Monday, October 4, 2010

Serious Thinking on Energy: An Interview With Dr. Vaclav Smil

Smil is one of the heavyweights in the cogitating-about-energy biz.
From the Winnipeg Free Press:
Dr. Vaclav Smil, a distinguished professor in the Faculty of Environment at the University of Manitoba, has published 30 books, four in 2010. His latest, Prime Movers of Globalization, is receiving positive reviews.
UNIVERSITY of Manitoba scientist Vaclav Smil has had a good year. This weekend sees the publication of his 30th book and his fourth of 2010, Prime Movers of Globalization, from The MIT Press in Cambridge, Mass.
His following among world opinion-makers, including Microsoft chairman Bill Gates, continues to grow on a variety of subjects, especial­ly world energy consumption and global risks.

The current issue of the prestigious academic journal American Scientist contains a positive review by John R.F. McNeil, a leading U.S. historian, of Smil’s 2010 book Why America Is Not a New Rome. In fact, Smil has had seven of his books reviewed in Nature, the oldest science weekly, something few scholars have achieved.

Smil, 67, was born in Czechoslovakia and, fol­lowing a short stint in the U.S. to complete his doctorate, came to Winnipeg in 1972. He teaches in the faculty of environment. The Free Press caught up with him recently to conduct a brief interview by email.

Q: The New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman has influenced the globalization dis­cussion with his book The World Is Flat, which argues that the economic playing field is being levelled in the 21st century. Do you agree with his assessment?

A: The surface may seem to be getting flatter (the same brands, cars, e-gadgets, the world of Sony, Toyota and LG, are encountered from Seoul to Soweto). But underneath, the differences (eco­nomic but also cultural and, most distressingly, the religious ones) are actually getting greater.

This is not only in China and India (where the proverbial tide lifts all boats, but those of the new urban class float now relatively lot higher than decades ago) but for the past generation even in the U.S. and Canada, where inequality is increas­ing. Think of nearly 50 million Americans living on food stamps: hard to believe how Friedman could get it so wrong.

Q: In Prime Movers of Globalization, you write about the under-appreciated impact of the diesel engine and the gas turbine on modern civiliza­tion. Can you summarize their importance?

A: Any imported manufactured products (that is, the bulk of consumer goods sold in North America today) came either on a container ship and was then loaded onto a truck for the final delivery (all powered by diesels) or as jet cargo (powered by gas turbines). All intercontinental trade in coal, oil and natural gas, ores and fertil­izer goes in large vessels powered by massive diesels. All long-distance flight is powered by GE, Pratt & Whitney and Rolls Royce gas tur­bines: from moving materials and products to moving people, the modern global economy rests on those two prime movers.

Q: Why are these engines more important than, say, the steam engine or the gasoline-powered automobile engine?

A: Both steam engines and gasoline-powered internal combustion engines are not powerful enough to propel massive container or bulk cargo ships (they carry commonly 250,000 tonnes of load) and are horribly inefficient compared to massive diesels, the only prime movers that can now convert half of all fuel into useful energy.

And no prime mover is more reliable than a gas turbine powering an intercontinental jet....MORE
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