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The Big Question: Can we live without oil?

Updated Wednesday, 1st December 2004

Experts predict reserves of crude oil won’t last the century. Over the next few decades, as oil supplies diminish, it will become more expensive, and we will have to look to alternative sources of energy. But today we rely on oil for so much – we travel on oil, eat food grown with oil, paint with oil, wear clothes made with oil. Are there any alternatives to oil? In The Big Question this week, Emma Joseph is in India to ask “Can we live without Oil?”

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Fill her up...or run her dry? A car gets a fueling Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: BBC

Remagbe prepares a meal It is just before sunset and Remagbe lights the fire to prepare dinner. Thick smoke fills her one-room home in Pune, western India. It is from the fuel she is using - a dried cowpat. There is no trace of any hydrocarbons in Remagbe’s home, no man-made fabric or plastics, no paint on the walls and no electrical light. It‘s a domestic scene repeated all over rural India.

But India is developing rapidly and oil underpins this economic growth. India is a big energy consumer and almost 70% of its daily requirement of 2.2 million barrels of crude oil has to be imported. The government has started to explore how it can reduce its dependence on the black gold. India is the only country in the world to have a government ministry devoted to the search for alternative energy sources.

Emma and Vilas Muttemwar “The future power is renewable power. The future power is not oil because it will not be available!” explains Vilas Muttemwar, the Minister for Non-Conventional Energy Sources. “Our job is to create awareness among the people for this renewable energy. There is a necessity to switch over.”

Those renewable energy sources include biomass - agricultural and forest waste - and the sun.

Solar power in India should account for 25% of our energy requirements. That way, fossil fuels will last longer,” says Deven Ranade, who sells solar energy products at his new shop in Nagpur, in the heart of India’s cotton and orange-growing belt, where temperatures reach 50 celsius in the summer.

“At the moment the [solar energy] products I sell certainly could not be afforded by a poor family. But the more people choose to buy solar, the cheaper it will become. This 250 litre system costs 35,000 rupees ($700). It will last for more than 20 years.”

But still, India is increasing its oil consumption - it now ranks as the seventh largest consumer of oil. An increasing Asian thirst for oil is in part due to motor vehicles. In fact, most of the oil used today is used for transport.

Professor Zadgaonkar A chemistry professor in Nagpur, Alka Zadgaonkar, thinks she might have a solution for our thirst for oil. And her starting point is plastic rubbish.

“We cannot imagine a day in our lives without the use of plastic. Why not convert it into another form because it is a hydrocarbon, so definitely it can be utilised somewhere,” says Professor Zadgaonkar, Head of the Department of Organic Chemistry at G H Raisoni College. She recycles the plastic to extract hydrocarbons from it - the result is fuel oils. These, in turn, are then made into gasoline and diesel, or even polymerised to make more plastics.

“India produces thousands of tonnes of plastic every day. This process is both a solution to non-biodegradable waste, as well as preserving the life of oil.”

Around the world, engineers are working on another possible solution - the hydrogen-powered car. It would provide an answer for our car needs, they say, and would help cut greenhouse gas emissions, which contribute to global warming. It is not yet workable or cheap enough for mass use, but could it be the future?

Possibly, according to Robert Mabro, Director of the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies. “It depends what time horizon you have in mind. I would say the probability is that hydrogen will make some significant contribution. The hydrogen solution really depends on the technological breakthrough and this we cannot forecast with certainty. But that is the most plausible.”

What about air transport? Prototypes of solar-powered planes have flown successfully and the United States is trying to control military energy wastage by considering the use of renewable energy sources: an important contribution, considering the military's enormous demands on energy resources.

So is the future a totally oil-less one? Robert Mabro thinks not.

“If you tell me are we going to stop entirely the use of oil forever I would say ‘no’. We will always be using small amounts here and there. There is going to be a long slow gradual transition.”

There is one energy source which Professor Mabro believes still has great potential - nuclear power. But given the debate over the disposal of nuclear waste and the fear of nuclear material falling into the wrong hands, is the world prepared to fully embrace the nuclear age? That’s another Big Question.

This edition of The Big Question was first broadcast on 20th November 2004

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