Book review of “Prime Movers of Globalization: the History & Impact of Diesel Engines & Gas Turbines”

Alice Friedemann’s book review of:

Vaclav Smil. 2013. Prime Movers of Globalization. The History and Impact of Diesel Engines and Gas Turbines. MIT press.

Smil makes the case that civilization is based on the billions of engines that make global trade, power plants, transportation, and much more possible.  If you are mechanically minded, you will enjoy his history of the evolution of engines. And if you are afraid to fly, this book may change your mind – airplane turbines are a wonderment, perhaps the pinnacle of engine design, and far safer than they’ve ever been before.

Containerized Ships made globalization and civilization as we know it possible

Over 80% of all cargo moved in the world travels on about 50,000 ships, which burn about 10% of the world’s oil.  They use an order of magnitude less energy than railways and two orders of magnitude less than large long-haul trucks.  Large oil tankers are very efficient fuel-wise.  A 300,000-dead-weight-ton VLCC moving Saudi oil to the USA would only use .7% of the fuel to make the 12,400 mile journey.

Marine diesel engines run on heavy bunker fuel, a black tar-like substance with lots of impurities (sulfur can be 4.5%).

Exports grew from 1% of gross world product (GWP) in 1950 to 29% in 2007.  Almost a third of the world’s wealth is now created by international trade.

My favorite book on this topic is Levinson’s “The Box”. He shows how containerization of ships, trains, and trucks made globalization possible.  For example, until containerization, the cost of transporting shoes from Chicago to Kansas City was so great that shoes were made locally.  Now you can ship shoes from China to Chicago for less than they can be made in Chicago – transportation costs are often less than 1% of the overall cost of the product.

I used to work for a shipping line, and could see that it was mainly raw materials heading from the USA to Asia (wastepaper, food, cotton), with finished goods returning.

The company I worked for had no oil tankers or break-bulk carriers, so I never realized that the main commodity shipped by weight are fossil fuels.

  • Oil: 37% of all cargo on ships (Wiki Oil). 45% of the oil is from the Middle East
  • Coal: 43% of all cargo on trains in the USA (Wiki Rail)
  • Other essential goods: 25% (iron ore, phosphates, grain, etc.)

If anyone doubted that fossil fuels are the lifeblood of civilization, surely this dispels any doubts!

Other stats on sea-borne dry bulk commodities:

  • Coal. 790 Mt. 85% of all coal exports, 75% of that for electricity generation
  • Iron ore. 792 Mt. 44% of all iron ore
  • Grain. 300 Mt. 19% of all cereal grains
  • Bauxite and Alumina 82 Mt. 30%.
  • Phosphates. 30 Mt. 20% of all phosphates.

Other bulk goods shipped: Steel 270 Mt, Wood 175 Mt, Coke, pig, scrap iron, mineral ores, cement 335 Mt, dry bulk agricultural products (mainly sugar, fertilizer, feed meals) 275 Mt.

That made me wonder if the life-span of the 4,300 oil tankers will be a factor in how much longer civilization will last, since they wear and rust apart within decades.  Worse yet, they’re being scrapped after only 21 years now — long before they need to because they’re so unprofitable (Bimco).  These oil carriers are so large they can comprise 91% of the weight of all ships scrapped.

On the other hand, oil has been on a plateau of production since 2005 and will soon start declining, so fewer ships will be needed.  And the exporting countries remaining are likely to keep more of their oil for themselves (Wiki ELM).

What about sailing ships?

Without a doubt there will be more sailing vessels in the future.  It was sailing ships that were responsible for the first great wave of globalization between 1500 and 1820, when world trade grew at a rate of 1% a year – enough to double every trade 70 years.

How sailing ships work: The fabric in sails converts the wind’s kinetic energy into forward motion, but winds on the beam can push a vessel more sideways than forwards, and can even push a ship backward if the ship tries to steer even closer to the wind.  The huge expanses of canvas sails on tall-mast ships were risky to mount, unfurl, and trim. Antique vessels could sail with 90 degrees of wind on their beam, square-sailed with triangular mizzens 62 degrees, fore-and-aft rigs 45 degrees, and modern yachts just 30 degrees.


The first steam engines appeared on ships in the 1830s, soon paddle-wheel-propelled ships crossed the Atlantic. But they didn’t become the most important means of transport until the 1850s to WWI when screw propellers replaced paddle wheels.  Engines grew in power and efficiency, massive ships with metal hulls began plying the oceans, and carried most of the 60 million emigrants who left Europe between 1815 and 1930.  By the 1880s, steamships greatly expanded global trade with goods such as grain and refrigerated meat, across oceans.

Coal-burning steamships were replaced with oil because steamships require re-coaling 4 times to circle the globe, the coal takes up a huge amount of space and a large crew of coal trimmers, firemen, and water tenders.  An oil-based ship needs few crew and and oil tank large enough to circle the globe takes up much less space than coal and doesn’t need to be refueled.

