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Beyond Sustainable Economy: Chemical Non-renewable Energy Sources

Published: 26.08.2017

Fossil fuels[1]

Photosynthesis is the process whereby plants, algae and certain species of bacteria convert carbon dioxide (CO2) (from the atmosphere) and water (from the ground), with the help of sunlight, into sugars (carbohydrates) and oxygen (released as waste). The photosynthetic conversion of solar radiation into stored biomass energy has a very low efficiency - just 2% for the most efficient plants in Europe (MacKay, 2009, 43). Although biomass itself has a low energy density, fossil fuels such as coal, oil and natural gas are highly concentrated stores of photosynthetic energy.

Due to the enormous amount of geologic energy invested in their formation, fossil fuel deposits are an extraordinarily concentrated source of high-quality energy, commonly extracted with power densities of 102 or 103 W/m2 of coal or hydrocarbon fields. This means that very small land areas are needed to supply enormous energy flows. In contrast, biomass energy production has densities well below 1 W/m2... (Cleveland, 2011)

[Fossil fuels, especially oil, can be said to be the biggest burden on the health of the planet and are held responsible for global warming as a result of adding CO2, carbon dioxide, to the atmosphere, some other remarks must be made also - if only for the sake of scientific objectiveness.] Fossil fuels formed from dead plants and animals in the earth's crust over millions of years. Fossil fuels are considered nonrenewable resources because reserves are being depleted much faster than new ones are being made. Based on proven reserves at the end of 2009 and production in that year, it is estimated that coal will last another 119 years, oil 46 years, and natural gas 64 years (BP, 2010). [Fossil fuels cannot last forever, but significant in this context] is the ongoing discovery of very ancient and continental rocks in the world oceans. These finds, along with various other lines of geological and geophysical evidence, indicate that large areas of the present ocean floors were once continents. [Especially under the enormous parts of the ocean floor which were once continental, huge resources of fossil fuels are and may still be found in the coming years.] The big oil companies are just now working on it, and seem to be full of confidence.

In 2009 fossil fuels accounted for about 87.7% of the world's primary energy consumption: petroleum 34.8%, coal 29.3%, natural gas 23.7%. Hydroelectric accounted for 6.3%, nuclear 5.4%, and other sources (solar, tidal, geothermal, wind, wood, waste) less than 1%. World energy consumption grew at an average of about 2.8% per year from 1999 to 2008 but fell by 1.1% in 2009 as a result of the global economic recession (BP, 2010). [These numbers have not significantly changed since 2009, despite oncoming world-wide discussions on the disadvantages of fossil fuels.] The reason for the continued dominance of coal and hydrocarbons is that they can provide reliable power from relatively small areas, at affordable prices and in the enormous quantities required.

Every source of energy production takes a toll on the environment and the aim should be to minimize it. The combustion of fossil fuels releases air pollutants, such as nitrogen oxides (NOx), sulphur dioxide, volatile organic compounds, and heavy metals. [Thus they impact health, general well-feeling, and local and broad-scale ecology.] It also releases carbon monoxide, which is highly toxic, and carbon dioxide, which is nontoxic  However, carbon dioxide is also seen, through the so-called greenhouse effect - meaning that more warmth is kept in the atmosphere than is radiated out into space - [as the main human induced culprit of global warming and all its consequences.] In addition, fossil fuel burning generates sulphuric, carbonic, and nitric acids, which fall to earth as acid rain. [Acid rain causes trees and forest to lose health and even die - eventually forcing nature to replace existing plant and tree species which are more acid-loving. It also causes lakes to acidify, which can have a lethal influence on a number of life forms.] And it releases radioactive materials, notably uranium and thorium.


Coal-fired plants emit mercury, lead, chromium and arsenic, which are very damaging if ingested in sufficient quantities. Exposure to mercury, a neurotoxin, has been linked to higher risks of autism, impaired cognition, and neurodegenerative disorders (e.g. Alzheimer's disease). In the US, coal-fired power plants emit an estimated 41-48 tons of mercury per year, but this accounts for less than 0.5% of all the mercury in the air we breathe. For comparison: US forest fires emit at least 44 tons per year, cremation of human remains discharges 26 tons, Chinese power plants eject 400 tons, and volcanoes, subsea vents, geysers and other sources spew out another 9000-10,000 tons per year (wmbriggs.com). The long-term effects of air pollution from large-scale coal combustion are highly uncertain: estimates of the number of premature deaths caused by emissions from a 1 gigawatt coal-fired power plant range from 0.07 to 400,000 (Smil, 2008a, 350). [Thus coal has a very unfavorable 'ahimsa-index']. 

