Monday 26 August 2019

No need for gloom over oil

THE 'Future Shock' programme shown on RTE 1 last Monday night highlighted the imminence of peak oil and the drastic effects it could have on our lives. It was an excellent, thought-provoking show but it left a distinctly gloomy tone by the end.

The alternatives to oil were touched upon but generally dismissed as insufficient for maintaining our current standard of living. That need not be the case. Firstly, much electricity can be sourced from wind and wave power although these can be unpredictable. Few people, however, consider our most consistent potential source of renewable electricity - the Gulf Stream. Researchers at the University of Limerick are working on utilising that tremendous resource.

The documentary reminded us, however, that electricity cannot supply our demand for the consumable products and liquid fuels currently made from oil. UL researchers have been working for some time on obtaining oil-type substances, with uses far beyond transport fuel, from carbohydrate-containing organic materials.

The assumption provided by the documentary that there is not enough landmass on the planet to fuel global fuel requirements was based on the growing of high-input food crops and utilising unsophisticated technologies. There are, however, new technologies that can provide us with ethanol from cheap, highly productive biomass for about €2.5 a gallon at this time, and possibly €1.3 per gallon in five years.

We could meet our petrol biofuel requirements for 2010 just by utilising, in a biorefinery, the municipal waste destined for incineration in Poolbeg. A similar amount could come from processing the 400,000 tonnes of waste paper that is currently shipped each year to China and burned there.

There is no need for gloom in Ireland. The post-oil economy need not shrink, as predicted by the programme. Instead we could soon see an oil-free Ireland based on biomass, maximal utilisation of wastes, and cheap renewable energy.

Daniel J Hayes
IRCSET Research Student
Chemical and Environmental Sciences
University of Limerick

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