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Goodstein foresees 'End of the Age of Oil'

Fact or myth: $3 a gallon is an outrageous price to pay for gasoline.

Myth, according to David L. Goodstein, author of the 2004 book, "Out of Gas: The End of the Age of Oil." Goodstein, vice provost and professor of physics and applied physics at Caltech, spoke at a Friday, April 28, colloquium sponsored by the MIT Center for Materials Science and Engineering and the Department of Materials Science and Engineering.

At 75 cents a liter, gasoline is "one of the cheapest liquids you can buy. We pay twice as much for a bottle of drinking water," he said.

Goodstein did not downplay the seriousness of the approaching oil shortage. In the 1950s, when geophysicist M. King Hubbert came up with a simple way to predict the lifetime of a natural resource, the oil companies pooh-poohed his theory. But the latest data show that the Hubbert peak is accurate. The world's petroleum production is at its maximum right around now and will soon start a steep decline.

"We've created a trap for ourselves," Goodstein said. "We're totally dependent on oil. The oil will run out. The question is, 'When?'" No one knows for sure, but Goodstein predicted the age of fossil fuels will come to an end sometime in this century, radically changing civilization as we know it.

Right now, there is no obvious successor to fossil fuels as the No. 1 fuel source. There may be a lot of coal in the ground, but it would have to be mined at a rate around five times faster than it is now to be a viable oil substitute, he said. Also, coal does not burn cleanly and worsens the greenhouse effect.

"The president of the United States ought to challenge us to break the fossil fuels habit," he said. "No one has challenged us to do that yet."

Solar energy has potential, but a landmass half the size of California would have to be covered with photovoltaic cells to generate the same amount of energy produced by fossil fuels, Goodstein said. Solar and nuclear options both face significant social and political hurdles; nevertheless, "nuclear energy has to be part of the solution," he said. Biomass -- a throwback to 200 years ago when people "grew something and burned it" for fuel -- will also be critical.

Goodstein said a combination of fuel conservation through hybrid vehicles, more efficient buildings and factories and "feebates" -- fees for gas-guzzling cars -- will provide short-term solutions.

While global warming is not all bad -- Goodstein pointed out that if some global warming had not occurred during the Earth's existence, we would not be here -- global warming tied to greenhouse gases is causing unpredictable changes at an increasingly rapid rate. "We're doing an uncontrolled experiment with the climate of Earth," he said.

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