Fossil Fuels and Future Mobility

W. Addy Majewski

This is a preview of the paper, limited to some initial content. Full access requires DieselNet subscription.
Please log in to view the complete version of this paper.

Abstract: Fossil fuels, and particularly oil, fueled the internal combustion engine and enabled other technologies essential for our civilization, leading to an unprecedented growth of the global population and economy. However, due to resource depletion, fossil fuels became more costly to produce, and their usefulness to the economy is diminishing. It is apparent that our fossil fuel civilization is faced with an energy transition away from oil and other fossil fuels. However, no alternative in sight can provide energy quality that would be comparable to that of conventional oil.


The internal combustion engine (ICE) has been one of the key inventions that enabled the rapid growth of the civilization in the 20th century [3754]. It has been described as a prime mover—a machine capable of converting other forms of energy into mechanical energy suitable for human use. The ICE largely replaced the earlier prime movers of lesser power and efficiency—human labor, domestic animal work, the water wheel, windmill, and the coal fired steam engine.

The history of the internal combustion engine dates back to the second half of the 19th century. In 1877, Nikolaus Otto patented his four-stroke ‘Silent’ gas engine, which was further developed by Gottlieb Daimler and others to run on gasoline and used in passenger cars. In the 1890s, Rudolf Diesel received patents for a compression ignition engine [2859][2856] that was later called by his name. Due to its superior efficiency, the diesel engine gradually replaced the steam engine in various types of machinery. In 1923, Benz & Cie. launched the world’s first diesel truck—a five-tonner powered by a four-cylinder, 45 hp @ 1000 rpm engine. Around the same time, diesel engines were introduced to power the first agricultural tractors. The use of both gasoline and diesel engines expanded rapidly, in parallel with the growth of the petroleum industry which supplied the respective liquid hydrocarbon fuels—gasoline and diesel.

Figure 1. Automobile production at Benz & Cie., Mannheim-Luzenberg plant, around 1910

(Source: Daimler)

Combustion engines continue to be the prime mover of the modern world’s economies. Societies depend on the ICE-powered passenger car as the basic mode of transportation—particularly in wealthy nations. But the most important applications of the ICE are heavy vehicles and machinery. While one can imagine a society where personal transportation needs are satisfied by public transit, electric vehicles, and bicycles, there is no viable technical solution that could replace combustion engines used for the transport and distribution of goods and to propel various types of nonroad machinery. Diesel trucks ensure the uninterrupted supply of food, consumer goods, materials, resources, and military supplies. Diesel construction equipment is used to build and maintain a variety of buildings and infrastructure. Combustion engines also power farm machinery used to produce food, forestry and logging equipment, mining machines used to extract resources, and boats. Finally, the ICE enabled the globalization of the world’s economy by powering ocean-going ships that move cargo around the world—along with the gas turbine that powers airplanes.

The significance of fossil fuels in our civilization extends beyond transportation—fossil fuels are essential to almost every sector of the economy. Arguably one of the most important inventions of the 20th century has been the Haber-Bosch process to produce ammonia from ambient nitrogen and from hydrogen obtained via steam reforming of natural gas. Commercial NH3 production using the Haber-Bosch synthesis started in 1913 at BASF in Ludwigshafen, Germany. The process continues to be used to manufacture synthetic fertilizers that—by supporting increased food production—have enabled the exponential growth of the world’s population experienced in the 20th century. There are numerous other uses of fossil fuels—for instance, petroleum and natural gas are used as feedstocks in the chemical industry to produce a range of products and materials, including plastics—a key class of materials in our industrial civilization (as well as a symbol of our consumption-oriented lifestyle).

Fueled by abundant, low cost and high quality energy, the economy grew as it never had before and industrialized society has expanded to cover most of the world. The economic growth, however, came at a cost: the destruction of natural life on the planet, a depletion of natural resources, and climate change—the latter effect directly related to the use of fossil fuels. Fast forward to the 21st century, and our fossil fuel civilization is faced with a most significant change—the energy transition away from oil and other fossil fuels, to some “sustainable” energy sources of the future. Needless to say, this energy transition will have a major impact on future mobility.

A common narrative reflected in a number of government policies and in the mainstream media is that future mobility will predominantly rely on electric powertrains, powered by “renewable” wind and solar electricity. The energy transition has already started—we are told—with renewable electricity replacing fossil fuel energy. Under some government policies, the market share of electric vehicles (EV) is to be ramped up from about zero to 30-50% within 10-30 years, respectively. The energy transition away from fossil fuels would proceed in a growing economy, with the growth driven by renewable energy and electric vehicle industries.

Unfortunately, on closer scrutiny it becomes clear that the above narrative is based largely on wishful thinking—it does not appreciate the scale of the energy transition problem and a number of the assumptions and envisioned technology choices are unrealistic for technical, economic and/or ecological reasons. For starters, at the current pace of the energy transition process, after decades of investment in wind and solar power, the contribution of these renewables in total energy consumption remains insignificant. In 2017, wind provided 1.9% of total primary energy supplies, solar provided 0.7%, and fossil fuels provided about 85% of primary energy [3905]—a percentage that has been relatively steady for several decades.

Looking at the scale of the problem from the climate perspective, it has been estimated that to prevent temperatures from rising more than 2°C, about 1,100 MW of renewable energy per day would have to be added over the next three decades. However, we are adding globally only around 151 MW of carbon-free electricity per day. At this rate, substantially transforming the energy system would take not three decades, but nearly four centuries [3904]. And these calculations do not even account for the added electricity demand that would result from the increased use of electric vehicles.

The energy transition away from fossil fuels presents a major challenge for this civilization, and one would hope that it will be helped by policies that are based on rational analysis and by viable mobility technologies. This article is not an attempt to predict the future. That would be an exercise in futility, as the future cannot be predicted—it always seems to involve developments we have not yet considered. Rather, the following sections discuss a number of important concepts that should be considered when evaluating new energy sources, vehicle powertrain technologies, and future mobility policies. These concepts include: