#3 Lithium

Lithium (Li) is not a stable substance. The pure metal has to be stored under oil because it will oxidize immediately on contact with air. It will react explosively to water. One does not find pure lithium metal in a natural setting.

The main ore of lithium is spodumene. It’s a silicate mineral, LiAl(SiO3)2, and it is extracted via hard rock mining. The largest spodumene deposit in the world is in the Congo (DRC). The ore is roasted to a very high temperature (900 C) and the lithium is extracted with various reagents. Much of the mined lithium is marketed as lithium hydroxide, LiOH. This material is used in the ceramics industry and of course in the manufacture of lithium-ion batteries.

Lithium is present in brines, typically as lithium carbonate (LiCO3). Chile is a major source. The brines are pumped to the surface and evaporated from large pans. The remaining salts are processed to obtain the lithium. Lithium carbonate is an important medicine in treating mental illness. And of course this stuff is needed for the manufacture of lithium-ion batteries.

Electric vehicles (EVs) need these batteries. Li-ion batteries can hold enough charge to power the motors for a long enough time, they can be recharged over and over again, and they are light enough to lug around in the trunk mile after mile. But light they are not. An EV’s batteries can be 1000 pounds! EVs are heavier than gas-guzzlers because those big Li-ion battery packs weigh a lot.

We’ve all used Li-ion batteries and battery packs in rechargeable and cordless products. They are everywhere. And their use will continue to grow. Wood Mackenzie says we’ll use five times more than we use now by 2030. Those folks are in the forecasting business so maybe they know something. It certainly isn’t hard to imagine our society wanting more of something! A look at the graph below will show you the impact of all that demand for Li-ion batteries—capitalism in action.

That means more mining, of course. The greening of the economy will require the largest investment in resource extraction in history. Lithium compounds are just one piece of the puzzle.


The folks at random.org care about randomness. An honest set of dice will generate random numbers. There is a fixed range, and the outcomes are predictable by the laws of probability (you’ll get more sevens than threes), but each individual roll has an unpredictable outcome. Something is random if you can’t predict it.

If a computer generates random numbers they are not truly random. A computer has to follow an instruction set and if a number is created in response to a programming command then it is not random but deterministic. A computer can create a list of pseudo-random numbers, that is, numbers that show enough variety that they appear to be random. This works well for many purposes but not always for cryptography. Modern encryption techniques involve doing math with randomly-generated number sequences. Such pseudo-random numbers are not necessarily good enough. If a computer program created a list of such numbers in theory that method could then be re-created and thus the entire encryption scheme compromised.

True randomness requires nature, that is, a physical phenomenon. Radioactivity is truly random. A pile of radioactive material will decay at a predictable rate, but which individual atoms will decay and when they will decay are not predictable. Those are random events.

At random.org they use atmospheric noise. Tune your radio to a frequency between stations. You get “hash” or radio noise from all the electromagnetic activity in the atmosphere. That’s random.

Here’s one of the tools you can use at random.org:

I chose the numbers 1-92 because that’s how many elements there are. At least, elements that occur in nature. The “trans-uranium” elements (beyond 92) are synthetic—they are created in the lab.

So I’m going to get a randomly-generated list containing the numerals 1 through 92 and each represents a chemical element. It would be like putting the names on cards and tossing them in a hat and then pulling them out one-by-one.

The list is my next writing project. I’m going to do a post about each of the 92 elements. My new randomly-generated list will give me the sequence! I could have used a simple pseudo-random list, but I was intrigued by the random.org website. And I could have decided to do them alphabetically, or in the order they appear on the periodic table, or whatnot. But I went with random, so that’s what you’ll get.

My first element is #3, Lithium. I’ve posted about lithium before but it never hurts to review. Lithium is very fashionable these days so we should all be up-to-speed.

4. Ammonia


No, not THAT kind of ammonia!

