The future of fuels – Natural Gas

24 01 2010

Shale gas drilling site in Pennsylvania, Source: MIT Tech Review

Natural gas has always been the poor cousin of oil: always the bridesmaid but never the bride. Why is that?

A high-level glance at a few indicators may provide you with quite a rosy picture. Not only can natural gas diversify your energy portfolio away from oil but it will also reduce your CO2 emissions – especially compared to coal for power generation. The upstream picture is quite attractive too. With plenty of proven resources and potentially game changing reserves just discovered below the US oil (the infamous shale gas), one cannot but wonder why natural gas does not become The fuel to transition our society out of fossil sources. Read the rest of this entry »

The future of fuels – Biofuels

20 01 2010


Ethanol and other biofuels have come under a lot of heat especially during the 2008 food crisis as most of them are derived from alimentary crops like corn (US), sugar cane (Brazil) and palm oil (Malaysia and Indonesia). It is almost commonly accepted that to become a sustainable part of energy portfolio new technologies will have to come online – the infamous second generation biofuels (e.g. made out of cellulose).

Governments have high hopes for renewable fuels for both strategic and environmental reasons. That’s why countries like the US establish very ambitious mandates like the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007. This regulation stipulates that by 2022 about a fourth of the daily demand of gasoline (total demand ˜400 million gallons) comes from renewable resources.

While this number is great news to stimulate technological innovation in second-generation fuels, a more pragmatic look at the future reveals some tough (yet surmountable) hurdles ahead. I don’t think I have much to add to the real challenges technology wise, so let’s pretend that we manage to secure ˜100 million gallon of renewable fuel per day. In addition, I will not get into the wells-to-wheels controversy as to whether biofuels are actually beneficial as a whole or not. Allow me to focus instead on operations, as I think it is an issue too often overlooked in the biofuels debate. Read the rest of this entry »

The future of fuels – Oil

15 01 2010

Last drops of oil?

Peak Oil is The story that comes to mind when thinking about the future of oil. I have had the chance to ask a couple of current and former oil executives about it. They all agree that people mistakenly anticipate a very abrupt phenomenon. Yes, there will be a peak in production; but oil will not disappear one day, when we realize that there is not a drop left in the last barrel. On the contrary, it will slowly fade away. Price and demand will adjust to make the transition easier towards other types of hydrocarbons like gas and biofuels. This will also buy us some time to develop the necessary infrastructure for an electric-based transportation system.

In a nutshell, oil is here to stay and some oil executives like Leonardo Maugeri from ENI even predicts that oil will be around for the next 100 years. A recent article in Business Week supports this assertion with an optimistic and yet, very compelling graphic representation of oil supply (link here). Indeed, there are at least three drivers that can prolong oil’s supply behind what was expected. Read the rest of this entry »

Limits to growth? Beware of the next Malthus

12 01 2010

Source: Wikipedia

It is the perennial question. Are we outgrowing the Earth? Since Mathus’ dark predictions, the issue of Earth carrying capacity has been on and off the public agenda. There is clearly no definite answer as people have painted convincing scenarios for both sides of the question. On the on hand, the gloomy scenario depicts an earth suffocating under a booming population requiring more and more resources to attain new standards of wealth. On the other hand, technology optimists believe that game-changing innovations will enable a wealthier larger population (e.g. nuclear fusion, climate engineering, etc.)

It is typical that issues like these quickly evolve from a scientific “consensus building approach” to a heated advocacy debate. I will come back to this in a number of posts as it is symptomatic of society where science, policy and business worlds have collided. Instead of challenging and building on a work-in-progress theory like in any scientific problem, advocates from both sides monopolize the debate and believe that the truth will emerge from the best rhetoric. The main reason for this evolution resides in the inherent complexity of the issue, which leaves a scientific approach short of closing all the critical uncertainties. As a result, you see “religions” come to light as the debate gets parceled around nays-sayers and doomsayers, between right and wrong. Read the rest of this entry »

Iraq, Afghanistan and the re-engineering of human beings

10 01 2010

Exoskeleton from Raytheon (Sarcos Lab) - found on

It only took a TED video from Aimee Mullins (link here) to start connecting some dots I had completely overlooked till then. Born with missing fibula bones, Aimee had both her legs amputated below the knee when she was just a child. Using specially designed prosthetic legs, she nevertheless competed in the NCAA Division I 100m dash and long jump against able-bodied athletes. She never considered herself as disabled but she rather saw in her missing leg an opportunity to be creative about her body. She now has twelves pair of legs, which allows her to change her height up to 6 inches. In the video, she mentioned how one of her friends became jealous of her ability of changing height at her will and even call it “unfair.” As Aimee puts it, recent innovations in biomechanics and even genetic engineering spark a whole new debate on how “disabled” may open the door to “super-abled.”

The Iraq and Afghanistan wars have not only killed more than 5,000 americans; but they are also responsible for hundreds of thousands of wounded veterans. Amputation are unfortunately quite common which leads to believe that groundbreaking innovations are to be expected in prosthetics thanks to significant public funding. This reminds me of three years ago when I saw a person walking on bionic legs around MIT campus. Hugh Herr‘s work at the MIT Media Lab is indeed quite amazing. As an amputee himself, he developed electronically activated ankles and systems that allow him to walk without constraints. The company IWalk has already made such products a commercial reality.

Read the rest of this entry »

Why “Vitamins for your futures” plural?

6 01 2010

Long term thinking is a very humbling experience. You have to accept to be wrong to hopefully be right. In a sense, there is something “organic” in such an approach. Nature has always favored redundancies and failures to celebrate the triumph of the fittest. The evolution process thrives on countless variations of genetic codes that could have been the most optimal answer in a different environment.

Likewise, forward thinking is all about studying all those futures that could exist provided forthcoming events follow a certain path. Of globalization and technological innovations like the Internet emerged a growing human network that has exponentially accelerated the pace of changes. Describing the world in the next ten years becomes increasingly challenging. Just look back to all the things that happened in the last ten years, could you imagine commenting to this post on your Iphone while traveling through your daily commute?

Read the rest of this entry »

Why this Blog?

5 01 2010

Photo: © Hiroshi Sugimoto, Wired Website, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco

In a highly connected society, the difficulty does not rely in gathering information but rather digesting it. On the one hand, the acquisition cost of new information keeps dropping – to even zero e.g. free online version of mainstream publications. On the other, making sense of it does not become cheaper if not more expensive – time and energy necessary to sort through the increasingly available data.

How many times have you encountered a relevant piece of information and simply discarded it because you could not unlock the “so what” underneath it? Most inspired leaders explain that success and vision are all about connecting the dots. It always seems easier to connect those dots looking back than looking ahead.

However challenging this may seem, analyzing currently available data with a forward-looking lens is critical to prepare for what the future throws at you. This Blog does not pretend to predict The Future but rather to stimulate your thinking by laying out potential futures.

“Chance favors the prepared mind.” Louis Pasteur

Consider reading this Blog as your intake of vitamins to help you digest present trends and uncertainties as well as to fortify your long-term vision.