Thursday, February 27, 2014

Book review of Prime Movers of Globalization: the History & Impact of Diesel Engines & Gas Turbines

energyskeptic | Smil makes the case that civilization is based on the billions of engines that make global trade, power plants, transportation, and much more possible.  If you are mechanically minded, you will enjoy his history of the evolution of engines. And if you are afraid to fly, this book may change your mind – airplane turbines are a wonderment, perhaps the pinnacle of engine design, and far safer than they’ve ever been before.

Containerized Ships made globalization and civilization as we know it possible

Over 80% of all cargo moved in the world travels on about 50,000 ships, which burn about 10% of the world’s oil.  They use an order of magnitude less energy than railways and two orders of magnitude less than large long-haul trucks.  Large oil tankers are very efficient fuel-wise.  A 300,000-dead-weight-ton VLCC moving Saudi oil to the USA would only use .7% of the fuel to make the 12,400 mile journey.

Marine diesel engines run on heavy bunker fuel, a black tar-like substance with lots of impurities (sulfur can be 4.5%).

Exports grew from 1% of gross world product (GWP) in 1950 to 29% in 2007.  Almost a third of the world’s wealth is now created by international trade.

My favorite book on this topic is Levinson’s “The Box”. He shows how containerization of ships, trains, and trucks made globalization possible.  For example, until containerization, the cost of transporting shoes from Chicago to Kansas City was so great that shoes were made locally.  Now you can ship shoes from China to Chicago for less than they can be made in Chicago – transportation costs are often less than 1% of the overall cost of the product.

I used to work for a shipping line, and could see that it was mainly raw materials heading from the USA to Asia (wastepaper, food, cotton), with finished goods returning.

The company I worked for had no oil tankers or break-bulk carriers, so I never realized that the main commodity shipped by weight are fossil fuels.
  • Oil: 37% of all cargo on ships (Wiki Oil). 45% of the oil is from the Middle East
  • Coal: 43% of all cargo on trains in the USA (Wiki Rail)
  • Other essential goods: 25% (iron ore, phosphates, grain, etc.)
If anyone doubted that fossil fuels are the lifeblood of civilization, surely this dispels any doubts!
Other stats on sea-borne dry bulk commodities:
  • Coal. 790 Mt. 85% of all coal exports, 75% of that for electricity generation
  • Iron ore. 792 Mt. 44% of all iron ore
  • Grain. 300 Mt. 19% of all cereal grains
  • Bauxite and Alumina 82 Mt. 30%.
  • Phosphates. 30 Mt. 20% of all phosphates.
Other bulk goods shipped: Steel 270 Mt, Wood 175 Mt, Coke, pig, scrap iron, mineral ores, cement 335 Mt, dry bulk agricultural products (mainly sugar, fertilizer, feed meals) 275 Mt.

That made me wonder if the life-span of the 4,300 oil tankers will be a factor in how much longer civilization will last, since they wear and rust apart within decades.  Worse yet, they’re being scrapped after only 21 years now — long before they need to because they’re so unprofitable (Bimco).  These oil carriers are so large they can comprise 91% of the weight of all ships scrapped.
On the other hand, oil has been on a plateau of production since 2005 and will soon start declining, so fewer ships will be needed.  And the exporting countries remaining are likely to keep more of their oil for themselves (Wiki ELM).