The dense smog that coal burning once caused in western cities is now plaguing industrializing countries, such as China, where 16 of the world's 20 most polluted cities are located. It seems that a country only begins to seriously tackle air pollution once it reaches a certain level of prosperity. Many coal plants now 'scrub' the smoke coming out of their stacks to remove sulphur and fly ash; the millions of tonnes of fly ash and sulphate-rich scrubber sludge used to be land filled, but nowadays a large proportion is put to various uses in agriculture and industry.

Coal mining techniques such as strip mining and mountaintop removal are cheaper than underground mining but result in huge swaths of blighted landscape. More than 1 million acres of Appalachian mountains and forest have been leveled in the US since the mid-1990s, with the connivance of Congress (Bryce, 296). [It should be remarked here, along the side-line, that from a Jain ethic point of view 'digging in the earth' is not desirable.

[The above, apart from its non-renewability, make use of coal a major source of health hazards (smog, smell, breathing problems, esthetics of the environments in which people live, adverse effects on tourism industry) reduces human, animal and plant life quality in general. Coal mining is dangerous for those who work in that industry - much more so than in most other established energy production activities that are becoming generally more unpopular.]

[Modern] integrated gasification combined cycle (IGCC) technology turns coal into gas (syngas) and removes impurities, resulting in lower emissions of sulphur dioxide, particulates (fine particles, such as soot), and mercury. Excess heat from the primary combustion and generation passes to a steam cycle, resulting in improved efficiency compared to conventional pulverized coal. The main problem facing IGCC is its extremely high capital cost.

Despite all its negative characteristics, coal continues to be used on a vast scale for a simple reason: cost. In the developing nations in particular, coal-fired power plants are often the most affordable option for power generation, especially in countries with large coal reserves, like China, India, and Indonesia. As soon as possible, everything should be done to reduce or even completely stop the digging of the earth for coal harvesting and the use of coal for fuel. As we will see there are enough alternatives nowadays - even and especially for economically less developed countries; still we see that countries like India, serving local interests and demands, rather increase than reduce the use as coal for fuel. It would not be necessary.


Oil is commonly regarded as a dirty fuel that is polluting the air and water and destroying the planet. Extracting, transporting, processing and burning oil can certainly have many harmful effects on humans and the environment - through oil spills, air pollution, and accidents at refineries, pipelines and drilling rigs, etc. It is, however, superior to coal in nearly every respect - it has a higher energy density and power density, burns more cleanly, is easier to transport, and its uses are virtually limitless (for instance, hydrocarbons are essential feedstocks for plastics and industrial chemicals). For all its problems, oil provides unprecedented mobility, comfort and convenience. It supplies the fuel for the two prime movers in the modern industrialized world: the diesel engine and jet turbine, which came into widespread use in the 1950s and 60s. Global commerce depends on global transportation, and the latter depends almost exclusively on oil. Oil's share of the primary energy market has declined from 48% in 1973 to 35% in 2008, but the world will continue using it for a long time to come (Bryce, 207), i.e. if it chooses to continue along present lines.


Over the past few years the estimated recoverable natural gas resources worldwide have risen sharply, partly due to a surge in new natural gas liquefaction capacity and to improved technologies that can extract vast quantities of gas from shale deposits. New gas reserves are being found even faster than new oil reserves. In 2009 the International Energy Agency (IEA, 2009, 49) estimated recoverable global gas resources at about 850 trillion cubic metres - enough for 280 years at the current global rate of consumption (Bryce, 8). European countries see the shale gas revolution as an opportunity to reduce their dependence on Russian gas.

Natural gas (methane) is cleaner than oil and coal. During combustion, it releases no particulates, nor does it release significant quantities of serious pollutants such as sulphur dioxide or nitrogen oxides. It emits about half as much CO2 as coal. CO2. Producing gas from coal beds, tight sands, and shale deposits does, however, require large numbers of wells to be drilled fairly close together. And like the oil industry, the gas industry has caused cases of groundwater contamination.

The best single-cycle gas turbines - which discharge their hot gas - can convert about 42% of their fuel to electricity, whereas combined-cycle gas turbines use the turbines' hot exhaust gases to generate steam for a steam turbine, enabling them to convert as much as 60% - making them the most efficient electricity generators. Thanks to their compactness, mobile gas turbines generate electricity with power densities higher than 15 kW/m2 and large (>100 MW) stationary set-ups can easily deliver 4-5 kW/m2 (Smil, 2010b, 8-10).

