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Our Modern Oil Addiction
When we think of oil, we think of cars, engines, and big machined chunks of steel spinning, pounding and grinding, with only a dose of that slick, slippery black stuff between them to keep the friction from heating everything up, grinding and shearing off bits of metal until every rough and jagged edge is ready to lock up or shatter. It's all kept under control by lubrication, a glob of grease squirted into the machinery to keep the components that drive our everyday lives in smooth, steady operation, each little piece and part kept running by oil and the products derived from it. We see these products everywhere, bottled in rows at the auto parts store, making rainwater puddles iridescent and staining our clothes when we're careless with them. We get them on our hands when we fix things, from office chairs to bicycles, cars to big-rig trucks, we use them in our airplanes, our boats, anything with an engine or two bits of metal that might mesh or rub against one another, no matter how large or small, and they've found their way into nearly every facet of our lives, sometimes in ways we'd least expect.
What we don't usually think of when we think of oil, or at least immediately, are solids, things like plastics, one of the many non-liquid materials that can be refined from crude (i.e. unprocessed) oil, or solvents, fertilizers, pesticides, tar, even some waxes (like paraffin), and a whole load of other "petroleum products" that, while still considered relatively inexpensive, are still inextricably linked to the supply of oil and suffer proportional price increases along with the big commodity that's grabbed everyone's attention as of late, gasoline.
In many places throughout the world, gasoline (or petrol, as it's also called) has always been expensive, (consider roughly five American dollars to the gallon in the UK, for example) but in the United States, we've been relatively fortunate, enjoying prices in the mid to high two dollar range and, even just a few years before that, just less than two dollars for every gallon we pumped into our gas-guzzling road hogs. Lately, though, that's changed, and with prices climbing past the three dollar range, the on-the-road American is finally feeling the pinch, and he/she's not the only one who's suffering!
Consider for a moment all the industries effected by the increase in gasoline costs. Practically everybody has to drive to get to work, so cutting down on non-essential driving puts less miles on the car and cuts into the number of cars popping into the lube shop or repair garage for oil changes and maintenance. A rise is gas prices translates into a rise in the cost of everything, and I do mean everything, that gets shipped, carted, or otherwise shuffled from point A to point B, whether it be through the use of your local delivery service, a cross-country semi burning rubber across several states, or a jumbo jet flying packages and cheap plastic knickknacks from China to Los Angeles.
The computer this article was written on is a perfect example; while made up of a handful of different materials, a good deal of it is still plastic, a petroleum product. It was shipped in plastic, (with a couple plastic compact discs) on a truck (which burns gas) from a warehouse full of all kinds of plastic components that were all shipped from different factories using a variety of means (all requiring gas) and utilizing machines that require oil or grease to stay lubricated and, in some cases, even to operate their hydraulic components. And the power to operate these machines has to come from somewhere too, right? Oh sure, between nuclear, solar, hydroelectric, coal and a host of other means of generating electricity, the chances that a powerplant burning petroleum products might be powering that factory are slim (especially these days) but consider all the plastic components, all the grease and oil used to build and maintain the machines that generate our power, sending it shooting down power lines that also have their fair share of components that originally started out as crude oil in some form or another. But it doesn't end there, oh no! Those same lines that power the factory, the warehouse, and even my computer have to be manufactured somewhere, shipped, etcetera, not to mention the petroleum products used when something in the loop needs maintenance, between the fuel used to get the workers to their jobs, the plastic parts they haul with them, the gasoline pumped into the service vehicle, and a dozen other things, it quickly becomes clear that not only are we completely and totally dependent on this black goo that we're pumping out of the ground at an exponential (and yet strangely inefficient) rate, but that we're locked in a vicious cycle of dependence that's going to prove to be a hard habit to break.
But don't let doomsday predictions of oil shortages get you down; there is still hope for the oil addicted society we've built! With nano-engineered plastic alternatives like graphene, carbon nanotube, carbon nanofoam and a handful of other, simpler materials (such as cellulose-based "bioplastic,") we can start the process by eliminating our need for traditional plastic, replacing it with materials like these, materials that are cheaper, stronger, are easier to break down, and even cause less pollution during the manufacturing process than their petroleum-based contemporaries.
From there, why not wipe out our dependance on gas? In other countries (such as Japan and those in the European union,) some forms of hybrid automobiles are getting close to a staggering one hundred miles per gallon, (VW has an experimental diesel hybrid that gets 118) and that's just the beginning. Scientists and civilian inventors alike are exploring alternatives to gasoline, such as the use of the ever popular "biodiesel" in its myriad forms, hydrogen (through fuel cells or direct combustion), pressurized air (stored in a tank and used to drive the engine), ethanol (i.e. Alcohol), solar energy, steam, and even liquid nitrogen. But don't expect the gas prices to drop anytime soon- with the amount of money invested in the oil industry, progress out of our gasoline addiction is likely to be slow and painful. After all, it's become a commodity in high demand- what good businessman wouldn't exploit that?
So, say a decade or so down the line, we've managed to eliminate gas and plastic, the two big ones. What's next? Well, how about grease? You know, that goopy stuff that lubricates nearly everything mechanical in our technophile society? No problem. Synthetic oils have been around for years now, and it's likely that they'll only get better- not only are these non-petroleum oils cheaper and easier to manufacture, but they're also much more environment friendly. Not that using synthetic oils is a new thing- European automobiles and aircraft have been utilizing synthetics for years, and a good deal of newer hydraulic components use synthetic fluids to generate the kind of pressures they need to get the job done, whether it be to move a welding arm in a factory or force down the landing gear of a jumbo jet packed to the brim with packages shipped cross-country or international to businesses and residences alike.
Oh sure, there are a thousand other places where petroleum products would have to be phased out to completely conquer our dependence on crude, replacing paraffin in all its myriad applications with naturally occurring wax alternatives (affecting the production of everything from soap and candles to candy bars) and working out alternatives to petroleum-based pesticides, solvents, and even tars. These are, of course, all smaller and almost trivial, ultimately posing less of a concern than the petrochemical monsters of our modern society, gasoline and plastic, do, but never despair! There is light at the end of the tunnel, and science is working hard to get us there. All we can do for now is cinch up our belts and hold on until we do finally pull free from the darkness of petrochemical consumption and emerge into the light of a brand new day, a golden age of alternative, renewable fuels in mainstream use, and a day when the gritty, smoggy age of "black gold" will be a thing of the past.