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‘The Limits of Energy Innovation’: Timeless Insight from Vaclav Smil

By Vaclav Smil -- November 22, 2013

[Editor note: One of the great energy scholars of our time is Vaclav Smil, Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Environment and Geography at the University of Manitoba. This (modified) article remains as fresh today as it was when originally published in 2009.]

President Barack Obama has promised an energy revolution in the world’s largest economy, with renewable sources of power and “green” technologies breaking America’s – and ultimately the world’s – dependence on conventional fuels…. But how realistic is this vision?

Primary Energies: Unchanged

There is only one kind of primary energy (energy embodied in natural resources) that was not known to the first high civilizations of the Middle East and East Asia and by all of their pre-industrial successors: isotopes of the heavy elements whose nuclear fission has been used since the late 1950’s to generate heat that, in turn, produces steam for modern electricity turbo-generators. Every other energy resource has been known for millennia, and most of them were harnessed by pre-modern societies.

The fundamental difference between traditional and modern uses of energy consists not in access to new or better energy resources, but in the invention and mass deployment of efficient, affordable, reliable, and convenient “prime movers,” devices that convert primary energies into mechanical power, electricity, or heat. History could be profitably subdivided into eras defined by the prevailing prime movers.

The longest span (from the first hominids to the domestication of draft animals) is made up of the age when human muscles were the only prime mover. Then came the addition of draft animals and gradual supplementation of animal prime movers by mechanical prime movers, such as sails and wheels, that capture natural energy flows.

A fundamental break with this millennia-long pattern came only with widespread adoption of the first practical mechanical prime mover able to convert the heat of fuel combustion – James Watt’s improved steam engine, designed in the 1780’s. More efficient versions of this prime mover dominated the modernization of the Western world until the first decade of the twentieth century.

During the 1830’s, the first water turbines marked the beginning of the end of the waterwheel era. The next two key milestones came during the 1880’s, with the invention by Benz, Daimler, and Maybach of the gasoline-fuelled Otto-cycle internal combustion engine and the patenting of Charles Parsons’ steam turbine. The 1890’s witnessed the arrival of Rudolf Diesel’s inherently more efficient version of the liquid-fueled internal combustion engine.

There is only one more prime mover to add to this sequence. The gas turbine was conceived at the beginning of the twentieth century, but its first working prototypes (both stationary and for flight) came only during the 1930’s, and began to be rapidly diffused in the 1950’s.

Internal Combustion Engine

Today’s most ubiquitous mechanical prime mover – installed in nearly a billion road and off-road vehicles, water vessels, airplanes, and countless machines and tools – is the gasoline-fueled internal combustion engine, fundamentally unchanged since the 1880’s.

Economic globalization would have been impossible without the diesel engines that power enormous crude and liquefied natural gas tankers, bulk cargo vessels transporting iron ore and grain, and massive container ships: some of them now have unit capacities close to 100 MW, but their basic design was mastered within two decades of Diesel’s test of his final engine prototype in 1897.

Most of the world’s electricity is generated by steam turbines in fossil-fuel-burning and nuclear power plants, and, except for much larger capacities and higher efficiencies, Parsons would recognize in them every key feature of his invention, now more than 120 years old.

And intercontinental flights would be an even greater trial without the gas turbines invented in the 1930’s by Frank Whittle (who thought about turbofans, now the dominant commercial design, even before he built the first turbojet) and Joachim Pabst von Ohain.

Mechanical Prime Movers

These realities offer three obvious but under-appreciated conclusions about the mechanical prime movers that are the foundations of our economic progress.

First, because of their large numbers and their associated (and often expensive and extensive) infrastructures, prime movers are remarkably inert. There has been little real innovation ever since these prime movers were first commercialized more than a century ago (water turbines, steam turbines, internal combustion engines) or more than 50 years ago (gas turbines).

Second, any transition to new prime movers is an inherently prolonged affair, taking decades to accomplish. Even today, for example, there are few indications that steam turbines will not continue to generate the bulk of our electricity in the decades ahead, or that gas turbines will be replaced anytime soon. Recent developments show that even automotive internal combustion engines will not yield to electric motors or fuel cells as rapidly as many enthusiasts have hoped.

Third, the wider the scale on which an energy prime mover is deployed, the longer it will take for substitutions to appear. A century ago, the world used coal and a relatively small volume of oil at the rate of 0.7 TW, but in 2008 established commercial energies – fossil fuels and primary (water and nuclear) electricity – flow at the rate of nearly 15 TW. Obviously, this scale limits the speed with which new prime movers can be introduced to replace any significant share of the old devices.

For example, if 20% of the world’s electricity were to be generated by wind turbines, then, considering their inherently low load factor of about 25% (compared to 75% for thermal stations using steam turbines), we would need to install new capacity of some 1.25 TW in these machines. Even with large 3-MW turbines, this would require more than 400,000 new tall towers and giant triple blades. That is a task for many decades.


