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In this module, the following topics are presented: 1) an outline of the history of human energy use, 2) challenges to continued reliance on fossil energy, and 3) motivations and time scale for transitions in energy use.

Learning objectives

After reading this module, students should be able to

  • outline the history of human energy use
  • understand the challenges to continued reliance on fossil energy
  • understand the motivations and time scale for transitions in energy use

Introduction and history

Energy is a pervasive human need, as basic as food or shelter to human existence. World energy use has grown dramatically since the rise of civilization lured humans from their long hunter-gatherer existence to more energy intensive lifestyles in settlements. Energy use has progressed from providing only basic individual needs such as cooking and heating to satisfying our needs for permanent housing, farming and animal husbandry, transportation, and ultimately manufacturing, city-building, entertainment, information processing and communication. Our present lifestyle is enabled by readily available inexpensive fossil energy, concentrated by nature over tens or hundreds of millions of years into convenient, high energy density deposits of fossil fuels    that are easily recovered from mines or wells in the earth's crust.

Sustainability challenges

Eighty five percent of world energy is supplied by combustion of fossil fuels. The use of these fuels (coal since the middle ages for heating; and coal, oil and gas since the Industrial Revolution for mechanical energy) grew naturally from their high energy density, abundance and low cost. For approximately 200 years following the Industrial Revolution, these energy sources fueled enormous advances in quality of life and economic growth. Beginning in the mid-20th Century, however, fundamental challenges began to emerge suggesting that the happy state of fossil energy use could not last forever.

Environmental pollution

The first sustainability challenge to be addressed was environmental pollution, long noticed in industrial regions but often ignored. Developed countries passed legislation limiting the pollutants that could be emitted, and gradually over a period of more than two decades air and water quality improved until many of the most visible and harmful effects were no longer evident.

Limited energy resources

The second sustainability issue to be addressed has been limited energy resources. The earth and its fossil resources are finite, a simple fact with the obvious implication that we cannot continue using fossil fuels indefinitely. The question is not when the resources will run out, rather when they will become too expensive or technically challenging to extract. Resources are distributed throughout the earth's crust – some easily accessible, others buried in remote locations or under impenetrable barriers. There are oil and gas deposits in the Arctic, for example, that have not been explored or documented, because until recently they were buried under heavy covers of ice on land and sea. We recover the easy and inexpensive resources first, leaving the difficult ones for future development. The cost-benefit balance is usually framed in terms of peaking – when will production reach a peak and thereafter decline, failing to satisfy rising demand, and thus create shortages? Peaks in energy production are notoriously hard to predict because rising prices, in response to rising demand and the fear of shortages, provide increasing financial resources to develop more expensive and technically challenging production opportunities.

Questions & Answers

do you think it's worthwhile in the long term to study the effects and possibilities of nanotechnology on viral treatment?
Damian Reply
absolutely yes
how to know photocatalytic properties of tio2 nanoparticles...what to do now
Akash Reply
it is a goid question and i want to know the answer as well
characteristics of micro business
Do somebody tell me a best nano engineering book for beginners?
s. Reply
what is fullerene does it is used to make bukky balls
Devang Reply
are you nano engineer ?
fullerene is a bucky ball aka Carbon 60 molecule. It was name by the architect Fuller. He design the geodesic dome. it resembles a soccer ball.
what is the actual application of fullerenes nowadays?
That is a great question Damian. best way to answer that question is to Google it. there are hundreds of applications for buck minister fullerenes, from medical to aerospace. you can also find plenty of research papers that will give you great detail on the potential applications of fullerenes.
what is the Synthesis, properties,and applications of carbon nano chemistry
Abhijith Reply
Mostly, they use nano carbon for electronics and for materials to be strengthened.
is Bucky paper clear?
so some one know about replacing silicon atom with phosphorous in semiconductors device?
s. Reply
Yeah, it is a pain to say the least. You basically have to heat the substarte up to around 1000 degrees celcius then pass phosphene gas over top of it, which is explosive and toxic by the way, under very low pressure.
Do you know which machine is used to that process?
how to fabricate graphene ink ?
for screen printed electrodes ?
What is lattice structure?
s. Reply
of graphene you mean?
or in general
in general
Graphene has a hexagonal structure
On having this app for quite a bit time, Haven't realised there's a chat room in it.
what is biological synthesis of nanoparticles
Sanket Reply
what's the easiest and fastest way to the synthesize AgNP?
Damian Reply
types of nano material
abeetha Reply
I start with an easy one. carbon nanotubes woven into a long filament like a string
many many of nanotubes
what is the k.e before it land
what is the function of carbon nanotubes?
I'm interested in nanotube
what is nanomaterials​ and their applications of sensors.
Ramkumar Reply
what is nano technology
Sravani Reply
what is system testing?
preparation of nanomaterial
Victor Reply
Yes, Nanotechnology has a very fast field of applications and their is always something new to do with it...
Himanshu Reply
good afternoon madam
what is system testing
what is the application of nanotechnology?
In this morden time nanotechnology used in many field . 1-Electronics-manufacturad IC ,RAM,MRAM,solar panel etc 2-Helth and Medical-Nanomedicine,Drug Dilivery for cancer treatment etc 3- Atomobile -MEMS, Coating on car etc. and may other field for details you can check at Google
anybody can imagine what will be happen after 100 years from now in nano tech world
after 100 year this will be not nanotechnology maybe this technology name will be change . maybe aftet 100 year . we work on electron lable practically about its properties and behaviour by the different instruments
name doesn't matter , whatever it will be change... I'm taking about effect on circumstances of the microscopic world
how hard could it be to apply nanotechnology against viral infections such HIV or Ebola?
silver nanoparticles could handle the job?
not now but maybe in future only AgNP maybe any other nanomaterials
I'm interested in Nanotube
this technology will not going on for the long time , so I'm thinking about femtotechnology 10^-15
how did you get the value of 2000N.What calculations are needed to arrive at it
Smarajit Reply
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Mueller Reply
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Source:  OpenStax, Sustainability: a comprehensive foundation. OpenStax CNX. Nov 11, 2013 Download for free at http://legacy.cnx.org/content/col11325/1.43
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