Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Six (or Seven) Old Technologies That Peak Oil Will Resurrect, Causing Steam Punks To Cream Their Shorts.

Unless you've been living under a rock for the last ten years or so, and considering my imaginary readership, that's not unlikely, you've heard of Peak Oil, or the point when all the gas runs out and society grinds to a shuddering halt, a new Dark Age descends, everything goes straight to fuck and starts to look like a certain Mel Gibson franchise.

Now, aside from the prerequisite survivalists, rich douche-bags with private armies, and “I told you so” eco-crusaders, the only group that should be looking forward to end of oil are, of all people, the steam punks.


Cause the future's so dark you gotta light gas-lights.

That's right, the technological clocks gonna get turned right back to half-past Victorian, only with a few modern twists.

Just like those cosplaying freaks like it.

6: Gasification plants, aka Gas-works:

Back in ye old coal-fired days, nearly every city or sizable town had a “gas-works”. Usually built of brick or stone, with huge cool looking chimneys and a railroad heading straight in. In other words, the sort of place your average steam punk aficionado would risk life and limb to enter, just to pose for pics in front of some eldrich tangle of tubes.

A typical gas-works usually consisted of several “coke ovens” which, sorry hipsters, didn't bake cocaine, but rather smoldered coal, removing impurities and making it burn more efficiently. The gases that this process gave off were called, imaginatively enough, “coal gas”, and were piped through the city to fuel street-lamps, light homes, and power furnaces, and even make you hallucinate and waste away from slow poisoning, like Edgar Allen Poe.

(Ya hear that Goths? That's right, put down that screw-top Chardonnay you keep claiming is blood and just huff some coal fumes! No seriously. Please. Do us all the favor.)

Now, these days you can't even put a lump of coal in your sister's spoiled brat's stocking without some Eco-crusaders smashing your skull in with a sustainably harvested ten-foot chunk of tree, so why the hell would these things be making a comeback?

Because you can get the same sort of gas by smoldering wood, garbage, yard-waste, and agricultural waste, and if you use the resulting charcoal as fertilizer (called “biochar”, 'cause putting “bio” in front of a word gives Capt. Planet a woody) you actually start to reduce and trap carbon that would otherwise be released into the atmosphere, causing global warming.

Admittedly, the tweaked out quasi-Waterworld that could result from global warming makes most steam punks squee like Pedobear at a Brazt convention, but that's another article.

Municipalities the world over are starting to look at “Biochar” plants as an inexpensive and possibly profitably green way to reduce waste and energy costs. Hopefully they'll build them out of brick and stone with huge chimneys and a railroad leading in...

5: Gaslights.

“Hang on a tic”, I hear all my imaginary readers remark, “I can get the point of modern day gas-works, but gas-lights? WTF dude, we have electricity!”.

To which I respond smugly, “Yeah, but will you have light-bulbs?”

Gas-lights work by burning gas, either straight out of the pipe, filtered through a wire-mesh mantle (like every camping propane lantern you've ever used) or to heat up lime, which glows super-bright at high temperatures, hence the “lime-light” that ye old thespians bathed in. Gas-lights are simple, easy to manufacture out of metal or ceramics, and work, well, pretty much as long as you have gas.

Insert Fart Joke Here.

You done?


Light-bulbs on the other hand burn out. Even the super-eco-greeny kind filled with healing energy and fairy farts. Oh, they last a long time, but they do burn out. And they aren't easy to recycle, let alone manufacture.

See, in a future without an seemingly endless stream of high-energy fuels, just making the glass for said bulbs would cost a small fortune. Then add all the energy necessary to ship in the materials (including for all you eco-yuppies who want to ban incandescent bulbs, highly toxic heavy metals to make fluorescents) to the factory, and then ship all those easily breakable bulbs out to the consumers during an energy crisis, and a $3 gas-light made in Bob's backyard out of old pipe fixtures that will last about forever suddenly seems like a better option.

Soon enough, we'll all be wiling away the wee hours to sputtering, flickering gaslights, the only lighting to use when creating steam-driven exoskeletons, or...

4:Syngas cars

“Syngas”. Just say it with me now, “syngas”. It even sounds steam-punky.

Syngas (sometimes called, with complete lack of poetry or precision,”woodgas” or “producer gas”) is the technical term for the gas that comes out of gasification plants. In 1901, Thomas Hugh Parker figured out that you can run a car engine on the stuff, and what's more, figured out you could attach a small-scale gasification plant to your car.

During WWII, because of fuel shortages and rationing, nearly every civilian car in Europe ran on syngas. Hell the Germans even had tanks running on the stuff. During the OPEC embargo in the 70's FEMA, in a fit of common sense sadly never again repeated, produced a study of how to quickly and cheaply convert vehicles to run on syngas in case of another oil-shortage.

