Magazine article The Futurist

The Pump Will Never Run Dry!

Magazine article The Futurist

The Pump Will Never Run Dry!

Article excerpt

Predictions of a fuel crisis are unfounded, says a technology planner. Technology and free enterprise will combine to supply our energy needs far into future.

Experts have debated the fate of fossil-fuel supplies for the past 30 years. Doomsayers predict that economic disaster is just around the corner, as hydrocarbon fuel becomes increasingly scarce and prices rise beyond reach.

For the record, I say the pumps at local service stations will never go dry unless governments create an artificial shortage. I doubt that the citizens of the United States or those of most other nations will allow that to happen. Those who predict a cataclysmic fuel shortage underestimate the capabilities of mankind to utilize available resources.

Let's consider the petroleum supply: Since the 1970s, people have repeatedly said that we will run out of affordable petroleum in a few years - five, 10, or 20, depending on the writer. When we examine today's proven oil reserves, we find them to be at historically high levels: 40 to 50 years' supply at the current rate of usage. As demand has increased, the oil industry has responded by identifying additional supplies.

How long can this go on? I do not have an absolute answer, but even a slowly expanding supply will continue to meet the demand for many decades. In addition, oil shale and tar sands have a potential to provide petroleum supplies equivalent to or greater than the known oil reserves. The recovery of this resource is starting to look economically viable and could double our oil supply.

Fuel from Natural Gas and Methane

There are a number of reasons why the pumps will not go dry, even though petroleum is a finite resource.

Experts say that natural gas supplies far exceed potential oil reserves in total energy value. Many countries, including some that lack significant oil resources, have large natural gas supplies. But most cars do not run on natural gas.

Recent advances by oil company and related researchers have identified new processes, or enhanced old ones (such as the Fischer-Trope process), that can economically convert natural gas to diesel fuel and petrochemical feedstock. A side benefit is that the resulting fuel is a naturally clean, low-sulfur variety needed for low-emission vehicles. A billion-dollar facility being constructed in Qatar by Exxon is evidence of the industry's faith in natural gas conversion. An operational Shell Oil plant in Malaysia provides fuel today, and seagoing facilities to convert drill platform flare gas to liquid fuel are being proposed.

It is possible to convert natural gas into gasoline, but this process is currently more expensive than converting crude oil to gasoline. Remote sources of natural gas are increasing in value now that they can be converted to liquid fuel and transported to market by conventional means. Some countries with little crude oil but plenty of natural gas can potentially become fuel independent or even fuel exporters.

Methanol, also a liquid fuel derived from natural gas, is produced by many factories around the world. Its use may increase in some areas, but methanol has a distribution problem: It cannot be transported by the same pipelines that currently transport petroleum products. Even this plentiful supply of liquid fuel from natural gas cannot last forever, so how will we keep the pumps full in the future?

In the last few years, deposits of methane hydrate have been discovered under the sea floor. Methane gas is generated when organic material settling at the bottom of the ocean is decomposed by bacteria. At low temperatures and high pressure, this methane can be trapped in ice crystals below the ocean floor. These deposits may have as much as four times the energy value of the total natural gas supply. The methane energy supply could also be converted to liquid fuel using the same processes used for natural gas, which is primarily methane. …

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