[personal] Miscellany of the day

Wrote a 2,300 word first draft on the plane, “The Delight of Bright Water”, solicited for a Sekrit Projekt. I’m going to noodle with it some, then schlep it out to first readers.

Forgot to mention this morning that a guy in front of me in the Eppley Field security line recognized me. He stopped to chat as we cleared into the gate area — turns out he’s the manager of a restaurant I regularly eat at when I’m in Omaha. Do I spend too much time in that town or what?

Finally, I was having a worldbuilding discussion with calendula_witch via email today. We were talking about fuel sources in a post-collapse environment. Assume no further petrochemicals extraction, and no feasible industrial-chemical method of recycling plastics etc. One could presumably provide a limited amount of essential fuel through ethanol distillation from biomass, even with very low tech so long as the engineering expertise were available. One could presumably maintain some nominal petrochemical feedstock with the new strains of oil-producing bacteria which are emerging, pace the Gold hypothesis, assuming a bit more progress in biotech between now and the putative point of collapse, and maintenance of the relevant engineering expertise.

But what does one uniquely need petrochemicals per se for, really? My best answer is lubricants. It’s my understanding that even very good vegetable oil lubricants don’t hold up under heat and mechanical stress like petrochemical lubricants. Any comments from the engineering wing?

2 thoughts on “[personal] Miscellany of the day

  1. C.E. Petit says:

    Yes, petrochemical-based lubricants are important, but can (with appropriate modifications to design) be replaced in many applications with nonpetrochemical lubricants.

    Or can they?

    I realize that was a pathetic cliffhanger, but it’s the best I can do without caffeine.

    Petrochemicals are critical for several other industrial-quantity processes:

    (1) As feedstocks. An immense proportion of the nonmetal, nonwood solids to which we’ve become so accustomed — and an even higher proportion of liquids — involve petrochemicals either as a direct feedstock or as a solvent. Ironically enough, that includes those “synthetic oils” that one can find in automobile parts stores. That’s right, Jay: even your ‘mobile can’t convert completely.

    (2) For agriculture. Not just pesticides (see item 1), but fertilizers. And if you decrease agricultural yields, you decrease both population-carrying ability and the proportion of your population that can be outside of the agricultural processes. And, too, many of the refrigerants used to preserve Stuff require petrochemicals at some stage of manufacture, often as solvents rather than feedstocks. As you can tell, this is a vicious spiral.

    (3) For boiling politicians. Vegetable oils leave an unacceptable slimy residue, because they break down at the boiling point. This spoils the flavor of the meat.

    The point I’m making is that using petrochemicals as fuel is convenient, relatively cost-effective at this time (and historically)… and less than half the story. An awful lot of what would be considered “waste” when refining JP-4 or gasoline is more valuable than the fuel left behind, but for other uses. And contrary to the advocates of “coal tars” as substitutes, at the industrial-yield level thre really isn’t a substitute that does not have frighteningly high proportions of dangerouse side-reactions… because one of the odd things about petrochemicals is that they are “easy” (in a relative sense) to make quite pure.

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