Sandia LabNews

Distinguished lecturer David Goodstein discusses concerns about the end of fossil fuels


Caltech professor David Goodstein spent most of his career thinking about condensed matter physics, but when he saw a June 2001 graphic in the Los Angeles Times predicting that oil production would peak by 2007, he became alarmed. “I wanted to know what I could do,” he said at the sixth California Truman Distinguished Lecture this month. “I’m just a physicist, so I wrote a book.”

The title of his 2004 book, Out of Gas: The End of the Age of Oil was the subject of his talk.

Goodstein discussed some historical background, current issues, and possible solutions.

He began by reminding listeners that fossil fuels were produced over thousands of years from organic matter that captured energy from the sun. “Oil companies merely extract it and sell it, that’s why it’s so cheap,” he said. He also distinguished between energy and fuel, saying, “We do need to conserve something, and that’s called fuel . . . fuel is more valuable than energy, because you can use it in mobile sources.”

In a quick retrospective on energy, he pointed out that in the 18th century, Sir Ben Thompson (an expatriot of New Hampshire) proposed that heat was a form of motion. Conservation of energy, Goodstein said, was discovered nine times, and was credited to its last discoverer in the 19th century, James Prescott Joule.

Touching upon electromagnetism, he commented that our eyes evolved to be most sensitive to colors of sunlight reflected around us, quipping, “You don’t glow in the dark because you’re just too cool.”

When sunlight reaches earth, about 30 percent is reflected and the rest absorbed. He said climate trapping of heat — the greenhouse effect — helped make earth a “balmy Garden of Eden,” and that if the atmosphere were stripped of greenhouse gases, the surface would be a chilly zero degrees Fahrenheit. Venus, on the other hand, has what he called a runaway greenhouse effect and is a fiery inferno.

Goodstein quipped that due to the beneficial nature of the pre-industrial greenhouse effect, “We evolved, came down from the trees, and started building steam engines.” Now, with our industrial activities, “We don’t know how far we can push the earth until it reverts to one of these other states — but we know it can. . . . We are doing an uncontrolled experiment with the climate of the only planet we have — it’s a very foolish thing to be doing.”

In the 18th century James Watt built a better steam engine that kicked off the industrial revolution and led to railroads and the rise of cities. Major fuels in the 19th century were coal and whale oil. When E. L. Drake drilled the first oil well in western Pennsylvania in 1859, the fluid was first used for illumination and lubrication. In 1861, however, Nikolaus Otto designed the first internal combustion engine, and the thirst for oil was born.

In 1957 geophysicist M. King Hubbert, who worked for Shell Oil, predicted US oil production would peak in 1970, based on the record of oil discovery, production, extraction, and use in the lower 48 states. Indeed, the Texas Railroad Commission, which looked at excess capacity in that state to govern the price of oil, announced no excess capacity in 1971, after which the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries came to the fore in influencing oil prices (some 65 percent of reserves are in its countries – 10 times greater than any of the next five largest oil-producing regions).

A major point of Goodstein’s talk is that the world’s oil production will also peak, just like the US, production did. A 1998 paper in Scientific American by Colin Campbell and Jean Laherrere predicted the peak would occur around now, Goodstein added. “For the past 20 years, we have been extracting oil faster than discovering it. The reserves numbers are very, very uncertain.” The peak, he said, may not occur for a number or years — or may have already, as subsequent events will make clear.

The oil embargo and Iran crisis of the 1970s led to temporary gas lines and despair, Goodstein said, but he believes that after the peak occurs, the shortage will be “for real and permanent . . . civilization as we know it will come to an end sometime by the end of the century . . . we are facing some very difficult times.”

The issue for our standard of living is that the US uses one-fourth the world’s energy although we have only 5 percent of the population. China, India, and other parts of the world want a higher standard of living, and that means using more energy.

He believes we can envision a way to substitute a different world for the world we have today, but that “getting there is very difficult.”

Besides oil, fossil fuels include other organic matter that was “cooked” under ocean beds: natural gas, which was “overcooked,” and shale oil, which was “not cooked enough.” Another potential source of fuel might be methane hydrate, a flammable solid that resembles ice and exists in ocean sediments. Finally, coal deposits may be sufficient for hundreds or thousands of years, and could be liquefied as the Germans did in World War II.

Regardless of the challenges using these other sources, Goodstein said all fossil fuel will run out, with unknown consequences for the climate. Sequestering carbon dioxide is a formidable problem. Returning to pre-industrial levels would require removing one-fourth the atmospheric carbon. The concept of sequestering it at the bottom of the ocean is an issue in part because that could alter the acidity of the water, affecting ocean life. Another thought is to pump it into oil or gas wells.

Solar sources include hydropower, though dams have already been built wherever possible. Wind is too unsteady, Goodstein said, and biomass is inefficient.

Conservation is also part of the mix. “There’s no reason we can’t all drive hybrids,” Goodstein opined, which he said would reduce gas consumption by a factor of two. He added that among solutions proposed or tried, Brazil’s flex cars can operate on alcohol produced from sugar cane, while Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute proposes levying “fee-bates” against sport utility vehicles. Advanced batteries and hydrogen are among transportation-powering alternatives. One sticking point, he believes, is that “politicians refuse to acknowledge the problem, much less lead us out of the wilderness.”

Fission-based nuclear energy cannot supply all the world’s energy needs, which would require building a plant a day for 30 years, longer than the known uranium reserve would last at that rate of expanded use. Breeder reactors would be a dangerous alternative because they produce plutonium. Fusion is not yet feasible. “It’s the energy source of the future, and always will be,” Goodstein said. With it, a gallon of seawater could provide the equivalent of 300 gallons of gasoline. “We would have ample energy forever,” he said.

Goodstein concluded that he hopes some of his listeners will go out and solve the problem. Mentioning Sandia’s Z-pinch fusion research and policy centers at Caltech and Stanford, he observed, “there are lots of efforts going on, but it’s an uncoordinated effort.” He believes an analogy for finding solutions could be the commitment of the Kennedy administration to place a man on the moon — which happened in less than 10 years. “We know how to solve technical problems,” Goodstein said.