The Stone Age didn’t end because they ran out of stones

Oil Well in Saudi Arabia, picture from Fast Company

I was reading today about the petrol produced by Air Fuel Synthesis, a small start-up company, from CO2 extracted from the atmosphere combined with Hydrogen cracked from water. This is obviously quite clever of them, and they are not alone.

Work done at Princeton University in the US to make methanol from CO2 , published in 1994 has more recently been refined and spun into a company called Liquid Light that is aiming to do the same thing.

In Iceland, Carbon Recycling International opened a plant at the end of 2011 drawing waste CO2 from a power station, with capacity to produce five million litres of methanol per year. (Facts from BBC here, other news sources are available).

What they are doing is using a source of power to “uncombust”, taking CO2 from the atmosphere, so that we can then combust it again and put it back. If this is done with renewable energy that is not otherwise required (Wind / Tidal energy produced at night for instance) it may be able to be made into an effective and efficient store of energy for when it is required.

Since the 1970’s people have been predicting the end of the Oil Age and we are always being told that we have passed “Peak Oil”, only for more to be found.  However, producing petrol, because that’s what our current cars use is surely tying us back to 20th century technology, why not use the same energy sources to produce Hydrogen as our energy store.  The coming age of Hydrogen, powering fuel cells in our cars and CHP (Combined heat & power) units in our homes, factories and offices has been just over the horizon for the last 20 years or so. Technically this is the most elegant solution envision-able being clean and carbon neutral at the point of use, and universal in application. It is also technically feasible with presently available technology. Countries with few natural resources but lots of sunshine and a supply of fresh water (Or a coastline) could become self-sufficient in energy and even net exporters of Hydrogen, using solar powered crackers. So what’s stopping us? I think the answer lies not with a lack of technology, but with the fiscal and political impact it would have.

Governments all over the world take considerable chunks of their revenue from motor fuel at a much higher rate than they take from domestic fuel and electricity. If we are all to have Hydrogen piped to our homes for our CHP plants, taxed at this lower rate, how will they enforce a higher rate on identical Hydrogen for use in cars? Tricky, but not a show-stopper.

It is dwarfed by the geopolitical impact of the collapse of the oil economy over a period of, say, 20 years. The countries whose massive (and only significant) source of income is obtained by letting foreigners come into their country, remove oil from beneath it, and pay a tax for the privilege would have to transition into completely different sources of trade and wealth. It is difficult to see this being done easily or at all well. Disruption and disputation in many of these areas is already rife and could only get worse.

Twenty years may just be enough time for the UK to benefit from fracking gas from Morecambe Bay, and may even be enough for Ireland to have its own offshore oil boom. It won’t be anywhere near enough for countries whose whole economy is based on the production of oil to transition to something new with the same level of national income.

So, we won’t come to the end of the Oil Age because we run out of Oil, or because we supplant it with something better. We will come to the end of the Oil age when we can see a way for the world to make the transition peacefully. This may take a while.

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