What Will Our Post-Petroleum Future Look Like? The Good News Is It Could Involve Lasers

Ponder, if you will, our post-petroleum future. What will it look like? Will we all be together in electric dreams? And just WTF will happen to all the gas stations? These questions will be tackled this weekend at the newly converted Kings Cross Filling Station, London in a weekend of science inspired by a new electric car called the Vauxhall Ampera.

Super/Collider, a pop science collective of Chris Hatherill and Rod Stanley, are behind the event called Science Weekend which aims to explore our post-petroleum future while also discussing alternative modes of transport, clothing that can clean the air around us, biofuels, laser fusion, urban farming, and more. Plus, and perhaps most importantly, it’ll also feature a nightly laser show.

The question of what will occupy the gas stations of tomorrow (other than stoners looking for some late night snacks) has partly been answered by artist/designer Patrick Stevenson Keating. He pondered what could take the place of gas pumps in the forecourts of the future and has come back with some design fictions to be showcased at the event, which include (below, from left to right): a solar collector which will sit atop skyscrapers and rooftops to “focus the sun’s energy to heat liquid salt, providing 24-hour power,” a high altitude wind turbine which will “stretch into the stratosphere to tap into the gulf stream, sending power from high in the sky,” biobags which are like giant balloons that sit above landfills and “will slowly collect the methane seeping from deep below, turning a greenhouse gas into an asset,” and an algae tank which will “provide biofuel and oxygen for urbanites while giant tanks out in the countryside generate fuel for tomorrow’s fleets.”

It all sounds great, but just how much of it will come to fruition? I spoke with Chris Hatherill to explain some more.

The Creators Project: How close to scientific fact are the prototypes on show, or are they purely speculative works of art?
Chris Hatherill:
The objects themselves are more artistic—each looks like a petrol pump with a potential future energy source emerging above—but the ideas behind them are rooted in current research. Small scale algae farms exist and there are large solar collectors popping up in Spain, the US, Australia, and Morocco. Landfill sites like Fresh Kills in New York are collecting methane and turning it into energy. I guess the most speculative is the high altitude wind turbine. It’s early days, but scientists—including Dr. Stefano Longo, who’s coming down to talk—are working on ways of harnessing the much stronger winds that whip through the upper atmosphere.

Along with the methods proposed in the four prototypes, what other devices and developments can we expect in a post-petroleum future?
Crossbows, jerry cans and Mad Max-style muscle cars? Hopefully it won’t come to that, if we do enough now to prepare for a changing energy mix. I think that what’s promising is that at least now people are aware, talking about and thinking about the problem. The real trick, I think, will be doing enough now, while oil is relatively cheap and plentiful, to keep us going once it begins to become scarce. If we can set up vast solar and algae farms, urban fusion plants, thorium reactors, and other sci-fi sounding stuff while managing the global population then we’ll be set. But we really need to turn things up a notch and start seriously funding renewables and research. Otherwise we’re just going to tear the planet apart drilling for ever-scarcer oil and gas.

Laser fusion

How viable is a post-petroleum future?
With our current population and Western lifestyle expectations, probably not very. But I’m confident that most of us are not going to want to live the same lives that our recent ancestors in the developed world have. I mean, who in their right mind still eats red meat every day, knowing what we do about cancer? With a growing percentage of the world population living in cities, we’ll be able to make a positive impact by improving public transport, closing roads to traffic and generally phasing out non-essential vehicles in urban areas—which would also improve our respiratory and cardio health. And with growing connectivity, the way we travel could change. Instead of jetting off for short, frantic holidays we could spend weeks traveling across the surface of the earth by train, or flying above it in airships, all while working. Those are just a few examples, but I’m hopeful we can move towards a model that really is better for us and the planet. It won’t be easy, but I think it’s a case of changing our mass behavior—which isn’t impossible.

What are some of the things stopping the technologies in your exhibition from entering the mainstream?
Politics and market forces are obviously a massive influence, but scientists are also careful not to overhype things. Take solar cells, for instance—they’re OK now but they’re going to get much better. So today it might be unrealistic to plan to use them in a particular situation, but that could change. A lot of the bigger stuff, like thorium powered nuclear reactors and laser fusion, requires massive investments of time and money. That’s difficult to do with the political systems we have. The current US laser fusion research, for instance, is only even happening because the same facility was built to simulate nuclear weapons for military use. It would take a brave leader to say “We’re going to spend a gazillion dollars on something that might pay off in thirty years time.” The more we as the public hear about these ideas, though, the more we can discuss them, debate them—and demand them.

Super/Collider Science Weekend, 17th – 19th August at the King’s Cross Filling Station, Goods Way, N1C 4UR