Living Columns & Blogs

Much better than the good old days

I like experiments that have dramatic results — preferably explosions or at least a good fire.

A series of excellent historical experiments helped give us energy resources beyond what earlier generations even imagined possible. The story of those explosions and fires predict the basic path of our next stride into an energy-rich future.

William Murdoch was an early Scottish engineer who had the same fondness for dramatic experiments that I do. He took the water out of his mother’s teakettle, put coal inside it, and applied heat. Quickly enough, he found that the gases coming out the teakettle spout would burn. He had invented “coal gas” and laid the foundation for gaslight.

Coal gas is filthy, and it often contains carbon monoxide. But it was better than using whale-blubber oil for dim lamps — the common alternative at the time. Soon enough, major cities had large industrial sites where coal was heated each day in great boilers. Pipes carried the resulting gases under streets for gaslight on the street and later in houses. Eventually, even some cook stoves in homes used coal gas for fuel.

From time to time, coal gas created dramatic explosions and fires. And from time to time, gas leaks containing carbon monoxide killed people more quietly — but such were the hazards our forbearers endured in exchange for light in long, dark winters and for a convenient way of cooking supper.

Running the lighting and cooking needs of whole cities on coal gas meant a lot of daily work to manufacture the fuel. Coal gas was a major industry around the world. But we geologists were doing some simple experiments and making deductions on our own, and in time we found a much cleaner and nicely flammable gas in the Earth.

This gas burned cleaner and brighter than coal gas, and it didn’t have to be made fresh each day in enormous boilers. Because the new gas wasn’t manufactured, but was a natural product of the Earth, we called it “natural gas.” Obviously, people the world around still use a lot of natural gas each day, for heating homes, cooking supper and — more and more — turning steam turbines to generate electricity.

In the process of mining the Earth for natural gas, a smaller amount of propane is produced. You know propane as the bottled fuel that commonly runs backyard barbecues. My beloved 1972 travel trailer has a propane cook stove in it, but it also has a propane gaslight above the stove – a last “shout out,” as the young people would say, to the old days of using burning gas for light. The lamp does work, but it immediately reminds me of the phrase “more heat than light” each time I fire it up.

I really only use the propane lamp for fun — because of yet another technological revolution.

A couple years back, I bolted a solar panel to the roof of my aging trailer. It easily recharges an old truck battery, on which I run a high-efficiency fluorescent light that’s more than bright enough to read by for hours.

A friend of mine who works for the National Park Service lives off-the-grid and without electricity in the woods of northeast Washington State. He and his good wife raised two sons with a single solar panel that powered one light. That was the only illumination the family had for reading and doing homework each evening, all winter long. (By the way, both of the sons have now earned graduate degrees in engineering. They are hard at work contributing to the next round of technological advancements people will take for granted 30 years from now.)

Here’s the bottom line. We are living better, step-by-step, because of the progress of science and engineering. Whale blubber, coal gas, and propane lamps are all in our past. They won’t resurface because we have better options emerging from the innovation that’s a daily habit at research universities and forward-looking companies across the country.

Hang in there. I know the economy is amazingly difficult. But I also know much better times are on the horizon.

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