Energy – The engine of progress
© Manuela Mrohs
April 2017

Energy – The engine of progress

The development of humanity is inseparably tied to the amount of energy we’re able to generate and consume. A brief history of human energy consumption in five chapters.
Energy – The engine of progress© Manuela Mrohs
1. Steps toward civilization

Use of fire and the first energy crisis: wood becomes a scarce resource

About 1.5 million years ago, Homo erectus discovers how useful fire can be. But only 32,000 years ago, Homo sapiens invents the “­lighter” when causing sparks to fly by striking stones against each other. Being able to kindle fire themselves enables humans to spread to colder regions such as Northern Europe or even Siberia. Subsequently, the “invention” of agriculture allows wandering hunters and gatherers to settle down because food as an energy source is now always within reach. The next step follows when animals are domesticated as both a source of food and tractive force. Thanks to the ingenious principle of the wheel, humans are able to cover long distances and begin to haul more and more goods – bartering begins to flourish. At the same time, energy is invested in homes. Wooden and stone houses provide shelter from the elements. Fire does its part in banishing the cold, plus it provides the light required to conquer the night. Fire makes progress of another kind possible as well. Its heat is used for smelting iron, which provides humans with more iron tools and components, from scythes to spokes in horse-drawn carts to machines such as wind and water mills. All this saves energy in other areas and creates new sources of it as well. However, wood, the main fuel of fire, is becoming scarcer and scarcer, not least because it is an important construction material – up to 3,000 oak trees have to be felled for one ocean-going ship. Indications are that this situation cannot continue …

The era of whaling

From the 17th until the 20th century, almost every house and many streets in Europe’s major cities are illuminated by lamps burning whale oil. It is obtained by boiling chopped blubber and the huge demand for it makes whaling a profitable business. Around 1840, 900 whaling ships are out on the world’s oceans, killing up to 10,000 whales in high-yielding years. Due to the first successful refinement of petroleum, which has similar properties as whale oil, in 1855, whaling nearly ceases in the following years. Only the use of whale oil to produce margarine and nitroglycerin causes demand to rise again and the hunt for these giants of the sea to start all over.

Energy – The engine of progress© Manuela Mrohs
2. Black gold

The steam engine and fossil energies

In preindustrial times, the dirty, stinking coal is still a stopgap, serving as a substitute when wood and charcoal are in scarce supply. But there’s one invention that causes its use to explode starting in the 18th century: the steam engine. With it, heat can be converted into kinetic energy for the first time, which means that it can be used to drive anything that could previously only be moved by wind, water or muscle power. From the loom in textile manufacturing to the vehicle in the form of the steam locomotive, it fundamentally revolutionizes everyday life of humans. Coal proves to be a particularly ideal raw material for these purposes because its energy density is very high and it’s easy to haul. Coal – like oil and gas which are increasingly used from the 20th century on – is one of the fossil energy sources that were formed in ancient geological times, in the case of coal from plant residues in a long process that took place 250 to 350 million years ago. The utilization of fossil energy sources propels humans into a new era. Machines take care of mechanical work for them and create novel, industrial production processes. Mobility is fundamentally expanded by rail transportation, followed by automobiles and airplanes.

70 times more energy …

… than the basal metabolic rate is consumed on average by every human in industrial societies. This explosion of energy consumption began with the industrial revolution defined by the invention of the steam engine. A major portion of energy is still being produced by fossil fuels today.

Energy – The engine of progress© Manuela Mrohs
3. Electrified and networked

Electricity as the most versatile energy

Higher standard of living, higher productivity, more per capita energy consumption in spite of less physical work – great! The industrial revolution has just been digested when the progress-hungry start looking at the next step from the corner of their eyes. Isn’t the need to fill a steam engine with coal wherever energy is required enormously cumbersome? So, the fact that the next quantum leap is on the agenda in the second half of the 19th century comes in handy. The conversion of steam – as well as hydropower by the way – into electricity and its transportation via cables solves a lot of problems. Electricity can be generated in central power stations and then distributed. It causes zero emissions – at least at the points of consumption – and meets practically any requirement, from heating to mechanical driving to lighting, at the push of a button. In addition, new inventions soon make electricity indispensable, be it for telephones, radios or washing machines. The only catch is that as the number of users and uses increases, so does energy consumption. In 1950, only ten percent of fossil fuels are used to generate electricity – 50 years later, the percentage will have increased to 40.

Energy – The engine of progress© Manuela Mrohs
4. Mighty dangerous

The elemental force of nuclear power plants

Soon, fossil fuels and hydropower alone are hardly able to cover the demand for energy and electricity. In addition, the fact that the decades-long burning of coal has been leaving unpleasant marks in the atmosphere as well becomes obvious. At least in terms of air quality, a new technology promises to deliver clean energy: nuclear fission in which atomic nuclei are split and the energy released in the process is converted into electricity in a power station. In 1954, the first civilian nuclear power plant is commissioned in Russia and 35 years later, 438 reactor blocks produce electricity from nuclear energy around the globe. Not least the Chernobyl nuclear catastrophe in 1986 and the Fukushima meltdown in 2011 show that this is not a viable future for energy generation. Neither has the problem of the resultant nuclear waste been resolved (see below).

