Point of View: Precursor and the Point – The Wonders of Oil


Point of View: Precursor and the Point – The Wonders of Oil

This little note is a harbinger of things to come today. I’ll bet you can’t figure out what is about to appear below.


I have noticed that when I have a wood fire (using fuel that is 100% renewable), there is a difference in the way wood burns and the amount of heat it creates. I use two types of wood: pine and walnut.


The pine is easy to start, makes a pretty fire, and burns quickly. The walnut is more difficult to start, burns more slowly, and creates more heat with a smaller amount of wood.


A friend noted that the walnut stores more energy per pound, liter, kilogram, or whatever than the pine. Well, yeah.


Stay tuned.


Robert Bryce, writing in the Chicago Sun Times, pens the following. I would paraphrase, but he surrounds the topic so well. 


“Indeed, like electricity, oil drives economic growth, and economic growth drives oil use. Love it or hate it, if oil didn’t exist, we’d have to invent it. No other fuel can match oil when it comes to energy density, cost, scale, flexibility, or ease of handling and transportation.”


Nearly everything we touch, eat, or wear has been delivered to us by machines that burn gasoline, diesel, or jet fuel. A long time ago, Don Cheatham, a businessman who owned a railroad in Texas, told me, “Without transportation, there is no commerce.” But without oil, there’s no transportation. Therefore, if there’s no oil, there’s no commerce. 


Opponents of oil claim that a super-high-energy density substance that can be deployed for innumerable purposes, from pumping well water in Kenya to emergency generation of electricity in Lower Manhattan, is somehow bad or, even yet, tyrannical. This idea is nonsense on stilts.


Few substances on this side of uranium come close to touching oil when it comes to the essential measure of energy density: the amount of energy (which is measured in joules or BTUs) that can be contained in a given volume or mass. In addition to petroleum’s high energy density, it is stable at standard temperature and pressure, relatively cheap, easily transported, and can be used for everything from making shoelaces to fueling jumbo jets.


Oil’s tyranny of density can be demonstrated by looking at the aviation sector and doing a tiny bit of math. To make the math easy, let’s use metric units. And let’s focus on weight, as that factor is critical in aerospace. The gravimetric energy density of jet fuel is high: about 43 megajoules (million joules) per kilogram. (Low-enriched uranium, by the way, is 3.9 terajoules — trillion joules — per kilogram.)


Keep those numbers in mind as we look at the best-selling jet airliner in aviation history: the Boeing 737. A fully fueled 737-700 holds about 26,000 liters of jet fuel, weighing about 20,500 kilograms. That amount of fuel contains about 880 gigajoules (billion joules) of energy. The maximum take-off weight for the 737-700 is about 78,000 kilograms. Therefore, jet fuel may account for as much as 26 percent of the plane’s weight as it leaves the runway.


Lithium-ion batteries have higher energy density than most other batteries, holding about 150 watt-hours — 540,000 joules — of energy per kilogram. Recall that jet fuel contains about 43 million joules per kilogram or nearly 80 times as much energy. Therefore, if Boeing were trying to replace jet fuel with batteries in the 737-700, it would need about 1.6 million kilograms of lithium-ion batteries. Put another way, to fuel a jetliner like the 737-700 with batteries would require a battery pack that weighs about 21 times as much as the airplane itself.


Prefer to use a “green” fuel like firewood? With an energy density of about 16 megajoules per kilogram, that same 737-700 would require about 55,000 kilograms of wood. With that much kindling onboard, rest assured there won’t be room in the overhead bin for your carry-on bag.


Even at 35,000 feet, the simple truth is obvious: the only tyranny at work in our energy and power systems is that of simple math and elementary-school physics. Obama and Kennedy may not like oil, and their allies on the Left may hate Shell/BP/Marathon/Exxon/Saudi Aramco/Chevron/Keystone XL, but here’s the reality: oil is a miracle substance. Without it, modern society simply would not be possible.


Rather than condemning the fuel that makes modern life possible, our political leaders should be figuring out how we can make oil more available to more people at lower cost.


From my blog a few months ago:

I read in the industry news that we should be focusing on the electrification of vehicles and becoming a charging station for EVs since, in six years, they will be taking over, and we will be the place to charge them outside the home.


But wait. The major suppliers of EVs have cut their production in half for the next year or so. If these suckers are so popular and just flying off the showroom floors, why are they doing that? 


There seem to be a number of reasons for this, including early adaptors, range anxiety, lack of charging stations, and cost.


There is still concern about range anxiety, particularly in cold weather. This, combined with a lack of out-of-home charging stations (and the cost of installing them), has caused many to rethink their buying decisions.


Then there’s the cost—with EV prices up to 30% more than comparable internal-combustion-engine vehicles, dealers are finding that EVs are sitting on the showroom floors while ICE vehicles are selling like hotcakes. 


What’s happening with charging stations, which seem to be the focus of the parking industry? There are issues. Installing level 3 chargers, which are the quick-charge units needed in parking, is horrendously expensive, exceeding $100,000 per unit. The other complaint from EV owners is that the chargers are in poor condition, and up to a quarter or more in many locations are not in service.


Are we, as an industry, listening to our customers (i.e., those who park in our garages or on our streets), or are we caught up in a government-sponsored requirement? Capitalism makes choices, and they are usually the right ones. Can you remember a time when the government, at any level, made choices that were the right ones?


Do we read the headlines that tell the tale, or are we so caught up in the hype that we don’t listen? 

Article contributed by:
John Van Horn, Editor Emeritus
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