Opinion Piece
How secure is our food supply?-Replacing oil with alternative energy sources

There is enough gas in the oil wells to replace current oil consumption (in its entirety) for the next 50 years. After that, the only hydrocarbon in abundance is coal. Dirty old coal. It would have to be 'gasified' in coking oven - like the 1850's, to make 'coal gas'. The result is huge mounds of 'coked' coal, tars, and stink. Coal is heavy, often full of sulfuric acid-producing chemicals, expensive to cart, expensive to mine. You can run vehicle on coal gas, or on electricity from burning coal. But not many, and not cheaply.

Coal is much more likely to be desperately needed for grinding into coal dust for firing directly into thermal electricity generation stations.


Powering homes and commercial buildings directly from the sun
" Nov. 1, 1999 - A solar cell that can convert sunlight to electricity at a record-setting  32% efficiency has been developed by the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) National  Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) and (Hughs Corporations subsidiary) Spectrolab...the  photovoltaic cell was measured this month at an efficiency of 32.3% at the laboratory's Solar  Energy Research Facility. The efficiency of a solar cell is the percentage of sunlight it converts to  electricity"  So says the NREL press release. What does it mean?

Until now, the primary market for this type of solar cell has been for use by satellites. The addition of a low cost germanium substrate to the conventional "gallium indium phosphide on gallium arsenide" design, plus inexpensive mirrors to concentrate the sunlight on the cells may open the door for affordable mass production for use on earth. Whether the Hughes Electronics and the DOE's collaberation actually bears affordable fruit remains to be seen. We can only hope its potential is realized.
Otherwise we may have to look to other energy sources. Such as fermenting waste parts of plants to make ethanol for fuel.

Biomass to make ethanol - does it use more energy than it creates?
July 29, 1999 - The 'vision' of Americas  Department Of Energy is  "Growing Energy to Power America" - helping develop and grow a domestic biomass industry to produce not just power, but fuels and chemicals from crop residues, trees and biological waste.

A stated  goal is to make a "ton of biomass"produce the equivalent value of a barrel of imported oil.  A bill has been introduced to set aside $300 million over six years for bioenergy research and development. The benefits the bills proponents are touting are-

Whether it is another subsidy junket to benefit sectorial interests, or whether the energy biomass can produce outweighs 'inputs' of energy in manufacture and use of machinery, fertiliser manufacture and use, transport and distribution, remains to be seen..

Nov. 10, 1999 - The USA Department Of Energys (DOE) 'National Renewable Energy  Laboratory' (NREL) has signed an agreement with a Californian Business - which plans to ferment waste rice straw to produce ethanol - to license the use of the NREL's patented strains of bacteria. These genetically engineered organisms (Zymomonas mobilis) ferment not just the 6 carbon sugar glucose, the norm for most 'biocatalysts' as these fermentation organisms are known, but also simultaneously ferment 5 carbon sugars. This added capability expands the amount of biomass that the organism can break down to ethanol -by 'up to' 40% more, in fact. The pilot production plant will be based in Sacremento, California.
When the oil is very expensive, and finally effectively runs out, its most likely back to steam for most of us. But steam in the age of technology. Steam bicycles will be back folks, but high-tech steam bikes!

Steam is back - but clean this time
11 November 1999- "Australian scientists have perfected a new-age combustion technology, which is poised to clean up greenhouse gas emissions, slash energy costs and significantly boost productivity." says the media release.
What have the aussies done? Invented a way of 'pulsing' flames with sound waves to burn fuel highly efficiently, creating high temperatures, but with low fuel consumption. And best of all, the noxious gas emission levels are far below the strictest environmental standards. According to the researchers,  "zero levels of total hydrocarbon (THC) and carbon monoxide (CO) are attainable."
The specially configured burning chamber helps the fuel 'burn twice', the sound waves create their own aspiration of air, so fans aren't required, and the vibration helps the combustion chamber to be self cleaning.
The current thinking is that it is ideal for industrial boilers and steel foundries. But it wouldn't take much to harness the concept to new generation steam locomotives, or, once miniaturised, the old steam bicycle....
One way to save money is not to spend it.

One way to save energy is not to spend it unwisely. This is perhaps a little oblique to the issue, but the present farmland 'bean and grain' based agriculture uses more oil calories  than the calory value of the food it produces!
Grassland farming, on the other hand, produces an energy 'surplus' over each calory of oil burned in production.
The USDA estimates:

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