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« Economic and Military Competition | Main | Googling CRN »

June 28, 2005


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michael vassar

There are literally dozens of technologies that could replace oil, from shale oil to thermal depolymerization to self-assembled solar powered polymers to many of the nanoscale technologies I put on your wiki.

Tom Craver

If it were only a matter of economics and free trade, I think it'd work itself out. But there are political impacts also.

For example, China will be very hard hit, as oil imports get more expensive and demand for their exports falls. The Chinese people have tolerated their government as things kept improving materially - but will that continue in bad times?

The classic recipe for dealing with a population made restless by a bad economy is to rally them into a patriotic ferver against outside enemies, and preach sacrifice for the homeland. In China's case, I'm sure it'd mostly be the US's fault - we use too much oil, don't buy enough goods, keep Taiwan separate, etc.

Chris Phoenix, CRN

Michael, how agile are those technologies? How fast could they be implemented?

I'm seeing a systemic reluctance to admit that oil supply might be inadequate. Large-scale installation depends on development and "proving in the field" on a smaller scale If development is only started after oil prices rise high enough to guarantee profitability, then it could be quite a few years after that point that enough capacity is installed to make a difference. What do we do in the meantime?

Molecular manufacturing may be developed for other reasons (e.g. military) but it will be an extremely agile technology, with low development cost and high development speed (reducing the risk of rapid rollout of new technologies) and capable of installing planet-scale infrastructure in months. Of course, MM may not reach the agile nanofactory stage for another ten years or more, and severe oil production shortfalls may happen a lot sooner than that. So I'm certainly not counting on MM to save us from peak oil. But I am saying that it could rapidly reverse the shortfall once it arrives--unless, of course, bad policy intervenes.


Chris Phoenix, CRN

Tom, what could the Chinese (people or government) actually do to the US that would satisfy a foreign-enemy role? Attacking us, either conventionally or with nukes, would be senseless. They could destroy us economically, of course. And then expand closer to home. Hm...

In this scenario, China would wait as long as possible while continuing to acquire foreign high-tech and industrial investment. Then they'd dump their dollars, causing US economic collapse and worldwide recession/disruption. As the US lost global power, China would nationalize their foreign-owned industries and become essentially self-sufficient. With most nations in survival mode and unable to reinforce each other, China would invade eastern Russia, collecting lots of energy. Or they'd just make Russia an economic offer they couldn't refuse. Depending on how profound the collapse was, they might also find that several nearby Asian nations were easy pickings.

Rather than militarism, they might inspire their people by saying that the collapse of the US proved the failure of the capitalist model, and thus the fitness of Communism. The corruption of capitalism is responsible for the economic pain so many of you have been feeling recently. Please pardon the inconvenience while we remodel back to the good old days when the State took care of every citizen's welfare... things will be better after the next Five Year Plan.

US trade with China is out of balance by fifteen billion dollars per month. That sounds like China is subsidizing the consumerism of each inhabitant of the US to the tune of almost $2 per day. If you were China, wouldn't you trade massive amounts of foreign debt holdings for a chance to be the world's only superpower? That move will be increasingly attractive as time goes by.

Someone please tell me I'm wrong... please point out some reason why this scenario is implausible!


michael vassar

Re China. I agree that Chinese economic implosion due to increased oil prices is the major real "peak oil" concern. Even if they can't hurt the US, Chinese unrest could bring about the sort of humanitarian crisis characteristic of China... the kind that actually appreciably impacts the global death rate.

Assuming that the Chinese government is really extrordinarily smart and aggressive for a government, they might do exactly as Chris suggests. I had already thought of similar scenarios. Chris doing the same suggests that they are easier to think up than I had hoped. This isn't good. It shows the value of openness though. I would be reluctant to publish a scenario like this one because I wouldn't want to increase the probability of its occurance. By doing so, I would reduce the probability of pro-active action. Maybe I should view CRNs openness regarding MNT development possibilities in a similar light.