Electric cars

To reduce hydrocarbon use, several governments are introducing incentives to promote the sale of electric vehicles, which do not emit CO2 or tailpipe pollutants, though the electricity they consume may of course have been produced from fossil fuels. At present, all-electric cars are still hampered by limited range, slow recharge rates, and lack of recharging stations. Although their refueling costs are low, the high cost of their battery packs makes them significantly more expensive than conventional internal combustion engine vehicles and hybrid electric vehicles (which combine an internal combustion engine with electric propulsion). Ongoing advancements in battery technology will make electric vehicles more viable. [The Tesla company in California has in the last few years brought expensive hi-comfort lithium-ion battery based electric cars on the market - at present mainly available for the wealthy. The Tesla Roadstar, which costs more than USD 100,000, can run distances of some a little less than 400 km without recharging, have astounding acceleration properties and a sufficiently high cruise speed, low noise production, and is gearless, plus it has all the gadgets that one would want in a luxury car. Still sales expectations for 2015 are no more than 50,000 world wide - not yet a break-through. Disadvantage is the long recharging time: 12 hours from a normal household plug, though charging can be reduced to 3 to 4 hours - still very long compared to the 3 or 4 minutes needed for tanking petrol, LPG or ethanol. 400 km on a run is not enough to reach from, say LA to San Francisco one-way, or make a return trip from Jaipur to Delhi. So for now it seems to be a car for the rich in small countries who in daily life do not make too may miles a day. A possible option may be to remove parts of the battery for recharging regularly, and replace it within minutes by a recharged unit.] And further improvements might come from using ultracapacitors[2] for storing electricity.]

Gasoline holds 80 times as many watt-hours per kilogram as a lithium-ion battery, and ethanol holds more than 50 times as many (Bryce, 190). However, internal combustion engines are fairly inefficient at converting on-board fuel energy to propulsion as most of the energy is wasted as heat; they use only 15% of the fuel energy content to move the vehicle or to power accessories, while diesel engines can reach an on-board efficiency of 20%. Electric vehicles have on-board efficiency of around 80%, they do not consume energy while at rest or coasting, and regenerative braking can capture as much as one-fifth of the energy normally lost during braking (en.wikipedia.org).

Another proposal is hydrogen cars. BMW's Hydrogen 7 car requires 2,2 times more energy than an average European car. The all-electric Tesla Roadster is 10 times more energy-efficient than the Hydrogen 7. There are estimates that Hydrogen powered cars may be on the market around 2030.

Diesel and gasoline vehicles are not overly reliant on elements such as neodymium and lanthanum, whereas these are critical ingredients in making hybrid and electric vehicles (Bryce, 199). China has a virtual monopoly on the world's supply of neodymium and other lanthanides (or 'rare earths'), which have special magnetic properties. As well as being used in batteries, these elements are essential commodities in solar panels, wind turbines, and computers. About 90% of the world's lithium, an essential element in high-capacity batteries, comes from just three countries: Argentina, Chile and China.

[So, besides being non-renewable, the rarity of these chemical elements would make humanity land in a situation of commercial and political dependence that is even narrower than is the case at present with the oil producing countries - and that may to lead to wars, suppression, human rights misuse, poverty (i.e. increasing distance between rich and poor) an terrorism, as we see at present.  However, if the Chinese would go for it, they can become the world's leading car producer - and if they can do this for a price comparable to or less then oil-dependent cars, much of the fossil fuel problem would be solved. The Chinese are already the most important producers of solar panels.]

Is there a future for fossil fuels?

- Rudi Jansma

Curtailing the use of oil is therefore directly linked to curtailing our greed. But we can not expect humanity to do totally away with cars and airplanes, even for ethical reasons: communication and cultural exchange are values that enhance knowledge, wisdom and -hopefully - brotherhood. So every should be done - besides in the fields of ethics and psychology to turn to alternatives for oil and coal (and other burning materials, fossil or fossil-derived gas, biomass, ethanol - each of them having their own story).  So, that within visible future it may be reduced to zero or be abandoned completely. This reduction can be done, to begin with, in the field of surface transportation and house-warming and more easily even for industrial energy provision. For air transport there seems to be no viable alternative for oil as yet. Perhaps we should develop more high-speed and high-quality (electric) railway networks. Hydrogen powered locomotives might become an option in the future. Especially the US, which is far behind other countries in this respect, with its enormous stretches of flat lands, a very-high-speed rail network with hi-tech low air-resistance trains between the hearts of big cities and other networks for commuting on shorter distances could become a successful competitor with air travel.