More Vaclav Smil on energy density at MasterResource:

Power Density Primer: Understanding the Spatial Dimension of the Unfolding Transition to Renewable Electricity Generation (Vaclav Smil)

Part I – Definitions

Part II – Coal-and Wood-Fired Electricity Generation

Part III – Natural Gas-Fired Electricity

Part IV – New Renewables Electricity Generation

Part V – Comparing the Power Densities of Electricity Generation


  1. Carlos Barrera  

    Technology Submission – State of the Art – Novel InFlow Tech – Featured Project Development; 1-Gearturbine, 2-Imploturbocompressor


    Rotary-Turbo-InFlow Tech

    Atypical InFlow Thermodynamic
Technology Proposal Submission
Novel Fueled Motor Engine Type

    *State of the art Innovative concept Top system Higher efficient percent.*Power by bar, for Air-Planes, Sea-Boats, Land-Transport & Dynamic Power-Plant Generation.
-Have similar system of the Aeolipile Heron Steam device from Alexandria 10-70 AD.

    YouTube; * Atypical New • GEARTURBINE / Retrodynamic = DextroRPM VS LevoInFlow + Ying Yang Thrust Way Type – Non Waste Looses

    *8-X/Y Thermodynamic CYCLE – Way Steps:
1)1-Compression / bigger
2)2-Turbo 1 cold
3)2-Turbo 2 cold
4)2-Combustion – circular motion flames / opposites
5)2-Thrust – single turbo & planetary gears / ying yang
6)2-Turbo 2 hot
7)2-Turbo 1 hot
8)1-Turbine / bigger

    -With Retrodynamic Dextrogiro vs Levogiro Phenomenon Effect. / Rotor-RPM VS InFlow / front to front; “Collision-Interaction Type” – inflow vs blades-gear-move. Technical unique dynamic innovative motion mode.

    -Non waste parasitic looses for; friction, cooling, lubrication & combustion.

    -Shape-Mass + Rotary-Motion = Inertia-Dynamic / Form-Function Wide [Flat] Cylindrical shape + positive dynamic rotary mass = continue Inertia positive tendency motion. Kinetic Rotating Mass. Tendency of matter to continue to move. Like a Free-Wheel.

    -Combustion 2Two continue circular [Rockets] flames. [ying yang] opposite one to the other. – With 2TWO very long distance INFLOW [inside propulsion] CONDUITS. -4 TURBOS Rotary Total Thrust-Power Regeneration Power System. -Mechanical direct 2two [Small] Planetary Gears at polar position. -Like the Ying Yang Symbol/Concept.

    -The Mechanical Gear Power Thrust Point Wide out the Rotor circumference were have much more lever [HIGH Torque] POWER THRUST. -No blade erosion by sand & very low heat target signature profile. -3 points of power thrust; 1-flow way, 2-gear, 3-turbine. *Patent; Dic. 1991 IMPI Mexico #197187 All Rights Reserved. Carlos Barrera.

    ·2-IMPLOTURBOCOMPRESSOR; One Moving Part System Excellence Design – The InFlow Interaction comes from Macro-Flow and goes to Micro-Flow by Implossion – Only One Compression Step; Inflow, Compression and outflow at one simple circular dynamic motion Concept.

    *·“Excellence in Design” because is only one moving part. Only one unique compression step. Inflow and out flow at the same one system, This invention by its nature a logic and simple conception in the dynamics flow mechanics area. The invention is a wing made of one piece in a rotating motion, contained in a pair cavity system connected by implocavity, and interacting dynamically with a flow, that passes internally “Imploded” through its simple mechanism. This flow can be gas (air) or liquid (water). And have two different applications, in two different form-function; this one can be received (using the dynamic flow passage, as a receiver). Or it can be generated (with a power plant, generating a propulsion).

    An example cut be, as a Bike needs a chain to work from motor to wheel. And for the Imploturbocompressor application, cut be as; in a circumstance at the engine, as an A-activate flow, and with a a tube flow conduit going to the wheel as a B-receiving-flow the work use.

    To see a Imploturbocompressor animation, is posible on a simple way, just to check the Hurricane Satellite view, and is the same implo inflow way nature.

    The imploturbocompresor system have three direct ways and between make two different turns; direct way (entrance) – turn – direct way (implocavity) – turn – direct way (exit), all this in a 1 simple circular move system concept. Like a knot do.

    Its prudent to mention that the curves and the inclinations of the blades of a rotating wing made of this invention, is conferred by its shape and function a structural rigidity allowing.


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  3. Joachim Falken  

    “Economic globalization” was supported just after 1850 with intercontinental telegraph lines and would have been possible “without the diesel engines that power enormous bulk cargo vessels and massive container ships”, given that eletric trains had been invented before the first diesel engines, and “crude and liquefied natural gas tankers” would not be required anyway in absence of use of these energy converters and corresponding sources.


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