Engineering in an Age of Limits

Discusses the role of engineers as society enters an Age of Limits — particularly with oil supplies.


Flying Car

Flying Car – 1947

Because we are running into resource and environmental limits we are learning that exponential growth on a finite plant cannot continue. One of the many aspects of our professional lives that will be affected by this change is industrial safety. We will be challenged to make sure that we retain the concept of Safety as a Value and we will need to learn how to design and operate facilities to be safe at a time when resources are increasingly constrained.

The title of this week’s post is taken from a phrase I have often used when leading hazard analysis studies such as HAZOPs. Often one of the leader’s biggest challenges is to get the team members to accept that serious events can happen, i.e., to get them to “think the unthinkable”. Ironically I have found that achieving this acceptance can be a particular problem in those facilities which have a good safety record, where standards are high and the team members consistently exhibit a high level of professionalism. In such situations the leader can have a hard time persuading the team members that risk is never zero, and serious accidents can happen anywhere and in any place. These team members can have trouble ‘thinking the unthinkable’. They will make statements such as, “I’ve been here fourteen years, and never seen that” — with the unspoken follow-on, “. . . therefore it cannot happen”. On the other hand, at a facility that has just experienced a serious accident everyone accepts that ‘it’ can happen. Indeed, one of the most effective actions that a corporation can take following a bad event is to have as many employees as possible come from other sites to look at the destruction in order to make them realize that bad events really can occur.

The point of the above discussion is to show that we all tend to get trapped into linear thinking — we believe that tomorrow will be pretty much a continuation of today without any major changes. And generally it is. But sometimes conditions change radically and over a short period of time — as seems to be occurring now as we enter the Age of Limits. And sometimes those changes are not what we want. Most of us have spent our careers living and working in a time of material and technological progress. With respect to industrial safety, for example, modern electronics and computer systems have allowed us to install sophisticated safety instrumented systems. Similarly advances in techniques such as vapor dispersion modeling improve our ability to analyze risk. Hence, given that most of us think linearly, we take it for granted that technological progress will continue and that safety will steadily improve. But it is possible for progress to stop; even more disturbing, it is possible for progress to go into reverse and become regress.

Airplanes, Cars and Moonshots

That fact that technology does not always progress was brought home to me earlier this year as I was sorting through some family pictures.

Kampala 1971

Kampala 1971

The picture above is of a VC10 airplane. I took the picture in the year 1971 at the start of my journey home from Uganda after serving in Africa as a volunteer teacher. It shows how little airplane design has changed in the last 50 years. The VC10 had an aluminum body, swept-back wings and was powered with four turbo-jet engines. The only major external change since then is that we would not put two engines adjacent to one another now — if one of those engines were to catch fire the one next to it would probably ignite also.

The lack of change in airplane technology becomes clear if we compare the specifications for a VC10 with a modern airliner of roughly equivalent capacity: the Boeing 737-700.

                                               VC10            737-700
Passengers                              109                     126
Cruising speed (km/hr)       900                    962
Range (km)                          9,000                  6,370

Of course the details for each airplane depend on many factors, particularly the model number, but the broad conclusion is clear: the basic design and performance of airplanes has not changed all that much (I could not find data for the fuel consumption per passenger for each model — I suspect that the 737 is much better in that regard; it also has a smaller crew — thus saving money, probably as a result of on-board electronics).

But even here some of the changes represent regress, not progress. In 1971, even though I was an impecunious student, a free hot dinner was served on plates with metal silverware. Pillows were provided as a matter of course and there was actually sufficient leg room. Most remarkably there was no security — none; I just showed my boarding pass and walked on the airplane. And, in flight, when I got bored I asked to visit the cockpit and was welcomed up front — no questions asked. If I tried that now I would be arrested.



Stepping back in time a little bit more, the very first flight that I ever took was in the year 1967 and the airplane was a Finnair Caravelle. As the picture shows, that airplane, which made its first flight in the year 1955, looks quite up to date. Not much has changed.



We conclude, therefore, that airplane design and performance have not changed radically in fifty years or more — such improvements as have occurred have been incremental and mostly to do with cost savings. Indeed, if there have been radical changes they have been in the other direction. Five years after my 1971 flight in a VC10 the Concorde Supersonic airliner made its commercial debut. It was the fastest commercial airplane in the world with a cruising speed of 2170 km/hr (1350 miles per hour), more than twice the speed of sound. A London to New York crossing took a little less than three and a half hours. By contrast, the modern Airbus A380 has a top speed of 1020 km/hr and takes about eight hours to cross the Atlantic.