In principle, if completely pure, oil-derived fuels are the cleanest one can think of as compared with other fuels. The main component of gasoline is octane - which exists only of hydrogen, and carbon atoms. This also applies to other pure fuels, such as propane (LPG), butane, and ethanol (which contains oxygen also) and a few others. When burned completely their only output, apart from 'power', is water and carbon dioxide. What makes fuel poisonous, stinking and polluting are its impurities, i.e. mainly chemicals containing sulphur and nitrogen, and also added chemical substances like led. The directly daily experienced nuisance of the use of fossil fuels in cars, airplanes, house warming etc. are its side products, either due to these chemicals or imperfect burning. Pure octane etc. would, when completely, burned, only deliver clean water and pure carbon dioxide, no soot, no smoke, no smells. One could then safely and rather soundly sleep next to an exhaust pipe (Well, not too close of course, due to the lowered oxygen content - carbon dioxide instead - of the exhaust air.). Thus fossil oil as well as biofuels are in principle the very purest sources of energy in nature.

There is much talk about possible hydrogen cars today, which produce only water as exhaust. In Norway a large scale project is under way to make hydrogen cars feasible and useful over longer distances. But hydrogen first has to produced out of water, for which huge amounts of external energy are needed - in fact one has to put in the same amount of energy in water hydrolysis as comes out of it when the hydrogen is recombined, i.e. burnt, with oxygen from the surrounding air of the cars that use it.  If fossil fuels are used for the production of hydrogen, we have not made even one step forward - on the contrary! Then hydrogen has to be compressed, and the tanks have to be extremely strong for safety reasons, while special fuel stations which are technically quite different from gasoline and LPG filling stations have to be installed along the highway. Another system could be developed in which cars are uploading while driving from a rail in or along the road in special upload lanes, like trams, metros and trolleybuses from the ground or by cables, or by electrical induction, as is now only in an experimental stage (e.g. at BMW) in stationary situations, like inside a garage. We would avoid  carbon dioxide production along the highway, but release an even higher amount elsewhere. This problem would not apply if the electricity for the cars is strictly derived from clean sources.

Chemically the burning of pure fossil and bio fuels is the same as the direct burning of hydrogen. In both cases it is hydrogen ions bound to another ion that have to released from their bond and connected with oxygen ions. In both cases water, H2O, is the product, and also the energy output per 2 H+ + 1 O2- reaction is the same. So, ironically, the use of fossil fuel is just as efficient - but much easier - then making the detour of the 'difficult' hydrolysis process needed for pure hydrogen cars.

So the first problem is: how to make fossil based vehicle fuel completely pure. The second problem is - what to do with the CO2?

CO2 - in itself a non-poisonous normal gaseous component of the atmosphere, although only as about 0,030% (now, after unnatural increase in the last 60 years of about 25 % it is 0,039%) of it, and indispensible for all life forms - has become baptized as the 'greenhouse gas'   Thus the name itself now sounds an evil note with the large public. It is held responsible for global warming and its possibly dire consequences. The last is only partially true. It seems indisputable that carbon dioxide rise has caused global rise of temperature and to irregularities in the behavior of the airs and waters of the earth with which we are not acquainted. But even in the last millennium there have been longer periods which were exceptionally warm - the Middle Ages, and exceptionally cold - the seventeenth century, without any link with fossil fuels. People and other life forms just had to adjust, and they did. No doubt species have died out and ecosystems have changed - they change all the time. In medium range geological history we have seen many ice-ages (the last one ending only about 10,000 years ago) and interglacial periods. In large scale geological history, there have been periods when large stretches of the Earth were frozen over, and other periods when the planet was largely covered by tropical forests. The earth and the solar system (and the wider cosmos) are not static things, they are constantly fluctuation in their orbits and climates due to a multitude of variables. But it is now feared by some that this unnatural (i.e. induced by the stupidity of the human species) rise of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere may reach to a level of irreversibility, and temperatures might rise to a level that all life becomes impossible and dies out. In fact, nobody knows, so everyone fiercely defends the standpoint that suits him best.

It seems that 1 degree Celsius rise in temperature would be 'acceptable' - we have already reached that point, but 2 degrees would lad to the melting of the gigantic quantities of permafrost in regions like Siberia, releasing huge amounts of methane (CH4) which is a very much larger contributor to the greenhouse effect than CO2. The effects are unpredictable - it happened before in geological history, long before the dawn of humanity - but no doubt it would change the whole outlook of the earth's surface and life-forms.