Civilization depends on 1 billion gasoline oil-fueled combustion engines  

There are over 1 billion gasoline-fueled combustion engines in cars, trucks, motorcycles, agricultural and garden machines, boats, snowmobiles, airplanes, power pumps, back-up and emergency electricity generators.

The final wave of globalization after WWII was due to High-compression, non-sparking, internal-combustion and Gas Turbines.
These engines can never be 100% efficient (Carnot’s Theorem) because heat and friction cut their efficiency in half or more.  At best, well-maintained modern engines reach 32% efficiency, but those in typical everyday use are only 20-25% efficient.

Steam engines lost out because they took up to 20 minutes to start up, their small boilers had a hard time keeping enough steam reserves, the vehicles couldn’t go very far, and required constant monitoring and tinkering.

Electric cars looked good at first – they started easily with no cranking, were quiet, and  had no boiling steam or explosive fuels to cope with.  But heavy batteries, low speeds, and short ranges kept them from competing with combustion engines.

How would a human pushed vehicle compare with what a combustion engine does for us? We can sustain work at about 60-80 W and a mass/power ratio of 1,000 g/W.  Draft animals also suffer from too high mass-to-power ratios to transport goods long distance on land or water.  A low mass/power ratio is what you want, by 1965 a Mustang car engine rated almost 1 g/W.  Which I guess that means that you’d need 1,000 people pushing the Mustang to equal the power of the engine, and you’d be lucky to get pushed more than 3 miles at 10 miles per hour, let alone the difficulties of setting up lemonade and cupcake stands along the way to keep your fleet of humans fueled.

Railroads are essential

Trains are at least 3 times as efficient as trucks energy-wise and move about 40% of cargo in the USA, a third of grain, two-thirds of all coal with extremely reliable, durable (up to 6 years before an overhaul is needed), and efficient diesel-electric engines.

The infrastructure cost of new railways versus highways is far far less – about $1-2 million per kilometer of railroad versus $9-10 million per kilometer of highway.

Each train can represent several hundred large trucks.  Highway congestion costs about $80 billion a year in the USA.

Heavy-construction, Agriculture, and Mining Trucks are also essential

Smil writes: “A globalized economy could not function at its current intensity without the ubiquitous presence of heavy-construction and earth-moving machinery and without a high level of agricultural mechanization.  Nearly all of the heavy machinery that is used to build roads, bridges, tunnels, houses, commercial, and industrial enterprises is powered by diesel engines…. Two-thirds of America’s farm machinery—including all large tractors and self-propelled harvesters, above all grain and cotton combines—are diesel-powered.  Small gasoline-fueled farm tractors are the largest exception in this category.”

The largest diesel engines are in off-road mining vehicles.  The largest ore-mining truck has a 3,650-hp (2.7 MW) engine and can carry 360 tons of ore.  Tar Sands mining trucks can carry up to 400 tons with a 3,370-hp 2.5 MW engine.

Stationary diesel engines

These are also essential for civilization, they provide backup electricity generation for hospitals, businesses, nuclear power plants, and remote locations not connected to high-voltage lines.  Stationary diesel engines power hydrocarbon exploration and oil and gas production offshore.

Piracy threatens global oil supply chains

There are chokepoints where a large number of shipping vessels must travel that are vulnerable to piracy, such as the Strait of Hurmuz (40% of all seaborne oil moves through here), the Weatern Indian Ocean (Somali pirates), the straits of Bab al-Manda, straits of Malacca, and more.

The extremely large ports where oil is picked up (Saudi Arabia’s Ras Tanura, Kuwait’s Mina al-Ahmadi, Iran’s Kharg Island, Iraqu’s Mina al-Bakr) and oil off-loaded (Rotterdam, Kagoshima, Houston) are also very vulnerable to attack.

Smill writes that “disruptions by terrorist attacks would bring an instant spike in world oil prices”.

Airplanes & Air Cargo

Although there’s a lot on airplanes and the cargo they carry in this book, and their engines are really remarkable, air transport is going to play the least role in the future as oil declines.  Airplanes will probably disappear faster than even trucks.  And a dozen airports in the USA will succumb to rising sea levels (Freedman).

I can’t stand people who whine and complain about airports and airplanes.  We are more like Gods than mortals to fly through the air across continents, covering in a day what took years by foot.  The 100 billion people who lived before airplanes were invented, and the 100 billion who live after they’re gone, will never have the privilege, the beauty, the thrill, and the wonderment of flying above massive thunderheads, snow-capped mountains, and glittering rivers like we did during this brief age of oil.

My take on how will declining oil will affect engines and turbines

Oil peaked in 2005 and has been on a plateau since then.  The Department of Energy commissioned Robert Hirsch to do a peak oil study in 2005, and his main conclusion was that you’d want to start preparing at least 10 to 20 years ahead of time for peak oil, because it takes over 12 years to replace the existing inefficient trucks and cars with a more efficient fleet, and at least 10 years to build new tar sands, heavy oil refineries, coal to gas plants, and other fossil fuels needed by the over 1 billion existing combustion engine vehicles and equipment (Hirsch).