These days, with oil prices going through the proverbial roof, people have started converting cars and trucks once again. The resulting conversions are usually a mess of strange piping, radiators, flaming vents, smoking metal drums and all the other aesthetic properties known to make steam punks harder than kilned hickory, although nothing this author's seen compares with the coolness of this.

3:Steam engines:

Let's face it, this article had to include steam engines. It just had to. But steam punks aside, there is a very good reason you'll likely be seeing more and more steam-driven vehicles around soon, and why those vehicles will likely look like something you'd imagine China MiƩville driving around.

See, steam engines, whether turbine or piston, work by converting heat into expanding gas (water-vapor) and using the resulting energy to do mechanical work. The exhaust gases from whatever you burn to heat the water are simply wasted. Internal combustion engines, whether turbine or piston, convert the force of expanding gas, caused by combustion, into mechanical work. The heat produced is considered a waste-factor.

See where I'm going with this?

Combine the two into a steam-gas hybrid, and you're looking at theoretical increases in efficiency of 35-45% ( but of course, once actual engineering steps in and pisses on physics' parade, its more like 30%, max). As an added bonus, all the parts and materials you need are sitting around in the form of good-ol' fashioned metal, not highly-refined lithium, cadmium, and other cool sounding toxic materials. Lest you think I'm pulling this out of my ass, BMW is already on it.

I mean, sure, you could buy some sissified electric/internal combustion hybrid that looks like something out of an 80's sci-fi series, or you could have a friggin' syngas/steam hybrid monster with friggin' turbines! That runs on garbage! Or the bones of your enemies! And desalinates the water from flooded coastal cities while you're at it!

And speaking of steam and turbines...

2: Ships and Locomotives.

What's cooler than the aforementioned syngas hybrid? Well, how about a syngas-hybrid-clipper ship, cruising the sunken cities of the near future trading in rare technology, spices, and genetically enhanced love-slaves? Or shuddering steel locomotives flaring flame and spouting steam as they hurdle across the bleak windswept ruins of what once was called Wash-Ing-Town?

Thing is, rail and water based transport are about the most efficient technologies for moving large amounts of people or goods that anyone has ever come up with. Cars (even awesome syngas hybrids) don't even come close, and don't get me started on airplanes. What's more, trains and ships can use a wide variety of power-sources that just don't work that well when squeezed into a car frame.

Take electricity, for example. For a car to run on volts, it needs a lot, I mean A LOT, of batteries, and some method to charge them, which is usually too heavy to include in the vehicle in question.

Not so for trains. Because they run on fixed tracks, a third rail or overhead power line are you need to rocket across the wastelands. The same is true for steam/syngas. Trains can carry larger amounts of heavier fuel than can cars, making them the land-transport of choice for our post-oil future commutes to the gasworks. And those fixed tracks they run on are worlds easier and faster to lay down than building roads, using less energy in the process.

As for ships, not very long ago, almost all of the world's trade goods traveled by sea. That's why its called “shipping” after all. Even today, “shipping” is mostly driven by well, ships. Admittedly oil-powered ships, but ships nonetheless, because it's the most efficient way to move large amounts of anything from one place to another. Hell, they used to do it with sails alone! So when the oil runs out, be prepared to see huge tanker-sized clipper ships, complete with solar-panel sails, or huge wind turbines and steam engines plying the seas.

Hopefully fighting off cool pirates and not these a-holes...

And speaking of ships...

1: Airships

Every steam punk worth their bronze-painted Nerf®-gun knows that the ultimate level of steamy coolness is the airship (or “Zeppelin”, but never, ever “blimp”). Why, just imagine sailing the skies in your own air-yacht, spitting your cheroot stubs over the side onto the roofs of the little people, fighting off sky-pirate attacks with your steam powered rotary cannon and general aeronautical badassetry.

The thing is, its not that far off. Modern, and even old-school fixed wing and rotary aircraft burn fuel like a pyromaniac at Burning Man, whereas lighter-than-air-vehicles, (LTAV, or “nambla”) use much less fuel (especially those that use helium/hydrogen/methane/ammonia instead of hot air) than heavier-than-air-vehicles (HTAV, or “nambla”). Add in the fact that they can be sailed with prevailing winds, have large surface areas that could be covered with photo-voltaic panels (PVP's, or...ok, I'll quit), and could be made tough as anything with the use of carbon-fiber, Kevlar, or even genetically engineered spider silk (squee!) and the airship might just come to dominate the skies of our increasingly steam punk future.

Just don't call it a “blimp”.

Seriously dude.

Rotary cannon, remember?


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