Anyway, it seems safer to curtail and stop the unnatural rise of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, or indeed any product of human greed. Everyone knows from his or her school days that plants absorb carbon dioxide and produce oxygen - that is how they build their bodies: wood and cellulose and all other organic components of plants and animals contain large amounts of carbon. This is all derived from carbon dioxide. Our bones and the shells of sea animals, corals, marble, mountains, cement and concrete are built of calcium carbonate - all derived from atmospheric carbon dioxide. So, nature is extremely well served with the enormous stocks of carbon. Carbon, if we may use that expression, is a most 'sacred' component of living and non-living phenomena on the planet without which nothing like we know today would exist - including ourselves. Nature has kept the dynamic balance of carbon dioxide and other atmospheric gases (as well as uncountable other so-called 'abiotic' factors, including oxygen) remarkably stable throughout geological history, despite the oddities of the orbits of the earth and the sun through many regions of space[3] and it would be almost weird to suppose that this whole system could be irreversibly damaged only by people driving cars. The oceans contain huge amounts of solved carbon dioxide. Few people in discussions realize that plants also produce carbon dioxide on a large scale, namely at night: they breath oxygen and produce carbon dioxide, and when they die all carbon comes back into the environment mainly into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide. The exposure to daylight on a yearly bases in all regions of the earth is exactly equal to the exposure to darkness.

Plants would be very happy to receive a little more CO2 and a little more daytime or sunlight to process it to build their bodies. If organized by humans, crops would produce more. So why not give them the CO2 from our exhaust pipes? If the exhaust is really clean - only giving water and carbon dioxide, fossil fuels can become directly beneficial for nature.

Carbon dioxide is a heavy gas, and therefore sinks to or stays mainly at the lowest layer of the atmosphere. That is where plants grow. So we should just build out highways a little above ground level, point our exhausts sideways and let the gas flow down in the land on the sides of the highways. If guided in a smart way, and while selecting the right crops, perhaps grown in greenhouses along the highway or even farther away to capture the CO2 in higher density - wherever the gas can be led - the gas can be directly useful for that vegetation. If this would be combined with electric lights (which get their electricity from renewable resources) burning a few hours after sunset, production could be higher. These lights can be of a type that produces only or mainly the wavelengths used by chlorophyll, thus not losing energy to useless (and disturbing) dispersed light in all directions and of unneeded wavelengths. Research should give information about the timing and wavelengths of the lights - not to overdo it and cause the plants to become 'tired' or 'exhausted.' All this is but 'fantasy' at the moment, still it is worth meditating on it.

Obviously this system would only work along busy highways; it would not work in deserts where traffic is usually low and no water is available, or on mountain slopes. It would not solve the problems in urbanized regions.  The best option seems to be to ban all combustion engines from cities and towns of more than, say, 100,000 inhabitants and make to use of electric cars compulsory. People could dry to the city outlets in their electric cars or public transport system, and then either proceed by electric train or by a classical, but extremely clean, car. This could be combined with an extensive and time-efficient electric car rental system at the entries of towns and cities. The only possible exception for non-electric cars to enter cities would be emergency services and good transports for which reloading would be economically not viable. However much of the last could be taken care of by specialized reloading companies, making use of standard containers of various sizes which can be easily transferred from one type of vehicle to another.

So, as long as electric cars have not solved their problems of relatively short range and long refueling time, and no better batteries have been developed to store the electricity chemically, there might still be a bright and pure future for fossil fuels and biofuels. It is obvious that the charging electricity for electric cars or their batteries should come from solar or other clean and inexhaustible energy sources.

Industrial carbon dioxide, which far surpasses carbon dioxide produced by traffic, could be caught and used for plant growth, instead of letting it escape into the atmosphere and thus enhancing the quantity of biomass production and useful crops. The gas could be led to greenhouses of to natural or artificial water bodies, where it would stimulate the growth of algae. 

What a fossil fuel future does not take away, of coarse, is the economic and political dependence on the money people and their private interests active in a limited number of countries who nowadays exert too much power over the material world. In this respect the sun can easily win the race: it shines everywhere and for always. However, some types of solar panels, including the most efficient ones, are dependent on so-called 'rare earths'[4]  Thin-film solar panels use rare metals like indium and tellurium, and rare earths are also used for LCD screens and electric car batteries - and are rapidly being depleted, while they are found only in very limited regions of the earth, first of all China: then again we face political and corporate-economical dependence.


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Title: Beyond Sustainable Economy
Author: Dr. Rudi Jansma, Dr. Sushma Singhvi
Publisher: Prakrit Bharati Academy

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