There Is No Moore’s Law for Oil

Moore’s Law

Moore’s law of transistor count

The observation made in 1965 by Gordon Moore, co-founder of Intel, that the number of transistors per square inch on integrated circuitshad doubled every year since the integrated circuit was invented. Moore predicted that this trend would continue for the foreseeable future. In subsequent years, the pace slowed down a bit, but data density has doubled approximately every 18 months, and this is the current definition of Moore’s Law, which Moore himself has blessed. Most experts, including Moore himself, expect Moore’s Law to hold for at least another two decades. (courtesy of webopedia)


I’m in the process getting my license as a professional engineer, which requires a very intensive exam on a wide range of engineering topics regardless of whether it is germane to your field of work, it’s a bit like passing the bar for lawyers, except you take it after years of work rather than upon graduation. I bring this up because I just finished reviewing power cycles, which if it isn’t obvious is how we generate energy, either for power plants, or the gas engines of our cars. Since this isn’t my field of employment, I often forget how dated the technology actually is. We fool ourselves when we look at the advances made in things like the computer industry and think parallel advancements have occurred in other industries.

In the past 60 years computers went from being the size of rooms and buildings to fitting into our pockets. This didn’t occur simply because we got better at making computers. Just think of storage on a computer. We’ve gone from having no storage at all to punch card storage, to magnetic tape, magnetic platters, to solid state ram. The actual fundamental technologies that run computers have not just evolved but have completely changed. This unbridled innovation in the tech center has no parallel in the rest of our modern life.

This is your fathers Chrysler

Despite fuel injection, turbo chargers, and wind tunnel designs, for the most part the modern automobile is essentially the same car Ford popularized with the Model T, at least from a technological standpoint. It is still the same internal combustion engine running on the same fuel. I don’t mean to disregard all the advancements that have been made in cars over the years but with the exception of the recent emergence of hybrid cars very little has changed in the way cars actually work. It is still the same Otto engine cycle that was used from day one. The advancements in the auto industry have largely been on the controls side of the equation. This is a good thing, but it doesn’t change the fundamental thermodynamics of the system.

Fire Power

As I mentioned in Do coal fired power plants dream of electric car driven sheep?  The efficiency of the modern car is about 30%. I think it’s time I explained why it’s so low. Cars work by burning gas, obviously, but that has important implications on the actual efficiency. What actually takes place inside your car’s engine is a series of controlled explosions. It’s the rapid expansion of gas caused by igniting fuel that pushes a piston. That piston in turn rotates a shaft which in turn rotates the wheels of your car. The important thing to know here is that all that stuff is a byproduct of the process. The process is igniting fuel, which means the primary product is heat. You can’t achieve something like 70% or 80% efficiency when you’re not using the primary product of the process. All of the technological advancements in automobiles over the last 70 years have been to make better use of the byproduct. So while things like fuel injection, and turbo chargers meant that we used less fuel to push the pistons it did not reduce the major efficiency drain on the system, heat loss.

Why this matters

The fact that Moore’s law isn’t universal has important policy implications. Mitt Romney recently released his energy plan which indicates he would like our nation’s energy policy to once again be drill baby drill. I can guarantee you he will site technological advancements in computers as the anecdotal evidence that with technology we can achieve tremendous efficiency without switching off of fossil fuels. It’s simply not true. The next revolution of energy will need to be sustainable which means it can’t come from a fuel source that we burn.


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