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Old 15th October 2013, 08:15 AM   #1
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Thought Experiment: world without fossil fuels

Hi,

I'm wondering something, and I need smarter and more knowledgeable people than me to answer.

Assuming our world is otherwise exactly the same, but entirely without fossil fuels, what's the level of technology we can reach ? What's possible and what's not ? Assume, of course, that our science was developed without the benefit of fossil fuels.
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Old 15th October 2013, 08:49 AM   #2
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Originally Posted by Belz... View Post
Hi,

I'm wondering something, and I need smarter and more knowledgeable people than me to answer.
<giggle>. Why am I chipping in then? But it's an interesting question anyway, and I'm well into my second ouzo so who cares

Originally Posted by Belz... View Post
Assuming our world is otherwise exactly the same, but entirely without fossil fuels, what's the level of technology we can reach ? What's possible and what's not ? Assume, of course, that our science was developed without the benefit of fossil fuels.
You mean from the outset, and developing as far as possible without fossil fuels? Hmmmm.

It strikes me that the industry that led to extensive personal transport, easy communication, remote power sources (electricity) and all the rest were totally dependent on fossil fuels and the abundance of cheap energy that allowed for easy development and high population growth. Before fossil fuels horses and sailing boats were the best. After fossil it was trains, cars, steamships and planes. Could charcoal be used to build and fuel a train? Technically perhaps, but I doubt that anybody would see that as a good use for charcoal. There are only so many trees.

My guess is we'd be stuck at a low-intensity, low-population 'Roman but more advanced' level of civilisation, but with interesting though ultimately fruitless experiments going on into higher tech as our knowledge grew.

(as I go to post this it occurs to me that hydro power with rubber as an insulator could provide a fair bit of electricity, but whether a zero fossil civilisation could summon up the sheer grunt to make it a major contributor I really don't know. It takes grunt to mine and smelt minerals in large quantities to build the dams and manufacture the generators that go beyond mere water mills hitched to a crude dynamo. And I don't know how much use olive oil or beef lard really is as a machine lubricant )
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Old 15th October 2013, 08:57 AM   #3
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You could have wood-powered steam engines, but without coal, their use would have been significantly constrained. It would be very hard to develop an internal combustion engine. It's literally possible (crop-based ethanol), but harder to start (remember: no internal combustion crop harvesters or petroleum-fueled fertilizer plants to get it rolling), and maybe not economical even if you did. You could still have electricity (hydro would probably be the dominant source), which means that eventually everything else is possible (but not guaranteed), but development would be much slower and the results far more expensive.
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Old 15th October 2013, 09:00 AM   #4
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Originally Posted by GlennB View Post
Before fossil fuels horses and sailing boats were the best. After fossil it was trains, cars, steamships and planes. Could charcoal be used to build and fuel a train? Technically perhaps, but I doubt that anybody would see that as a good use for charcoal.
Keep in mind that there is another option for powering vehicles (at least smaller ones)... alcohol. Now, there would likely have to be some sort of positive feedback going on... alcohol used to power vehicles which improve crop yields (through mechanization) to produce more alcohol which allows more vehicles and more industry, etc. It certainly would have required more time for the technology to develop.

Lubricants would have been an issue though (as you mentioned earlier.)
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Old 15th October 2013, 09:02 AM   #5
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Hmmm...

Let's take an example in the telegraph or telephone. I suppose the technology itself is feasible, but how easy would it be to produce the necessary wiring for use by more than a handful of people ?

Or zeppelins. As I understand it, the helium we have is from natural gas. Can we have enough hydrogen to produce zeppelins ?

Or hot air balloons. I'm sure the burners can use something else than propane.

Hell, even computers. A working turing-equivalent model was designed in 1837, so I assume we could kinda have a few of those.
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Old 15th October 2013, 09:18 AM   #6
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I don't think there'd be a limit, but it would have taken much longer to get there (or here, for that matter). It wouldn't have prevented the Enlightenment or the early (water-driven) Industrial Revolution, but without coal Peak Wood would have put a severe brake on the latter.

