Tag: Vaclav Smil

Notes: How the World Really Works: The Science Behind How We Got Here and Where We’re Going

Notes from How the World Really Works: The Science Behind How We Got Here and Where We’re Going (2022) by Vaclav Smil:

* Since the year 2007, more than half of humanity has lived in cities (more than 80 percent in all affluent countries), and unlike in the industrializing cities of the 19th and early 20th centuries, jobs in modern urban areas are largely in services. Most modern urbanites are thus disconnected not only from the ways we produce our food but also from the ways we build our machines and devices, and the growing mechanization of all productive activity means that only a very small share of the global population now engages in delivering civilization’s energy and the materials that comprise our modern world.

* The proverbial best minds do not go into soil science and do not try their hand at making better cement; instead they are attracted to dealing with disembodied information, now just streams of electrons in myriads of microdevices. From lawyers and economists to code writers and money managers, their disproportionately high rewards are for work completely removed from the material realities of life on earth.

* The real wrench in the works: we are a fossil-fueled civilization whose technical and scientific advances, quality of life, and prosperity rest on the combustion of huge quantities of fossil carbon, and we cannot simply walk away from this critical determinant of our fortunes in a few decades, never mind years. Complete decarbonization of the global economy by 2050 is now conceivable only at the cost of unthinkable global economic retreat, or as a result of extraordinarily rapid transformations relying on near-miraculous technical advances.

* Most recently, a poor understanding of energy has the proponents of a new green world naively calling for a near-instant shift from abominable, polluting, and finite fossil fuels to superior, green and ever-renewable solar electricity.

* Even in this era of high-tech electronic miracles, it is still impossible to store electricity affordably in quantities sufficient to meet the demand of a medium-sized city (500,000 people) for only a week or two, or to supply a megacity (more than 10 million people) for just half a day.

* If the COVID-19 pandemic brought disruption, anguish, and unavoidable deaths, those effects would be minor compared to having just a few days of a severely reduced electricity supply in any densely populated region, and if prolonged for weeks nationwide it would be a catastrophic event with unprecedented consequences.

* The fundamental energy conversion producing our food has not changed: as always, we are eating, whether directly as plant foods or indirectly as animal foodstuffs, products of photosynthesis—the biosphere’s most important energy conversion, powered by solar radiation. What has changed is the intensity of our crop, and animal, production: we could not harvest such abundance, and in such a highly predictable manner, without the still-rising inputs of fossil fuels and electricity.

* Many people nowadays admiringly quote the performance gains of modern computing (“so much data”) or telecommunication (“so much cheaper”)—but what about harvests? In two centuries, the human labor to produce a kilogram of American wheat was reduced from 10 minutes to less than two seconds.

* The quest for mass-scale veganism is doomed to fail. Eating meat has been as significant a component of our evolutionary heritage as our large brains (which evolved partly because of meat eating), bipedalism, and symbolic language. All our hominin ancestors were omnivorous, as are both species of chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes and Pan paniscus), the hominins closest to us in their genetic makeup; they supplement their plant diet by hunting (and sharing) small monkeys, wild pigs, and tortoises. Full expression of human growth potential on a population basis can take place only when diets in childhood and adolescence contain sufficient quantities of animal protein, first in milk and later in other dairy products, eggs, and meat: rising post-1950 body heights in Japan, South Korea, and China, as a result of increased intake of animal products, are unmistakable testimonies to this reality.

“Taking temporarily high rates of annual exponential growth as indicators of future long-term developments is a fundamental mistake.”

Vaclav Smil, writing in Growth: From Microorganisms to Megacities (2019):

Taking temporarily high rates of annual exponential growth as indicators of future long-term developments is a fundamental mistake — but also an enduring habit that is especially favored by uncritical promoters of new devices, designs, or practices: they take early-stage growth rates, often impressively exponential, and use them to forecast an imminent dominance of emerging phenomena.

Many recent examples can illustrate this error, and I have chosen the capacity growth of Vestas wind turbines, machines leading the shift toward the de-carbonization of global electricity generation. This Danish maker began its sales with a 55 kW machine in 1981; by 1989 it had a turbine capable of 225 kW; a 600 kW machine was introduced in 1995; and a 2 MW unit followed in 1999. The best-fit curve for this rapid growth trajectory of the last two decades of the 20th century (five-parameter logistic fit with R2 of 0.978) would have predicted designs with capacity of nearly 10 MW in 2005 and in excess of 100 MW by 2015. But in 2018 the largest Vestas unit available for onshore installations was 4.2 MW and the largest unit suitable for offshore wind farms was 8 MW that could be upgraded to 9 MW (Vestas 2017a), and it is most unlikely that a 100 MW machine will be ever built.

This example of a sobering contrast between early rapid advances of a technical innovation followed by inevitable formation of sigmoid curves should be recalled whenever you see news reports about all cars becoming electric by 2025 or new batteries having impressively higher energy densities by 2030.

Notes: Oil: A Beginner’s Guide

Notes from Oil: A Beginner’s Guide (2017) by Vaclav Smil:

* In 2016 motor and aviation gasoline accounted for a third of global refinery throughput. The US share of global gasoline consumption was about 41% of the total, or more than 1,200kg/capita: the country now consumes more gasoline than the combined total for the EU, Japan, China and India.

* Nearly two-thirds of the world’s refined products are now used in transportation (roughly 2.5Gt in 2005) and in the US that share is now more than 75%. Transportation’s dependence on liquid fuels is even higher: in 2015 about 93% of all energy used by road vehicles, trains, ships and planes came from crude oil.

* In 1900 American farmers needed an average of about three minutes’ labor to produce 1kg of wheat, but by the year 2000 the time was down to just two seconds and the best producers now do it in one second.

* The second most voluminous non-fuel use of a refined petroleum product is asphalt.

* Only about 20% of diamonds are sold to the jewellery trade; most of the rest go into drilling for hydrocarbons and metallic ores.

* Record US well depths reached with rotary rigs increased from 300m in 1895 to more than 1.5km by 1916; the 3km mark was reached in 1930, the deepest pre-WWII well was 4.5km (in 1938) and the 6km mark was surpassed in 1950.

* The average depth of new US exploratory oil wells increased from about 1,460m during the 1950s to nearly 2,300m during the first decade of the twenty-first century.

* Fracking fluid is about 90% water. Most of the rest is sand, and additives (hundreds of substances have been tried) usually make up less than 0.5% of the volume but they contain a mix of chemicals (acids, corrosion inhibitors, gelling agents, surfactants, biocides) that should never be allowed to contaminate drinking water. Usually this is not a problem as fracking takes place far below the aquifers, and steel and cement in properly finished wells should prevent any contamination closer to the surface.

* Moving Alaskan oil 3,800km by tanker from Valdez to Long Beach in California requires energy equivalent to only about 0.5% of the transported fuel. And a 300,000dwt supertanker needs an equivalent of only about 1% of the fuel it carries in order to travel more than 15,000km from Ra’s Tanūra, the world’s largest loading oil terminal on the Saudi coast of the Persian Gulf, to the US East Coast.

* By far the largest oil storage is the US Strategic Petroleum Reserve that began to fill in 1977 with imported Saudi oil. Crude oil is stored deep underground in four massive salt caverns along the Texas and Louisiana Gulf Coast. The maximum capacity is 713.5Mb and the reserves stood at 685Mb in June 2017, representing about 10% of US annual oil consumption.

* The chances of ending the fossil fuel era in a matter of two or three decades appear quite unrealistic: in 2017 the world derived about 85% of its primary commercial energy from the combustion of fossil carbon.