Fuel: Energy and growth without sacrifice?

We all know what fuel is. Almost literally to the point that none of us actually knows what fuel is. Like the colour red, or microwaves, or bread (my condolences to people with Celiac disease). It’s such a pervasive part of our lives that we barely even question it anymore.

But that’s a problem as having that big a blind spot in our understanding of the world leaves us open to all sorts of misconceptions about how we need to go about replacing this vital portion of our lives. So here’s the fun part for me, because no matter what you were thinking of whenever I mentioned fuel, you probably weren’t all thinking the same thing, and no matter what you were thinking it’s highly unlikely that your definition was actually encompassing all that should be.

Now to prevent me from sounding too cryptic, fuel is simply any material that has stored energy in it that can be used at some desired point in time. So that includes things like gasoline, wood, coal, uranium, methane, ethylene, bread, sugar, hydrogen, burgers, sushi, and love handles just to name a few.

I’m not fat, I’m fuel efficient!

What I think the most important thing about fuel is is that it can be transported from where it is made to where it is used. I say it is the most important because if we couldn’t transport it then practically our entire civilization wouldn’t exist. Fuels have allowed us to stop using our own muscles, animals or location locked waterwheels to do the work that is needed to feed ourselves and build all the components that lock together as the puzzle pieces of civilization.

This is actually a pretty foundational idea that got me into nuclear. The idea that finding how to harness fuels allowed us to break free from the necessity of using people to do our work for us. I wish I was eloquent enough to put this into words properly but instead I will simply share words that convinced me that nuclear was the way forward for humanity

Now, some of you might be hard of hearing, or maybe just don’t want to watch a video for whatever reason so I’m going to re-emphasize that clip.

“Every time mankind been able to access a new source of energy it has led to profound societal implications. You know, the Industrial Revolution and the ability to use chemical fuels was what finally did in slavery. Human beings had slaves for thousands and thousands of years. And when we learned how to make carbon our slave instead of other human beings we started to learn how to be able to be civilized people.”

Kirk Sorensen

Now unfortunately Kirk wasn’t quite right, slavery still exists even today. But it Was the first time that a viable alternative to slavery as a means of production for the entire world was shown to be possible. And beyond bringing about the beginning of the end of slavery, some other things that were brought about by learning how to harness the energy of chemical fuels include: industrial fertilizers that allow everyone to eat, machinery for household chores that gave households enough leisure time to help kickstart the feminist movement, and a growth in individual productivity that led to the society wide viewing of education as a right and necessity for all members of society rather than just those who could afford it.

Sure, that last one was driven by the sudden excess of people than what was needed to run the economy at the time, coupled with an opportunity to train people in the necessary skills to design more efficient machines to drive economic productivity to new heights. I’m not saying that more energy magically makes people saints, merely that we gained so much from our harnessing of fuels that was simply unthinkable prior to it. We also began a large scale migration to urban centers that necessitated the rapid improvements in the fields of sanitation and public health that allow us to raise the average expected lifespan past the ripe old age of “died in childbirth”.

But there’s a problem with our current fuels. Namely that we need an absolutely insane amount of them. We are ripping into the world at a pace that resembles nothing more accurately than a colony of meth addicted termites. We mine tens of billions of tonnes of earth every year in pursuit of fuels to power our homes and industries. Now some people say that we can harvest wind or solar energy and convert it into fuels like hydrogen for our use. Sadly, Entropy is the most relentless of taxmen, it always takes its due at every step. And when you start having to mine materials to make the farms to collect the energy to create the fuel to power the vehicles to mine the materials to make the farms to… Suffice to say an Ouroborous is not an ideal mascot for a civilizations energy sources. But there is a solution, and that lies in the amount of energy that the fuels we choose to use contain. Wait a second, didn’t I just say that to make fuels with a lot of energy, you need to spend even more energy to make them?

I think what made this should count as more than enough energy. Thank you Hubble Space Telescope for the fantastic image.

Now I know it sounds simple when you say it out loud, but when you can get more energy out of the same amount of material then you need less of it to do the same amount of work. So what about when the difference isn’t a mere few percent more, twice as much, or even ten times as much? What about when the difference is Millions of times as much energy?

Once again thanks to Randal Munroe and his awesome comic at xkcd.com for this image

This is such an insane difference that even if the concentrations of material were horrendously tiny, low single digit parts per million, we would Still have to mine less material to get the same amount of energy that we currently use from it. But then you have a mine like Cigar Lake or MacArthur River in Saskatchewan Canada where the amount of fuel can be more than 1/5 of the total material mined? It sounds impossible and most people, me included, end up just flatly rejecting the idea at first. But it means that it is possible to have to mine Millions of times less material to supply ourselves with energy. It’s like saying that the entire output of a major city can be done by a single person. It stretches the bounds of credulity and there is a reason for this.

Remember how I said at the beginning that we are all so accustomed to what fuel is and what it entails that we don’t actually Realize what it is and what it entails? We are so used to “fuel” that we immediately think of things like this:

or a little closer to home in Alberta like this:

McArthur River, Saskatchewan. Enough energy to run the Planet for decades without tearing it to shreds to get it.

So when people are told that all the energy made from everything ever mined from All of those pictures can be replaced by what is under This mine in Saskatchewan they, quite fairly, scoff at that idea. We are so ingrained in the fact that Fuel takes huge amounts of work to make and extract and thus it is Always a bad thing. It’s like when kids in North America learn for the first time that Christmas in Australia is during their summer. At first there is confusion, then some denial because Christmas is in December and all they have ever known is that mom always makes them wear their snow pants and jacket in December even though they aren’t that cold Mom! But then, as they get the explanations for why the seasons are flipped due to the earths being a sphere (that’s right flat-earthers, fight me) and how it’s tilted axis wobbles the light bulb upstairs clicks on for them. I’m interested to see what happens when society finally has this lightbulb moment about how much better for the environment nuclear energy is.

Now sure you might not be able to run your car with nuclear fuel, and if anyone tells you otherwise I recommend backing away from them slowly and not making any threatening moves. But with hilariously abundant clean energy, who knows what is actually possible? Right now the two front runners are batteries vs. synfuels, but maybe fuel cells will sneak in there as a dark horse and potentially even something no one has thought would work because it takes too much energy to do? The future is a wild place full of possibilities and I for one can’t wait to see what is out there in our clean nuclear future.

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