Much of the effort which went into the science and technology of steam-power would, I think, have gone into electricity - batteries and solar power in particular. Necessity is, after all, the mother of invention.
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Old 15th October 2013, 09:19 AM   #7
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Originally Posted by Belz... View Post
Or zeppelins. As I understand it, the helium we have is from natural gas. Can we have enough hydrogen to produce zeppelins ?
From what I understand, the Helium is produced through radioactive decay... it just gets distilled from Natural gas in cases where the Uranium deposits are near natural gas deposits.

Not sure if there would be other ways to capture helium.

http://science.howstuffworks.com/question12.htm

I don't think we'd loose that much if we never had enough He to fly zepplins; however, it might complicate research into things like superconductors
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Old 15th October 2013, 09:20 AM   #8
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Originally Posted by Belz... View Post
Let's take an example in the telegraph or telephone. I suppose the technology itself is feasible, but how easy would it be to produce the necessary wiring for use by more than a handful of people ?
It would be very, very costly. So yes, it might not happen even if it was possible.

Quote:
Or zeppelins. As I understand it, the helium we have is from natural gas. Can we have enough hydrogen to produce zeppelins ?
That's what the Germans did.

We have an essentially limitless supply of hydrogen: the ocean. The only limit is on the energy (generally in the form of electricity) needed to extract it.

Quote:
Or hot air balloons. I'm sure the burners can use something else than propane.
If it's not a hydrocarbon, it's not going to have enough energy density to be practical. If you don't have fossil fuels, then the only readily available hydrocarbons are going to be stuff like vegetable oil. That's not really good for a hot air balloon (doesn't burn fast enough), but you could probably synthesize lighter hydrocarbons by cracking. But that's going to be expensive.

Quote:
Hell, even computers. A working turing-equivalent model was designed in 1837, so I assume we could kinda have a few of those.
The problem is that R&D only gets performed with "leftover" economic capacity. Without fossil fuels, all our economic activity gets significantly constrained, and there's much less "leftover" to do R&D with, and the same R&D activities themselves become more expensive too. I don't see anything about a computer that makes me think, "that's not possible without fossil fuels". But it would take probably many orders of magnitude longer to develop.
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Old 15th October 2013, 09:28 AM   #9
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Originally Posted by Segnosaur View Post
I don't think we'd loose that much if we never had enough He to fly zepplins;
I wonder how we'd fly zeppelins, however, without engines. Same thing about planes. Without today's materials, I don't see how they could fly on human power alone.

Batteries don't have any component from fossil fuels, do they ?
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Old 15th October 2013, 09:31 AM   #10
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Originally Posted by Ziggurat View Post
That's what the Germans did.
I know. My question was poorly phrased. I mean, more than just a few zeppelins. How fast can we get hydrogen without the fossil fuel techs ?

Quote:
We have an essentially limitless supply of hydrogen: the ocean. The only limit is on the energy (generally in the form of electricity) needed to extract it.
Ok, so that would function the same, then.

Quote:
If it's not a hydrocarbon, it's not going to have enough energy density to be practical. If you don't have fossil fuels, then the only readily available hydrocarbons are going to be stuff like vegetable oil. That's not really good for a hot air balloon (doesn't burn fast enough)
What did the Montgolfier brothers use ? I'm having a hard time finding that information.

Quote:
The problem is that R&D only gets performed with "leftover" economic capacity. Without fossil fuels, all our economic activity gets significantly constrained, and there's much less "leftover" to do R&D with, and the same R&D activities themselves become more expensive too. I don't see anything about a computer that makes me think, "that's not possible without fossil fuels". But it would take probably many orders of magnitude longer to develop.
Sounds about right.
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Old 15th October 2013, 09:40 AM   #11
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Originally Posted by Ziggurat View Post
You could have wood-powered steam engines, but without coal, their use would have been significantly constrained. It would be very hard to develop an internal combustion engine.
Not at all---you can run an internal combustion engine on wood gas. That's a mix of CH4, CO, H2 that comes from pyrolysis or incomplete combustion of wood, and you can use it more or less like a low-energy-density (and high-asphyxiation-hazard) replacement for methane. You can imagine someone like James Watt, and the early steam-engine inventors, running boilers on straight wood or charcoal; you can imagine wood-gas generation and storage being developed as part of the process of optimizing wood-fired boilers. So Karl Benz and Nikolas Otto (or their alternate-history equivalents) would have had easy access to wood gas, just as easily as we have fossil natural gas today. So, I don't see internal combustion engines as a shopstopper. Add in the Fischer-Tropsch process and you've got wood-based liquid fuels too.

