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Progressive X Prize

Respect is due to a company that underwrites in order to make available the NPR programs I love. But when I hear the touting of ?X prize to make a car that can get 100 miles per gallon? it seems to be targeting a nonetheless limited scope of perspective. The presumption is made that petroleum is what will move a car. While higher efficiency, represents an advancement in engineering, what makes ?cars getting 100 miles per gallon? seem nowhere near a ?race to a finish,? is that it is stuck in the problems presented by internal combustion, petroleum powered vehicles. Progressive? True, speaking from within current technology, rather than advancing beyond, gives an impression of a well-grounded company, but the line beyond which to advance should be seen as the limitation of fossil fuel. Progressive speculation may be of systems of fuels from harvested energy sources such as geo, wind, and solar. In such a case, energy per volume of these fuels would not be so much relevant to that of petroleum. For example, a car getting 10 miles per gallon volume is not a drawback if the fuel is non-polluting, cheap, and is as obtainable as tap water. Is there much room for progress, or has the novelty of internal combustion, petroleum powered vehicles yet to wear off?

In A Word, Yes!

Well, first off, as no viable alternative has yet emerged I think it is still entirely relevant to try to increase the efficiency of fossil fuel powered cars.

Secondly, most of what is done to get very high MPG figures has practically nothing to do with the engine itself-- it’s all about building a body that’s light weight and aerodynamic and a drivetrain that transmits power efficiently. All of these will be important for making viable alternative fueled vehicles as the major hurtle for most of these alternatives is that they have much lower energy contents than fossil fuels and so cars that use that energy more efficiently are a must.

I feel that “the powers that be” (and they are not the government) are not going to allow us to power our personal transportation vehicles with products other than ones derived from crude oil. We are locked very firmly by economics and small powerful groups into using crude oil. And there is a lot of crude oil out there to be had. When I read geo,wind,solar I also read “pipe dream” Its not the way I want it just the way its going to go.

It gotta be petroleum there pardner!

Despite the ideology some corporations wish to foster, petroleum is not energy itself so much as it is one way in which solar energy has been accumulated. In this way as fuel, energy can be applied to produce work - getting from point A to point B, or, giving the impression of doing something. The cost/benefit of fossil fuels, including petroleum, might now have been reached or, even exceeded, however. This should be no reason to halt progress, no reason to not move on toward more. The striving could be in the direction of more suitable fuels manufactured utilizing solar/geo/wind energy. More intelligent translation of energy into work could mean more accomplishment and progress. From better, more precise and accurate directing of energy into work, would come in the process of producing work, less inadvertent undoing of order (pollution, damage to health, etc.); and thus real progress.

Wah c’mon; I can quit any time pardner!

Knowing that it is not the way you want it is, I would venture, productive; for it could be analyzed that “They” is an ultimately conceptual reality. They might be we, and we is really you.

Whatever powers a car has to run cleanly, reliably, and dependably day after day after day regardless of the temperature and regardless of the weather. It has to be able to be driven across the country and back without inconvenience as well as to the corner store every day. It has to accelerate well enough to merge with 70mph traffic and creep along over parking lot speed bumps with equal comfort and ease. And it has to do all this for hundreds of thousands of miles without complaint. If it should break, it has to be able to be repaired whether you’re 5 miles from home or 2000 miles from home. It has to be compact enough to still allow four passengers and luggage in a reasonable size vehicle. And it has to be able to replenish it’s fuel supply indefinitely and almost anywhere.

And it has to be affordable.

In today’s world with today’s nationwide infrastructures the gasoline engine is really the only power plant that can do all this. In all this talk about alternatives, we seem to forget that the gas engine truely is a marvel.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m in favor of seeking alternatives. Personally I believe someday after I’m gone electric cars will be the norm, and the origin of the electricity will perhaps be a renewable resource. But we’re not there yet. In the meantime, a prize for a 100 mpg USABLE vehicle makes sense to me.

There is some discussion among scientists over whether gasoline is a product of solar energy. It’s looking more and more that oil is the product by geo-thermal biomass … that is, oil is the product of micro-organisms that live in the earths mantel using the heat from the earth for energy. If this is the case, oil could be produced by developing geo-bio-mass “farms”.