No oil-replacing technology is extremely agile, but the knowledge that they exist should limit panic, and the existance of US strategic petroleum reserves should enable us to cut our imports by 5% (a huge amount compared to any rapid changes) and appreciably reduce global price for six months or so, long enough for people to adjust their lifestyles to improve efficiency by at least 5% and long enough for substantial progress towards exploiting the Alaska wildlife reserve. Alaska and further efficiency improvements should buy us another few years for capital deployment, and given high enough potential profits that should be enough. Sadly, all of this depends on the government not acting to reduce prices until they are high enough to drive massive investment. If the fed acts too early things could get bad.

I also think that there could be a speculative "peak oil" bubble where much money could be made even absent an actual global financial shift by anyone here *hint* who can analyze commodities markets well (probably with software).


Here's why peak oil will be a non-event:




Plenty of things to take over from oil.

Furthermore, the whole peak oil doom scenario is assuming oil exists in a fixed quantity. I suppose God must have put it in the earth. He gave us too little on purpose because he doesn't want us to reach the Singularity. That would provide too much competition.

Getting back to reality... oil is abiotic. Oil fields once dry pump up tenfold of what they gave when they were first discovered. Furthermore, you can find yet more oil by simply drilling deeper.

michael vassar

Jay, abiotic oil is a hypothesis that I don't have time to explore right now, but even if its true it doesn't imply generation fast enough to fill up the current set of depleted wells. More importantly, even if old wells from decades ago are now full, no-one believes in abiotic oil so no-one will actually tap them.
I basically agree that peak oil is probably overblown, and have said so on Marshall Brain's blog and here as well, but
a) a price explosion could still happen in the short term, which could provide good profit opportunities but which might increase geopolitical instability, and
b) sufficiently bad government policy in reaction to rising oil prices could screw things up pretty badly.



On peakoiloptimist.blogspot.com you can probably find some articles about oil wells spewing up more than eightfold of what they gave years before. The fact that oilfields refill at rapid rates is already known to the (apparently) few people who have actually bothered to take a look at wells that were supposed to be dry.

These oilrefilling rates are pretty fast, or so I read. Fast enough to keep us going for at least a few decades. And that is all we need. A few decades from now, nanotech will have revolutionized renewables, and we'll look back on all of this as if it were a bad dream.

Tom Craver

Everyone posting here has already pretty much agreed with Marshall's position that replacements for oil are possible - alternative energy sources and increases in efficiency. Abiotic oil is one such possibility. Generally most such alternatives are harder to get - requiring either more effort (more expensive) or technical improvements (requiring substantial up-front investment) - else we'd aleady be tapping them.

I think we're talking about the likelihood that the transition from cheap oil is likely to cause problems. If it were purely an economic issue, there'd be a fairly short period of "creative destruction", and life would go on getting better as our technological capabilities and access to and efficient use of energy and resources improves faster than population grows.

But humans don't like to suffer, and most won't understand that it's a temporary condition rather than the beginning of the end - people also tend to favor apocalyptic and conspiratorial interpretations of events, and listen eagerly to anyone who preaches those things. They'll accept such views with far less evidence than they'll accept less attractive or less easily understandable ideas (such as evolution).

Those who have become rich on the old technology (oil extraction, refining, distribution) will tend to resist change, preferring to use political maneuvering to claim a larger share of a dwindling pie, rather than take the harder and much riskier path of trying to push forward alternatives. (Who knows whether the "winner" be solar, wind, shale oil, tar sands, coal, etc?)

Those in politics will see opportunities to increase their power, and few of those ways will mean taking the high path of simply helping push for alternative energy. Dissidents will use the economic difficulties to criticize government, while those in government will see suppressing such criticism as a way to curry favor with their superiors.

Nations may see the transition as an opportunity to achieve long-desired goals - China to reclaim Taiwan, Europe and Russia to recover power relative to the US, rogue nations to sponser terrorists to make things even worse for the US, etc.


Be sure to check out one of Marshall's sources:


It's the one that states we can (relatively) easily solve this energy thingy by putting down lots of solar panels. Here is an interesting quote:

"We find that we would need an area of 1.29 x 104 square miles, which is an area 100 miles by 129 miles, to completely power the US."

In other words: the technology to prevent any peak oil doomsday scenario already exists, today. It's right here, right now.

