Sunday, May 3, 2009

Sunday morning thoughts

Why is petroleum in everything? What caused this?

Crude oil and petro-chemical refining having become the ancient-buffalo of our modern existence. The critical sustainer of our people. Its often mentioned but rarely considered. How has it grown to dominate as the most important touchstone of every bit of Earth's technology?

A barrel of crude petroleum has 42 gallons. In this barrel more than 42 gallons of useful products is fabricated as they crack, reform and construct the most useful components of 21st century life. The petro-chemicals that make us modern. Like magic, more is made with less every year.

Why is there such a drive to push every petroleum molecule further in its use to our civilization? Or better yet - How! How is it that from acrylic fabrics, to the plastics everywhere, and the power that drives the creation of everything around you is derived from a barrel of crude?

Little is considered about how. How this creative expansion of the hydrocarbon successfully moved us thousands of years into the future in a matter of decades. That in one generation many families that actually relied on horses progress forward, defining a show of wealth by horse power under the hood.

Why did it rise to prominence as a source of heat, transport and power? How did it become the touchstone of what separates the iron age with that of modern history. Petroleum is the critical difference between a coven of scientist debating the moon and an actually cadre of scientists flying forward to touch the moon's surface. All propelled upward by the brilliance the hydrocarbon allows us to harness.

The answer of course is easy. There was money to invest. That with each additional barrel came a complex issue of what to do with it. As money was made an obvious opportunity existed to make more with every unused molecule that came through a petroleum refinery.

First there was kerosene, the whale-oil replacement. Then there was gasoline, six grades of diesel, and then the chemicals beyond that. As the most brilliant and well funded researchers in the history of the private sector went to work so rose the prominence of oil.

But in easy answers there is a complexity. How to recreate it. How do we move beyond petroleum?

That is the question of our age. Just as the Dark Ages saw a quest for the Holy Grail where empires and nations gambled generational fortunes. We now face a new Holy Grail, a quest to replace the oil we burned yesterday before tomorow arrives.

Most look at oil's rise as a motor fuel. Its was cheap, readily available, and in such large quantities no one could ever fathom. The density of its energy content was superior to any solid or gas fuel of it's time. And then there is the reality that a liquid is easy to engineer systems to handle with ease.

There is also how clean it was at the dawn of modernity. Compared to wood or coal it significantly reduced the effort to handle and maintain.

As an example we can look at one simple example. That of heating oil.

Look at the evolution of heating systems. In the early part of the 20th century it was wood and coal that heated the boilers, furnaces and stoves in the US. A system that required regular stoking to maintain inefficient and unequal heat. Regular cleaning to keep the system from wearing itself out as the coke and ash unevenly wore on them.

Enter oil heat. A liquid fuel, delivered into a tank, moved to the furnace by a pump, capable of being fed in a controlled manner enabling the addition of a thermostat. Better yet, on a cold winter morning you didn't have to start the furnace's fire by hand. You just turned the system on. Talk about modern improvement.

Now look at the business model that drove oil heats rapid adoption in the US. It wasn't just the superiority of the technology but one other ingredient. Superior technology rarely alone moves an industry forward. It is another factor thrown into the market place that does so. The need for partners with a wider stake in a technology's success. Distribution.

Those who sold coal, wood and sawdust to residential heating customers had to deliver the products. The delivery of a solid like coal or wood took a man with a strong back. Hard work all day every day. It was these small vendors of heat that revolutionized the market.

If they could convert their customers furnaces from a solid fuel to oil heat they would just pump a product into their tank. This is where technology progresses. As the sawdust and coal delivery companies swapped out the burner on the existing furnace upgrading them to oil.

Shortly after developing oil heat markets these same companies expanded offering other oil products as well. From gas stations to motor oil supply. They were partners with oil refiners in serving, building, and expanding the use of their products. A long expanded chain of small businesses that grew with America and established the standards that now define the petroleum business today.

And this is where the difference exists. The difference between petroleum's dominance as a required element of all products and other potential substitutes. Petroleum is the easy substitute of what came before. It also provided growth to these partners in supply.

Petroleum's history is one of research and development driven by cash flow. It also has developed deep penetrated niches around its products. I question the logic of a paradigm shifting technology. Petroleum didn't build its dominance by shifting paradigms. They did so by building a small niche that made sense. Rapidly building market share within that niche. Then leveraging that success to further research and develop its next value added product.

Petroleum has not been an industry of energy, heat or transportation. It has been one of inventors and marketers who provide solutions to other industries they serve. If you take this perspective and look around you see plenty of next-generation technologies already being used.

Understand that the future is all around - its the politicians, academics, and drive-by-policy that now stand in the way.

1 comment:

Carpool Crew said...

I believe at the very heart of capitalism's need for "more more more" are wives cracking whips behind their husbands' arses.

We have become accustomed to levels of modern living, and some people find it hard to romanticize composting toilets.