What's harder, I think, are the ultra-energy-intensive Industrial Revolution materials: iron, concrete. I mean, early iron smelting WAS done with wood fuel (as charcoal), but when you think of the industrial revolution you think of *cheap* iron. I don't think you have cheap and abundant iron in a world where there's no coal.

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Old 15th October 2013, 10:35 AM   #12
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hard to imagen , im pretty sure we would be nowehere near where we are today. on the other hand we would not face the biggest problem we ever faced
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Old 15th October 2013, 10:39 AM   #13
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Originally Posted by ben m View Post
.... you can imagine wood-gas generation and storage being developed as part of the process of optimizing wood-fired boilers. So Karl Benz and Nikolas Otto (or their alternate-history equivalents) would have had easy access to wood gas, just as easily as we have fossil natural gas today. So, I don't see internal combustion engines as a shopstopper. Add in the Fischer-Tropsch process and you've got wood-based liquid fuels too.
Yes, but do you have the wherewithal to produce that equipment and to fuel the process? How do you compress wood gas? More importantly, perhaps, why would you want to even if you could? To make an experimental IC vehicle perhaps, but not in order to revolutionise society's personal transport. That would take a whole lot of wood for an indefinite time, while perfectly nice horses could haul carriages all day for the price of some grazing and a drink of water.

And looking at Fischer-TropschWP I note that the viability of the process is susceptible to the cost of crude oil or the availability of 'stranded' (otherwise useless) gas. In Belz's o/p world it would be fueled by wood or vegetable oil afaics.
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Old 15th October 2013, 10:40 AM   #14
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on the other hand, had we not those cheap fossil fuels, we would have put more effort in other energy sources, nuclear would mayne have come earlier and would be more widespread and we would have similar things we have today, but with electric cars and trucks etc etc. Solar energy would have been used more , wind and water energy used more etc etc. after thinking about it, maybe it would not be so much different,
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Old 15th October 2013, 10:43 AM   #15
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Originally Posted by DC View Post
on the other hand, had we not those cheap fossil fuels, we would have put more effort in other energy sources, nuclear would mayne have come earlier and would be more widespread and we would have similar things we have today, but with electric cars and trucks etc etc. Solar energy would have been used more , wind and water energy used more etc etc. after thinking about it, maybe it would not be so much different,
I'm not sure how we'd have ever developed nuclear technology without preexisting tech brought about by fossil-fueled industrialisation, though.
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Old 15th October 2013, 10:46 AM   #16
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Originally Posted by Belz... View Post
I'm not sure how we'd have ever developed nuclear technology without preexisting tech brought about by fossil-fueled industrialisation, though.
it is, but then so is the idea tha Egyptians Mayas etc build those fantastic buildings without fossil fuels and modern tools but as they had no alternative they did it with the "fuel" and tools they had. and i think we would have found a way, we would mostpropably lag behind our today's standard for a few decades.
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Old 15th October 2013, 10:53 AM   #17
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I don't know. As Zig said, the key to industrialisation is making stuff cheap. How are you planning to enrich your uranium, or even know how to do that at all, without preeexisting tech ?
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Old 15th October 2013, 11:24 AM   #18
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Originally Posted by ben m View Post
What's harder, I think, are the ultra-energy-intensive Industrial Revolution materials: iron, concrete. I mean, early iron smelting WAS done with wood fuel (as charcoal), but when you think of the industrial revolution you think of *cheap* iron. I don't think you have cheap and abundant iron in a world where there's no coal.
That.

Nearly all the alternative technologies mentioned here essentially presume metals available for their development or application. Many of them probably could be done without metal, but it's not obvious they would be affordable, effective, or even developed without reasonably affordable metal.

At the very least it would be much, much harder to bootstrap industrial technology without fossil fuels. Technologies that might be very possible and practical without fossil fuels, once developed, may be unreasonably impractical and expensive to develop and implement without fossil fuels.