That kind of ammonia (“household” ammonia) isn’t used for cleaning around the house much these days. People switched to bleach or one of the many other cleaning products out there that don’t smell so bad.

Household ammonia is a dilute solution of ammonium hydroxide, made by bubbling ammonia gas into water. Ammonia gas (NH3) is synthesized from hydrogen and nitrogen. That process, called Haber-Bosch, was invented in the early 20th century and revolutionized world agriculture. No longer did farms have to depend on an increasingly variable supply of biological materials like manure, guano, kelp, fish meal, etc. Now ammonia-based nitrogen fertilizers could be manufactured to meet demand.

In some cases ammonia gas is injected directly into fields. In other cases the nitrogen is made available in a different compound, synthesized from ammonia. Regardless, ammonia production is crucial to feeding the human race. And ammonia production is costly, energy-wise. It is estimated that 1% of all the world’s energy is used to make nitrogen-based fertilizers. Right now most of the hydrogen used in ammonia synthesis comes from natural gas, and the high-pressure steam heating required is supplied by fossil fuels. There are greener pathways for making ammonia, but none currently compete with existing technologies.


The “organic” farming movement has gained a lot of traction in the US. We are wealthy enough and have an abundant food supply so consumers can be picky about what they eat and where it comes from. Much of the world does not have that luxury. But the organic farmers have a point: industrial agriculture is not sustainable. Right now we are eating our oil! The energy requirements of the modern farm are immense and as the world population grows the demand for food will increase and thus more and more energy will be required.

Advances in herbicides, pesticides, fertilizers and soil amendments, tractors and farm machinery, crop breeding, and genetics have enabled fewer and fewer people to grow more and more food. Before WWII American farmers could get, if they were lucky, two tonnes* of corn (maize) per hectare**. Now they routinely get ten! But that five-fold increase is not going to happen again. We aren’t going to get some magic technological bullet that will suddenly double our yields. Growing enough food to feed the world will continue to require very large inputs of energy.

Innovations will be needed of course, this is why people are excited about biotechnology. GMOs are here to stay and we’ll need more of them in the future. But we also have to face our choices and our consumption patterns. There is a belief that advances in science will be sufficient to take care of our environmental problems. This is not so. Most of our problems are social, economic, and political. Solving those kinds of problems is much trickier than inventing new stuff. We have to work together and you know how hard that is! The whole world wants to eat as well as we do. It’s a fair thing to want. What’s it going to take to get there?

*tonne = 1 metric ton = 1000 kilograms = approx. 2200 pounds

**hectare = 10,000 square meters (100m x 100m) = approx 2.5 acres

3. Plastics

Mr. McGuire: I want to say one word to you. Just one word.

Benjamin: Yes, sir.

Mr. McGuire: Are you listening?

Benjamin: Yes, I am.

Mr. McGuire: Plastics.

It’s from The Graduate, a very popular Mike Nichols film from 1967, just in case you don’t already know that. The screenplay is from Buck Henry and Calder Willingham and the movie made Dustin Hoffman a star.

Plastics are everywhere. The modern world is a plastic one. Plastics are made from hydrocarbons. They don’t have to be. You can make plastics from cellulose—rayon is a good example. You can make plastics from bio-molecules like starches and proteins. There are potato plastics and corn plastics and soybean plastics and whatnot.

But what we mean when we say “plastic” is the stuff made from oil and gas. In chemistry things that have a carbon-atom backbone are called “organic.” It was assumed for a long time that certain types of compounds—amino acids are a good example—could only be created by living things. Then a fellow named Wohler synthesized urea (a byproduct of protein metabolism in mammals, secreted in the urine) from “inorganic” compounds. Crushed rocks. Stuff not made of dead things. And people realized that a molecule was a molecule and its origin was not so important. Thus synthetic chemistry was born. People starting making their own molecules that mimicked “natural” ones. Plastics were born.

