Peak Oil: You Electric Car & Bike Owners Needn’t Be So Smug
Peak oil - what does it mean? Well, demand finally exceeds production capacity by a long way and at the same time, available oil to get out of the ground starts to run out. Oil, oil-based products, or anything that uses oil for transportation (i.e. everything) gets a whole lot more expensive.
We’re talking supply-and-demand 101 here. The oil doesn’t run out, but it’s dwindling supply cannot keep pace with demand, so prices rocket.
Now some of you might be thinking that you can rely on "green" versions of business-as-usual, and that once you can get your electric supply from hydro- tidal- and wind-power sources, then everything will be fine. You can drive your electric cars, and ride your electric bikes like nothing much has changed, AND fluffy bunnie-wunnies will be saved!
There’s a problem in this though - lithium.
That’s the stuff that goes into those nice, small, rechargeable batteries we all use now. And it too is a finite resource. So some time soon, we could be facing "Peak Lithium".
I was initially not too phased about this - I remember doing physics at school, and was sure that lithium is the element at No. 3 in the atomic table. What’s on earth now has to have come from somewhere (like the debris of an exploding star?). So surely, we could just make some more - take three parts hydrogen and smash ‘em together really hard and Ta-daaa! Lithium! Along the way, we’d be running a fusion reaction, so we’d probably get all the clean energy we wanted to power those electric vehicles with.
I googled how to do this . . . and came up blank. Hmmm. So then I thought that maybe you could only make lithium from fission. Not so good, as it’d probably be the radioactive byproduct of some sort of nasty reaction . . . but the ends may well justify the means. But gooooooogle came up with a blank on that one too.
So I emailed a friend who’s a proper physicist to ask how to go about this. And it’s not good news, I’m afraid:
Unfortunately you are not even going to make lithium by exploding a star, the conditions in stars tends to destroy any lithium that gets created. If you shoot some neutrons at lithium it tends to break up into hydrogen isotopes. I therefore suspect that the conditions required to make lithium (i.e. really hot) is also going to destroy lithium.
Pretty much all the lithium we have is believed to have come from the big bang and I’m not sure how to make one of those (if I knew I would have done it years ago). These days its just being depleted as it gets burned in stars.
You may want to put a disclaimer about the dangers of attempting nucleosythesis experiments at home.
But then I hit on an alternative idea. If the problem is that supply of lithium or oil for that matter is less than demand, and that this will increase prices . . . then why not make more money with which to out-bid the competition?
Turns out that you can make gold! Wikipedia explains all:
Using fast neutrons , the mercury isotope 198 Hg, which composes 9.97% of natural mercury, can be converted by splitting off a neutron and becoming 197 Hg, which then disintegrates to stable gold. This reaction, however, possesses a smaller activation cross-section and is feasible only with un-moderated reactors. It is also possible to eject several neutrons with very high energy into the other mercury isotopes in order to form 197 Hg. However such high-energy neutrons can be produced only by particle accelerators .
OK - there’s a whole lot of techno-stuff there, but in essence, all we need is a high energy particle accelerator and a big vat of mercury. We can then convert almost 10% of this into nice, stable, easily-traded gold.
I’m off to Geneva to see if the guys at CERN will lend me theirs. Along the way, I intend to buy a job lot of old thermometers off EBay . . .
. . . or we could just accept that business-as-usual has no future, and start considering right now what a low-energy, low-carbon economy will have to look like.