As far as global warming is concerned, unless we can develop strategies to keep the earth cool, we are going to have to live in a hotter world. Carbon dioxide concentrations have varied widely long before the invention of the automobile and even if we never ran another gas engine, the earths temperature has a way to climb before reaching equilibrium with the atmospheric gas mixture.

Do the rules for the X prize specify a weight for the 100MPG vehicle? I can win the prize if the weight is less than 20 lbs.

Gary-- it is not a big mystery how petroleum forms and any argument about whether it is a product of solar energy would be entirely one of schematics. Basically, it is formed by organic matter being heated and compressed by burial at depths of tens of kilometers. Microorganisms (or anything else) do not live any deeper than a few meters, so other than contributing some of the organic material they have nothing to do with it.

The work you may be thinking about is that there’s been some research into bacteria that can convert organic matter into hydrocarbons. These are man-made organisms, though, and nobody is suggesting that this is the process by which petroleum forms in nature. It’s interesting research, but it’s nothing revolutionary so far, since after all from a carbon balance point of view this would be no different than ethanol or other bio fuels though it might have the potential to be more efficient.

Basically almost all fossil fuels come from burial of plant matter and, to a lesser extent, of microorganisms. Plants do use sunlight for energy, but they also use CO2 (and soil nutrients) and their tissues are mostly carbon based. In the normal course of things, when they die they get eaten by oxygen breathing animals and decomposers who eventually turn the carbon plant material back into atmospheric CO2. The ancient plants that made up the source rocks for fossil fuels, however, got buried before they could be eaten or decompose and so the carbon in their tissues was taken out of circulation, with the result of lower atmospheric CO2 and generally lower temperatures. When we burn the resulting oil or coal, however, we’re putting that carbon back into circulation, which increases the overall atmospheric CO2, which is why continued use of fossil fuels is a problem.

So, yes, perhaps it is accurate to say that they’re just stored solar energy in the sense that all life on Earth owes its existence to the sun’s energy, but the fact remains that burning fossil fuels and putting more CO2 into circulation increases the greenhouse effect, wheras using direct solar energy doesn’t.

Micro-organisms have been found in quantity miles below the surface of the earth. While it’s true that prehistoric forests could be compressed into coal beds, no satisfactory answer has been provided for the quantity and location of oil deposits. Oil deposits are located far below the remains any forests. Many oil deposits are located at depths associated with a time long before life existed on the surface of the earth.

Read “The deep hot biosphere” by Thomas Gold (he helped put the first man on the moon). Gold’s ideas are being accepted by increasing numbers of scientists.

It sounds like he was a smart guy, but he was definitely wrong about this. And his ideas are definitely not being accepted by an increasing number of scientists-- to the contrary his idea of a generally static universe and Earth has been largely rejected in the face of a mountain of evidence for a very dynamic and ever-changing one.

Petroleum formation was a bit more of an open question under the various theories that existed before plate tectonics gained widespread acceptance, but our present understanding of petroleum formation, migration and storage has proven enormously accurate in predicting where it will be found when drilling. Pretty much every major oil field has a very clear source of ancient organic material and a very clear tectonic/structural process of burial. And I will mail you a crisp $100 bill if you can show me an example of an oil field with a pre-Cambrian (i.e. before complex life) source rock-- there aren’t any.

I thought it was interesting that Gold’s theories were similar to the models preferred by Soviet scientists. Part of the reason for the more recent oil and gas boom in Russia is that the old model simply did not work for predicting where you would find oil and gas and it wasn’t until the break up of the Soviet union that widespread petroleum exploration based on the modern understanding of petroleum geology allowed for the large-scale exploitation of these reserves. (An interesting what-if scenario would be what would have happened if the Soviet Union had been able to exploit these resources).

As for deeper microorganisms, they’ve found some organisms that welled out of deep sea vents and some terrestrial hot springs, but these are very simple organisms that are not capable of the complex chemical processes required to make petroleum. They are extremely interesting in terms of the origins of life and in terms of extraterrestrial life, though.