Lack of fossil fuel energy would impede production of affordable metals, which would impede production of non-fossil-fuel energy and production of metal. With both in short supply, it's harder to divert either from survival toward development. When you're up to your ass in alligators it's hard to concentrate on draining the swamp.
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Old 15th October 2013, 11:42 AM   #19
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I think you are being a little too pessimistic. Yes, there would have been a delay, but we would have put effort into other technologies that were ignored because they were expensive compared to fossil fuels. I think nuclear would have dominated electrical generation long ago, for instance, and perhaps solar. And we would have simply wiped out half of our population so that we had the land could grow vegtable fuels.

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Old 15th October 2013, 11:54 AM   #20
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Again I ask: how are we supposed to develop solar and nuclear without the preceding steps in tech ? And what are the incentives to develop them if we don't already have a cheap way to produce them ?
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Old 15th October 2013, 12:40 PM   #21
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Originally Posted by DC View Post
on the other hand, had we not those cheap fossil fuels, we would have put more effort in other energy sources, nuclear would mayne have come earlier and would be more widespread and we would have similar things we have today, but with electric cars and trucks etc etc. Solar energy would have been used more , wind and water energy used more etc etc. after thinking about it, maybe it would not be so much different,
Not a chance in hell. EVERYTHING we've developed post-1800 (and probably earlier too) would have come slower, MUCH slower, without fossil fuels. Nuclear energy would probably be pushed back by centuries, at a minimum. There's just much less scientific research you can do when everyone is poorer and when the cost of research itself is higher. Hydro is the only electricity generation technology that might not have been pushed back too much (without light-weight composites and rare-earth magnets, wind isn't really very good, and solar? Ha!), but radically higher construction costs would mean we'd be using less of it than we do now, not more. It would probably make up a higher fraction, but not more in absolute amounts.
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Old 15th October 2013, 01:07 PM   #22
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Originally Posted by Ziggurat View Post
(Most snipped)

You could have wood-powered steam engines, but without coal, their use would have been significantly constrained.
Charcoal would be a reasonable substitute with a good energy density when, for example, powdered and bound with a starch into briquettes. Supply doesn't require wood, just vegetable matter of some sort.

For example, you can use charcoal in your forge if you like, even coke it to make steel.

If you meant economically, that part I don't know. Just thinking "possible" here.
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Old 15th October 2013, 01:13 PM   #23
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Originally Posted by marplots View Post
For example, you can use charcoal in your forge if you like, even coke it to make steel.
I thought coke was coal that had been through destructive distillation? The o/p scenario has no coal.
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Old 15th October 2013, 01:22 PM   #24
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Originally Posted by GlennB View Post
I thought coke was coal that had been through destructive distillation? The o/p scenario has no coal.
Correct. But the essential bit is ending up with carbon. There is nothing specific about coal, save it's structure and ease of use. In fact, there are types of coal that are less useful because of minerals in the matrix, or sulfur content.

It's the carbon content of coke that makes it a good reducer to prevent the oxidation of iron in steel-making. However, I am not much schooled in the details, so I'll stand to be corrected.

My understanding is that the reason coal is coked and not charcoal is because of both the structure of charcoal and the expense. There's a high energy cost in making charcoal, a cost already paid when you mine coal (at least the "making" cost has been paid.)

Side note: I'll be cooking charcoal this week, two five-gallon buckets at a time.

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Old 15th October 2013, 01:30 PM   #25
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Originally Posted by marplots View Post
Charcoal would be a reasonable substitute with a good energy density when, for example, powdered and bound with a starch into briquettes. Supply doesn't require wood, just vegetable matter of some sort.

For example, you can use charcoal in your forge if you like, even coke it to make steel.

If you meant economically, that part I don't know. Just thinking "possible" here.
Well that's the rub. A lot of tech would be possible as in, they'd discover it at some point. But then the question becomes: would it be anything more than a museum piece, or something used by a very small portion of the population (e.g. telephones) ?
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Old 15th October 2013, 01:33 PM   #26
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Early rail systems in the U.S. ran on wood, as did the Mississippi steamboats and early steamships. Without coal and oil, this would have led to a deforestation crisis in the U.S. with the economy eventually depending on fuel imports from Canada. (Hard to imagine, right?) As it was, people don't remember how deforested the northeastern US was; almost every tree here even in "wilderness" areas is regrowth since the mid to late 19th century.

