History of technological transition

20th century technology developed rapidly. Communication technology, transportation technology, broad teaching and implementation of scientific method, and increased research spending all contributed to the advancement of modern science and technology. Due to the scientific gains directly tied to military research and development, technologies including electronic computing might have developed as rapidly as they did in part due to war.

  • Chinese first to use coal as an energy source
200 BC
  • Europeans harness water energy to power mills
  • Chinese develop natural gas as an energy source
  • Chinese first to refine petroleum (oil)
  • Windmills built in Persia to grind grain and pump water
  • Coal mining begun in Belgium : surface mining and underground mining develops
  • Coal transportation to London in 1228
  • Coal exports from Northern England to France in 1325
  • Development of coal coke in England coke = purified coal which can be put through blast  furnace and reacted with iron ore (pig iron) to be produced into steel.
  • English transition from plant fuels to coal paves way for Industrial Revolution
  • Coal begins to displace use of other energies. Following changes:
    •           Change in coal mining
    •           Production of coal gas for lighting, heating and cooking
    •           Purification of coal for steel production
    •           Use of coal in heat engines  (steam engine and steam turbine)
  • Watt’s patent steam engine (first prime mover since windmill) and due to high energy intensity of coal, ‘coal fuelled steam engine’ à key prime mover of C18th and C19th
  • English scientists William Nicholson and Sir Anthony Carlisle discovered that applying electric current to water produced hydrogen and oxygen gases.
  • Discovered ‘electrolysis’
  • Important step into the development of hydrogen energy and hydrogen fuel cell
  • Electromagnetic induction where mechanical energy converts into electricity paving the way for commercial use of electricity. Edison drove mass commercialisation of electricity development by building first electricity generation plant.

–          Electricity had huge influence on telecommunications, rail road and households

  • First hydrogen fuel cell developed to generate electricity
  • Gesner distilled kerosene from crude oil (displace whale oil with kerosene for lighting). Innovations from oil and natural gas development include
    •           Advances in exploration and drilling
    •           Advances in processing
    •           Use in combustion engine
    •           Use in plastics and fertilisers
  • First solar power system developed in France to produce steam to drive machinery
  • Standard Oil formed by John D. Rockefeller to develop petroleum as a major US energy source
  • Electricity generated directly from sunlight in Selenium Solar Cell
  • Parsons develops first modern steam turbine and first to connect to an electricity generator (transforming chemical energy in coal into electricity)
  • Windmill generates electricity in US
  • First diesel engine to run on vegetable oil demonstrated at World’s Fair in Paris
  • Albert Einstein publishes the first theoretical work describing PV effect
  • John D. Grant drilled a geothermal well and ran a small direct current generator, which was used to provide electricity for lighting The Geysers Resort.
  • Marcellus and Joe Jacobs developed the first commercially available wind turbine for electricity generation. Jacobs Wind Electric Company is formed and sells over 30,000 units between 1927 and 1957
  • Hoover Dam is built and becomes world’s largest Hydroelectric Power Plant
  • First silicon solar cell developed by Bell Laboratories
  • First nuclear power plant begins operations in Pennsylvania
  • The Atomic Energy Act of 1954 authorised private industry to build, own and operate nuclear power plants and to engage in a variety of other nuclear activities
  • Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) is formed in Iraq
  • GE develops hydrogen fuel cells to generate electricity for Apollo and Gemini space missions
  • World’s first solar powered village starts operation in Tohono O’odham Reservation Arizona
  • US Windpower installed the world’s first wind farm consisting of 20 wind turbines rated at 30 kilowatts each
  • First large-scale solar thermal power plant begins operation in California.
  • Unit 4 of nuclear power station at Chernobyl, Ukraine occurs.
  • The accident, caused by a sudden surge of power, destroyed the reactor and released massive amounts of radioactive material into the environment
  • Exxon Valdez becomes the world’s largest oil spill in US waters
  • Solar Two plant demonstrates low cost method for storing solar energy
  • Hydrogen Future Act of 1996 authorised authorities leading to production, storage, transformation and use of hydrogen for industrial, residential, transportation and utility application
  • President George Bush unveils the hydrogen fuel initiative to promote hydrogen fuel cell development
  • US announces $467 million in Recovery Act Funding for Solar Energy and Geothermal Energy development
  • BP oil rig explodes causing largest oil spill in US history
  • An earthquake off the coast of Japan damages six nuclear powerplants at Fukushima Dai-ichi. The crisis reaches level 7, the highest possible. It ranks on par with Chernobyl.
  • European and American subsidised PV markets encourage Chinese dominance (60%) and resulted in technology learning. Price fallen from $20 per peak watt in 1980 to $1.5-$2.0 in 2012

Links between fossil fuel use, technological development and industrialisation

Our experience with fossil fuels in 20th century has lead it to be the driver of industrialisation and urbanisation (determinant of how we live today)

Drivers and dominance of fossil fuels

  • Dominance of fossil fuels amongst the world’s energy sources is nonetheless the result of particular, fundamental superiorities that these fuels have over their alternatives (affordable and reliable)
    1.       Abundance
    2.      High gravimetric (J/kg) and/or volumetric (J/m3) energy density
    3.      Relative ease of extraction and processing
    4.      Technical innovation in end use devices (innovation)


Abundance of fossil fuels depends on complex interplay of factors:

  1.       Incomplete knowledge of the physical magnitude of the resource
  2.       Our technological capacity to find, extract and process the resource
  3.        Its market value (not dependant solely on demand bc other primary resources can be used to transformed to the same secondary energy).