Plastics are polymers, just like starches. The most famous of all polymers is DNA. But it is the hydrocarbon polymers, mostly made with ethylene, that make up our plastic world. If you take “organic” chemistry in college you don’t learn about herbicide-free farming. You learn about polymers (and other stuff) and it matters not if they occur in nature or are made in a factory. Chemistry is chemistry is chemistry.

The plastics we make from petroleum have made our cars lighter and thus improved the gas mileage. That’s an environmental good. But most of the plastics are “one-use” and then they become garbage. That’s an environmental bad. All technologies are like this. There is no free lunch. Every decision we make about how to use a natural resource will come with consequences. It’s not about a consequence-free invention or innovation: that’s a fantasy. It’s about understanding and appreciating the consequences of our choices. It’s about making informed choices, and choices that value the future, and the well-being of all over short-term gains.

About 200 million metric tons of ethylene were produced worldwide in 2020 and that is expected to increase to 300 million tonnes by 2025. The US market alone is over 40 million tons. Again, ethylene can stand in as a proxy for the wealth of a nation. We’ve all heard of “polyethylene” plastics. Connect together many small ethylene molecules, like links in a chain, and you get poly-ethylene. Polyethylenes make up a third of the plastics market.

Spend your day looking around you. Think about all the different plastics you encounter. How many of them could you replace with something better? Chemists will continue to innovate and create new plastics. What do we want from these materials? And how do we get there?

2. Iron and Steel

Historians used to tell us that the growth of human civilization was broken into three stages: the Stone Age, the Bronze Age, and and Iron Age. Nowadays we know these distinctions to be over-simplified. Nonetheless the emergence of iron and steel in human history was a major turning point.

Bronze is an alloy of copper and tin. Both of these metals have been known since antiquity. The natural ores for both copper and tin are easy to smelt. Temperatures in the 250 to 350 Celsius range (600 Fahrenheit) can be obtained in fireplaces and thus early peoples could work these materials.

Iron is another story. The separation of iron from its ore requires a lot of heat energy. Charcoal is needed to smelt iron ore and more specialized furnaces are required. Temperatures have to be in the 1250 Celsius (2300 Fahrenheit) range. Thus it is reasonable that iron (and steel) emerged later in human history.

One of the key moments in the so-called Industrial Revolution was the invention of the modern blast furnace. Steel is iron that contains small amounts of carbon. Controlling the carbon content changes the brittle pig iron and wrought iron into the tougher and more malleable steel. The blast furnace made the conversion of iron to steel cheaper and more efficient and gave more control over the quality of the final product.

Today steel is made with coke which is a charcoal made from coal, not wood. The demand for “met” (metallurgical) or coking coal is growing even as the demand for thermal coal is declining. The production of virgin steel needs a lot of coke. Recycled scrap steel is worked in an electric arc furnace which does not need coke. Most electric arc furnaces are powered by natural gas which provides the energy for the electric current generation. Steel melts at about 1500 Celsius (2700 Fahrenheit) so you can see that the energy needs are still very high. Recycling of scrap steel is a well-established industry and the energy savings from virgin steel production are significant. Most manufactured steel is recycled as scrap when its lifespan is reached. Think of all the auto junkyards—those are scrap metal stockpiles.

World demand for steel is of course on the increase. As countries like China and India, the two most populous in the world, improve their standards of living they will build more modern-style buildings and consume more modern devices like vehicles and tools. Energy consumption is the true measure of wealth. Americans consume more energy per capita than everyone else. It is only natural that poorer nations will seek to emulate American economic gains and attempt to deliver a better life for their citizens. That means they will consume greater quantities of primary energy sources (coal, oil, natural gas, nuclear fuel) and seek to build more energy generating technologies (solar panels, hydroelectric dams, wind turbines). Demand for all the natural resources will accelerate in the coming decades. This is an inescapable fact of economic growth! Economic growth is the Holy Grail of Western societies and the obvious benefits are plain to all. The rest of the world wants what we take for granted.