Without coal etc., steamships would never completely replace sail. Ships specialized for expensive fast passage might be in service across the Atlantic, by either carrying wood fuel as most of their cargo or by rendezvousing with sail-powered wood tender ships midway. Much of that wood would have been harvested from South America and southwest Africa. However, the sailing ships would eventually have steel hulls and masts, worth the energy investment for their durability.

The hydroelectric build-out in the eastern U.S. would still have happened, but slower because of higher-cost and more manpower-intensive construction techniques. Instead of electrification of homes, the priority would have been on electrifying rail links and other industrial uses (e.g. steel hulls for the sailing ships). Besides hydroelectric, low-tech wind generators and concentrated-solar-steam generators would become common for local power, and as a result, instead of the three-shift schedule, many industries would adopt the sunny-day schedule. The canal transport system in the northeastern US might never have been completely replaced by rail. Non-perishable foods (grains) would still be hauled from remote farming regions to cities; this was happening even when the hauling method was mules and wagons.

The hardest difference to account for is tractors for farms, which massively swing the crucial agricultural productivity variable. Electric tractors wouldn't have been practical with early technology. Steam tractors burning any available biomass (straw, etc.) might have found use, and later, ones burning locally produced ethanol. For smaller farms, a central steam winch in a fixed location, along with hand-positioned cables and anchored pulleys to haul the working tool where needed one pass at a time, would be more practical than a tractor vehicle. There would have to be a point where this is more productive than using horses, without approaching the level of mechanization used in modern farms. It would share with modern farms the feature of being dangerous as hell.

Suburbs as we know them would never become popular, but the 19th century pattern of cities being surrounded with clouds of small towns would continue instead. Instead of workers in the towns using rail to commute to the cities where the industries were, the industries would be spread out (because of the wind and solar use) along with the towns, with local work forces. Just like historically with mining towns and river-based mill towns, but extending to light industries as well. Imagine bicycle-making towns, radio making towns, book printing towns.

Development of electronics would still be quite possible, on a likely slowed time scale. Contrary to what the collapse futurists generally believe, semiconductor fabrication is not inherently energy-intensive. High temperature furnaces and clean room conditions are needed for fabrication, but the mass of materials involved is so much smaller than for e.g. shipbuilding that energy cost is not a large factor even if it had to be provided by workers on stationary bicycles. Most likely, home electronics would completely skip the power-hungry vacuum tube stage, and be first introduced in semiconductor versions that could be powered with recycled batteries (drop off your discharged battery and pick up a charged one, the way many people today do with bottled drinking water) or home-scale solar/wind/battery systems. Electric lighting as we know it, fully lit rooms, would just "now" be appearing in middle to lower class homes with the availability of white LED lights; prior to that, homes would likely use small incandescent electric candles (those swappable batteries again) just sufficient to study, read, sew, or socialize after dark.

What about those labor-saving devices like washing machines and electric stoves? What really saves labor is having your laundry picked up and delivered door to door, and picking up your cooked pot of pork and beans at the neighborhood beanery on the way home to dinner, instead of doing all the work by yourself in your house. And since most people would be living in cities and concentrated towns, that would persist, instead of disappearing when the wealthier people moved to the suburbs and started DIYing to save money to pay their huge mortgages.

However, there would have been a post-peak-wood home heating crisis in temperate climes in winter, as Franklin stoves increasingly competed with many different industries for wood fuel. Settlement patterns, home construction habits (e.g. fewer single-family homes), and clothing styles would all be affected. Indoor plumbing, probably long-delayed generally, would be even more delayed where heat to keep pipes from freezing was a challenge.

The effects on warfare, and on the overall course of world history, would take a good-sized book...

Respectfully,
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Old 15th October 2013, 01:33 PM   #27
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Old 15th October 2013, 01:47 PM   #28
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Originally Posted by Myriad View Post
Instead of electrification of homes, the priority would have been on electrifying rail links and other industrial uses (e.g. steel hulls for the sailing ships).
It's my understanding that you can only transport electricity so far without high-voltage power lines. Would that have happened ?

One of my concerns in such a world is the potential of near-total depletion of forests.
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Old 15th October 2013, 03:00 PM   #29
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Problem with hydrogen or alcohol is the sheer size of earth's present population.
Is there enough biomass on the planet to supply both food and alcohol generation? Is there enough wind or solar power available to produce enough hydrogen?
Would nuclear power be required to ramp way up?
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Old 15th October 2013, 03:03 PM   #30
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Originally Posted by Belz... View Post
It's my understanding that you can only transport electricity so far without high-voltage power lines. Would that have happened ?