His ideas are not impossible, but since there’s no real evidence for them and the present model works great I don’t see any reason to believe them. (Except for the fact that it opens up the possibility that we’re NOT running out of oil, which I suspect is why we’re still hearing about them today).

You have stated the situation well. Your statement might also illustrate how our reality can structure and conform to our technology: the means become the end.

But he does answer the question of why oil is found at great depths. No one seems to have any idea of why oil is found well below a depth that harbors any trace of ancient surface life.

We seem to be too willing to accept the theory that huge volumes of a prehistoric mixture or rotting vegetation and creatures got covered over with a rock crust and then sunk thousands of feet below the earths surface. Sounds like a UFO answer to the problem (blame it on aliens).

I’ll go with a theory that makes sense.

The record (fossil and trapped atmosphere samples) documents the global temperature response to fluctuations in atmospheric CO2. From the trapped atmosphere samples, it is known that the current CO2 levels have sharply risen far above anything on record. The amount of carbon taken out of storage (fossil fuel) is also known. The anticipated consequences therefore would be more than conjure or speculation. The past occurrence of massive volcanic events and the variation of earth to sun distance cannot, as I see, affect this argument. On line at this time for this country is elimination of CO2 build up and other gaseous pollutants from electrical power production. That leaves transportation.

Sorry, I’m not aware of oil found at depths below that harboring life. All the oil fields I’ve worked on, from Alaska to Argentina, occur in formations laid down long after the beginning of life. Oil doesn’t come from squashed dinosaurs, it is sourced from thick beds of shales, typicallly laid down in oceans or shallow seas. Heat and pressure chemically transform the kerogen into liquid hydrocarbons, which slowly flow upwards until trapped by a geologic structure. All pretty well understood.

Drillers in Sweden found traces of oil at 25,000 feet drilling through solid granite. Traces of oil seem to exist almost everywhere. Shale is simply ancient dried mud, it would be difficult to extract oil from mud.

I have no trouble with the idea that oil is the product of biomass. I have a lot of trouble understanding how a volatile liquid ends up 5 miles below the earth surface. As for oil drilling … drillers simply drill into geological formations that form suitable catchments for hydrocarbons … and they usually find oil to some degree.

You really need to read more about it. Have you not heard of ‘oil shale’, shale formations in the western US that contain many billions of barrels of oil? You can actually light some samples. Major efforts are ongoing to extract the oil from the shale. Oil gets five miles deep because five miles of rock (or more) have been deposited. There are TEN miles of sand and shale deposits along the Gulf coast. As for the Sweden drilling, yes, they found traces of methane, not oil, in very small quantities. If that theory was correct, we would not find oil and gas in major sedimentary basins. But we do…

It used to just be a matter of drilling into where you knew there was oil-bearing formations, but in most places all the oil that can be found that way was found and extracted a long time ago.

In the 70’s and 80’s when oil was just starting to get difficult to find, a lot of oil companies didn’t really buy the biologic origins of fossil fuels either, but when the companies that used geologists that really understood petroleum formation started getting successful wells almost every time versus random “wildcat” wells that very rarely produced anything, companies started taking notice. Nowadays lots of fields where it was known that there was some oil from wildcat wells, but which failed to consistently produce now do because they model the area based on the fossil fuel model.

The key in things like those drillers in Sweden, etc is “traces”. Finding a few microscopic splotches of highly matured petroleum is very different from finding large amounts of commercially-viable oil. Shale makes a great source rock because the fine-grained sediments that it is made up of are very effective at preserving organic material and the fact that shale is by and large the most common petroleum source rock is still more evidence for petroleum as a fossil fuel.

As for the depth, most oil fields are in basins where there was sediment deposition for millions and millions of years-- all that material builds up an enormous amount of weight. The Earth’s crust responds to this weight and subsides, and as more material accumulates, the depth of these sediment piles can reach many many kilometers (google “isostacy” for more). If there’s any kind of tensional force that’s causing the crust to thin and subside anyways (such as the failed rift basin in the Persian gulf region) it can also massively increase the depth of sediment that accumulates in a basin.

If you happen to live by a university with a good geology program, often they’ll offer petroleum geology for non-major classes that you might consider taking if you have a real interest in the topic.