Feb 242008
Virgin Atlantic pulled off an interesting little stunt the other day. They flew a Boeing 747 across the Atlantic. Well, that’s not so interesting. What’s interesting is that one of its four engines was fueled by biodiesel—in this case a mixture of oils from babassu nuts and coconuts. Ultimately, this act barely addresses any of the questions surrounding the future of our transportation system. But even though it’s just a stunt, I don’t disapprove, because I think it’s important to raise people’s awareness of the monumental challenge we are going to face in this century, one that has profound implications for our ongoing prosperity and the global economy.

Like I said, the trip itself accomplished little. As a practical matter it established that at least some biofuel blends remain liquid enough to use as fuel at temperatures and pressures experienced by airplanes. The concern in this case isn’t just that the biofuel will turn into a solid or a gel; it’s also a possibility that a biofuel could remain liquid but become too viscous for efficient jet engine operation. Fortunately, that didn’t happen (the other three engines had conventional jet fuel in case it did).

However, that’s about it. We have no particular reason to believe that the existing tracts of babassu and coconut will provide sufficient fuel to replace the hydrocarbon uses of airplanes. The current batch was produced in such a way that it didn’t interfere with food production, but hey, it only powered a quarter of a single transatlantic flight. Does the world produce enough babassu nuts and coconuts in a year to supply fuel for a single day’s worth of flights? This is a pervasive problem with the biofuels approach. The most optimistic estimates about switchgrass ethanol suggest that it would replace no more than 30% of current petroleum use. That means we are going to have a serious problem.

The increasingly global nature of the economy means that many goods travel a very long way. The raw materials must be shipped, often to a factory in a different country. Once assembled, the manufactured goods must be shipped to the US, often overseas. Once they reach the US, they must be distributed, a process that sometimes involves rail but always involves an 18-wheeler or panel truck at some point. This is a lot of shipping, and the feasibility of biofuels to replace the energy source at any point is completely unproven. I don’t think anyone doubts that biodiesel can power a ship if you have enough, but there’s no evidence that we can produce enough. Even if we manage to produce sufficient yields of biofuels they may be significantly more expensive than the present plentiful oil. Of course, they will eventually become more economical than oil, but this will not be through any virtue of their own.

Supplies of oil will become increasingly tight. In the past, spikes in oil prices were driven by speculation or market interference by OPEC. But within the next few decades we will start to see oil prices rising because of supply scarcity. And because the resource is not renewable, once those prices start going up they will never go down until demand collapses. What this means is endless inflation. Oil permeates our economy. It provides the raw materials for our goods from drugs to sneakers, and the for the plastic in which those goods are encased and protected. It provides the energy and lubrication for the machines that transport those goods to our markets, and for the machines that carry us from our widely distributed homes to those markets and back. Parts of the markets themselves are constructed from materials made from oil and they were built by machines that ran on petroleum. The effective price of goods will be inflated at every single one of those steps.

This will murder the economies of developing countries. The only way to keep prices down at US destinations will be to either re-industrialize America or treat already underpaid workers in foreign countries even more terribly than they already are. Neither bodes well for these developing countries. Stagnant economies will only add to the damage likely to result from global warming, resulting in enormous instability. Stagflation on a global scale will pound the last nail into the coffin of the already-tenuous pax Americana unless we do something.

The Virgin flight is valuable because it emphasizes the need to plan for petroleum scarcity now. Scrambling to replace oil once we’re past peak production is a fool’s game. Biofuels such as those used in this stunt will probably not be the answer, but we cannot even know that without further research. Research money from DoD, USDA, and DoE should be funneled into this field now to establish the most viable means of replacing petroleum and mitigating demand. Otherwise the global economy will run aground when the great oil tide recedes, with all hands lost.

  2 Responses to “Planes Flying on Plants? What’s Next?”

  1. Hi,

    Just want to point out that your comment that a 747 was flown "across the Atlantic" is a bit misleading. In fact, they flew the plane from London to Amsterdam, a flight that could have lasted no more than 1 or 1.5 hours, tops. "Across the Atlantic" means Europe<–>US in aviation circles.

    Hope all is well.

  2. You're right; that was just sloppiness on my part. I conflated transatlantic flight and transatlantic jet. Doesn't matter to the point, though.

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