One of my concerns in such a world is the potential of near-total depletion of forests.
Electrical resistance requires that voltage be increased to mediate the effects of high current. That is why long transport uses high voltage, to keep current low and thus the voltage drop low.
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Old 15th October 2013, 03:27 PM   #31
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Originally Posted by jaydeehess View Post
Problem with hydrogen or alcohol is the sheer size of earth's present population.
We're not talking about the present, though, but the entirety of human history.

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Electrical resistance requires that voltage be increased to mediate the effects of high current.
So how about my question: could we have ever developed high enough voltage to transport electricity over hundreds of kilometers ?
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Old 15th October 2013, 03:40 PM   #32
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Originally Posted by Belz... View Post
We're not talking about the present, though, but the entirety of human history.
Oh, well that would have slowed down growth. As pointed out long distance transportation would suffer. Perhaps once nuke power came of age ships could go long enough, fast enough. That still makes personal transportation problematic though. Is there enough biomass to create enough fuel for the cars, trucks and aircraft we require today for our civilization?


Quote:
So how about my question: could we have ever developed high enough voltage to transport electricity over hundreds of kilometers ?
That would require the development of the machines used to erect long distance power lines, most of which use fossil fuel engines.

Yes, it could be done with alternate fuels but would be slower, IMHO.
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Old 15th October 2013, 03:42 PM   #33
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I suppose we could look to the Amish to see an example of low/no oil.

There are technologies that might have been exploited differently. I'm thinking of hydraulics and compressed gasses, although I have no particular developments in mind.
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Old 15th October 2013, 03:56 PM   #34
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Originally Posted by jaydeehess View Post
Perhaps once nuke power came of age ships could go long enough, fast enough.
Ok but would we have managed to developed nuke power ?

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Yes, it could be done with alternate fuels but would be slower, IMHO.
And that's knowledge we have now (alternate fuels), but did that knowledge depend on industrialisation ?
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Old 15th October 2013, 04:06 PM   #35
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Originally Posted by Belz... View Post
It's my understanding that you can only transport electricity so far without high-voltage power lines. Would that have happened ?

If the rest of a basic infrastructure for generating and using electricity could be made (wires, generators, regulators, motors, etc.) then transformers for stepping up AC to high voltage and down again wouldn't present any special problems.

Quote:
One of my concerns in such a world is the potential of near-total depletion of forests.

Yes, that seems very likely, which is why I mentioned it in the first paragraph of my scenario. Imagine rail lines pushing into every accessible corner of the arboreal forests of Canada, wood-fired locomotives carrying back cargos of increasingly valuable wood.

However, it's unlikely that agriculture would become very industrialized (in the sense of being dependent on outside fuel) on wood alone. So agriculture would adapt and go on; other fuels could be grown on the cleared land; ships would quickly go back to sails; railroad schedules would be cut back or devoted to the most crucial shipping; coastal shipping and mule barge canal traffic would resume. The economy would take a hit and a lot of hearths would be cold through some hard winters, but there probably wouldn't be a huge die-off in the process of reaching a new equilibrium on usage. Most Euro nations didn't have large wild forests by then anyhow, so they wouldn't have industrialized as far to begin with. (Exploiting colonial sources might occur, but transport issues would slow that way down.)

Unlike some parts of the world, the forests where I am (in eastern PA) are self-renewing. I once left an open plastic barrel full of raked leaves behind my house. After eighteen months without adding water or touching it in any way, the leaves had turned to dirt and there were healthy inch-thick saplings growing in the bucket. I don't think the forests would be completely destroyed everywhere, in any reasonable scenario.
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Old 15th October 2013, 05:16 PM   #36
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Originally Posted by GlennB View Post
Yes, but do you have the wherewithal to produce that equipment and to fuel the process? How do you compress wood gas? More importantly, perhaps, why would you want to even if you could? To make an experimental IC vehicle perhaps, but not in order to revolutionise society's personal transport. That would take a whole lot of wood for an indefinite time, while perfectly nice horses could haul carriages all day for the price of some grazing and a drink of water.
Wherewithal? Of course they'd have the wherewithal. For the same reasons that James Watt built an steam engine in a world that had been getting along fine without them. To do some form of work that makes things easier. In a pre-industrial-revolution world, there were absurdly large horse teams driving stationary engines that did jobs like: pumping water out of agricultural fields; likewise for mines; grinding grain; threshing; sawing wood. James Watt's first engines, which were incredibly successful, were stationary engines for industrial work (water pumps), not cars for "revolutionizing personal transport". Yes, a world without fossil fuels will still have the wherewithal to invent labor-saving devices for pumping water, and then for improving those devices to make them more efficient.

