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Jun 25 25 tweets 4 min read
1/ Modern society is awash in stuff. There’s stuff at the grocery store. At the hardware store. At Amazon and eBay. We eat stuff, wear stuff, buy stuff, and store stuff. Click some buttons, swipe a card, tap a phone – and presto! Stuff appears.
2/ We are a carbon-based species. Carbon forms the foundation of our bodies and the external world we experience. Almost everything we touch is carbon-based, including most of our stuff.
3/ Not only is our stuff mostly based on carbon, but the energy required to manipulate materials – to make stuff – comes predominately from carbon-based feedstocks as well. For example, we can’t make copper wire without first extracting energy from carbon fuels.
4/ Since energy is life, mastering the chemistry of carbon and harnessing the energy of stuff to make other stuff is core to the modern economy. When transforming stuff, it is easier to start with stuff that has higher embedded energy than the stuff you intend to make.
5/ Let’s develop a grossly simplified mental model. Picture a four-rung ladder. Because of gravity it takes energy to climb a ladder, but to fall from one is a spontaneous event. In a way, interchanging between chemical compounds is analogous to our ladder.
6/ Sometimes, going from one chemical compound to another releases energy (like falling down the ladder), whereas going in the opposite direction requires putting energy in (like climbing the ladder).
7/ At the top rung of our ladder sits methane, more commonly known as natural gas. Among the hydrocarbons, methane has the most embedded energy. Way down below – on the ground below the first rung – sits carbon dioxide (CO2). CO2 is a thermodynamic sink.
8/ When you burn methane fully, you react it with oxygen and produce CO2 and water as products. That reaction gives off an enormous amount of useful energy – the increased force of hitting the ground from the top rung rather than lower ones.
9/ The next rung down from methane sits oil. While oil is a complex mixture, for our simplistic purposes you can think of it as partially burned methane. Oil still has a lot of potential energy (falling from that height would still hurt).
10/ Unlike methane, oil is an easily transported liquid at room temperature and pressure. As such, oil serves many purposes for which methane is unsuitable. However, you must burn more oil to get the same amount of useful energy – thus producing more CO2 on an equivalent basis.
11/ Further down still is coal. Coal is even more oxidized than oil, sitting closer to the ground. It is also quite dirty, filled with nasty impurities. But coal is cheap and is a solid. You can literally dig it out of the ground with a pick and shovel, as was done for decades.
12/ At the lowest rung is wood. Wood, like all plant stuff, is the product of photosynthesis (so are coal and oil, of course, but wood just died more recently). In a highly inefficient process, Nature starts with CO2 and begins to climb the ladder using sunshine as the fuel.
13/ Since climbing the ladder is hard, Nature doesn’t get very far. Having said that, wood is a fantastic raw material for all kinds of useful stuff, and vegetation is the food that powers all humans, either directly or indirectly.
14/ It makes intuitive sense that if we are using carbon-based materials as a source of energy, we’d want to be at the highest rung possible. This is, in fact, how societies evolve. Wood burning gives way to coal, which eventually gives way to oil and then natural gas.
15/ As societies become more sophisticated, they can afford cleaner environments. Natural gas is the cleanest burning carbon-based fuel. You can use it directly in your kitchen with minimal ventilation for a reason. Nobody would advise firing up the charcoal barbeque indoors.
16/ What’s less well-known is that same concept holds if you are using carbon-based materials to make stuff. Almost all synthetic materials in modern life start near the top of the ladder and are engineered downward in a controlled burn.
17/ This makes sense. The embedded energy to run the process is at least partially inherent in the starting material. Certain high-value materials are worth pushing up the ladder to obtain, but industry evolved the way it did because it is easier to slide down than climb up.
18/ Take polyethylene, which is the highest volume production plastic in the world. Industrially, polyethylene is made by sliding down the ladder: ethane is converted to ethylene, which is then polymerized.
19/ Ethane is close to natural gas on our ladder, while polyethylene has virtually the same inherent energy as oil. To make polyethylene is to descend down the ladder.
20/ In theory, polyethylene could be made from corn, but that involves climbing the ladder with big steps. Corn is made from CO2 on the farm and has an energy content close to wood. To make polyethylene from corn, you first need to produce corn ethanol.
21/ Ethanol is higher up the ladder than corn (roughly in line with coal), but much lower than polyethylene. Jumping yet another full rung, while possible, simply doesn’t make economic sense, even with substantial government support.
22/ We grow corn because we need to eat. We burn ethanol as a minor additive in gasoline because the government tells us to (Iowa is an early primary state, after all). Even that level of political support can’t take us all the way up the ladder to polyethylene.
23/ So, where does stuff come from? As you can probably guess by now, it mostly comes from directly of the oil and gas industry (high up the ladder!). This is why crises of energy quickly become crises of inflation. Most of our stuff comes from high-energy materials.
24/ Without knowledge of where stuff comes from or how stuff gets made, it is easy to assume stuff just appears - like magic. Of course, as Arthur Clark famously said, magic is just the science we don’t understand yet.
25/ We live in a time where few politicians understand how things get made. It is fine to not know where stuff comes from, but it isn’t fine to not know where stuff comes from while dictating to the rest of us how the economy should be run. <fin>

