From Steam to Diesel

Steam engine used to illustrate the slow page of change

One of my motives for writing this blog and the accompanying book is to critically examine some of the widely-held views held by environmentalists. My concern is that some of the solutions and responses that I read about are often not viable — they are not workable.

Areas of Concern

Three areas of concern are:

Thermodynamics

I will discuss these in some detail in future posts. Suffice to say that some of the solutions that are proposed are not thermodynamically realistic. For example, we cannot “save energy” — the first law tells us so. Nor is any activity truly sustainable — the second law tells us that all activities within a closed system lead to an increase in entropy.

Jevons Paradox

Increased efficiency may lead not to a reduction in the use of a resource, but an increase in its use.

Scalability

The fact that something can be done on a small scale does not mean that it is viable on a wider stage.

Slow Adoption

But this week I ran across a topic that can be added to the above list: the fact that new technologies are often adopted at only a very slow pace.

My interest in this issue was triggered by an article in the November issue of the Oil & Gas Journal (one of the leading publications in the energy business). The article, written by Michael Lynch is entitled, ‘The oil industry revolution will not be televised’. In it Lynch shows how slowly new technologies are often adopted, even there is no doubt that they make sense. He uses the United States railroad industry as an example.

He presents the chart shown below.

Transition from steam to diesel locomotives shows slow pace of adoption of new technologies.

Diesel (and diesel-electric) locomotives are attractive economically as compared to steam locomotives, largely because they require much less downtime for routine maintenance and cleaning. (Which presumably explains why the total number of locomotives steadily declined — also the fact that diesel-electric locomotives can haul longer and heavier trains is a factor.)

The chart shows that the first diesel locomotive was designed during the First World War. Yet it was not until the year 1937 that a commercial diesel locomotive was put into service. After that, diesel locomotives steadily replaced steam locomotives. But, even by the year 1955, that replacement was far from complete.

The point is that it can take a long time to implement new technologies. Because something can be done does not mean that it will be done — at least not quickly.

Diesel Electric 1943

Author: Ian Sutton

Ian Sutton is a chemical engineer who has worked in the chemical, refining and offshore oil and gas industries. He is the author of many books, ebooks and videos.

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