The internal combustion engine was, originally, an incremental efficiency-upgrade over the steam engine. Nikolas Otto's first ICs were (a) stationary, used to winches farm machinery across fields, and presumably replaced coal-powered steam engines for that use; and (b) powered by coal gas, which is very nearly a one-to-one replacement for well-prepared wood gas. Why would Otto have the wherewithal to put a non-compressible gas into a high-tech engine, to do a job that horses could do just fine? Well, the fact is that he did.

Let's also look at the issue of wood power. Wood has something like 75% the energy density of coal, which is great---we're not talking about a world powered by potato batteries, we're talking about "the fuel hopper needs to be a little bigger and the fireman to shovel a little harder". Steamships, railroads would work just fine. Wood was indeed harvested, on coal-like industrial scales, as a power source. For example, the 19th century glass industry of Upstate New York (Corning, etc.) were entirely wood-fired (there was no coal in the area), and harvested this renewable fuel on an industrial scale (although they simply mined it out and didn't renew). In late medieval England, woodlands were coppiced and harvested sustainably for charcoal production for centuries.

"Revolutionize personal transport"? Like, cars? First: the world got a long ways into the industrial revolution, and a long ways into a recognizably-modern-looking world, as soon as we had railroads and steamships. Second: Germany got through WWII using mostly Fischer-Tropsch gasoline (from coal), and they managed to run plenty of tanks, cars, trains, etc. on this fuel. Yes, expensive. Yes, a lot of industrial effort per gallon, compared to fossil petroleum. But not so expensive that nobody would bother. That was coal-based, but there is not THAT big a difference between coal-->syngas--->FT liquids and coal-->wood gas-->FT liquids. Factor of 1.5, factor of 2?

a) Without fossil fuels, the world would not have expanded to 6 billion people. It'd have fewer, being resource-constrained. (Is that "fewer because Malthusian starvation killed everyone"? Or is that "fewer because <some other control valve>"? I don't know.) I don't know the world's carrying capacity for coppiced wood. It's probably quite large---not "six billion people with their own cars" large, but it's still large.

b) Without fossil fuels, the world would probably not have 1 private car per 6 people. It'd have fewer, because all of the fuel options are more expensive in this world. (But world gas prices already vary by a factor of 10---from $1/gal in Venezuela to $10/gal in Norway---without making either extreme unrecognizable.) Fine.

c) Without fossil fuels, the world wouldn't have cheap airplane travel. It'd have expensive airplane travel with expensive biofuels. That's fine---for most of the history of air travel, air travel was expensive (they were expensive high-maintenance planes, carrying few passengers, etc.). It's easy to say today, "Good lord, if aviation fuel tripled in cost, it'd hardly be worth having the industry at all." But early aviation was indeed something north of 3x as expensive as modern aviation. Here's a (now) $600 round trip from Detroit to Cleveland in 1923.

People do pretty well at exploiting the resources they have. If the resources they had were "trees", I suspect that they'd get to a world where the global tree resource was pushed right to the limit of what it can do. Exactly how it gets there, and how that gets distributed, giving what lifestyle to a population how big? I don't know. But wood can do much more than horses can; and most of what coal can; and a reasonably fraction of what petroleum can. So there you go.

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Old 15th October 2013, 05:43 PM   #37
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Originally Posted by Belz... View Post
We're not talking about the present [population], though, but the entirety of human history.
Quite. The 19thCE Malthusian crisis didn't occur because steam-transport made it possible to feed Manchester on New World grain.