But economic growth comes with environmental costs. This is another inescapable fact of modern life. Can we get there without polluting our world to the point of making it un-inhabitable? Yes, but it will take a lot of creative people working together. And we will have to revisit our notions of wealth and freedom and reevaluate our needs regarding comfort, leisure, and consumer goods.

Here’s a graph that shows the significance of iron processing and steel manufacturing in the overall industrial sector:


The most important rule of all is “you can’t get something for nothing.” Whatever we want, whatever we do, comes at a cost. What’s it worth to us?

1. Cement and Concrete

Continuing with our look at “the four pillars” of modern civilization I want to talk about the numero uno, cement and concrete.

Concrete is the world’s most ubiquitous and most important building material. The Romans were expert concrete engineers. Some of their remarkable constructions are still standing. Things like grouts, stuccos, and mortars have been around since antiquity. The versatility of modern concrete allows it to be used to make roads, bridges, canals, piers, and all types of buildings. It can be poured in place or pre-cast. It can be used for floors, walls, ceilings, counters, roofs, retaining walls, foundations, benches, tables, and too many other things to list. It is lightweight, durable, fireproof, and a good insulator. We make pipes out of the stuff and those pipes bring us fresh water and carry away our wastewater. It can be shaped, molded, colored, and finished in an astonishing variety of ways. There is no modern world without concrete.

Concrete is actually a “greener” choice than other materials because it can be made locally and thus avoid transport costs (both economic and environmental). It’s easy to work with and does not require particularly specialized skills and tools. Homeowners can do amazing stuff with concrete with a modest investment. Obviously there are applications of concrete that demand engineering and construction expertise but that’s true of any building material. Rough-framing a house with 2 x 4s is accessible to many ordinary folks—building a wooden boat less so.

The problem with concrete is cement. Cement is the necessary ingredient. It’s actually only a small part of the mix. The rock, sand, and gravel (“aggregate”) is the biggest part with water taking up the rest. The cement is the binder that holds it all together and thus the most important part. Concrete is formed when the mix of cement, aggregate, and water “cures” and hardens. It doesn’t dry. When the mix loses water too fast the result is brittle. Water molecules are taken up by the cement and help to form the crystalline matrix that results in the final product. Concretes can take many years to fully cure.

Cement is made from limestone, mostly. Silicates and oxides, primarily from clays, are the other components. The problem is that this stuff has to be heated to very high temperatures. Not only does this kilning process use large amounts of fuel it also releases carbon dioxide as part of the process. Limestone is CaCO3 and when it is cooked it forms “lime” or calcium oxide (CaO). You can see that the leftover stuff is CO2! Ain’t chemistry grand?

Cement is made when limestone and the clay minerals are baked together to form lumps called “clinker.” The clinker is then crushed and gypsum (calcium sulfate, CaSO4) and other additives are mixed in. The stuff is ground to a powder much finer than flour. If you’ve ever gotten Portland cement on your hands or clothes you know what that’s like!

Thomas Edison was a big believer in concrete as a building material and he did a lot of work to improve the kilns and the kilning process to make the manufacturing of cement cheaper and more efficient. He also invented the modern rotary crusher that all cement plants use. He was remarkable in that he concerned himself with so many different things. The light bulb was a tiny part of his many accomplishments.


Here’s the rub. Making cement is very energy intensive. The industry is responsible for, as you can see, a large chunk of greenhouse gas emissions.

On the one hand we have a fabulous building material that can be used for almost anything all over the world by almost anyone. On the other hand we have a key ingredient that requires a highly polluting industrial base to create.

This is the dilemma we face as a civilization. So, we have to come up with alternative ingredients that require less energy and we have to come up with better ways to heat the stuff we already use. Many of these technological problems are solvable. Engineers love these kinds of challenges. I’ve no doubt that we will see many innovations in the coming decade that will “decarbonize” the industry. Unfortunately technological innovation is only one part of the puzzle. The economics have to work, too, and the adoption of new techniques and practices will take time. Environmental problems are social and political problems, not just scientific ones.

