CalTech Scientist Discusses Replacing Our Dependence on Oil

This article is adapted from a presentation by Caltech vice provost and professor of physics and applied physics David Goodstein:

So, what does the future hold? Well, for one thing, there will be an oil crisis very soon. Whether that means it has already begun or won’t happen until later in this decade or sometime in the next decade, I don’t know. In my view, the numbers are not dependable enough for us to say. However, while the difference between those estimates may be very important to us, it’s of no importance at all on the timescale of human history. Either we, our children, or perhaps our grandchildren, are in for some very, very bad times. If we turn to all the other fossil fuels and burn them up as fast as we can, they will all probably start to run out by the end of the 21st century. Assuming that our planet remains habitable after such a vast consumption binge, we will have to invent a way to live without fossil fuels. (See sidebar “Too Hot To Handle?”)

How about hydrogen? Both President Bush and California governor Schwarzenegger have publicly embraced hydrogen as a solution to our fuel problems. But there are only two commercially viable ways of making hydrogen. One is to make it out of methane, which is a fossil fuel. The other is to use fossil fuel to generate the electricity that you need to electrolyze water and get hydrogen. The economics of doing that are such that you end up using the equivalent of six gallons of gasoline to make enough hydrogen to replace one gallon of gasoline. So this solution is not a winner in the short run. In the long run, if the problem of harnessing thermonuclear fusion can be solved and we have more power than we know what to do with, you could use that form of energy to make hydrogen for mobile fuel. I’ll get to that a little later.

There is also wind power, which many now see as a viable energy alternative. And it is, but only to a limited extent. In regions like northern Europe, where fossil fuels are very expensive and the wind is really strong, wind power will someday come to rival hydroelectric power as a source of energy. But there are relatively few places on earth where the wind blows strongly and steadily enough for it to be a dependable energy source, and people don’t really like wind farms—they’re ugly and they’re noisy. Wind power will always be a part of the solution. But it’s not a magic bullet. It’s not going to save us.

In recent years, the debate over nuclear power has revived, with proponents maintaining that we can find environmentally sound and politically acceptable ways to deal with the waste and security hazards. But even assuming that to be true, the potential is limited. To produce enough nuclear power to equal the power we currently get from fossil fuels, you would have to build 10,000 of the largest possible nuclear power plants. That’s a huge, probably nonviable initiative, and at that burn rate, our known reserves of uranium would last only for 10 or 20 years.

As things stand today, the only possible substitutes for our fossil-fuel dependency are light from the sun and nuclear energy. Developing a way of running a civilization like ours on those resources is an enormous challenge. A great deal of it is social and political—we’re in the midst of a presidential election, and have you heard either party say a word about this extremely important subject? But there are also huge technical problems to be solved. So, you might well ask, what can Caltech do to help?

The ultimate solution to our energy problem would be to master the power of controlled thermonuclear fusion, which we’ve been talking about doing for more than half a century. The solution has been 25 years away for the past 50 years, and it is still 25 years away. Beyond those sobering statistics, there are at least five or six schemes for harnessing fusion energy that I know of.

The fact that these and similar scientific and technical efforts are under way at Caltech and elsewhere are encouraging, but they are not enough. What we really need is leadership with the courage and vision to talk to us as John F. Kennedy did in 1960, when he pledged to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade. It’s the same kind of problem. We understand the basic underlying scientific principles, but we have huge technical problems to overcome.

If our leaders were to say to the scientific and technical community, “We will give you the resources, and you—right now, even before it becomes imperative—will find a way to kick the fossil-fuel habit,” I think that it could be done. But we have to have the political leadership to make it work.


via Jamais Cascio