Wednesday, December 03, 2014


For literally thousands of years, humanity made little technical progress at least as it helped to improve the life of millions upon millions of people and then, suddenly, 200 years ago or so our technological capabilities just exploded.

To what do we owe this?

On a first approximation we could say that fossil fuels were the trigger but on second thought, they had already been known for hundreds of years and little was made of them.

No, more important than the fuels themselves were the engines developed:

1. The steam engine.
2. The internal combustion engine.
3. The gas turbine.

These engines allowed coal, oil and natural gas to be converted into movement, into transportation.

Electricity had also been known for a long time but it was not until the electric generator (powered by one of the engines above) provided abundant energy to illuminate and power the world that electricity became overwhelmingly important.

However, electricity was not only power and light, it was also signals, and here the all important developments before 1950 were:

1. The telegraph
2. The telephone
3. Radio and television

Crude implementations of the first two could exist without electronics proper, but radio and television required an amplifier and thus came into being side by side with them the vacuum tube.

Finally, electricity was one more thing: "intelligence." The first fully electronic general purpose computer, ENIAC, came into being in the late 1940s. It used prodigious amounts of vacuum tubes (more than 18,000).

So, by 1950, we had cars, airplanes, trains, air conditioning, elevators, radio, television, telegraph, telephone and even some computers.

Accelerated progress seemed to lay in the past because the vacuum tube required loads of power and was too big and unreliable to be implemented by the thousands in computers and other devices.

Say, a basic cell phone was completely out of the question, let alone a personal computer, tablet or smart phone.

And then came William Shockley and the transistor.

The first transistors were more often than not just (lower power / smaller) replacements for vacuum tubes, but if we wanted hundreds, thousands, millions, billions of transistors in a single device another breakthrough was needed.

And then came Robert Noyce and the integrated circuit. This allowed complex circuits with many transistors to be built into a single crystal of silicon, but if we wanted a full computer to be swallowed in a single integrated circuit, another breakthrough was needed.

And then came Ted Hoff and the microprocessor.

So arguably, our awe inspiring current civilization critically depends on at least the following foundations:

1. Abundant / relatively cheap energy (mainly fossil fuels).
2. Engines that use those fuels to produce useful work.
3. Electricity that, aside from light and power, means signals and "intelligence."
4. The transistor / integrated circuit / microprocessor

The future challenge for our civilization is probably more than anywhere else in point number 1. If fossil fuels won't continue to be forever cheap and abundant, then we'll need other types of energy to replace fossil fuels.

How much time we have is open to discussion, but almost everybody agrees eventually we'll need to massively replace fossil fuels or enter into the twilight of our civilization as we know it.

Are the current alternatives we have today (nuclear and renewables) good enough to massively replace fossil fuels? Probably not.

In the past, technology has always come to our rescue:

Engine technology.
Electricity generation.

Today, once more we need technological breakthroughs, this time to develop cheap / abundant / low carbon energy.

Let's remember that wide deployment of a technology critically depends on cost. The first transistors Fairchild Semiconductor produced for IBM in the 1950 had a price tag of $150 USD each in bulk amounts (1950's dollars). Today the cost of each transistor in an iPhone is around one millionth of a cent (2014 cents).

Thus, if something is going to replace fossil fuels, the cost of that energy is all important (we have to consider the full system, not only a component).

Will humanity rise to the challenge? Let's stay tuned.

Feel free to add to the conversation in Twitter: @luisbaram

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At 7:56 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Spot on Luis!

At 6:43 AM, Blogger Radical Rodent said...

Excellent post! We do have time for the research, too, as fossil fuels should last another 50 years - which is better than it was in 1870, when there was only 30 years supply left!


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