All Commentary
Tuesday, August 1, 1972

Energy: the Ultimate Raw Material

James Wei assumed The Allan P. Colburn Chair of Chemical Engineering at Delaware in ¹97¹, following a distinguished career in industry. He received the B.S. from Georgia Tech and the M.S. and Ph.D. at MIT. At Mobil Oil, he advanced from Research Chemical Engineer to Senior Scientist and concurrently held Visiting Professorships at Princeton and Cal Tech. Upon completion of Harvard’s Advanced Management Program in ¹969 he returned to Mobil as Manager of Analysis. Prof. Wei received the ACS Award in Petroleum Chemistry in ¹966 and the AIChE Professional Progress Award. He Is a consulting editor for McGraw Hill and a member of CHEMTECH’s Executive Board. Prof. Wei is best known for his work in kinetics, catalysis, and mathematical analysis, but his recent attention has been focused on creating a chemical engineering course for freshmen.

This article is slightly condensed and reprinted by permission from the March ¹972 issue of Chemical Technology.

The civilization and way of life we know are supported by a steady supply of low cost raw materials drawn from farms and forests, from the mines and wells, and from the air and water. In history when the supply of a raw material runs low and when there is no substitute in sight, people wonder whether civilization can survive. William Crooks observed in 1898 that intensive farming depended on the nitrate mines in Chile, and their eventual exhaustion would bring world wide famine.1 This did not take place as the great chemist, Haber, and the chemical engineer, Bosch, rose to the challenge and solved the problem of nitrogen fixation via ammonia synthesis from air and water.

As the skills of chemists and chemical engineers gradually increase, almost any natural raw material can be synthesized or replaced. Outside of hydrogen, the chemical elements are hardly ever lost from planet earth.2 There is no such thing as “nonrenewable minerals” even though rich deposits are exhaustible. Everything that is “used up” is still with us, but in altered and diluted form. In this closed system of earth, we can and will recycle everything. Given enough energy, or thermodynamic free energy, we can separate and concentrate any materials and recombine them chemically to form synthetic raw material.

All of the precious material contained in the refuse of our civilization collects on our lands, floats in our air, or runs off into the oceans. They can all be recovered with sufficient expenditure of energy. From the ocean we are already recovering freshwater, magnesium, bromine — it would be even easier if we could develop organisms that concentrate some elements. Thus we realize that energy is the ultimate raw material which can be used to make food, water, other raw material — as well as warming and cooling our homes and operating all our machinery.

Energy Uses in the Past

The United States has always been blessed with an abundance of cheap energy to augment human and animal muscle: from the swift flowing rivers providing water power, and great forests providing fire wood, down to the modern coal mines and oil gas fields. Today, this underpinning of our entire economy and way of life consumes only 3 per cent of our gross national product. Energy cost forms only 31/2 per cent of the cost of average industrial products, ranging from 8 per cent for chemicals to 0.3 per cent for apparel manufacturing.3 The consumer cost of energy can be divided into three shares: production cost under the supervision of engineers, transportation and distribution costs under the supervision of marketers, and federal and local taxes. Table 1 gives the approximate current prices. Only a small part of the cost of refined fuel is in the province of engineers.4,5,6

Table 1. Current energy costs

Production Cost       

Consumer Cost       

Gasoline, regular  



Natural gas 16     

148 ¢/thousand cu ft

Fuel oil, No. 2     

11 20 ¢/gallon

Electricity 0.7     


2.8 ¢/kWh


Consumer cost = production cost + distribution and transportation cost + federal and local tax.