Not only was the Concorde radically innovative in its design, it was “an absolute delight to fly, it handled beautifully. And remember we are talking about an aeroplane that was being designed in the late 1950s – mid 1960s. I think it’s absolutely amazing and here we are, now in the 21st century, and it remains unique.” John Hutchinson. The Concorde, which was a gas guzzler, was withdrawn from service in 2003 because the airlines could make more money selling first class seats on subsonic airliners.

Kampala 1971

Kampala 1971

The lack of technical progress can also be seen in the automobile. The day before I went to Kampala airport to catch my VC10 flight I took the picture shown on the left of cars in downtown Kampala. Once more, the basic technology has not changed. Modern cars are safer, more reliable and have electronic gizmos such as satellite navigation systems. But they use the same basic technologies as those 50 year old cars: an internal combustion engine running on gasoline, four wheels, two rows of seats and a driver behind a steering wheel.

Apollo-1A final example to do with technological regress is the collapse of manned space flight programs. The Apollo program put a man on the moon in the year 1969. Five subsequent missions landed astronauts on the Moon, the last in December 1972. In these six flights twelve men walked on the Moon. Now, if the United States wishes to put a man in space — let alone on the moon — NASA is obliged to hitch a ride on a Russian rocket.

Causes of Regress

Peter Thiel

Peter Thiel

Peter Thiel, PayPal founder, once said “We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters“. In spite of the fact that he himself has made a fortune in information technology, he states, “. . . though computer technology has witnessed a ‘relentless’ growth in recent years, other sectors have not seen significant progress in innovation . . . We are no longer living in a technologically accelerating world . . .There is an incredible sense of deceleration.”

Thiel attributes the problem to the fact the many industries, including the energy industry, are over-regulated, whereas the information and software businesses have been relatively free of regulation. But his response, although it is likely to be true, is not sufficient. Why have we not significantly improved the basic technology of automobiles and airplanes? Indeed, why — using the Concorde and the Apollo missions as examples — do we seem to be regressing in some areas? I suggest that the answer to these questions is energy, or more precisely, the cost of energy extraction. We make good progress in areas such as electronics because the energy requirements to build a laptop computer, say, are nowhere close to the requirements for developing a new space program that would allow ordinary people to visit the moon.

Moreover, as noted in Nine Pounds of Gold, we are spending more of our energy just to find and produce the energy we need to replace the depleted reserves. When ERoEI was 100:1 we could invest one barrel of oil and get 100 barrels back. With the net 99 barrels we could invent jet engines, send men to the moon and build freeways. Now, with ERoEI for new projects coming in at less than 20:1 (and not even 1:1 in some cases), we only have 19 or less barrels of energy to use as we wish — and most of that is spent maintaining the systems that we already have in place. There is virtually nothing left over, so we have no choice but to cut back on technological developments.

And there is a more subtle issue to consider. A natural response to the problems with oil supply and private transportation is to transform automobiles such that they run on electric motors, not internal combustion engines. But the energy cost of making such a transformation would be enormous and would have to be spread out over many, many years (after all, there are something like 0.75 billion fuel-powered vehicles – automobiles, trucks, ships and airplanes – in the world).

Moreover, when all of the embedded energy costs associated with electric vehicles, such as batteries that need replacing fairly frequently and the energy used in order to generate electricity from fossil fuels, are considered it may be that the a transportation system based on electricity rather than gasoline and diesel does not use less net energy after all. (What is needed in situations such as this is systems thinking — in a future post I will suggest that this is a great strength of process safety professionals and is a skill that will be very valuable in coming years.)


Pedestrian-Crossing-1The focus of these posts is on industrial safety, and there is no reason to believe that the safety business is exempt from the drag that the cost of energy will put on all aspects of business. It is true and commendable that safety has improved so much in the last two decades. But much of that improvement can be attributed to two items — the use of advanced electronics and the implementation of behavior based safety programs — that are not energy intensive. Our challenge will be to develop safety programs and ideas that require a minimal use of energy.

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