This fact will make it so that this peak oil stuff will indeed be worked out in the natural way: through normal economic market mechanisms.

michael vassar

And what is the cost of harvesting solar power and using it to make fuel for vehicles and establishing an infrastructure for said fuel and making the correct improvements to the grid etc? How long will it take? Most importantly, will it actually get done?
Resources aren't always used in the most efficient manner. I would actually be stupified if a well managed Nanhattan project starting now wasn't faster and cheaper than any alternative even if one only considers the energy applications AND one assumes that oil prices will go back to pre-OPEC levels this decade, but that doesn't mean it will happen. I would also be stupified if everyone deciding not to hurt one another any more wasn't cheaper than having armies, police, prisons, etc. It isn't useful to be Utopian and say "people, if they were all to behave optimally, could solve their problems and be happy". The relevant question is always, "can I resolve to behave rationally enough that I will be able to solve the problem at hand and to choose the correct problem". Sometimes someone else really will do it. Often even. But its possible to make meaningful estimates of how likely it is that someone else will solve a problem so that you can choose to work on the problems that will not be solved without your efforts.
Theories to make it more possible to do this would be really useful.


Take that analysis to the next step, Jay. Estimate the cheapest cost next-generation solar cells (I think Nanosolar's will be cheap, but I don't know by how much), and how many of those will be needed to complete such a large array. Find out the annual infrastructure service costs too, and some property value figures. A few droughts and the associated brownouts/blackouts will probably spur some serious government investment in alternate technologies along with public conservation practices.


The ironic thing is that hydrogen fuel cells, solar cells and flywheel batteries will all require substantial amounts of next-generation carbon nanotubes. Guess who the world's leading producer of CNTs is? China!!

Kevin McCarrell

I think the suggestion that nano-material enabled solar-cells are a very likely solution to any potential energy crisis is a quite well-founded idea (see http://www.earthtoys.com/news.php?section=view&id=763). Some people seem to answer with "molecular manufacturing" before the question is even asked.

I would be interested to see the statistics on CNT production by country. I doubt cdnprodigy's claim that China is the world's leading producer. CNI is supposed to be far and away the leader in CNT production and they're based in the US. The only thing I could find is a three year old report that said, "Today, there are 16 major producers, half in the United States. This number is growing, however, and Japan, Korea, China and France have all announced industrial-scale nanotube production facilities that should be online within about three years." Found here: http://www.mindbranch.com/listing/product/R98-093.html



I don't understand what exactly you mean by 'taking it to the next step', but what I did want to add to my previous post is this...

That solar panel analysis was done years ago in 99. Solar panels have increased exponentially in efficiency. I'd guess the area that needs covering is now way smaller.

Solar panels will start to get competative with conventional power sources around 2010. Will we even need to cover a patch of land? Perhaps a manufacturer will come up with a personal power unit... an efficient solar panel with a nanocoating that will allow a person to power (part of) his private electrical devices. I know it's already possible to do this today... a girl that posts on betterhumans.com has already done it. She lives off sunrays, man.

If personal power units like these become available, then the world's energy supply will automatically become more and more decentralized (as predicted by Kurzweil) as more people buy the unit.

Now that I've mentioned Kurzweil... I wish he'd give his take on the peak oil matter. He's such an insightful guy.


Sorry, I thought NTP had CNI beat as the world's CNT production volume leader. Looks like CNI is ahead by a few tonnes/yr, though precise NTP figures are tough to come by. A Japanese consortium is ramping up a plant targeting a few 100 tonnes/yr for 2007. And I've googled a report whoch claims South Korea will be the volume leader in 2010. In an industry adding capacity 10X every two years, dominated by a few major players, I shouldn't make such hasty claims.
Many of the energy solutions will come from Asian research programmes, so short-term protectionist oil maneurverings against China probably won't be in anyone's best interest. Jay, I was just trying to get an estimate at what price per barrel solar would be competitive, it is the type of technology which can be incrementally implemented. I also wanted to estimate when global industrial CNT capacity could support such a large grid. China is my pick for potentially the most dangerous Nanhattan to keep tabs on, but does not seem to be a special class of risk on its own. I would expect an American or Russian Nanhattan to similiarly screw up MM administration. Recently checking out some MM pathways, and it looks like corporate patents could be major impediments; don't think CEO types wil make good MM administrators... Chinese life-expectancy rates rising should be good for the world's economies. Exporting consumer culture seems more like a dark victory for America than a defeat; her economic problems really have nothing to do with China. I think tools used to enable MM might follow the same curves as semiconductor lithography tools: some sort of MM substrate manipulation/resolution Moore's Law and exponentially increasing high-end SPM prices. This suggests "safe-MM effort" capital should be invested at high growth rates and only cashed out for equipment near the very end of a research programme (this also suggests diffusion of tech. info is only dangerous towards the end of a MM programme). High end personnel seem to be the most inelastic variable; if safe-MM efforts could monopolize the Freitas's, Drexler's, and Phoenix's of the world, they would have a substantial advantage when the time came to purchase equipment. Numerous lesser technicians and engineers could be readied ahead of time by learning the specifics of various pathways and spreading the meme to those who will also spread the meme (time is on our side here). Playing oil on the commodities market is risky. We know the price will rise and fall over the next few years, but the exact timescale is tricky. Safer is to buy the alternative energy companies, even safer is to buy the 3Ms of the world, even safer is to buy the cheap chemical companies with materials research divisions, and even safer is to play the cheap bank stocks in resource heavy countries who will also benefit from a US currency fall.