Climate change is an obvious existential threat. It will take a global effort to work on it. Mostly those efforts will involve education, awareness, and a willingness to take on a personal responsibility for “doing your part.” And it won’t be easy. Our modern, high-energy, high-consumption way of life will have to evolve. We aren’t going to like it, but we don’t like lots of things but do them anyway because they need to get done.

All this to say be suspicious of the techno-optimists and techno-utopians who claim that science will solve all our problems. It won’t. The problems are ours, created by our values and our institutions. We can only change those things by working together to make a better world, by recognizing our limitations and our past mistakes. Humility and empathy are virtues we are all capable of, and those are the things we need going forward. And curious and creative people who like to learn, grow, and tackle tricky things!

The Four Pillars

Vaclav Smil likes to look at what he calls “the four pillars of civilization“: cement, steel, plastics, and ammonia.

Cement is the key ingredient of concrete. The other two ingredients are aggregate (sand, gravel, etc.) and water. We often use the words “cement” and “concrete” interchangeably but one precedes the other. Cement is the fine, gray powdery stuff we buy in 90-lb. sacks. Concrete is what happens when we mix cement with the aggregate and water, form it into place, and allow it to cure and thus harden. In fact what we call “cement trucks” are really “concrete mixer trucks.”

But the distinction, at least for the purposes of this discussion, are not so important. Cement is useless by itself. It is important because it is the key constituent of the most important of all building materials—concrete. Global cement production is an enormous industry, on the order of four billion metric tons per year. A metric ton (or “tonne”) is 1000 kilograms or about 2200 pounds. My 2019 Honda CR-V checks in at 3400 pounds or about 1.5 metric tons, so the world manufactures approximately 2.7 BILLION Honda CR-Vs worth of cement!

The next most important building material is steel. I suppose it is silly to rank concrete above steel, and I don’t mean to imply that one is “above” the other. In fact the two go hand-in-hand. Most concrete is steel-reinforced. Concrete has wonderful compressive strength. It doesn’t crush easily and that’s why it makes good foundations. But it lacks torsional strength. If it is subject to twisting forces it cracks and crumbles and falls apart. Next time you see a construction site look carefully at the various metal rods sticking out of the concrete forms. Freeway overpasses are a good place to see this. Without the reinforcing materials concrete would have very limited applications.

But steels are used as building materials in their own right, of course, and are the preferred substance for car and plane bodies, household goods, tools of all sizes, and so on. The stuff is so ubiquitous it is hardly worth listing the various uses. Just take a look around and you will see some kind of steel wherever you are.

World steel production is about two billion metric tons per year. Steel is an alloy. Its primary constituent is iron. Iron ore is mined globally. Almost all of it goes into steelmaking. Fortunately steel can be recycled and with modern electric arc furnaces less steel needs to be made directly from ore. Iron is found in nature as an oxide and it takes a lot of energy to separate the large mass of oxygen atoms from the iron atoms. The other chemicals used in steel are carbon and manganese which usually account for less than 2% of the alloy. Stainless steels rely on chromium and can contain up to 10% of that metal. Steels have been used, like concretes and mortars, since antiquity.

Nothing so symbolizes the modern world better than plastics. The word means “malleable” but is applied particularly to the hydrocarbon-based stuff we see all around us. It is the replacement of ancient materials (wood, wool, leather, metals, etc.) by plastics that mark our times. World production of plastics is just under 400 million metric tons per year and growing. Most plastics are used in packaging but there are so many other uses mostly because there are a huge variety of plastic types. We are familiar with many of them, from PET (soda bottles) to nylon (rain gear) to polycarbonate (eyeglass lenses) to ABS (keyboards) to PVC (pipes) to polystyrene (yogurt containers).