We use a great deal of energy because it is very cheap. Our tax laws are already designed to make energy more expensive. For instance, automotive transportation requires three ingredients: vehicle, fuel, and road. The last item belongs to the public sector and is financed mostly from taxes collected from fuel. The excise and sales tax on a vehicle is less than 10 per cent of the manufactured cost, but on gasoline it equals manufactured cost.? Despite this fact, the capital and maintenance cost of a piece of energy-using equipment is usually 15 to 20 times the annual cost of fuel, for automobiles, air conditioners, and electric power plants.” As long as fuel is cheap and equipment dear, we burn fuel up prodigiously. When prices go up, we complain but go on burning without a pause. Past investment in equipment is very expensive and cannot be changed readily. When copper is expensive, we can shift to aluminum; when butlers are too expensive we phase them out; but when energy is more expensive, we have neither alternative nor can we do without. If it were not for the fact that engineers continue to improve equipment to save fuel, our use of energy would be even more prodigious. For instance, in 1925 it took 25,000 Btu to make a kWh of electricity but today it takes only 9,000 Btu.8

Historically, the principal determinants of energy use have been number of people and scale of affluence.° Figure 1 shows the per capita gross national product of various nations against per capita energy use in 1961. It can pass as a fairly straight line, the richer one is, the more energy he burns up. If you look at such curves long enough, you can begin to see an S-curve. As you get richer you will buy more information and service, which require less energy than hardware. U.S. commercial energy use is about 120 times the human intake of food energy; while in India it is about 3 times — for all manufacturing, farming, Figure 1. Nations GNP and transport. Figure 2 shows the historical U.S. GNP growth in constant 1958 dollars (where the effect of inflation is taken out) and energy consumption in Quads (a Quad is a quadrillion Btu, or a million times a billion Btu).11 It appears that of late, energy growth lags a little behind GNP growth. An increase in affluence without corresponding increase in and energy use, 1961 energy use has never been achieved in the past and is difficult to see in the future.

There may be frivolous uses of energy, such as the electric toothbrush; but the bulk is necessary to our way of life: home fires should be kept warm, people have to get to work, food must be delivered, and the wheels of industry have to turn. The pattern of sources and uses of energy today, together with a government forecast for the year 2000, is given in Table 2.¹2 Oil and gas have been predicting that the polar ice cap will melt and flood coastal cities due to accumulation of carbon dioxide in air, scientists predicting combustion dusts will block out sun light and cause a new ice age, and a Wall Street Journal article declaring that planet Earth is approaching an energy ceiling.¹3,¹4 A year ago, Daniel Patrick Moynihan asked, “When would this insane increase in energy use stop?” It may seem that the only way out is to use less energy in the future, save the irreplaceable resources for our grandchildren, and repair the damaged environment.

I would like to advance the thesis that there is no inevitable collision course between more energy use and better environment: a cleaner environment would mean much more use of energy. The main flaw of ecologists prophesying doom is their failure to appreciate the ingenuity of scientists and engineers in inventing technological alternatives.

A cleaner automobile means more use of fuel, to produce hotter and cleaner exhaust and to overcome pressure drop in afterburners. Taking lead out of gasoline would mean a lower compression ratio and less efficient engine, which means more fuel. Cleaner smoke stacks in power plants mean either cleaner fuel by more refining of oil and coal, or stack gas capturing markets steadily from coal for the last thirty years, since they are cleaner, more convenient and cheaper. Nuclear power will rise to capture markets from oil and gas in the future. In the use side, electricity generation has been the fastest growing segment and will continue to be.


Table 2. U.S. energy

sources and uses of as % of total Projected (1970 2000)





































The Two New Crises

In recent years, the energy use suddenly faces two new crises: shortage and environment. Hardly a day goes by without a black eye for energy in the mass media: Delmarva Power and Light refusing new customers in natural gas, a blackout in the eastern seaboard, birds dying in oil spilled at Santa Barbara, opposition to strip mining in West Virginia, scientists pre-scrubbing and dust removal, all requiring more energy. The Biological Oxygen Demand of waste discharged into rivers and lakes by residential-industrial-agricultural activities would require more sewage treatment and passage of more oxygen into water, which means more energy. The recycling of solid wastes means more energy use. Provided that society will face the facts and give engineers the resources and time, all the pollutants can be reduced to any required level by sufficient expenditure of energy — and a necessary increase in prices, which will decline as experience grows.

