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The Basis of Our Modern Technological World
Our modern technological world requires four sectors of particulars to function: Energy and Power, Food and Water, Essential Materials, and Globalization. The sectors can be subdivided into:
- Energy and Power – The sources of energy; Wood Burning, Fossil Fuels (Oil, Gas, and Coal), Hydro, Geothermal, Chemical, Solar, Wind, and Nuclear, and the power derived by the conversion of this energy, are essential to the functioning of the modern technological world.
- Food and Water – The farming fertilizers and water supplies, and the direct and indirect Fossil Fuels utilization in farming and food production, as well as abundant clean water supplies needed for drinking, cleaning, cooking, and sanitization processes for a population, are essential to a modern technological world. Also, much water is utilized in many manufacturing processes.
- Essential Materials – The Materials required for a modern technological world are surprisingly limited to Ammonia, Steel, Concrete, Plastics, and Rare-Earth Elements from which most of our modern construction, consumables, and conveniences are derived. These essential materials are the building blocks of a modern technological world.
- Globalization – The interconnection of transportation and communication to provide the Energy and Power, Food and Water, and Essential Materials required for a modern technological world.
All these particulars are interrelated and interdependent to and with each other in a modern technological world. A disruption in any one of these particulars in a sector can have severe or disastrous consequences to the other sectors and disrupt or devastate our modern technological world.
Energy and Power
Energy and Power are two distinct things in science and technology. Energy is scalar, which in Physics is a quantity described only by its magnitude; volume; mass; density; time; and speed. Power measures energy per unit of time, and hence it is a rate (in physics, a rate measures change, commonly per time). Therefore, power is the amount of energy required to institute a change over a period of time. When you convert energy to power, you always do so inefficiently as much of the energy is lost in the conversion process, as per the Laws of Thermodynamics. Hence, a modern technological world requires more energy than the power it consumes, as our efficiency rates of conversion are low (typically 5% to 30%). Of the primary energy sources, oil accounted for 33.1%, gas for 24.2%, and coal for 27%, adding up to 84.3% of the world’s energy consumption from fossil fuels.
Food and Water
Food and Water are obvious, but the production requirements for Agriculture and Irrigation, and the Food Industry and Water Supply are less obvious and unfamiliar to most people. Most people think of a farmer who tills, cultivates, and harvests a field, then ships the food to a processing plant or to a market. But to till, cultivate, and harvest a field requires extensive energy and materials to accomplish. The power, fertilizers, and water to accomplish this are all provided by a modern technological world. The materials needed for a farmer to grow a crop and the equipment necessary to grow and transport a crop are all provided by a modern technological world. The production and transportation of food for consumption also require a modern technological world to accomplish.
The Essential Materials of Ammonia, Steel, Concrete, and Plastics are the basic materials required for a modern technological world. Recently we have also become dependent upon rare earth minerals for our technology to function. And many of these materials are directly or indirectly derived from coal and oil. After crude oil is removed from the ground, it is sent to a refinery where different parts of the crude oil are separated into useable petroleum products. These petroleum products include gasoline, distillates such as diesel fuel and heating oil, jet fuel, petrochemical feedstocks, waxes, lubricating oils, and asphalt. Thousands of products are made with coal or coal byproducts, including aspirins, soap, dyes, solvents, plastics, and fibers such as rayon or nylon. Coal is an important ingredient in the production of products that require activated carbon, carbon fiber, or silicon metal. As Coal and Oil account for over two-thirds of the materials that we utilize, they are essential materials for our modern technological world.
Ammonia is one of the most highly produced inorganic chemicals. Ammonia is essential for producing Nitrogen Fertilizers which account for just over half of the fertilizers used worldwide. The other major fertilizers are Phosphate fertilizers, Potassium fertilizers, and NPK fertilizers, which are a mined natural resource that is then refined into a fertilizer. Organic fertilizers can describe those fertilizers with an organic (i.e., biological) origin—that is, fertilizers derived from living or formerly living materials. Organic fertilizers play no significant role in modern agriculture. Ammonia is mostly derived from natural gas, liquefied petroleum gas, or petroleum naphtha (a flammable liquid hydrocarbon mixture). A typical modern ammonia-producing plant first converts these gases into gaseous hydrogen. This method for producing hydrogen from hydrocarbons is known as steam reforming. The gaseous hydrogen is then combined with nitrogen, which is derived from the air, to produce ammonia via the Haber-Bosch process. Ammonia, either directly or indirectly, is also a building block for the synthesis of many pharmaceutical products and is used in many commercial cleaning products.
Steel requires iron ore, coke, and limestone and intense heat to produce, and this iron ore, coke, and limestone is a natural resource that is available across the world. The intense heat is produced primarily through the burning of coal or electric arcs. Steel is primarily produced using one of two methods: Blast Furnace or Electric Arc Furnace. The blast furnace is the first step in producing steel from iron oxides. The first blast furnaces appeared in the 14th Century and produced one ton per day. Even though the equipment has improved, and higher production rates have been achieved, the processes inside the blast furnace remain the same. The blast furnace uses coke, iron ore, and limestone to produce pig iron. Pig iron, also known as crude iron, is an intermediate product of the iron industry, which is then further refined to create steel. The first electric arc furnaces (EAFs) appeared in the late 19th Century, and the use of EAFs has expanded and now accounts for over 70 percent of steel production in the United States. The EAF is different from the blast furnace as it produces steel by using an electrical current to melt scrap steel, direct reduced iron, and/or pig iron to produce molten steel. An EAF requires an immense amount of electricity which is often generated by coal-burning electrical power generation stations. Steel is utilized ubiquitously in our modern technological world.