The feedstock for plastic production is mostly natural gas but crude oil and naphtha are also important. In fact the types of plastics and their production methods are so varied that it is impossible to estimate how much of our hydrocarbon resources are devoted to making plastics. It’s estimated that all the humans on earth weigh a combined 300 million tonnes so that gives you some idea of the scale of plastic production!

The fourth and final pillar of our civilization is ammonia. I’m not talking about the stinky stuff people mop floors with. That’s “household ammonia” or a dilute solution of ammonium hydroxide. Ammonia is gas. Household ammonia is made by bubbling this gas through water.

Ammonia (NH3) is produced from air (the source of the nitrogen) and natural gas (the source of the hydrogen). It’s a very energy-intensive endeavor. Over 200 million metric tons are produced per year. If you want to measure the degree of wealth and industrial development of a country look at their ammonia production. Another indicator would be sulfuric acid. One could argue that sulfuric acid ought to be included as a “pillar” of the modern world.

Ammonia is needed to make fertilizer. Without fertilizer most of us would starve to death. Or, at least, we’d spend our days much like our ancient forbears, laboring in the field from sunup to sunset producing our food. We have more people than ever in history and yet we produce far more food, especially per acre, and a smaller and smaller percentage of our population is directly involved in food production. In olden days everyone was a farmer. Now hardly anyone (in a modern country) is a farmer. This is because of synthetic fertilizers primarily produced from ammonia. Not to mention tractors, herbicides and insecticides, crop breeding, and the rest! The “organic” farmer uses fertilizers, too, just ones made from compost, manure, guano, blood meal, bonemeal, fish emulsion, kelp and the like. Without fertilizer there would be no large-scale food production, organic or otherwise.

Regardless of your personal philosophy, ideology, or political leanings, there are some basic facts about the world that are not arguable. We would do well to study such things. The facts about these physical and biological constraints ought to unify us. We all have to breathe, drink, eat, and be sheltered from the elements. A close look at energetics and ecological principles makes it clear that our political solutions are based on many false assumptions. Let’s strip away the crap and focus on the real problems at hand. A good place to start is with Smil’s “four pillars.” You may disagree with his priorities but you can’t argue with his numbers. In other words, maybe you think we shouldn’t make so much steel and concrete and we should devote that energy to other things. OK, that’s fair. Get your pencil-and-paper out and sketch an alternative!

Just don’t neglect the basic science and math. If you don’t put numbers on your notions, you’re just adding to the babble. I can’t measure the babble but there’s certainly too much of it.

Nightmare Alley

Tyrone Power was something of a Brad Pitt/George Clooney heartthrob in 1947, famous for swashbuckling roles and manly action movies. The former Marine pilot was a serious actor however, and wanted to stretch himself to play more complex figures. He convinced his studio bosses to buy William Lindsay Gresham’s recently-released novel Nightmare Alley and make a movie of it, casting himself in the lead. The movie was a flop then but has cemented itself as a noir classic today.

Gresham, it seems, was a dark soul. Fighting in Spain for the doomed Republican cause against Franco’s Fascists, he heard stories of carnival life from a fellow traveler. Gresham was particularly enthralled (and horrified) by the geek, a peculiar attraction in these roadshows, a man so desperate he made his livelihood in a cage biting off the heads of chickens and snakes. I should note that Billboard continued to place ads by carnivals looking for geeks up until the 1960s.

In the story an ambitious, intelligent, but aimless young man, Stanton Carlisle, takes a job in a carnival. Like Gresham he’s shocked by the depravity of the geek and vows to never let himself get so low. In fact he climbs the ranks of the carny hierarchy to the mind-reading act, ultimately stealing the secrets from an older performer and then killing him to cover up his theft. Carlisle leaves the two-bit tent parade with one of the young women in the show and they make it on the vaudeville circuit and settle in New York City. But life as a “mentalist” is still too low-brow for Stanton and he decides to go for the big time and he enters the “spook racket.” Spiritualism was popular stuff then—séances, communicating with the dead, that sort of thing. Stanton attempts his biggest con, fleecing a rich industrialist with a shady past with an elaborate con involving a long-dead girlfriend. In the end his young partner can’t follow through on the deception and the whole scheme falls apart. Stanton had hooked up with a crooked psychologist, Dr. Lillith Ritter, who was a silent partner in the grift. She winds up double-crossing him so even the payoff goes sour.

