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Whales, Crude, and Plants

While a little off topic I thought the following was worth sharing. I read a WSJ book review written by one of my favorite authors, John Steele Gordon. He reviewed “Leviathan“, a comprehensive account of the history of Whaling. Here’s an excerpt from the review:

American whalers ranged farther and farther across the world’s oceans as their prey grew scarce in home waters … But as the price of whale oil ratcheted up in the face of increasing demand and decreasing supply, competition from other sources began to increase. When Edwin Drake demonstrated the practicality of drilling for petroleum in 1859, the glory days of American whaling were over.

One cannot avoid drawing parallels between this significant black swan event that single handedly destroyed America’s largest pre-industrial age business and the recent announcements regarding cellulose ethanol.

I am certain readers of this blog would greatly enjoy both “Empire of Wealth” and “A Thread Across the Ocean“.


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  1. Readers might also like “Thousand Barrels a Second” by Peter Tertzakian (petrophysicist turned economic analyst). Ranges from tallow and whaling to coal and petroleum sources of lighting/energy. VERY interesting stuff.

    Posted by Gerald Buckley | June 21, 2007, 11:03 AM
  2. I like the direction you’re pointing at.

    people don’t realize it but the best thing that can happen to our civilization is 5-10 more years of high oil prices. by then, several viable alternatives should offer a combined substitute in a reasonable price.

    Regarding cellulose ethanol, i’ll believe it when i see it. .that’s much more complicated than throw yeasts into the fermentor.
    however, if scientists succeed in efficiently producing cellulosic ethanol, it should have a much higher EROEI than corn ethanol and a real alternative to fossil fuel.

    Posted by ohad | June 21, 2007, 4:43 PM
  3. It seems everyone who complains high oil price forgets to take in account how much is caused the devaluation of dollar. Since oil is traded as “black gold” on international market, the increasing deficit and the lack of financial discipline in US have a big effect on domestic oil price.

    Posted by yf | June 22, 2007, 4:06 AM
  4. Ethanol requires a double measure of water. In the list of FUD factors, a water + agricultural crisis beats energy handily.

    Posted by Bandgap | June 24, 2007, 11:47 AM
  5. Bandgap, I’m not sure I understand your water and ethanol point. I may have my numbers wrong, but I think world wide oil consumption is somewhere in the 1B gallons per day. The state of Florida alone consumes something like 10B gallons of water per day.

    Posted by KN | June 26, 2007, 12:00 PM
  6. The biomass for ethanol first requires lots of water to grow, and then some more water to transform into ethanol – as every moonshine distiller knows :-)

    Sugarcane and rice are massive water culprits. It takes thousands of liters of water to grow a kilogram of cane and rice.

    I admit this sounds like FUD, but the agriculture FUD is far more dire than the oil one. Rock, paper, scissors stuff.

    Posted by Bandgap | June 26, 2007, 9:32 PM
  7. Bandgap

    The fact there are issues and challenges with regards to a technology doesn’t mean they can’t be met.

    everybody agrees that corn ethanol is problematic, but if and when cellulose based ethanol is produced, it will be more effecient in terms of water and energy consumption

    you’re right about the water crisis the world is about to face but just like the energy crisis it will motivate creative and advanced solutions. the problem is not availability of water, but rather treatment , mobility and purification.

    besides, once desalination and other purification methods can be done using some form of alternative energy ( could be antyhing from nuclear power to solar), the amount of accesible water will be more than enough.

    and don’t forget that after all we’re talking about biotechnological processes that are constantly ameliorated by means of genetic engineering etc.

    Posted by ohad | June 26, 2007, 10:01 PM
  8. I grew up on a farm. You wouldn’t believe how much water is wasted. Once the incentive exists for farmers to conserve water, there will be plenty to go around. Stop growing fruit and vegtables in Southern California and the water crisis goes away.

    Required Viewing: Chinatown. There is also an book on the subject someone told me was excellent.

    Hacking biology is going to make hacking computers look like fisher-price level activity.

    Posted by Andrew Schmitt | June 27, 2007, 9:50 AM