Concrete is essential to the construction of our modern buildings, highways, and other structures. Other roadways are constructed with asphalt, which is an oil byproduct. Concrete is derived from sand, gravel, cement, and water, which are natural resources that are available across the world. The types of Cements used in concrete are usually inorganic, often lime or calcium silicate based, which can be characterized as non-hydraulic or hydraulic, respectively, depending on the ability of the cement to set in the presence of water. However, even though concrete has been around for millennia, the enormous quantity needed for a modern technological world requires that these resources need to be mined and combined on a large scale, which requires other materials and energy of a modern technological world.
Plastics are a wide range of synthetic or semi-synthetic materials that use polymers as the main ingredient. Their plasticity makes it possible for plastics to be molded, extruded, or pressed into solid objects of various shapes. This adaptability, plus a wide range of other properties, such as being lightweight, durable, flexible, and inexpensive to produce, has led to its widespread use. Plastics are typically made through human industrial systems. Most modern plastics are derived from fossil fuel-based chemicals like natural gas or petroleum; however, recent industrial methods use variants made from renewable materials, such as corn or cotton derivatives. Over 9.2 billion tons of plastic are estimated to have been made between 1950 and 2017. More than half this plastic has been produced since 2004. In 2020, 400 million tons of plastic were produced. If global trends in plastic demand continue, it is estimated that by 2050 annual global plastic production will reach over 1,100 million tons. The largest application for plastics is as packaging materials, but they are used in a wide range of other sectors, including construction (pipes, gutters, doors, and windows), textiles (stretchable fabrics, fleece), consumer goods (toys, tableware, toothbrushes), transportation (headlights, bumpers, body panels, wing mirrors), electronics (phones, computers, televisions) and as machine parts.
Rare Earth Minerals are necessary for the extraction of the Rare-Earth Elements (REEs) they contain. The uses, applications, and demand for REEs have expanded over the years. Globally, most REEs are used for catalysts and magnets. In America, more than half of REEs are used for catalysts and ceramics, while glass production and polishing are also main uses. Other important uses of REEs are applicable to the production of high-performance magnets, alloys, glasses, and electronics. REEs are important in alloy making and in the production of fuel cells and nickel-metal hydride batteries. REEs are also used in the production of LCD and plasma screens, fiber optics, lasers, as well as in medical imaging. Additional uses for REEs are as tracers in medical applications, fertilizers, and water treatment. REEs have been used in agriculture to increase plant growth, productivity, and stress resistance, seemingly without negative effects on human and animal consumption. Given the limited supply, industries directly compete with each other for resources, e.g., the electronics sector is in direct competition with renewable energy use in wind farms, solar panels, and batteries.
The mining and refining of Rare Earth Minerals to extract Rare-earth elements are critical to the modern technological world. Because of their geochemical properties, rare-earth elements are typically dispersed and not often found concentrated in rare-earth minerals. Therefore, large quantities of Rare Earth Minerals must be mined to extract the much-needed Rare-earth elements. If these mining and refining operations were destroyed, damaged, or halted, it would not be possible to manufacture many pieces of electronic equipment or other modern technological products. Therefore, for the benefit of all humankind, we need to develop multiple mining and refining operations for these rare earth minerals where these rare earth minerals are located.
Unfortunately, all or some of these rare earth minerals are not located within the territorial bounds of a country, and thus countries have become dependent on foreign countries for their rare earth mineral needs. In the United States, many of these rare earth minerals are located on Federal lands protected by mining prohibitions and environmental protection regulations. As a result, these rare earth minerals are not mined within the United States. Other countries have similar prohibitions or are economically or technologically incapable of mining and refining these rare earth minerals. As these rare earth minerals are critical to a modern technological world, we need to start locating these rare earth minerals in the parts of the world in which they are located. If and when they are found, we then need to determine how to safely, environmentally friendly, and economically mine and refine these rare earth minerals. We should then modify the appropriate laws and regulations to allow for the mining and refining of these rare earth minerals.
Globalization is important, as no country can be truly independent of other countries. The raw materials needed for a country are not all present within the territorial bounds of a country or in sufficient quantity to meet the needs of the country. Not all countries have the capability (both technologically and/or economically) to mine and refine the raw materials located within their country or the ability to manufacture the products needed by their population. Very few countries can produce the food and water needed by their population, nor the raw and refined materials to produce fertilizers and other fossil fuels needed for Food and Water production for their population. Energy and Power resources are also naturally distributed across the globe and need to be shared across countries. Without Globalization, a country cannot have a modern technological basis and is therefore relegated to being a second or third-rate country.