Carlisle goes on the lam and, in the end, finds that his only choice is to become, you guessed it, the carnival geek. It’s a dark tale, to be sure. Gresham’s nightmare alley is life itself. It’s a recurring motif in the novel, a vision of the walls closing in and a desperate run to a daylight escape that Stan never reaches. Gresham himself was an alcoholic and his life was a series of tragedies despite the success of his book. He wrote extensively on carnivals, con men, hucksters, fake spiritualists and the like and his work today is considered authoritative. He committed suicide in 1962 at the age of 53.

The movie had to be tamed a bit, this was Hollywood after all, but much of the book’s bleakness remains. Power is superb and he’s backed by noir stalwart Coleen Gray as Molly, his luckless assistant, and Helen Walker does a terrifying femme fatale as the coolly detached Dr. Ritter. The producers even built a full working carnival and hired some genuine acts to give the film authenticity. The novel is far more depraved and cynical and revels in the underground argot of that subculture but it is thoroughly gripping. It’s structured using a tarot deck (all the chapters are the cards of the major arcana) and the symbolism is woven throughout. In the movie former vaudevillian Joan Blondell gets the role of Mademoiselle Zeena, the fortune-teller who first takes Stan under her wing. Unlike her protégé she takes the readings of the cards seriously and they foreshadow his fall.

There’s a remake of Nightmare Alley out there. Director Guillermo del Toro’s big budget feature was released in December. I’ll get a look at it soon I hope and report back. I’m intrigued, for sure.

The carnival circuit may be a thing of the past but we certainly are not without its barkers and come-ons and phony acts. The working carny saw the world filled with rubes and suckers. Anyone not in on the “gaff” was fair game for a shakedown. That was small-time stuff, though. We live in the big-time world of grift, from Donald Trump to Elon Musk to Mark Zuckerberg to Dr. Oz, and those guys mean business. They work on a global scale, not just on small-town hicks. Whether it’s crypto-currency or multi-level marketing we live in a new golden age for the con man.

Keep your wallet in your pocket. And watch the movie (or read the book) if you need reminding!

Big ol’ jet airliner

Hawai’i is 2400 miles from California and 3800 miles from Japan. It is literally in the middle of nowhere. It is one the most remote places on earth, yet it is inhabited by 1.5 million people.

How do people live in such a place, let alone have a modern civilization?

Simple: jet fuel. Hawai’i consumes a lot of jet fuel. Sixty percent of all the petroleum products consumed in the Aloha State are jet fuels. There’s obviously a big military presence in Hawai’i and one expects they are big consumers of both aviation and marine fuels.

But one has to get to Hawai’i first, and that means jet travel. Going by boat means at least five or six days. That’s too slow for modern folks.

Jet fuel is mostly kerosene-based. Kerosene is sometimes called paraffin or lamp oil. Kerosene is distilled from crude oil between 150 and 275 degrees Celsius. It’s about 80% as dense as water. Most of the hydrocarbons in kerosene contain between nine and twenty carbon atoms per molecule.

Jet fuel is not aviation gasoline (“av gas”). That stuff is used in internal combustion, spark-fired engines. Av gas fuels your buddy’s Cessna and is similar to motor vehicle gas. Jet fuel is more like diesel.

Big jets rely on gas turbine engines. They are called turbofans because they use a big fan or a set of fans to suck air into the combustion chamber and then expel the exhaust to provide thrust.

A passenger jet weighs 400 to 500 tons. A Ford F-150 weighs about two tons, so a jetliner is about the same as 200+ pickups! No wonder they need turbofans.

