Substitutions for oil — besides fuel

We associate oil with transportation, but there are other uses:

Today, 65 percent of our clothing is made from oil. Virtually all of our inks, paints, dyes, pharmaceuticals, plastics, and hundreds of intermediate chemicals are made from oil. The production of petroleum based plastics alone has expanded by more than 400 percent in the last two decades, to 30 million tons in 1990. Plastics are replacing glass, metals and paper in an ever expanding variety of products.

World Liquids Consumption by Sector
World Liquids Consumption by Sector — Energy Information Administration predicts about a quarter of the increase in oil consumption between 2004 and 2030 will be used for chemical and petrochemical processes. (Two thirds of the increase will be for transportation.)

I begin the discussion of biofuels this way to show competing interests for land and water: food, forage and fiber; ecosystem services (eg, rain, fish, and insects); transportation fuels and non-transportation substitutions for oil products. I don’t know the greenhouse gas, land use, or water implications of providing these to a population 40% larger in 2050, and perhaps 3 times as rich. Additionally, Green Chemistry is likely to either reduce or increase impact on water and land use — I don’t know (if you do, please leave a comment!)

Sometimes discussions of land and water use in the future sound like a large family deciding what to do with the $100 in the bank, without consulting other members. It would be useful to know how much extra land, for example, will be needed to feed a larger world population. Land not yet farmed tends to be less productive than farms already in use, and many places in the world, land is being degraded. On the other hand, transgenic crops will increase the yield, particularly on degraded land.

One Response to “Substitutions for oil — besides fuel”

  1. Joffan says:

    Actually, I applaud non-combustion use of oil. It’s a marvellous resource, and the development of materials from hydrocarbons has been a wonderful boon to our standard of living, allowing all sorts of innovation reaching widely into the population.

    Just don’t burn hydrocarbons (and in the case of volatile hydrocarbons, don’t let them escape into the atmosphere), and always recycle where possible. Trying to grow alternatives needs a really strong justification for the land and energy use.