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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

How we are making nano material?
what is a peer
What is meant by 'nano scale'?
What is STMs full form?
scanning tunneling microscope
what is Nano technology ?
Bob Reply
write examples of Nano molecule?
The nanotechnology is as new science, to scale nanometric
nanotechnology is the study, desing, synthesis, manipulation and application of materials and functional systems through control of matter at nanoscale
Is there any normative that regulates the use of silver nanoparticles?
Damian Reply
what king of growth are you checking .?
What fields keep nano created devices from performing or assimulating ? Magnetic fields ? Are do they assimilate ?
Stoney Reply
why we need to study biomolecules, molecular biology in nanotechnology?
Adin Reply
yes I'm doing my masters in nanotechnology, we are being studying all these domains as well..
what school?
biomolecules are e building blocks of every organics and inorganic materials.
anyone know any internet site where one can find nanotechnology papers?
Damian Reply
sciencedirect big data base
Introduction about quantum dots in nanotechnology
Praveena Reply
what does nano mean?
Anassong Reply
nano basically means 10^(-9). nanometer is a unit to measure length.
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
for teaching engĺish at school how nano technology help us
How can I make nanorobot?
Do somebody tell me a best nano engineering book for beginners?
s. Reply
there is no specific books for beginners but there is book called principle of nanotechnology
how can I make nanorobot?
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?
carbon nanotubes has various application in fuel cells membrane, current research on cancer drug,and in electronics MEMS and NEMS etc
how did you get the value of 2000N.What calculations are needed to arrive at it
Smarajit Reply
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Practice Key Terms 4

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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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