A jetliner is a mini-civilization. It takes a portion of the populace (and all their needs) to someplace else and promises to bring them home again. Once a jetliner lands on your shores there’s no going back. You are now connected to the rest of the world. And the jetliner leaves people behind who make sure the next jets arrive (and depart) safely. Now your land has been colonized by the jetliner people and life will never be the same.

The jetliner people made Hawai’i into the 50th state. That’s good for me because I’m an American and I can go to Hawai’i without much trouble. That is, if you don’t consider gigantic jets and airports “much trouble.” I’m jetliner-ing to the Big Island tomorrow and I’ll let you know how things are working out there.

Flying footprint

The last time I was on an airplane flight was in 2008. That was international—we went to México. In a couple of weeks I’m getting on a plane for a trip to the Big Island—Hawai’i. It’s a domestic flight of course but it doesn’t feel like it. It’s almost 2400 miles from the airport in San Francisco to the one in Kona. That’s about two hundred miles less than the distance from San Francisco to JFK airport in New York City. But the flight to Hawai’i is entirely over the Pacific Ocean!

Jet travel changed the world forever. Cargo ships take five days to cover the SF to Oahu route with extra days needed for the outer islands. Our 737 will make the trip in less than six hours. And a regular middle class guy like me can actually afford the fares!

When you search for fares on Google you get stuff like this:

This is not our flight, just the result of a MFR-KOA (Medford, Oregon to Kona, Hawai’i) entry in the search box. And I clicked on the circle-i “information” icon under the 664 kg CO2 to get the pop-up.

Average fuel consumption over the entire flight of a 737 (takeoffs and landings take a lot, cruising not so much) is about 2400 kg per hour. For a six-hour flight that’s 14,400 kg or about 18,000 liters (4800 gallons). A 737 can carry over 6000 gallons of fuel and fly over 3000 miles without refueling.

Using the graphic above I’m going to estimate that a six-hour flight makes 600 kg of C02. (I’m splitting the difference between 556 and 664.) That’s 100 kg/hour. PER PASSENGER! Here’s a link to how Google comes up with these numbers.

There are about 180 seats on the Boeing 737 we’ll be flying. 600 kg times 180 is 108,000 kg of CO2! How is that possible? We are only burning 14,400 kg of fuel! But fuel does not burn by itself. It requires oxygen. A modern jet engine consumes over 400 kg of air per second. That’s how it is possible to produce so much exhaust.

Let’s put it all in perspective. Our friends at Our World in Data (a remarkable site) say aviation accounts for about 2.5% of global CO2 emissions. Here in the States, we account for about 16% of all emissions from domestic flights. (Calculating the contributions of international flights is a little trickier and I’m flying domestic so I’m sticking with these numbers.)

The U.S. retains its familiar role as world leader. We make the most airplane exhaust!

It seems the only way the world will get a handle on global air pollution and the climate impacts of greenhouse gases is by some sort of carbon pricing. Whether it is cap-and-trade, a carbon tax, or some other scheme, we have to start including the externalities that our activities produce. Nothing is for free. If flying makes a goddamn mess, then we have to bear the cost of the cleanup. And we all know the best way to keep things clean is not to make a mess in the first place!

I’ll be polluting my way over to Hawai’i in a couple of weeks, like I mentioned. We will fly to Kona but will stay in Hilo. I’m really excited about being on the windward side of the Big Island where it is rainy and wet. I live in a near-desert so I need a break from sere, arid landscapes. We are going to watch some baseball at the University and then have a week of adventures. I’m going to buy a really nice Aloha shirt and some groovy board shorts. I’ve been given so many recommendations of places to go and things to do that I figure no matter what we actually do it will all be really fun. I’m a pretty relaxed, happy-go-lucky traveler. If I’m in new place I enjoy myself just kicking around and living life. And drinking beer, of course. My first selfie will probably be at the Hilo Brewing Company. I’ll bet that Mauna Kea Pale Ale is mighty tasty!