it incredibly portable; a few truckloads of fuel each year is enough to supply a city of a million people with sufficient electricity to live an average American lifestyle.
Fission also produces miniscule amounts of by-products that are potentially valuable in their own right. Long lived heavy metal isotopes like uranium, plutonium and the rest of the transuranics can be recycled for their fuel value. The lighter fission products include isotopes like cesium 137 and strontium 90 have readily identifyable commercial value. Cs-137 is a relatively long lived gamma emitter; it would make a good base material for irradiation devices that can sterilize food, medical devices, and even huge volumes of mail that is potentially laced with anthrax. (More details about that application will follow in another column.) Sr-90 is a long lived beta emitter that has already proven its use in nuclear batteries. (Click here for other articles about nuclear batteries.)These devices can power communication satellites, remote weather stations, and possibly even laptop computers and artificial hearts.
Environmentally speaking, fission is a clear winner. There is a reason that the United States stopped building diesel engine powered submarines more than 40 years ago. When you want power for any length of time in a sealed space and still want to breathe, you have to go atomic. It is my opinion that we should stop thinking of our common atmosphere as a dumping ground for fossil fuel waste products and begin realizing that we are living on an isolated planet with a sealed atmosphere.
Whenever I get into a conversation and suggest similar ideas, people ask about cars. There are technical and economic reasons why it will be difficult to produce fission powered personal vehicles. However, great strides can be made in reducing oil dependence if we use the natural characteristics of fission to produce superior ships, power plants, aircraft, trains, and possibly even large, long distance trucks.
Bottom line: we have already found the energy source that can allow us to grow and prosper without oil. Why are we still fighting over the dirty, slimy stuff?