The Roots of Progress

Blog interview: Uncharted Territories with Tomás Pueyo

Tomás Pueyo, whose blog you might know from his lucid writings on covid (such as “The Hammer and the Dance”), interviewed me on “The Past, Present, and Future of Energy”. Here’s an excerpt:

The internal combustion engine was the next generation of engines that depended on these refined liquid fuels. Contrasting these engines: steam engines have a huge boiler full of water, and you just literally build a fire underneath it, like you might build a campfire or a cook fire. They can run on anything that burns. As long as you can build a fire, you can run a steam engine. Some steam engines on farms were run on fence posts and corn husks. It’ll eat anything. Some machines that were conceived to go through fields were designed to run on straw. They would go through the fields reaping grain and eating the fuel they cut down as they moved forward.

The challenge with these engines is they’re large and heavy, and in big part that is due to the enormous boiler, which contains a bunch of water because of the inherent inefficiency of using water as a medium to transmit the energy.

The internal combustion engine cuts out the middleman. There’s no boiler, there’s no water. You just ignite the fuel directly in the piston to push it. But to do that, you need a liquid fuel that you can spray into the cylinder. You would not be able to do this with coal or wood because you can’t spray it in there.

And then when it burns, it needs to do so fairly cleanly so that you don’t have ash to dispose of. Refined liquid fuels like kerosene and gasoline were excellent for this purpose.

And so that was the fundamental technology enabling the internal combustion engine, which had a much higher power to weight ratio.

Fun fact: one of the early locomotives circa 1829 called The Rocket and invented by George Stevenson had about the same horsepower as the Ford model T—about 20—but the model T only weighed about 1200 pounds, whereas the Rocket weighed some 9,000 pounds. Same energy, much smaller package.

Read the full interview.

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