It chanced one day that Spilett was led to say, "But now, my dear Cyrus, all this industrial and commercial movement to which you predict a continual advance, does it not run the danger of being sooner or later completely stopped?""Stopped! And by what?""By the want of coal, which may justly be called the most precious of minerals." …"Oh! the veins of coal are still considerable, and the hundred thousand miners who annually extract from them a hundred millions of hundredweights have not nearly exhausted them.""With the increasing consumption of coal," replied Gideon Spilett, "it can be foreseen that the hundred thousand workmen will soon become two hundred thousand, and that the rate of extraction will be doubled.""Doubtless; but after the European mines, which will be soon worked more thoroughly with new machines, the American and Australian mines will for a long time yet provide for the consumption in trade.""For how long a time?" asked the reporter."For at least two hundred and fifty or three hundred years.""That is reassuring for us, but a bad look-out for our great-grandchildren!" observed Pencroft."They will discover something else," said Herbert."It is to be hoped so," answered Spilett, "for without coal there would be no machinery, and without machinery there would be no railways, no steamers, no manufactories, nothing of that which is indispensable to modern civilization!""But what will they find?" asked Pencroft. "Can you guess, captain?""Nearly, my friend.""And what will they burn instead of coal?""Water," replied Harding."Water!" cried Pencroft, "water as fuel for steamers and engines! water to heat water!""Yes, but water decomposed into its primitive elements," replied Cyrus Harding, "and decomposed doubtless, by electricity, which will then have become a powerful and manageable force, for all great discoveries, by some inexplicable laws, appear to agree and become complete at the same time. Yes, my friends, I believe that water will one day be employed as fuel, that hydrogen and oxygen which constitute it, used singly or together, will furnish an inexhaustible source of heat and light, of an intensity of which coal is not capable. Some day the coalrooms of steamers and the tenders of locomotives will, instead of coal, be stored with these two condensed gases, which will burn in the furnaces with enormous calorific power. There is, therefore, nothing to fear. As long as the earth is inhabited it will supply the wants of its inhabitants, and there will be no want of either light or heat as long as the productions of the vegetable, mineral or animal kingdoms do not fail us. I believe, then, that when the deposits of coal are exhausted we shall heat and warm ourselves with water. Water will be the coal of the future.""I should like to see that," observed the sailor.As should I. And given the way the research is advancing, I may yet live to.
Friday, September 09, 2011
Jules Verne on 'peak coal'
From The Mysterious Island, ch. 33 (link). Spilett, the journalist, asks Harding, the engineer, whether he thinks industrial progress will be stopped when the coal runs out. Verne, through his hero Harding, gives the answer: fuel cells. Hydrogen and oxygen, separated and then recombined, to power vehicles and machines. Indeed, one might suppose that he comes as close as it was possible for a Victorian author to come to suggesting fusion power: nuclear fusion not yet being known, of course, but he correctly predicts that we will seek to use water as the source of fuel and to generate electricity from its constituent parts. (One shouldn't be too hagiographic. Verne appears to think that separating and then recombining water is going to be an energy-positive process, which is clearly not true. But it's clear that he was very good indeed, even allowing for the errors.)It is amusing that it remains, generalising wildly, journalists and other artsy types who think progress will stop when the fuel runs out, and the engineers, scientists and economists who tend to be optimistic that we will simply find a new, better source of fuel. But enough from me: here's Verne.