Today’s energy world continues to be dominated by fossil fuels in cars, in planes and in power plants. One reason is that crude oil used as a transportation fuel packs an awful lot of energy in a tiny package. It’s a concept known as “energy density,” and it helps us understand why crude became king over time.
In the last four centuries, humans have gone through several so-called “energy transitions.” Each step up has involved a superior product in terms of energy density – in other words, concentrated energy in smaller and smaller packages.
Let’s start in 16th and 17th century Holland. The Dutch burned something called peat, which is moss, very dead moss. Peat played a big role in human development, says historian John McNeill of Georgetown University.
“They burned it in energy-intensive industries,” he said. “Beer brewing. Glass making. Sugar refining.”
Peat, though, doesn’t burn as long or as hot as what came later: Coal.
In the late 18th and 19th centuries, coal-powered steam engines took ships and trains farther. Coal also brought new industrial possibilities, like turning iron ore into steel.
“Coal has an energy density [worth] a couple of multiples of wood, charcoal, peat,” McNeil said.” You can’t, for example, do metallurgical work with a peat flame. You can’t get it hot enough. Coal, you can.
Then, oil was found. Once again, the new fuel offered a higher energy payload for its size and weight. Ever since, oil-based gasoline and jet fuel have dominated much of our energy lives.
Because of carbon pollution, of course, some car drivers instead are driving on electric batteries, which by energy density, are an inferior product. But history shows technology doesn’t always equal destiny.
Let’s go to 1900. The Old Car Festival at the Henry Ford Museum in Michigan is America’s longest-running antique car show.
There are plenty of gas-powered cars from that era. There’s also a 1902 car that runs on steam…
..and an electric car from 1903…
Yes, electric cars go back that far, and they are so quiet you can’t hear them over the noise of the festival.
So why did electric vehicles lose out a century ago? It’s probably not for the reasons you’d think.
Curator Matt Anderson of the Ford Museum says electrics weren’t manly enough for the times.
“Electrics were thought to be the ideal ‘women’s car,’ if you will,” he said. “You don’t have to crank it, so it doesn’t require as much physical strength to get it running and operating. They’re much cleaner than a gasoline automobile, they don’t emit the kind of fumes or exhaust we associate with those cars.”
Which sounds great. Except consumers back then didn’t want that. They wanted a messy adventure machine.
“It made noise, it broke down,” David Kirsch, an automotive historian at the University of Maryland, said of the gas-powered car.
“It was relatively easy to fix,” he said. “So a man could take his girlfriend out into the woods and do what they will. And if he were very lucky the vehicle might break in a way that he could fix it.”
Kirsch’s point is that culture becomes an important wild-card in technology history. It was back then, and could be going forward in ways we can’t predict.
Today, with car sharing, Uber, Zipcar-ing and more automated driving, the nature of travel is slowly changing. Like a century ago, new people are placing new bets on rival fuels. And energy density may not necessarily be the deciding factor this time, either.
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