Future Fuel

The age of (cheap) oil is doomed in the long run, even if we do not care about climate change, as petroleum is a finite resource which would eventually be depleted. However, our modern industrialized society requires a lot of energy and without it our planet cannot sustain a ten billion population.

One of the most obvious sources of energy for future generations is not surprisingly solar power. It is estimated that the Earth receives between 1,500  and 50,000 exajoules of solar energy a year, while global use was about 560 exajoules in 2012.

However, solar power has several issues. One is the unequal distribution of solar among different parts of the world. Another issue is that it is unavailable at night. And a final problem is that solar power is not really suited for transportation and transportation is big consumer of energy (about a quarter of global consumption) and vital for the modern global economy.

The most common approach to bring solar power to vehicles is through electricity and with improvements in battery technology electric cars are making a steady rise. Nevertheless, compared to fossil fuels batteries are too heavy for many modes of transport such as cargo ships and commercial airplanes to be practical.

So we need another method to employ solar energy to power large scale and long distance transport. Swiss researchers have developed a technology that uses sunlight and water and carbon dioxide extracted from air to produce hydrocarbon fuels. Important to note is that they actually succeeded in building a working mini-refinery to demonstrate this technology and they are currently working on an up-scaled plant.

According to these researchers a third of California’s Mohave dessert could using this technology produce enough kerosene to meet current global aviation demand. Of course, there is nothing that should limit this technology to one particular region.

Therefore if technologies like this one will become widely adopted, it raises the question how it will effect geopolitics. Obviously the Saudis will be interested, because it will allow them to continue to export “oil” for the foreseeable future.

However, other sun rich countries will likely follow soon. As mentioned above the USA would practically become independent from foreign oil and hence lessen the need to back up questionable regimes around the world and reduce incentives to interfere with the internal affairs of other states. Chile, Australia (currently one of the biggest exporters of coal) and South Africa (which is home to Sasol, a company with a history in synfuels) will also seize this opportunity.

In Europe Spain, Greece and Italy could become major producers of carbon neutral fuels and so reducing the EU’s dependence on Russian gas. And not to mention North Africa could increase its role as an energy supplier for Europe. So the biggest loser if this technology will become widely adopted will be, indeed, the Russian Federation.

Given that there is a strong anti-Russian sentiment in the West and the Kremlin has been accused of using its energy exports (mainly of gas) as a tool for political purposes, it is hardly unsurprising if the EU would pressing for homemade oil and gas – particularly if this also “fixes” the Southern economies as well. In fact the EU is already funding this Sun-to-liquid project.

This is not to see that Russia is doomed per se, only that the country’s influence will substantially diminish if more of its customers will move to other energy suppliers. On the bright sight, however, with a mostly ice free Arctic ocean during the summer, its maritime isolation has come to an end and Russia will profit from the North-East passage somehow.

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3 responses

  1. Precisely. Not only is it dirty, fossil fuels tie us all to horrible regimes.

    1. AFAIC the political dimension is far more important as a reason to alternative energy sources than climate change.

  2. Reblogged this on Lagrangian Republican Association and commented:

    Not directly related to space settlement, but still interesting to think about.

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