Why Fossil Fuels

Many people ask me – why do I study fossil fuels. Aren’t they the energy of the past? they ask. Today we have solar and wind energy – clean and renewable energy sources – so why waste time studying dirty fossil fuels? I wish it were that simple. But it is not. Fossil fuels have unique capabilities possessed by no other energy source. These capabilities are responsible for the dramatic change the world has experienced since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, when we first harnessed fossil fuels.

“What is so unique about fossil fuels that has gotten us to where we are today?” – Simply put, it’s their ability to provide us with energy 24/7 year-round. Reliable, low-cost energy has revolutionized the world, giving us longer lives and an amazing standard of living and quality of life that even kings and queens of the past would have envied. Like your most reliable friend, fossil fuels have been there for us whenever and wherever we have called upon them. And just like this friend, they are not perfect – there are environmental challenges associated with the use of fossil fuels. But technologies exist that allow us to use fossil fuels with minimal emissions, and that is why I study fossil fuels. I want to do my part to ensure that the world has clean sources of reliable power; I believe the clean use of fossil fuels is a critical path to that future.

Saint Louis skyline at night, lit up by energy supplied by fossil fuels

You may still be skeptical, figuring I must have been bought out by the coal companies. But let’s study the facts. Combustion accounts for 87 percent of world power, and fossil fuels 80 percent. Why is this so? Is there some demon out there that is forcing good people around the world to buy fossil fuels? No, it is just that everywhere fossil fuels are used, economies prosper. Modern societies exist because we have low-cost power all the time, everywhere. This is a critical fact to remember: Modern societies exist because we have reliable, low-cost power all of the time, everywhere. If you take that away, or put that at risk, you are jeopardizing our very existence. Really? Yes, really…There were 500 million people in the world before the Industrial Revolution. Today, we have more than 7 billion people. We need constant power to feed, clothe and house these people, care for them when they are sick, light their way, heat and cool them, transport them and allow them to prosper. Energy generation is essential to everyday life. If you build a future on unreliable energy, you are putting the world as we know it at risk. This is not to say that we should not embrace renewables. We should. But we have to face the reality that we also need fossil fuels, and embrace efforts to ensure we can use them in a clean, environmentally-friendly way.

The research in my Laboratory for Advanced Combustion and Energy Research (LACER) group focuses on energy, and energy alone. But we do much more than study fossil fuel combustion. We study a broad range of topics, from renewable fuels to novel methods of synthesizing battery materials. We study renewable fuels as a low-carbon alternative to petroleum-based fuels. We are developing battery materials because batteries are a path toward electrifying the transportation sector. Also, batteries can help address (but not fully address) the Achilles’ heel of wind and solar energy – their unreliability. Renewables will begin to truly benefit society when we have a viable means of addressing their intermittency, which will require low-cost storage.

As you can see, we have an “all-of-the-above” strategy toward energy. There is much more to say; please explore this site and contact me for more information if you are intrigued and interested in learning more about the research we do at LACER.