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Inconvenient: The four pillars of civilization all require fossil fuels, & more of them

By Jo Nova

Not the kind of article we’d expect to see in Time Magazine. A 100% endorsement of the inescapable need for fossil fuels?

The Modern World Can’t Exist Without These Four Ingredients. They All Require Fossil Fuels

By Vaclav Smil, Time Magazine 

Four materials rank highest on the scale of necessity, forming what I have called the four pillars of modern civilization: cement, steel, plastics, and ammonia are needed in larger quantities than are other essential inputs. The world now produces annually about 4.5 billion tons of cement, 1.8 billion tons of steel, nearly 400 million tons of plastics, and 180 million tons of ammonia. But it is ammonia that deserves the top position as our most important material: its synthesis is the basis of all nitrogen fertilizers, and without their applications it would be impossible to feed, at current levels, nearly half of today’s nearly 8 billion people.

Does any other odd factoid capture the rise of China so well?

China now produces more than half of the world’s cement and in recent years it makes in just two years as much of it as did the United States during the entire 20th century.

Dalian China Construction-site-01.jpg

Photo by CEphoto, Uwe Aranas

Thanks to communist central planning much of that concrete may be mal-invested and mal-constructed and in need of demolition but that just needs even more fossil fuels.

Despite cement, steel, plastics, and ammonia  being so different, they have three things in common, Smil says: they can’t be replaced by other things easily, we need more of them than ever, and they all absolutely have to have fossil fuels.

Ammonia synthesis uses natural gas both as the source of hydrogen and as the source of energy needed to provide high temperature and pressure. Some 85% of all plastics are based on simple molecules derived from natural gas and crude oil, and hydrocarbons also supply energy for syntheses. Production of primary steel starts with smelting iron ore in blast furnace in the presence of coke made from coal and with the addition of natural gas, and the resulting cast iron is made into steel in large basic oxygen furnaces. And cement is produced by heating ground limestone and clay, shale in large kilns, long inclined metal cylinders, heated with such low-quality fossil fuels as coal dust, petroleum coke and heavy fuel oil.

But if you think that’s demanding — look at the shopping list for Electric Vehicles:

A typical lithium car battery weighing about 450 kilograms contains about 11 kilograms of lithium, nearly 14 kilograms of cobalt, 27 kilograms of nickel, more than 40 kilograms of copper, and 50 kilograms of graphite—as well as about 181 kilograms of steel, aluminum, and plastics. Supplying these materials for a single vehicle requires processing about 40 tons of ores, and given the low concentration of many elements in their ores it necessitates extracting and processing about 225 tons of raw materials.

The only politically correct line in the whole article was one slipped in there about reducing fertilizer by eating less meat. But really, it was nothing compared to the ideological advertising we’ve come to expect and it was in a section quietly headlined “Ideas — Climate Change” ?

As a result, global production of these four indispensable materials claims about 17 percent of the world’s annual total energy supply, and it generates about 25 percent of all CO2 emissions originating in the combustion of fossil fuels.

Not even one line in the article about dealing with climate change. Perhaps it’s just an accident?

Adapted from HOW THE WORLD REALLY WORKS by Vaclav Smil, published by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2022 by Vaclav Smil.