At the end, energy is used to remove all other pollutants and a vast quantity of waste heat becomes the ultimate pollutant. So far, this is a local dispersal problem rather than a global problem. The fishes are hot in the outlet of a power plant, and New York City is three degrees hotter than the countryside in the winter. But the man-made waste heat rejection is currently only 50 ppm of the earth’s heat budget, or the quantity of solar radiation that the earth receives and sends back into space.15

The supply of some forms of energy is short and prices are increasing. The oil price increase is due to the demands of oil exporting countries in the Middle East, Libya, and Venezuela, plus a shortage of tankers; the natural gas shortage is due to industry’s unwillingness to explore and to lay pipelines under the low existing government regulated prices; the coal shortage is due to earlier forecasts of its demise, and consequent underinvestment in opening new mines and manufacturing railway hopper cars; the nuclear power shortage is due to unforeseen difficulties in construction. All of these are short-term problems, many due to past underinvestment in research and development and plants, that can be solved later.

The costs of mining and extraction of a fuel is divided into two parts: the technology cost and rent.¹6 The technology costs are managed by the geologists and engineers in exploration and drilling holes — these costs reflect the bounty of earth and our present state of technology, and cannot be changed except by innovations in technology or by new discoveries. The rent cost includes royalty and bonuses to the land owners, production and severance taxes, Federal income taxes, and windfalls for the lucky wildcatters — this cost is negotiable and represents the bargaining position of various parties and can be changed suddenly. We read that in the Persian Gulf, the technology cost of a barrel of oil is only 10 cents, but the rent cost is $1.60 and going up.

Despite the engineers’ effort to cut cost every year, the rent costs can go up much faster. To affluent nations such as Japan and the U.S., this cost increase is an unwelcome burden but, to less developed nations such as India, this cost increase is a serious blow.

The Arabs have more than two-thirds of the free world oil; can they obtain indefinite increases in prices? We know that North America contains vast fuel resources in coal, oil shale, and tar sand — many times greater than all the oil in the Middle East. Laboratory and pilot plant runs show that they can be turned into oil and gas. Given enough money and time to do research and development, chemists and engineers will find out how this could be done in great scales economically, and without damage to environment. Present guesses on synthetic crude oil prices are in the range of $4-$6 a barrel from these solid fuels, while small projects such as the Sun Oil process in tar sand in Alberta is almost competitive at present prices.17 These vast resources can form a price ceiling on oil and other energy sources for many years to come. The public and our government need to learn the facts, debate the issues, and pass rules on their exploitation. We do not yet know how to do the mining-extracting-refining in the most economical manner, and without damage to the environment. If engineers are given the job and the resources, they will rise to the occasion.

Table 3. Fuel prices Equivalent cost

Unit cost        


$/million Btu

Electricity                    0.8¢/kWh


Gasoline                    12¢/gallon


No. 6 fuel oil (1% S) $4/barrel


Bituminous coal                    $10/ton


No. 6 fuel oil (High S)     $2.50/barrel 



Natural gas 40¢/thousand CF


East Coast wholesale, without tax



The approximate current wholesale prices of the more important fuels are shown in Table 3.4 The clean and convenient natural gas seems under priced in this table. Lower sulfur fuel oils are naturally more expensive than high sulfur fuel oils. Electricity is the cleanest to the consumer, totally available to do useful work, and the most expensive.

Future Energy Uses

The large-scale generation of electricity at remotely located nuclear plants and the burning of coal at the mine mouth would remove much danger and pollution from population centers. (Distance certainly lends enchantment here.) The increased cost of electricity transmission could be decreased by new developments, such as cryogenic cables that are super-conducting. I am afraid that after the engineers have done their jobs well and technology costs are cut, the dominant cost in electricity transmission will turn out to be a rent cost again, paid to land owners to acquire the right of way. Radiation hazards in nuclear plants can be minimized to any desired level by spending more money. The final radioactive hot wastes are being stored in caves now. Eventually, they will be disposed of by some other means, such as being sent into the sun by rockets. The sun is exceedingly radioactive now — a little bit more won’t hurt. It can be our ultimate garbage dump.”

