The internal combustion engine: a historical error?

The internal combustion engine was born at the end of the 18th century and was an undeniable impetus for development. The power he gave to humanity allowed us to move forward as a society and increase our quality of life. However, combustion propulsion has a dark side and endless side effects. Was the combustion a historical error?

While it is true that the combustion engine, at least its widespread use, is considered a technology that has been surpassed by other cleaner forms (such as electric or hydrogen), it is not so clear that this is not a historical blunder. Maybe it’s just a phase of “humanity’s technological adolescence”, an engine of unbridled change and explosive revolutions that may soon be eclipsed by other, cleaner technologies.

Combustion engines will be limited in history

Each technology has an expiration date when the next development arrives and replaces it. Internal combustion engines are no exception, but they are an odd piece of history, as we’ll see in the next section. As the raw material it uses is non-renewable, at some point the era of fossil fuels will come to an end, either because there is no more, or because this resource has been abandoned.

However, the peak of production (peak Hubbert or peak oil) has already been exceeded in most oil-producing countries. That was decades ago in countries like Austria (1955) and the United States (1970). Even Kuwait (2013), Saudi Arabia (2014) and Iraq (2018) exceeded this peak.

If the energy transition takes place as foreseen in the global timetable (the European Commission has approved the end of the sale of combustion cars by 2035), it is likely that combustion engines will cease to be as present in a few decades. “The stone age did not end for lack of stones,” said Ahmed Zaki Yamani, Saudi oil minister from 1962 to 1986.

The few fuels that can be used in a green future will come from plant sources or waste; their combined emissions will be far below what the Earth can absorb, and their entire industry will need to be of such a size that it does not require large areas of cultivation to produce biofuel.

While synthetic fuel is currently sourced from crops, it is highly likely that waste-derived fuels will be used in the future so that protected green spaces are not affected. They can even be obtained from today’s problematic microplastics by pyrolysis processes. But that’s the future. What about the past?

Combustion engines: a historical error?

There is no doubt that the most used engines in the future will be electric and they will run on clean fuel cells like green hydrogen in some cases. But what is most interesting in the history of automotive mobility is that the first motors were also electric. So were the first companies that used them.

In 1740, more than five decades before John Barber patented his gas turbine, Scotsman Andrew Gordon and American Benjamin Franklin (yes, this Ben Franklin) experimented with electrostatic motors. By the time Ford’s Model T went into series production in 1908, electric vehicles had been circulating in the Netherlands for almost a century. Then, the combustion destroyed everything.

By 1910, however, electrification had come a long way. In fact, the first electric vehicle companies have emerged in some European cities. This was the case for the Walter Bersey electric taxi company in 1897 in London, as is well known. The truth is that this mode was not sufficiently developed to compete with the energy power of oil.

The easy access to oil, combined with the very high energy released by its combustion, quickly replaced any electrical innovation. It also froze any fundraising for its future development. For nearly a century, electric motorization has entered what the industry calls a Winter: an absolute lack of funds for research and development.

If the future of engines is decarbonization, can the 19th century be considered a historical mistake? Deadlock? The truth is that it is very difficult to know and it is very unlikely to be considered as one thing.

Towards the electrification of mobility

One way to look at fuel combustion from a future perspective might be to level of maturity of humanity. For example, prehistoric cooking over fire is not considered a historical error, despite being deeply inefficient and almost universally abandoned; it is rather considered as an immature and primitive phase which allowed important advances.

The combustion engine, with all the problems that its implementation has caused and continues to cause today, also allowed the development of industries of all kinds, without which it would have been difficult for humanity to reach this level of shared prosperity. We now know that we can choose other paths, but at the beginning of the 19th century, it was not at all clear. We did not have the knowledge that we have now.

Currently, it is obvious that it makes no sense to discharge emissions of any kind into urban environments. If a city is compact, you can walk, cycle or use available public transport solutions, and if it is sprawling, one option is electric mobility. But it hasn’t always been easy. There was a time when literal power was the only mobility alternative.

As humanity matures and establishes scientific knowledge, we are also increasingly aware of our impact. When the first combustion engines were patented, society was more naive, illiterate and ignorant. It’s simply lacked sufficient tools exclude fossil fuels because of their side effects.

In a few millennia, we might look back to where we are now with similar thoughts. The population, then accustomed to taking care of the planet, could see this present moment as a phase of maturation. The one where we learned a lot.

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