Email can consume a lot of time.  But some gems pop up, like a simple question from an .edu address that must be from a youthful person with an earnest need to know.  The question seems small, what is the most abundant fuel in the world?  I’m having an Art Linkletter moment, “Kids ask the darnest questions!”

That would be hydrogen, if you’re after the simplest answer keying to the word ‘abundant’ in the question.  Add up all the hydrogen locked up in the planet’s water and you’d get a huge sum.  Consider the energy to separate hydrogen out, recombine it and the released energy put to work, and you’ll need a higher level source of energy.  More energy would go in than can be used coming out.  Technologists are working to come up with lower energy costs to separate hydrogen and recombine it efficiently, but as a fuel, hydrogen can never get better than 1:1 energy in to energy out.  The cost of the energy to split hydrogen has to be cheap and the value of the hydrogen when used will need to be dear.  Abundant yes, practical – not yet.

The next fuel seems to be thorium, if you’re after the simplest answer keying to the word ‘most’ in the question   As an earthen metallic element there is lots of it around.  In concentrations that make sense, there is a still lot of it.  Reports have it that some beaches of India are concentrated highly enough to be mined.  Whole mountains in the U.S. have concentrations of great value.  As a heavy element properly manipulated, thorium can be persuaded to fission releasing a great deal of energy.  The ‘most’ energy available from a fuel would point to thorium.

Another fuel in the ‘most’ category would be uranium.  Uranium fuel is already a large source of energy across the developed world. Many countries are avidly working to add uranium fuel to energize their economies.  Uranium though isn’t as widely available as thorium, nor does it seem the known reserves equal the energy thorium reserves have available.  Uranium is more rare and varies in quality, if not for its relative ease to get it to fission and release energy, and an inconvenient military value, uranium would likely be overlooked.

Perhaps the largest fuel reserve on earth for releasing energy would be boron.  As the Bussard, Lerner and other fusion development efforts proceed, and should the fusion events become net energy productive as theory predicts, then the earth’s boron supply would easily surpass even that of thorium.  By a huge amount, too.  A little bit of boron in fusion goes a very, very long way.  But not yet.

Other large fuels supplies are methane seen in natural gas and methane hydrates.  Oil of course and coal.  Fuels that are constantly forming such as those from growing plants can produce into the future as far as the imagination can see.  Given enough time, most any biology-based fuel could exceed the energy available from the element kinds of fuels noted above.

Humanity is blessed with abundant energy supplies. Solar radiation has bathed the earth for billions of years with a few million of those years locking up carbon and hydrogen so that time, geological pressure and geothermal heat have made them easy to find and use in the form of fossil coal, oil and natural gas.  But compared to the overall solar input over the same amount of time – those fossil fuels represent incredibly small proportions of the total energy earth received.

The same is true for the furnace of geological heat coming from within the earth.  Only an infinitesimal part of the heat released has been made into fuels or put to work.  The rest, as with the unused solar radiation, has simply been lost to space.

Making manmade fuels is the result of the price and consequences of using the fossil fuels.  As the world population expands and each person seeks more energy use, more fuel is needed.  A short cut is to use energy in the form of electricity, which the heavy element fuels offer in ‘abundance.’

Hydrogen and the biofuels all need mankind’s ingenuity to arrange for production and efficient use that is affordable by the most people.  The heavy element fuels, thorium, uranium are in political arenas where the risks are to be worked out for some compromise almost everyone can accept.  You can tell how serious a government is by the effort put into developing these fuels and the energy resources they represent.

If human creativity, ingenuity, innovation and resourcefulness can be mated to responsible government activity then thorium is the ‘most abundant fuel on earth.’  But give a few months or years and that may change to boron.  And any minute now or day or year and that might turn out to be a wrong and obsolete answer.

This writer thinks he knows today and knows for certain the answer can be wrong some tomorrow in the future.

That’s a lot of answer for a simple question.  Its just not a simple topic and its easily confused.


12 Comments so far

  1. Matt Musson on February 19, 2010 6:37 AM

    Of course depending on your point of view you could include Sunlight, Wind, Waves and Heat as abundant fuels.

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  7. Alph on February 20, 2010 12:08 PM

    I’m glad that you pour a dose of reality on top of those heads that keep claiming hydrogen is a fuel (energy store!) and that the net energy balance is negative. I wonder why the giant oil co’s and fuel cell makers like to talk this way? Hmmm…

  8. russ on February 22, 2010 10:31 AM

    H2O a fuel source? Even H2 is not a fuel but a carrier.

    Until the new source is proven it is nothing more than vaporware!

    Sunlight – without gross subsidies it does not even exist! Unsustainable subsidies at that. Same for wind.

  9. veterinary technician on September 26, 2010 1:58 PM

    What a great resource!

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  11. russ on November 8, 2010 8:43 AM

    @ Tip Gatherer – Structural Engineering Addict – Spa Beauty Wisdom – Martial Arts Leisure Knowledge – veterinary technician – personal trainers,

    Spammers! Not a nice people at all to have to sneak your cheap ads in sites others pay for!

  12. Benjamin on April 27, 2012 12:58 PM

    I was actually wondering why people were saying hydrogen is an abundant fuel source, I actualy can’t understand this point of view, because they are talking about Hydroden locked up in H2O – which is of course a waste product. H2O may be abundant, but it is by no means an energy source, as the energy must some from something else. Hydrogen could be used as a fuel, as a way of delivering energy to where it must be used – but this is of course not different to Carbon. If one were for instance to separate atmospheric CO2 and then recombine it, the system would have nil impact on the environment.

    People must realise that the issue is not primarily with energy transmission, but more to do with finding alternative sources of high quality energy. As stated in this article, the only alternative high quality energy sources, that don’t rely on hydrocarbons are uranium and thorium.

    Renewable technologies much to my dispair are not sources of high quality energy, and they are not as green as the public may think. Renewable plants only recover the low quality ambient energy, and never will be able to support the energy needs of a modern society… As they can barely support the energy required to construct themselves. The energy payback time is measured in tens of years, and represents a significant portion of their operational life expectancy. It is possible that some renewable systems may NEVER payback the energy used to make them -which means they are a liability and not an asset for the environment.

    Futhermore, tapping such large volumes of energy from the natural weather systems could have environmental implications that we cannot possibly understand, and bird strikes on wind farms could render many species of bird extinct. RENEWABLES CANNOT OFFER AN ULTIMATE SOLUTION.

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