How would one detail in the past affect how technology and science evolved?  This question comes up at many scales- sometimes personal introspection on what might have been or larger scale concerning world historical events.  It offers a way to do a thought experiment concerning the important aspects and how they are connected. However, the results might only be insightful but not definitive  because any  real experiment  can never be done. Potential “What If” topics might consider access to energy resources from a slight change in physics or biology; a slightly different earth; and specific 20th century events during the rapid progress of technological applications.

The last blog highlighted the unique role of fossil fuels in a transition from one energy sustainable society to another future potential society. I constructed the metaphor of this current transition as launching a rocket into orbit. However, we currently are far from the stable orbit of sustainable energy, and there are many potential ways that these transitions (rocket and sustainability) might fail. If things were different would this transition have stalled?

What if no oil had formed during Earth’s history?  Perhaps the industrial revolution, which was fed by fossil fuels such as coal, oil, and natural gas, would have been delayed or never happened. There might have been insufficient energy concentration to generate the scientific breakthroughs necessary to create the new level of sustainable society based on renewables and nuclear energy. The industrial revolution might have stalled with no great improvements in transportation, communication, computing, and scientific progress.  Cities would not have become so large as  the main sources of energy would be food and wood would limit growth.  Nature in reality  captured the energy, converted into an energy dense material easy to transport (oil).  This work of nature over millions of years made oil much more convenient compared to extracting the similar energy from current crops.  

An example of the early energy revolution towards fossil fuels in England was the need to get fire hot enough to work with iron.  Burning wood would not generate the high temperature directly but it first could be processed by burning without oxygen to form charcoal.  Charcoal burning does sustain a high temperature for ironwork, but great amounts of wood are needed in its manufacture.  As the wood supply from forests in England diminished to support this activity, coal became a substitute that continued the Industrial Revolution with the positive feedback of coal needed for iron, iron needed for steam engines to pump water from mines, steam engines need to mine coal.

Without oil, one energy source that might have been developed is hydropower.  The first electricity generating plant was based on turning generators using the water from Niagara Falls.  Perhaps an all-electric economy could have formed but the amount of energy that can be extracted from dams is currently at about 6%.  For transportation, batteries would have to be developed early instead of the internal combustion engine.  In fact, some early cars did run on batteries, but the infrastructure and storage were not capable of competing against oil.

Could wind have supplied more power like the one we see today? Wind had been used by wind mills for mechanical purposes such as grinding grain and pumping water. Other uses of wind included the use in transportation especially by ship. Could the transition be made from the early windmill technology of the Turks, Dutch and Cistercians into the more modern technology that we see today for electricity generation?

The end result is that it would be more difficult to transition from one sustainable energy technology to another more advanced set of technologies without the use of fossil fuel in-between while the advanced renewable technologies are developed.

How might have oil not have formed? It does take special conditions to form oil and other fossil fuels such as the ability for plant and plankton material to be relatively stable against decomposition before it gets buried and stored.  The evolution of plant structures during the Carboniferous period led the evolution organisms to decompose it.  However, during this evolution much more organic material survived until it had been buried, as others have called it the Earth’s indigestion period.  By burying the carbon without oxidizing it (leading to coal formation), the oxygen level in the atmosphere increased. According to the theory of a self-regulating Earth based on changes in the atmosphere to keep certain properties like surface temperature constant despite the increasing energy output of the sun.  About 400 million years ago carbon was removed from the atmosphere to cool earth since the sun had become hotter.  Later oil formed mostly from plankton debris settling from shallow seas.

Fossil fuels, including oil, seem to be a gift that facilitates the transition of society from one simpler renewable energy society (subsistence agriculture) to another more technologically based with a higher standard of living. Whether and how this energy resource should be used in this transition is open to much debate.

So what do you think?