Interplay of product substitution and amount of ‘proven economic reserves’

Energy Density

The amount of energy stored in a given system or region of space per unit volume

Fuels Energy density Technologies Energy density (nominal capacity)
Peat 15 MJ/kg Windmill 50 kW
Wood 18 MJ/kg Steam engine 10,000 kW
Coal 20-30 MJ/kg Coal PC 750,000 kW
Natural gas 45 MJ/kg Coal IGCC 600,000 kW
Oil 50 MJ/kg Natural gas (IGCC) 550,000 Kw
Nuclear 1,400,000 kW
Biomass, BFB 100,000 kW
Wind on-shore 100,000 kW
Wind off-shore 200,000 kW
Solar CST 250,000 kW
Solar PV 10,000 kW

Favorable impacts

  • Stopped deforestation
  • Transition to passenger vehicle improved the sustainability of transport energy systems as it replaced the horse drawn carriage
  • Mechanisation
  • Abundant food from freed up land for agriculture
    • Fraction of land cultivated to grow feed for horses and draught animals in 1900 was ~25% of US and 33.3% of UK
  • Free human labour
    • Increasing mechanisation of labour has improved the working environment for generations of people (transform human existence)

Unfavourable impacts caused by fossil fuel use

  • Environmental problems from GHG and health problems from the emissions of pollutants, such as:
    • Oxides of sulphur
    • Oxides of nitrogen
    • Unburnt hydrocarbons
  • Community problems (global and local political problems)
  • Socioeconomic disparities between high and low users of energy
  • Geopolitical tension based on the uneven distribution of energy resources
  • Development of weapons of mass destruction

Technological Impacts

  • Some great inventions in end use devices first took place without any initial intent of using fossil fuels
  • Partnership between fossil fuels and key end use devices, both fuel and technology evolved symbiotically to achieve continuously higher levels of overall system performance
  • Production of steel
  • Production of coal gas for lighting, heating and cooking (aka town gas, syn gas)
  • Kerosene for lighting displaced by coal gas
  • Watt’s reciprocating steam engine
  • Steam turbine with significantly higher reliability and above 40% thermal efficiency and reliable and affordable generation of electricity

Fossil fuels and agriculture


  • Transition from dominant sources of agricultural power took 50 years
  • Fossil fuels are a part for modern farming
    • Power agricultural farming
    • Process farming products
    • Synthesis of fertilisers and pesticides
  • Fossil fuels displace human and animal power (decline from 1850, over 60%)
  • Mechanisation occurred significantly

Inorganic fertilisers

  • Soil additives that aids the growth of plants
  • Can be organic or inorganic in nature
  • Before fossil fuels, used animal /plant manures: Guano and Crop rotation; potash
  • Increase production of fertilisers to support the demand for food production required to feed growing population
  • Inorganic nitrogen-based fertilisers invented using Haber-Bosch process
  • Roughly 40-50% of the world’s population is now sustained by food production using inorganic nitrogen based fertilisers

Without fertilisers

  • Increase in the cost of food
  • Reduction in the availability of food
  • More deforestation

The energy intensity and its historical variation

  • Energy intensity: measure of the energy efficiency of a nation’s economy.
    • Calculated as units of energy per unit of GDP.
  • High and low energy intensity
    • High energy intensities indicate a high price or cost of converting energy into GDP.
    • Low energy intensity indicates a lower price or cost of converting energy into GDP.
  • Factors influence an economy’s overall energy intensity
    • Requirements for general standards of living and weather conditions in an economy. A country with an advanced standard of living is more likely to have a wider prevalence of such consumer goods and thereby be impacted in its energy intensity than one with a lower standard of living.
    • Energy efficiency of appliances and buildings, fuel economy of vehicles, vehicular distances travelled, better methods and patterns of transportation, capacities and utility of mass transit, energy rationing or conservation efforts, ‘off-grid’ energy sources, and stochastic economic shocks such as disruptions of energy due to natural disasters, wars, massive power outages, unexpected new sources, efficient uses of energy or energy subsidies
  • Energy intensity
Energy/GDP Energy consumption(EJ = 1018 Joules) Million metric tons of CO2 global

18 MJ/$ 1990

20 EJ

10 MMt


20 MJ/$

45 EJ

500 MMt




1000 MMt


16 MJ/$

250 EJ

5000 MMt


14 MJ/$

450 EJ

6800 MMt

“An Illustrated History of Energy” 29 August 2012. HowStuffWorks.com. 06 November 2012.

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