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More from @DoombergT

Aug 6
1/ The words edible and eatable are often used interchangeably but embedded within their respective definitions is a distinction that makes an important difference. Edible means “safe to eat,” whereas eatable means “pleasant to eat.”
2/ A variant of the word eatable is delicious, commonly defined as “highly pleasant to eat.” Delicious certainly sounds more enticing than highly eatable, a phrase nobody would use to compliment an exquisite meal crafted by a professional chef.
3/ Whether the balance of calories a person consumes is edible, eatable, or delicious depends on where they sit on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. For those at the base of the pyramid, the struggle to consume enough edible food just to see another day defines much of their life.
Read 25 tweets
Jul 30
1/ The mighty Mississippi River – and its direct access to some of the most prolific agricultural plains in the world – gives the US an incredible geopolitical advantage. Its importance to the US economy cannot be overstated.
2/ As noted by @PeterZeihan, “The Greater Mississippi system includes over thirteen thousand miles of naturally navigable, interconnected waterways—more than the combined total of all the world’s non-American internal river systems.” Incredible numbers.
3/ Naturally, rivers are foundational to a country’s inherent strength, and few countries are as blessed as the US in this regard. Rivers represent cheap transportation, reliable irrigation for farming, critical fresh water for drinking, and a ready source of renewable power.
Read 25 tweets
Jul 23
1/ By systematically shutting down baseload-critical nuclear power facilities and replacing them with intermittent renewable energy, Germany has left itself – and by extension, the entire European Union – vulnerable to shortages of reliable sources of electricity.
2/ Germany further impaled itself by inhibiting domestic production of natural gas – the remaining option for producing reliable baseload power, having ruled out nuclear and coal – turning a mistake into a predictable catastrophe. The country put its trust in Putin instead.
3/ Having closed three perfectly operable nuclear power plants at the end of 2021, Germany was on course to close its final three reactors at the end of this year. Despite growing calls to reconsider this foolhardy decision, the German Greens remained staunchly opposed.
Read 21 tweets
Jul 19
1/ A thread of threads:

June 18, 2022: "Energy is Life"

2/ June 25, 2022: "Where Stuff Comes From"

3/ July 2, 2022: "Bitcoin Spot ETFs Are Doomed"

Read 5 tweets
Jul 16
1/ The US, Canada, and Mexico have enormous proven energy reserves and the technical know-how to become the dominant energy-producing region on the planet. It can be done cleanly, safely, and domestically – all while reducing the strength of our geopolitical enemies.
2/ Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the subsequent economic destruction in Europe due to an energy crisis of their own making should serve as a serious wake-up call to North America’s political establishment. It’s time to get serious about energy. Here’s how we should do it…
3/ Our proposal has four priorities: (1) seduce natural gas investment; (2) reclaim a leadership position in polysilicon production; (3) recommit to nuclear; and, (4) course correct on electric vehicle adoption.
Read 19 tweets
Jul 9
1/ As a fuel, natural gas has many compelling attributes. It burns cleanly and efficiently. It produces electricity and useful heat with less CO2 emissions and far fewer toxic byproducts than coal or oil. It is also abundant and ubiquitous.
2/ Natural gas does have a few unfortunate drawbacks. It is a fossil fuel and a gas at standard temperature and pressure. The latter makes shipping overseas a complex task that results in a particularly interesting global market.
3/ The ability to safely handle and transport gases at extremely high pressures is perhaps the most underrated technological advancement in the history of humankind. The current boom in natural gas use was enabled by a series of breakthroughs in pipeline and vessel construction.
Read 24 tweets

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