How The World Really Works and Natural Gas

In my ongoing effort to understand how the world really works, I started listening to How the World Really Works by Vaclav Smil. Smil has a cool origin story:

Growing up in a remote mountain town in the Plzeň Region, Smil cut wood daily to keep the home heated. This provided an early lesson in energy efficiency and density.

Now he lives in cozy Manitoba. Great introduction to the man:

“I have never been wrong on these major energy and environmental issues,” he says, “because I have nothing to sell.”

How the World Really Works can be a tough listen at times, because the gist of it is there are no easy answers, anything’s gonna require tradeoffs. One big takeaway: we’re not getting off fossil fuels any time soon. Sometimes though Smil has a rhetorical flourish that’s sort of fun. Much like Paul Johnson’s Birth of the Modern, however, the book is so overwhelming, so full of information that the result can be a glum feeling as I’m reminded of how much I don’t know, how complex everything is, it can be paralyzing. I see I’m in good company feeling this way:

After reading his first Smil book, [Bill] Gates “felt a little beat up. … Am I ever going to be able to understand all of this?” But he ultimately concluded that “I learn more by reading Vaclav Smil than just about anyone else.”

Natural Gas on the other hand I found quite exciting. Methane, ethane, and propane: you can see why Hank Hill loved the stuff. Smil, impartial though he tries to be, seems to have a soft spot of natural gas.

inhabitants of large northern cities hardly ever think about having their gas supply interrupted because such experiences are exeedingly rare.

Where does this wonderful gas come from?

Methane is produced during strictly anaerobic decomposition of organic matter by species of archaea, with Methanobacter, Mathanococcus, Methanoscarina, and Mathothermobacter being the major methanogenic genera

Here’s some methanobacter:

So we’re talking about the released gases over three billion years or so from prehistoric swamps. It might seem crazy that all that gas comes from the breathing out of life forms. And indeed, some have questioned that:

But what if hydrocarbons were of inorganic, rather than biogenic, origin? That was assumed by Dmitri Ivanovich Mendeleev, Russia’s leading nineteenth-century chemist, and that has been an alternative to the biogeneic explanation offered by the so-called Russian-Urkanian hypothesis about the abiogenic formation of oil and gas in abyssal environments. … Porfir’yev (1959, 1974) had also argued that abiogenic formation of giant oil fields is a better explanation of their origins than assuming truly gigantic accumulations of organic material that would be needed to create such structures…

The American Thomas Gold got in on the act. An astrophysicist, he pointed out that methane exists on planets apparently devoid of life, and theorized that methane:

can from by combining hydrogen and carbon under high temperatures and pressures in the outer mantle, and after this mantle-derived methane migrates it is then converted to heavier hydrocarbons in the upper layers of the Earth’s crust

After giving that a fair hearing, Smil says

I will note here half a dozen of major realities that undermine the abiogenic hypothesis

Submanticular squeezing, the exhaust of ancient wetlands, either way, it’s valuable stuff! The invention of liquified natural gas and compressed natural gas are remarkable examples of human ingenuity, and there may be more to come, but Smil, as usual, notes that energy transitions take a long time, and it won’t be soon that we convert all trucks to methane.

[Energy transitions] incremental progress can be accelerated or retarded by specific policies – but only rarely do such measures result in truly revolutionary shifts; energy systems are too complex and generally fairly long-lived and hence too inertial to be rapidly redirected by deliberate action designed to change their fundamentals. Grand plans aimed at their basic redesgn thus have a very low probability of success, and we are left trying to do the best we can to nudge the process in what we think is the best direction – but we still must keep in mind that, in retrospect, we may find such actions not as beneficial as we thought them to be at the beginning.

It’s not that we haven’t tried to occasional big swing. Smil notes about natural gas extracting:

one of the methods that was not just proposed, but actually tried several times in the United States is truly incredible (an adjective used with restraint).

That was the Plowshare Program, where we detonated underground nuclear bombs to try and loosen up natural gas.

Source on that. Here they are loading up Gasbuggy:


Reading this four decades later has only increased the sense of incredulity: how could these frequent detonations be ever justified in net energy terms, and how could regular detonation of powerful nuclear bombs underneath the grassland, fields and forests of the American West be accepted by the public as routine means of producing gas used for heating and cooking?

Didn’t work.

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