Chris Phoenix, CRN

Cdnprodigy, some of the tools will get more expensive as they get more capable, but some will get less expensive. For example, DNA synthesizers. And as more enabling technologies and general nanoscale tricks come online, it will take fewer tools.

So I don't think your strategy is sound. I'm suspicious of any MM-related strategy that says "Wait for..."


Tom Craver

It'd take about 2.5sq-m of current solar panels to replace 1 barrel of oil a year, assuming fixed solar panels. Maybe around $2500, installed, with mass production to keep costs down. Call it $1500 if inexpensive reflectors are used to concentrate light on a smaller solar panel.

Figure 20 years to replacement, and perhaps 5% interest above inflation if you'd invested that money in some low risk investment. To break even compared to other investment, (assuming all income is invested into more solar, and that the value of the panels falls to zero after 20 years), you'd need to earn about 6.7% of $1500 or $100/year - so equivalent to $100/barrel of oil.

BTW - it looks like the solar "tower of power" concept would cost about $1000 to replace 1 barrel of oil a year, or about $67/barrel, and it produces energy even into the night, so there's little need for energy storage as there would be with solar panels. However, it's "land hungry" - only producing about 8KW per acre. About 60x as much land required for the same energy, but land is a lot cheaper than solar panels.

Richard Jones

A couple of points: Jay's quite right to point out that the total areas required for solar power to fulfill all needs are manageable. The cost problem of solar cells currently is well known; what is less well known is the problem of scale-up. Production of silicon solar cells is currently growing at more than 25% a year, which is impressive until you realise it is from a very low base - total world annual solar cell production is only a few square kilometers, not even a GW in total power. Silicon technology is just not very scalable. It's this need to find technologies with outputs that can be quickly scaled up to many square kilometer areas that's driving development of unconventional photovoltaics like Gratzel cells and polymer solar cells. See http://www.softmachines.org/wordpress/index.php?p=52 for some figures.

As for China's place in all this, there's an interesting article about energy in China in this week's Nature. It points out that they are making substantial investments in coal liquification, driven by a fear of being too dependent on foreign (particularly Russian) oil. They have many hundreds of years of coal left. This is not likely to be good for the environment, either in China or globally.


If 60X the land needed for conventional solar arrays is needed for "tower" concepts, I don't think the latter is viable, even in desert areas. 5-10 yrs from now, I expect inflation in the USA to be low double digits, so this implies oil at almost $200 a barrel for an adequate ROE on solar panels if panel costs don't come down below $1500 to replace a barrel of oil. Scale up from the CNT end of things doesn't look to be much of a problem; many of the manufacturers claim to be able to ramp up their production if more customers can be found. Higher energy prices are a tax on productivity: so what?


I know about a lot of oil alternatives (namely all the ones listed at alteng.blogspot.com), but this one really takes the cake:


It's about a machine that turns anything into oil. It's not just an inventors dream: a 20 million dollar machine like this is already installed and working. It's a proven concept. Just follow the link to the source.

I really do believe that no peak oil doomsday person can deny this baby and stick with his gloom&doom opinion.

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