When it comes to transportation, oil is the dominant fuel. Outside of a few electric trains and bicycles, almost everything else moves by oil on the land, in the sea, or in the air. Its dominance is due to its ease in use as a liquid, as well as high power density and low cost. Nature appears to have arrived at the same solution for transportation fuel much earlier. When nature prepares something for a long journey, such as a walnut for dispersion, a cocoanut for ocean voyage, a salmon traveling upstream to spawn, or a goose migrating to South America, the body carbohydrates are converted into lipid or fat.” These fats differ from petroleum only by the presence of a little oxygen. In fact, some geochemists believe that petroleum originates in animal fat buried in the rocks for eons, and that the oxygen is removed by catalytic action of bacteria or of clay. Table 4 gives the comparative power density of a number of fuels and batteries? It may be a bit unfair to compare gasoline to a battery in power density, since the battery carries both fuel and oxidizer, but the oxidizer of gasoline is ubiquitous air that is always available except in space and under water.

Table 4.  Energy Density  in storage



energy watt‑


hr/lb (20%





Gasoline       11.0


Lipid             9.3


Methanol       5.2


Ammonia       4.8


Carbohydrate 4.1


Protein          4.1


Sodium-sulfur battery


Conceptual super flywheel


Lead acid battery


Super fly wheel


Rubber band



For intercity traffic on land, and for long distance travel in the air or in the seas, it is difficult to see how oil can be replaced. For center city stop-and-go traffic, it would be well to switch to vehicles with stored energy that is less heat generating. The rubber band is an obvious energy storage device, but rather low in capacity. The flywheel was tried in buses in Switzerland and is capable of tremendous improvements. One can conceive of a rotor with an exceedingly high speed of revolution, kept inside a high vacuum to minimize friction, and made of composite material of carbon filaments in epoxy resin to withstand the tremendous centrifugal forces.

There is a great technological innovation on the way that can greatly influence the future pattern of population distribution and transportation needs: the videophone. People live in great metropolitan regions for the ease of contacting many other people and to use common facilities. These great concentrations lead to crowded cities and tremendous transportation problems. With a technically advanced videophone, one can have vivid and direct communications without leaving his home. Managers and white-collar workers, scientists and artists can live anywhere they choose and do all their work at home and by videophone; housewives can shop by videophone; students can talk to their professors by videophone. There is no need for people to get together except when they want to have fun together. People would only travel for pleasure then. This could result in a great dispersion of people back to the countryside.

Future Supply of Energy

The recoverable resources of energy in the world are quite large. The solid fuels are much greater in quantity than the liquid and gaseous petroleums, based on a study by Hubbert. We know they are available, but we do not yet have the technology or agreed-upon ground rules for their exploitation. Before these tremendous resources can be touched, there must be research and development, environmental regulations, and ownership and profit rules established.

For the nuclear fuels, a dependence on uranium oxide ores of $10/lb would mean a rather limited future in comparison with coal. There may be much more uranium to be discovered. If we are willing to pay more, we can use a great deal of low grade uranium. Future energy supplies will be plentiful but not necessarily cheap.

The truly overwhelming solar energy is the ultimate energy source when all else is gone. This prognostication was recently enunciated by Gaucher21 and Glaser22 has proposed a conceptual scheme for using solar energy. He envisioned synchronous satellites that constantly hover overhead at orbits 22,000 miles away, with solar cells 25 square miles in area. The electricity collected from the sun is beamed to earth at a safe intensity on microwave and collected on giant antennas. This is available night and day, and goes through mist and driving rain with less than 5 per cent absorption loss. This idea is not far from today’s technological capabilities. For a trial balance, let the world energy demand increase by 4 per cent a year, compounded, based on modest population-GNP growth. With fossil fuel alone, we may be in trouble after 2050; adding cheap uranium, we are in trouble after 2070. After 2100, man-made energy release is 1 per cent of natural solar influx and the waste heat disposal problems have to be solved.