Long distance trucks will go first. Cement has a short lifetime and asphalt has a very short life of about 7 years (see my book review of Courland’s Concrete Planet in “A Century from Now Concrete Will be Nothing But Rubble”).  Roads, especially interstate highways, will fall apart within decades.  The oil and gas pipelines that carry oil to gas stations will rust apart as well, so there won’t be any fuel for the trucks (and cars) that are too far inland from rivers and railroads.

Famines ended in inland areas when railroads were built, since finally food could be shipped from areas with bountiful harvests to areas where crops failed.  It’s a shame the USA didn’t rebuilt it’s rail network and reduce trucking long ago to stretch-out and prepare for declining oil supplies.

Trains have problems too.  The rails and bridges are easily blown up.  They are likely to be stopped by cold and hungry people seeking coal and food along the way long before the train reaches it’s destination.  Regional railroads might exist while oil and coal last where they can be defended, but America’s great interstate distances are too huge to protect, so inter-continental trade will likely be the first to go.

Since California has a temperate climate and supplies a third of the nation’s fruits, vegetables, and other food, cold and hungry people will come to California by the tens of millions.  But that isn’t going to work out: most of California’s groundwater has been pumped out and the aquifers so collapsed so they can never refill again, and climate change seems to be pushing California towards severe droughts and potentially 1 crop per year rather than the 2 or 3 obtained now from the snow melt that provided water year-round in the past.

Because ships burn the cheapest, least refined oil and are far more efficient than trains & trucks, oil-burning ships are likely to be the last bastion of globalization.  Sailing vessels and some coal-burning steamships will increasingly take up the slack of rusted and scrapped oil-based vessels, but will never replace the amount of tonnage the enormous container ships carry now, not even close, plus they’ll need a lot of new infrastructure like 6-mile long docks to load/unload at, hopefully floating docks to cope with rising sea levels.

Declining numbers of engine and turbine based vehicles to grow and distribute food will force hundreds of millions of inland citizens around the world to move to coastal cities, or cities on navigable rivers.  Urban areas will get far more than their share of resources and commandeer the food they need to feed their citizens to prevent social unrest.  As city garbage collection, and clean water and sewage treatment plants fail from collapsing infrastructure and lack of energy, cities will become cesspools of disease, and the range of territory from which they can commandeer food will shrink as bicycles, people, and draft animals replace combustion engines with far less ability to do work, plant crops, harvest food, and above all, distribute it.

That’s when inland residents will be glad they stayed put, as long as they haven’t used or burned up their forests to heat and cooking with, and are far enough away that desperate city residents can’t try to enslave or take over their ranches and farms.

However dismal this may sound, it’s a rosy scenario. These factors were not brought into consideration: cyberwar, EMP’s, electric grid down for years, nuclear bombs, pandemics, drought, financial collapse, earthquake, Chinese coastal invasion, Ogalalla aquifer depletion, dust bowls, the hundreds of millions of guns Americans own and will use against each other, etc.

One last item

As you can see from Peak Resources and the Preservation of Knowledge, I believe an equally important factor as declining energy in the fall of civilization will be our inability to make microprocessors, which I consider the pinnacle of civilization.

Smil sets diesel engines above microchips as the “quintessential machines of modernity” because diesel engines do most of the work of society (grow food, global trade, transportation, etc), and generate 80% of the world’s electricity — and without electricity, microchips are useless.  But Smil forgets that diesel engines could never be made with such precision without them, and engines are so efficient because they’re operated by computer chips as well.  Ships, trains, and trucks go nowhere without computer chips, they aren’t operated with wheels and levers any more. Above all, hundreds of millions of lines of code are behind the information systems that move the cargo on ships, trains, and trucks, decipher complex tariffs and regulations, dangerous and hazardous cargo, load container ships in the order they’ll arrive at ports, and much more.

Engines are amazing, but so are microprocessors, and they are both utterly dependent on one another.


Bimco. The average age of demolished crude oil tankers hits 21 – not much room left for demolition balancing the market!  May 23, 2012.

Freedman, A.  2013. Sea Level Rise Poses Increasing Threat To U.S. Airports, Studies Show. Huffington Post.  The 12 most vulnerable airports are: San Francisco Int’l (SFO) Oakland International (OAK) Honolulu International (HNL) New Orleans Louis Armstrong Int’l (MSY) Tampa International (TPA) Miami Int’l (MIA) Ft. Lauderdale Int’l (FLL) Ronald Reagan Washington National (DCA) Newark Liberty Int’l (EWR) LaGuardia (LGA) Philadelphia Int’l (PHL) John F. Kennedy Int’l (JFK)

Hirsch, R., et al. 2005. Peaking of World Oil Production: Impacts, Mitigation, and Risk Management. Department of Energy.

Wiki ELM. Export Land Model.

Wiki Oil.  Oil Tanker.

Wiki Rail. Rail Freight Transport.

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