Svante Arrhenius: An Early Prophet Of The ‘Energy Crisis’

  • Date: 11/03/15
  • Charles G. Moseley, Journal of Chemical Education 55(3) 1978

Although Svante Arrhenius showed great foresight in many of his comments on energy in 1919, he was wrong in some of his most important predictions: America will run out of oil by 1953 at the latest. Coal reserves will be depleted in England within 50 years and in America within 150 years.


 Svante Arrhenius (1859-1927) was the first peak oil alarmist and the first scientist to calculate how changes in the levels of atmospheric CO2 could alter the surface temperature due to the greenhouse effect. Photo Wikipedia

For most of us the concept of an energy crisis dates primarily from the oil embargo established by the Arab nations against many of the western nations in 1973. Who can forget the long lines at service stations and the increases in gasoline and chemical prices which soon resulted? Thus, it was surprising to the author to encounter a book by Svante Arrhenius (famous for his theory of ionization of acids, bases, and salts in water) published in 1919 (and in 1925 in English translation[1]) which contains many very current-sounding ideas on energy topics. He mentions the following energy-related problems:

* Some oil fields are already depleted, and known petroleum reserves will last only a short time.

* Known coal reserves will last longer but are certainly finite.

* Burning large amounts of fossil fuels will increase the carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere and possibly cause adverse climate changes.

* No really adequate battery exists for use in electric vehicles or for storing energy derived from the sun, wind , or water.

The book also contains the following proposals to help solve the predicted energy crisis:

* Institute stringent conservation programs to reduce consumption of coal and oil.

* Replace all lights which utilize petroleum products with electric lights.

* Push development of water, wind, and solar energy sources.

* Develop more efficient fossil fuel powered engines.

* Utilize alcohol derived from plant sources as a fuel to replace oil and coal.

* Develop more efficient methods to transport coal and utilize its energy content.

* Study atomic energy for possible future use.

Although Arrhenius obviously showed great foresight in many of his comments on energy, he was far from correct in some of his most important predictions. Examples are: America will run out of oil by 1953 at the latest. Coal reserves will be depleted in England within 50 years and in America within 150 years.

There are at least two lessons which can be derived from this very interesting book. One is that our energy problems are not really new (although they may, of course, be more acute at some times than at others). Providing sufficient reasonably priced energy for our needs has always been a challenge and will likely continue to be so. Another lesson is that it is very easy to underestimate our ability to solve or at least alleviate our energy problems. That so great a scientist as Svante Arrhenius could badly overestimate the energy problems of his time suggests that we should perhaps place more emphasis on using technology to solve our energy problems and less emphasis on bemoaning the difficulty of the problem.

Footnote 1: Arrhenius, Svante A., and Leonard, Clifford S. (Translator), Chemistry in Modern Life, D. Van Nostrand Company, New York, 1925.

From: Charles G. Moseley, Journal of Chemical Education, 55(3) 1978



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