Quote:
So how about my question: could we have ever developed high enough voltage to transport electricity over hundreds of kilometers ?
I believe so. Industrialists understood power before steam-power was available, but they had to build their factories where they could get water-power. There was speculation that electricity might be a source of power right from the early days of research; its utility as a means of transporting power would have been discovered much earlier than it actually was if cheap steam-power wasn't available.
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Old 15th October 2013, 05:51 PM   #38
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If we didn't have fossil fuels, then I presume we also wouldn't have the other things we make from the same natural resources.

One example is tar. Even if we had another decent power source for automobiles (which started off heavier and less aerodynamic than they are now), we wouldn't be able to make blacktop roads without tar. (And I think a lot of air & water filters use things made from it, too, although I'm not sure.)

Also, consider plastics. In a lot of cases, they merely replaced wood, metal, ceramics, and glass for various items that already had been invented, but in other cases, some things only exist today because plastics are there to make them from. Look at the machinery, containers, hoses/tubes, and disposable items in any hospital room, for example, and try to imagine treating those patients without them.

Rubber would also be severely affected. The original was derived from tree sap (and it needed to be the right kind of tree), but most modern rubber formulas are petroleum products, both for production quantity and for chemical customization. Without that, we wouldn't get, or would need to settle for inferior versions of, not only tires but also electrical insulation and all kinds of gaskets & hoses.

The effects on agriculture , transportation, and health care mean the world's population doesn't grow as large as it has (although we end up doing just as much environmental damage to sustain fewer people), which slows down scientific & technological development in another way: not as many smart people to draw from the general population and collect in a few places to collaborate with each other on scientific & technological projects.

* * *

I think our main way out of it would be that chemists would, based on what could already be done with more-recently-living natural products, see the potential in organic compounds and work on other ways of getting at them, from trees to grasses to mosses to swamp muck. Once we eventually had an introduction to genetics down, research into genetic engineering would focus on getting glass-topped vats of algae or cyanobacteria to produce large amounts of the kind of general organic-compound feed-stock we wanted to make all of these products from in large amounts. And it would be funded by greedy capitalist investors looking for a way to exploit an immense resource. So we'd end up (probably centuries later than now) doing a lot of the same stuff with recently-produced petroleum or petroleum-like resources, that we are actually doing now with fossil petroleum. (...just like a lot of environmentalists hope for or foresee happening in the nearish future, to replace fossil petroleum.)
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Old 15th October 2013, 05:55 PM   #39
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Originally Posted by ben m View Post
a) Without fossil fuels, the world would not have expanded to 6 billion people. It'd have fewer, being resource-constrained. (Is that "fewer because Malthusian starvation killed everyone"? Or is that "fewer because <some other control valve>"? I don't know.) I don't know the world's carrying capacity for coppiced wood. It's probably quite large---not "six billion people with their own cars" large, but it's still large.
Malthusian crises don't kill everybody, they re-establish an equilibrium with some overshoot (which makes life pretty cosy for the survivors). The next one will be no different, you'll see.

Quote:
b) Without fossil fuels, the world would probably not have 1 private car per 6 people.
People would not have got into the habit of travelling so much. Bicycles would probably have been it.
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Old 15th October 2013, 06:09 PM   #40
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Originally Posted by ben m View Post
c) Without fossil fuels, the world wouldn't have cheap airplane travel. It'd have expensive airplane travel with expensive biofuels.
Why would it ? If building planes is impractical and travel is insanely expensive and fuel rare, it's not like you're going to have airlines.

Originally Posted by Delvo View Post
If we didn't have fossil fuels, then I presume we also wouldn't have the other things we make from the same natural resources.

One example is tar.
No, seems like we had it from other sources as well: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tar#Production

Quote:
The effects on agriculture , transportation, and health care mean the world's population doesn't grow as large as it has (although we end up doing just as much environmental damage to sustain fewer people), which slows down scientific & technological development in another way: not as many smart people to draw from the general population and collect in a few places to collaborate with each other on scientific & technological projects.
Indeed, and more focus on agriculture means fewer people, proportionally, on other tasks.

Quote:
I think our main way out of it would be that chemists would, based on what could already be done with more-recently-living natural products, see the potential in organic compounds and work on other ways of getting at them, from trees to grasses to mosses to swamp muck.
But let's be careful thinking for 17th century people using 21st century knowledge.
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