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Peak coal

Discussion in 'Earth and Environmental Science' started by Yellow Fang, 27 Mar 2012.

  1. Yellow Fang

    Yellow Fang Veteran Geek

    Location:
    Reading
    I am reading The Coal Question by W Stanley Jevons, after whom Jevons Paradox is named. It's quite fascinating in places. He was writing in the 19C England, worried that once Britain had mined all her most accessible coal, we would lose our preeminent position in the world. When I was reading about peak oil, a common complaint was that the economists refused to understand that once the easy-to-extract oil had been produced, it could not be substituted by harder-to-extract oil. I'm not 100% convinced about that, but I suspect it is true for conventional oil. Anyway, Jevons was an economist who did understand engineering. The chapter I've just read has just been talking about how the improvements in steam engine efficiency led to greater coal consumption, not less. He discussed all the main steps in steam engine design, the Savery engine, Newcomen, Watt. This is sort of stuff we did in history at school but a lot of it must have been recent history to him. He's just been discussing thermodynamics, although he did not call it that. He was also speculating that air engines would prove to be more economic than steam engines, and would thus take over. He was thinking of Stirling engines, but I suppose the internal combustion engine is a type of air engine. Jevon's does not seem to have predicted the ICE, and I don't think he predicted oil either, but I will soon find out as the next chapter is on subsitution. It's interesting to compare how things panned out with his worries. Of course, Great Britain did lose her pre-eminent position to the United States, which was what Jevons suspected would happen. Production of coal in Britain peaked in 1913, and now most of our mines are closed. An awful lot of our heavy manufacturing has gone, but was this really due to the cost of coal? I thought it was more to do with the cost of labour. And was the result that we all got poorer? Undoubtably not, on average we're much better off than we were in the 19C.
     
  2. amusicsite

    amusicsite dn ʎɐʍ sᴉɥ┴ Staff Member

    Location:
    UK
    I think our fall from the top was mainly due to the two big European wars in the 20th C. It took us quite a while to recover from them after the deaths and destruction.

    The peak oil v hard to get oil is complex. Most people think we are in the peak oil period. The hard to get stuff, which there is quite a bit of, is typically not cost effective to extract. Then again with the price of oil doubling at an increasingly rapid rate it opens up more possible fields.

    I think it's prudent not to take it all out in one go. If we had carried on trying to produce all our own coal then we would probably really have no coal left.

    Coal/ steam was a good source because you could have easily changed the fuel to wood, although I guess you would need much more of it.

    Today it's much more about rare earth minerals. Which are used a lot in micro electronics and batteries. Though I guess you are much more likely to find sources of them outside our planet than coal and oil which need organics to produce them.
     
  3. Yellow Fang

    Yellow Fang Veteran Geek

    Location:
    Reading
    This is one of the points Jevons makes. He didn't think Britain would actually run out of coal, just that it would become too expensive to extract because other nations' reserves would be easier to mine. He was concerned from a nationalistic point of view. Peak oil is slightly different in that it is global, not national.

    You can't really replace coal with wood. Wood is less energy dense and we couldn't grow enough to satisfy our current energy demands. I don't think wood could have satisfied the energy demand during the Industrial Revolution. I seem to remember we were rather low in woodland even then due to all the military ship building during the Napoleanic Wars.

    I don't know much about rare earth minerals, but at least with they can be recycled; fossil fuels can't be.
     
  4. amusicsite

    amusicsite dn ʎɐʍ sᴉɥ┴ Staff Member

    Location:
    UK
    Also as proved in the north sea this week and off the American coast last year. Hard to get at oil/gas = hard to fix if there is a problem.

    I was half joking with the wood for coal thing, it its possible but not practical. At least you can grow more trees. You can't (easily) grow more oil/ coal.
     
  5. Yellow Fang

    Yellow Fang Veteran Geek

    Location:
    Reading
    Jevons wrote that wood could not substitute coal even back in 1866. He said you'd need a forest two and a half times the size of UK to match the coal we were mining annually back then. Mind-boggling! I don't understand how there could be so much. The earth must be honeycombed in some parts.
     
  6. amusicsite

    amusicsite dn ʎɐʍ sᴉɥ┴ Staff Member

    Location:
    UK
    Then again some people these days think bio-fuels are the answer to running out of crude oil. Which has got to need a similar level of production to replace the oil.

    I would also think that the amount of wood needed in 1866 would be quite different to nowadays as we have learnt a bit about optimising engines and are using lighter weight materials. Not like that would be enough to make it viable though. Renewable seem the only truly... well renewable source of energy as long as the sun keeps shining, the wind keeps blowing and the moon continues to orbit the Earth.

    It is quite amazing that all this billions of tons of resources under the ground were once organic matter and have been changed over millions of years.
     
  7. Yellow Fang

    Yellow Fang Veteran Geek

    Location:
    Reading
    I've finished the book now and lent it to my supervisor. She said she used to be very interested in coal and had lots of books on it, but had to leave them behind when she moved here. She said Marie Stokes used to do lots of research on coal before becoming interested becoming interested in sex and family planning.
     
  8. Yellow Fang

    Yellow Fang Veteran Geek

    Location:
    Reading
    I suppose biofuel derived from algae might possibly make some contribution. I went to an IMechE meeting once in which they suggested biofuel could supply aircraft and shipping, while something else, electric batteries or fuel cells maybe, could supply land transport. I could see genetically modified algae being a potential source of biofuel. You could grow it in saltwater tanks stretched over Arizona, or somewhere low populated and deserty.
     
  9. amusicsite

    amusicsite dn ʎɐʍ sᴉɥ┴ Staff Member

    Location:
    UK
  10. amusicsite

    amusicsite dn ʎɐʍ sᴉɥ┴ Staff Member

    Location:
    UK