Dangerous legacy

By the end of 2010, some 300,000 metric tons (330,693 short tons) of highly radioactive waste have accumulated worldwide, requiring safe storage for at least several hundred thousand years due to long its half-life. However, a permanent repository for highly radioactive waste does not exist yet anywhere in the world, as no location has met the exacting storage requirements to date. As a result, we’re faced with an unsolved problem that is quite literally carrying increasingly heavy weight, as 12,000 metric tons (13,277 short tons) are added year after year.

5. Back to wind and sun

The rise of renewable energies

Never before have humans produced and consumed as much energy as today. So, what will the future hold? There are three things which are becoming increasingly clear. First: Energy consumption will continue to increase. The internet alone consumes about ten terawatt hours per year, which is a third more than the annual basal metabolic rate of all humans combined. Second: The central energy carriers of the past decades and centuries, fossil fuels and nuclear energy, have no future – being either too dirty or too dangerous. Third: Consequently, the future of energy will arguably be in the field of renewables, primarily wind and solar power. Both emanate from the Sun, as wind is the result of temperature differences in the air. So, humans are turning back to where they began. However, in view of today’s technology, this doesn’t mark a step backward but a step forward.

Energy – The engine of progress© Manuela Mrohs
Time journey to the sources of energy
  • 4.5 billion years ago
    Scientists assume that Earth’s most important energy source is 4.57 billion years old: the Sun. The star is expected to “burn” for another 5 billion years. In the Sun’s core, 5 million metric tons (5.5 short tons) of hydrogen are converted into helium per second, producing core temperatures of an incredible 15 million °C (27 million °F) (rocket combustion chamber 4,200 °C/7,592 °F).
  • 1.5 million years ago
    Thunderbolts and volcanic eruptions bring fire to Earth. When exactly early humans began to make fire usable for their purposes is hotly debated among scientists. A relatively safe assumption is that Homo erectus in Africa used fire pits approx. 1.5 million years BC. And even before Homo sapiens succeeds in kindling its own fire (approx. 32,000 BC), the hot flames are used for tempering purposes (approx. 70,000 BC).
  • 12,000 years ago
    Archaeological excavations suggest that humans used animal oil in lamps for illumination as far back as in the Middle Stone Age (10,000–8,300 BC). The Chinese are supposed to have been the first to use petroleum for this purpose around the time of Christ’s birth.
  • 4,000 years ago
    The power of water and wind has been used by humans as an energy source for about 4,000 years, wind mills being assumed to be a little older than water mills. They’re the first machines to move without the use of human or animal energy.
  • Approx. 2,600 years ago
    The Greek savant Thales rubs pieces of amber against each other in order to create static electricity. Amber in Greek is called “elektron.” However, more than 1,000 years would pass before electricity was used. Or maybe not? With the “Baghdad Battery” (a ceramic pot with an iron rod and a copper cylinder) a voltage of 0.5 could be produced as far back as approx. 100 BC. However, whether or not the pot was actually used as a battery is a controversial question.
  • Approx. 2,000 years ago
    Heron’s engine (aka aeolipile) is considered to be one of the first steam engines. It’s named after Heron of Alexandria, although the aeolipile is assumed to have already been known to priests in Ancient Egypt. In his writings “Pneumatika,” Heron, in addition to his Heron’s engine, describes thermal engines for practical usage in the form of automatic temple doors.
  • 1713
    In England, coke is produced for the first time from coking coals. At 1,000 °C (1,832 °F) in the absence of air, the volatile components of coal are extracted, resulting in fusion of the solid carbon and the residual ash. The fuel value of coke (23– 31 MJ/kg or 20-31MJ/2.2 lb) is approximately four times as high as that of raw coal (heating oil approx. 43 MJ/kg or 43 MJ/2.2 lb). Coke would remain the world’s most important energy source until after World War II.
  • 1769
    The Briton James Watt files the patent for steam engines, albeit, he has not invented them because as far back as in 1712 Thomas Newcomen designs the first usable steam engine. Its efficiency, though, was only 0.5 %, while Watt’s engine achieved 3 %.
  • 1859
    In the German town of Wietze the first modern-day crude oil drilling project is successful on July 1. Just a few weeks later, Edwin L. Drake in Pennsylvania (USA) discovers an ample deposit. Oil expert William Brice would later refer to this Sunday afternoon on the banks of Oil Creek near Titusville as providing the spark that catapulted the petroleum industry into the future.
  • 1867
    Werner von Siemens presents the dynamo-electric principle. Using the generators on which it is based, the supply of electric power can be intensified and accelerated compared to the previous commonly used batteries. The resulting electrification for the first time gives a wide berth to separating the electrical load from the primary source. Inventions like the transformer, lightbulb and electric train follow in rapid succession.
  • 1951
    On December 20, electric current produced by nuclear power flows through a line for the first time. It’s supplied by the U.S. research reactor EBR-I and causes four lightbulbs to illuminate. The world’s first large-scale nuclear power plant is the Obninsk reactor near Moscow commissioned in 1954.
  • 2009
    In Oslo (N), the world’s first osmotic power station is commissioned. It uses the difference in salt content between fresh water and sea water to extract energy and produce electricity. Worldwide, this technology could be used to generate 625 TWh of energy (3 % of the global electricity demand). Over the long run, pioneering Norway is planning to cover 10 % of its electricity requirement by osmosis.
Christian Heinrich
Author Christian Heinrich
Freelance journalist Christian Heinrich is currently training for a marathon. Ever since his research for this article, the thought of the luxury he’s indulging in occasionally crosses his mind while running — a human from the Early Stone Age would hardly have taken on such an exertion of physical effort, considering that it offers no prospect of finding new food.