However, each country should attempt to be as Energy and Power, Food and Water, and Essential Materials independent as possible, for without this independence, they are subject to vicissitudes and political or economic pressures of the other countries that supply their Energy and Power, Food and Water, or Essential Materials. Each country should also be careful of its manufacturing base. If too much manufacturing of necessary products occurs outside of a country, then they are also subject to vicissitudes and political or economic pressures of the other countries that manufacture their necessary products. This balance is often difficult to obtain, as economic forces often require the manufacture of products in a lower-cost country so that they are affordable to the population of a country. There is also the question of Natural Rights abuses of the workers in lower costs countries to achieve these lower costs of manufacturing.
The question of the Balance of Trade also arises in Globalization. The balance of trade, commercial balance, or net exports (sometimes symbolized as NX) is the difference between the monetary value of a nation's exports and imports over a certain time period. Sometimes a distinction is made between a balance of trade for goods versus one for services. The balance of trade measures the flow of exports and imports over a given period of time. The notion of the balance of trade does not mean that exports and imports are "in balance" with each other. If a country exports a greater value than it imports, it has a trade surplus or positive trade balance, and conversely, if a country imports a greater value than it exports, it has a trade deficit or negative trade balance. As of 2016, about 60 out of 200 countries have a trade surplus. The notion that bilateral trade deficits are bad in and of themselves is overwhelmingly rejected by trade experts and economists, as the balance of trade only measures tangible values. The intangible values of the availability and lower costs of products that may occur between two countries can be economically and socially beneficial to each country, which is unmeasurable.
While Concrete utilization and Energy and Power usage (via Sails, Water Wheels, and Windmills) have been around for over two millennia, and Steam engines have been around and utilized for three centuries, it was the rise of Electricity in the late nineteenth century that led to our modern technological world. Steel was produced in bloomery furnaces for thousands of years, but its large-scale, industrial use began only after more efficient production methods were devised in the 17th century, with the introduction of the blast furnace and the production of crucible steel. Fertilization from natural or organic sources: compost, animal manure, human manure, harvested minerals, crop rotations, and byproducts of human-nature industries (i.e., fish processing waste or bloodmeal from animal slaughter) have been utilized for centuries. Ammonia has been known since antiquity, but it was the Haber–Bosch process to produce ammonia from the nitrogen in the air that was developed by Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch in 1909 and patented in 1910 that led to modern fertilizers and innovations in plant nutrition around synthetically created fertilizers. This transition was important in transforming the global food system, allowing for larger-scale industrial agriculture with large crop yields. Parkesine, invented by Alexander Parkes in 1855 and patented the following year, is considered the first man-made plastic, but it wasn’t until after World War II that plastics began to be utilized on a large scale. The uses and applications of rare-earth elements have occurred for over a century, but the demand for rare-earth elements has expanded over the last few decades as modern electrical and electronics products have more frequently utilized rare-earth elements in their manufacture and usage.
Therefore, it can be said that the evolution into a modern technological world has mainly occurred over the last century and a half. In the first century of this evolution, the major progress was in the Energy and Power, Food and Water, and Essential Materials sectors, while Globalization has mainly occurred in the last half-century. This growth was mainly due to capitalistic forces, with very little governmental direction. Every time a government becomes involved in directing this evolution, such as socialism (in all its forms), communism, or dictatorship governments, the growth of these sectors is stymied and sometimes reversed to the detriment of the population living under the government. This is because the interrelationships between Energy and Power, Food and Water, Essential Materials, and Globalization are so complex that they cannot be managed by a government but must be driven by market forces.
As can be seen above, Coal, Oil, and Rare-Earth Minerals are essential to our modern technological world. Without coal, oil, and rare-earth minerals, our modern technological world is not possible. Anything that disrupts our coal, oil, and rare-earth minerals mining, refining, and production will cause major convulsions to our standard of living. A prolonged disruption could also collapse our modern technological world. Consequently, whenever any government or organization proposes any changes to any particulars in coal, oil, and rare-earth minerals mining, refining, and production, the impacts of these changes on all the sectors must be evaluated. This evaluation is difficult to accomplish, as the interrelationships are difficult to qualify and quantify, let alone calculate the impacts of a change. Therefore, we should all be wary of anything other than market forces that change the particulars in the sectors as we can be certain that there will be impacts that will affect our modern technological world.
We, humans, suffer from a hubris that we can manage and control these sectors, and to some extent, we can manage and control these sectors, but most of the time, these sectors will manage and control us. We have become so dependent on these sectors for the basics of our modern technological world that we must exercise keen caution and watchful prudence for any actions or activities that impact these sectors. The actions to be wary of are external market force interference or disruptions such as big business manipulation, government overregulation or control, and the hostile activities of aggressive nations or terrorists. Many of our political, social, economic, and business leaders have an overestimation of their intelligence, knowledge, and wisdom and a belief in their self-importance that leads them to believe they understand these sectors and their interrelationships and interdependencies. Some politicians, in their lust for power, also have this hubris. This hubris, if acted upon imprudently, can have disastrous consequences to our modern technological world and potentially the collapse of society and even civilization due to the Globalization of Energy and Power, Food and Water, and Essential Materials.