Can civilisation reboot without fossil fuels?

Thursday, April 30th, 2015

Is it possible to build an industrialised civilisation without fossil fuels? Maybe:

On the face of it, it’s not beyond the bounds of possibility that a progressing society could construct electrical generators and couple them to simple windmills and waterwheels, later progressing to wind turbines and hydroelectric dams. In a world without fossil fuels, one might envisage an electrified civilisation that largely bypasses combustion engines, building its transport infrastructure around electric trains and trams for long-distance and urban transport. I say ‘largely’. We couldn’t get round it all together.

While the electric motor could perhaps replace the coal-burning steam engine for mechanical applications, society, as we’ve already seen, also relies upon thermal energy to drive the essential chemical and physical transformations it needs. How could an industrialising society produce crucial building materials such as iron and steel, brick, mortar, cement and glass without resorting to deposits of coal?


An alternative is to generate high temperatures using solar power directly. Rather than relying on photovoltaic panels, concentrated solar thermal farms use giant mirrors to focus the sun’s rays onto a small spot. The heat concentrated in this way can be exploited to drive certain chemical or industrial processes, or else to raise steam and drive a generator. Even so, it is difficult (for example) to produce the very high temperatures inside an iron-smelting blast furnace using such a system. What’s more, it goes without saying that the effectiveness of concentrated solar power depends strongly on the local climate.

No, when it comes to generating the white heat demanded by modern industry, there are few good options but to burn stuff.

But that doesn’t mean the stuff we burn necessarily has to be fossil fuels.

Lewis Dartnell wrote The Knowledge: How to Rebuild Civilization in the Aftermath of a Cataclysm.


  1. Slovenian Guest says:

    Fossil fuels almost gone… is he high?

    We will never EVER “run out” of coal, petroleum & natural gas, it is more likely the four horsemen of the apocalypse will ride into town.

    Like Al Fin i believe oil will even reach “peak demand” before it reaches “peak supply”!

    Tho burning fire ice does sound apocalyptic…

    Scientists ball park the obtainable amount of this “methane ice” in the oceans to about 40000 trillion cubic feet (and to put it in perspective, the US consumes around 25 trillion cubic feet of natural gas a year).

    “But that doesn’t mean the stuff we burn necessarily has to be fossil fuels.”

    It does and it has, because peak oil isn’t what it used to be.

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