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The Future of Energy

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To understand the future of energy, I think it's immensely valuable to study the history of energy consumption within the last two hundred years.

The current dominant market forces are the petroleum and gas industries, a reign long held since the mid 1900s when there was a shift from coal to crude oil.  The pioneer and entrepreneur who began it all was a man named Edwin L. Drake, who had used a steam engine and cable-tool drilling rig to drill the first petroleum oil well in 1859. However, his path was filled with many obstacles, and the future founding father of the petroleum oil industry spent 5 months unsuccessfully drilling for oil in Pennsylvania that earned him the nickname "Crazy Drake" and his venture as "Drake's Folly."

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The petroleum industry would also lead to the widespread use of petroleum by-products, and lead to the discovery of petroleum jelly, patened as "vaseline" which was made by a young chemist in his 20s named Robert Chesebrough; a product that still dominates the global cosmetics industry.

However, Edwin L. Drake persisted despite running out of money, and relied on friends for financial support and on August 27. 1859, when he finally found that black liquid gold called petroleum oil, it was an event that would signal the beginning of the end of the dominant energy force in global markets, what was then known as the coal industry, and start the transition to petroleum. About a decade later, in 1870 a man named John D. Rockefeller along with his Co-Founders would incorporate Standard Oil Co. Inc. in the United States, which became one of the world's first and largest multinational corporations.

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A scene from There Will Be Blood, a film by Paul Thomas Anderson in 2007 about the early petroleum oil industry 

Standard Oil was the Microsoft and Google of its day, and in a similar manner, attracted anti-trust lawsuits from the U.S. Government. Much of the history of Industrial Era and its innovative newfound technologies were fictionalised in a novel by Ayn Rand in Atlas Shrugged, which was fairly revolutionary for its time because much of the novel integrated intimate conversations between the author and the founders of different companies in uncensored format, detailing many woes faced by Founders when the U.S. Government often usurped their technologies or stopped them from operating via lawsuits.

However, Standard Oil, with Rockefeller as head, created a precedent in many business practices, including acquisition of smaller competitors and by combining all their disparate companies spread across many states under a single group of trustees. Rockefeller integrated many other tactics, such as secret transport deals and because of its acquisition of all aspects of its trade, it would eventually lead to the passing of the Sherman Antitrust Act by U.S. Congress in 1890- just twenty years after the inception of Standard Oil. After losing its antitrust legal battles with the U.S. Justice Department in 1911, Standard Oil was broken down into smaller companies, what would be known today as Chevron and ExxonMobil. 

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In the UK, a visionary named William Knox D'Arcy who had been a partner in gold mining in Australia and New Zealand in the late 1800s decided to set his sights on an up-and-coming energy competitor- petroleum oil in 1900.He banked his entire fortune from gold mining in a search for petroleum in the Middle East, and would spend the next eight years drilling for crude oil in Persia (now Iran). After an extraordinary burn rate, and close to losing his entire fortune, on May 26, 1908 he finally struck oil and the following year, he was made director of the newly founded Anglo-Persian Oil Company which would eventually become British Petroleum (BP). Similar to Edwin L. Drake, William Knox D'Arcy was a pioneer and entrepreneur who went against the popular trends of his time, persistent in his endeavors and began to disrupt an industry that had long been held by the coal industries. The UK's controversial love affair with the Middle East and with, petroleum was exemplified by T.E. Lawrence, an archaeologist who became known as Lawrence of Arabia.

However much of the UK's transition to petroleum from coal was also in part, due to what had transpired in the first World War, when former Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill switched to utilising petroleum as the energy source for the Royal Navy, instead of coal.

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"Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm." - Sir Winston Churchill

In a parallel trajectory, almost a hundred years later, the U.S. began integration of Japan and South Korea's high tech experimental algae biofuel in their naval and aviation fleets between 2008-2010 when President Obama began his biofuel initiatives and soon after in 2011, commercial jet liners began integrating biofuel on air flights.

My own father worked for many years in the U.S. oil industry and I remember as a little child visiting the oil refineries in California during special events. In the U.S., the petroleum oil industries provided stable jobs for many Americans, and there is a famous saying in Texas that I will always remember:

"Oil feeds my family and pays my taxes."

In the little time that I have spent in Texas, I have found Southerners quite welcoming, humble and down-to-earth, not exactly the ignorant monsters that they are often portrayed in the media. However, with oil jobs moving abroad, many of those Texans have lost their primary source of income, but I wonder if perhaps algae biofuel (which is ideally grown in hot temperatures- such as the ideal environment of Texas) might not become the new source of those new jobs in the United States?

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Algae biofuel was derivative of efforts from scientists around the world, however, Japan was the first to patent biofuel cells in 2003 and 2004 by the University of Tokyo and the Kitakyushu Foundation. 

This system utilised photosynthesis and solar energy in transforming biofuel cells into semipermanent power generation. Japan's water-powered car utilises this biofuel cell technology.

Algae is a type of seaweed found in the sea. They multiply quite easily and one of its advantages is that it can grow in both freshwater and wastewater (although wastewater algae has more contaminants that make it less effective for biofuel). Algae biofuel releases carbon dioxide when burnt, but unlike fossil fuel (from petroleum, gas or coal) algae biofuel releases carbon dioxide that has been recently removed from the atmosphere via photosynthesis and are harmless to the environment if accidently spilled. It is completely biodegradable and do not effect other natural wildlife or environmental sources of energy.

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The UK has implemented biofuel for its buses and transportation since 2012 and Japan has started using algae biofuel in their operating bus services last year via Isuzu Motors and bio-venture firm Euglena. However, there was much resistance against utisiling biofuel cells around the world for many political reasons, and Japan's plans to launch the water-powered car into the U.S. were temporarily halted when they had suffered devastating effects of the tsunami + earthquake in 2011.

Historically, UK pioneers have been the innovators that have pushed new technology and energy sources to the forefront of Europe. This has been the case with both coal and with petroleum and gas. The question remains, which are the companies that will bring biofuels and biofuel cell technology for public consumption into the next century?