There is no inevitable collision course between high energy use and good environment. The public should be informed that there are technological alternatives. We read that after 150 years of fog, when sulfur-containing coal is replaced by clean natural gas, winter sunshine is returning to London.

Scientists and engineers can solve nearly all environmental problems when they are given the task, the resources and the time. Any combustion waste can be cleaned up; radioactive wastes can be sent into the sun; phosphates can be removed by tertiary sewage treatments; hot fishes near power plants can be saved by dry air cooling towers; solid wastes can be reduced to ashes, and the remains recovered and recycled. Many of these solutions are within today’s technological capabilities. We are only holding back to see which is the best solution, and who should pay, before vast investment programs begin. Even the waste heat disposal problem for earth may eventually succumb to the ingenuities of our scientists and engineers, just as the spectre of world famine forecast by William Crooks was dispelled by Haber and Bosch.

All of this may not be cheap, and the cost of using energy may have to go up. But let us tell everyone that a clean and adequate energy supply can be managed if we give chemists and chemical engineers a chance. But we must plan ahead.



1 Kobe, K. A., Inorganic Process Industries (Macmillan, New York, N.Y., 1948), p. 230.

2 Jeans, James The Dynamical Theory of Gases (Dover, New York, N.Y.), 1954, p. 342.

3 Leontief, W. W., “The Structure of the U.S. Economy,” Sci. Amer., p. 25, April 1965.

4 Oil Gas J., p. 100, March 1, 1971; Energy News, 1 (10), March 15, 1971.

5 Elec. World, March 15, 1971.

6 My utility bill at Princeton, N.J.

7 The Automobile and Air Pollution, a report of the Panel on Electrically Powered Vehicles, U.S. Department of Commerce, Oct. 1967, pp. 49-99.

8 Schurr, S. H., and Netschert, B. C., Energy in the American Economy 18501975 (Johns Hopkins Press, Baltimore, Md., 1960), p. 728.

9 Landsberg, H. H., and Schurr, S. H., Energy in the United States (Random House, New York, N.Y., 1968).

1º Singer, S. F., “Human Energy Production as a Process in the Biosphere,” Sci. Amer., p. 175, September 1970.

¹¹ Dole, H. M., American’s Energy Needs and Resources, speech by the Assistant Secretary of Interior at Stanford University, January 12, 1971.

¹2 Mills, G. A., Johnson, H. R., and Perry, H., “Fuels Management in an Environmental Age,” Environ. Sci. Technol., p. 30, January 1971.

¹3 Ehrlich, P. R., and Ehrlich, A. H., Population, Resources, Environment (W. H. Freeman, San Francisco, Calif., 1970), Chap. 4 and 6.

¹4 Welles, J. G., “Will the Earth Reach an Energy Ceiling?” Wall Street Journal, January 6, 1971.

15 Landsberg, H. E., “Manmade Climatic Changes,” Science, 170, 1265, (1970); Environmental Quality, a report by the Council on Environmental Quality, August 1970, Chap. V.

¹6 Adelman, M., “The World Oil Outlook” in Natural Resources and International Development (Johns Hopkins Press, Baltimore, Md., 1964).

17 Strom, A. H., and Eddinger, R. T., Chem. Eng. Progr. 67 (3), (1971).

18 Gordon, T. J., remark at a conference at the Institute of Man and Science, Rensselaerville, N.Y., 1969.

19 White, A., Handler, P., and Smith, E. L., Principles of Biochemistry, (McGraw-Hill, New York, N.Y., 1964), p. 282.

2º Hubbert, M. King, “Energy Resources,” in Resources and Man, by the committee on resources and man, National Academy of Science-National Research Council (Freeman, San Francisco, Calif., 1969).

21 Gaucher, L., Chem. Technol., March 1971, 153.

22 Glaser, P., Chem. Technol., October 1971, 606.