I take up to 10-12 flights every year. I absolutely love the experience of flying, even when it is economy class or on a low-cost airline. I was wondering though: how long are we going to have the luxury of cheap international travel? Estimates about how soon crude oil is going to run out vary wildly, although I think pretty much everyone agrees that within the next, say, 30-40 years it is going to get more expensive due to fuel shortages. It already is getting expensive. While surface transportation will probably survive in the form of biofuel or electric-powered cars, what we have absolutely no replacement for is a way to power commercial passenger planes or ships!

Think about it. Petroleum fuel-powered engines are the only viable means of powering flight at the moment. Point is, at the moment research and production of alternative means of powering transportation is simply not economically lucrative. Maybe it would need crunch-time pressure as we near the end of oil reserves to make companies sit up and work their research departments towards this. At the moment, battery technology isn’t anywhere close. The only alternative, long-term resource we have is nuclear power, and even those engines are primarily steam engines – good for slow-release engines on ships but not for the intensive take-off / landing cycles of airplanes. Nuclear technology is so strictly controlled and has so much potential for mishaps that I cannot imagine it being used in the commercial sector anyway.

So maybe humankind will figure something out in the next few decades. But what if. What if it isn’t realistically possible to make an engine that can give the performance of an internal combustion engine or jet engines? How different the world would rapidly change, back to the days when seafaring nations controlled the balance of power! Back to the days when journeys took weeks and months! Back to the days when it won’t be possible to buy 10 pence bananas flown in from Africa in a supermarket in England, or buy cheap electronic gadgets on eBay from Hong Kong! I don’t reckon producing electricity will be a problem; even if we have to gag and lock up protesting hippies, hydroelectric power could potentially fill in a major part of the shortfall. But perhaps within the next five decades, we may never ever again be able to fly to any part of the globe in less than a day.

19 replies on “Flying”

I think the video demonstrates the point I’m trying to make. None of the alternative sources for fuel we have at the moment can ever fulfill aviation needs. The closest thing is biofuels, and even the premise of using food waste, algaes does not produce high biofuel yields. Most commercial biofuel right now has to be harvested fro perfectly good grain crops – something that will be a problem with possible food scarcity in the future too. Aviation may not completely die out, but it sure won’t remain as cheap as it is today!

Yeah sure, we couldn’t use biofuels tomorrow, but who’s to say they won’t be radically better in 20 or 30 years time. People have been saying for decades that we are going to not make enough food, but yields have improved massively and the apocalypse ha snot happened. There are all sorts of alternative technologies that haven’t been discovered, and I am confident that we’ll be able to figure something out when we need to.

I hope so too! The thing is though, whoever makes a breakthrough engine will patent and license the technology restrictively. So whether we figure out a way to use biofuels or alternative sources or not, either way, we either won’t have any alternative sources or the replacements will be expensive to license. This is the reason why I say cheap international travel is on the way out.

Agree with Alex.

We are humans. Apan log ‘jugaad’ kar hi lete hain. Just wait and watch. Maybe we need a new kind of engine, that can run as well on Biofuels as good ol’ internal combustion engines run on whatever planes use as fuel (I’m not sure, but planes run on ‘white petrol’ – petrol with Octane number 100, the most refined.), or maybe a new kind of biofuel. I am sure some creative chemical and mechanical engineers and materials scientists are working hard somewhere on these as I type. 🙂

Humans rock! \,,/ Fuck yeah! 😀


I disagree (for a change)! Engineering is almost always evolutionary not revolutionary, and there won’t just be a single product that saves us all, it will be a culmination of lots of different things. Look at stuff like hybrid/electric/hydrogen cars. There are many different variations, and yes they aren’t perfect, but there are pretty usable. They are expensive now, but so was the first petrol car. When it moves on from being niche into being prevalent, costs will go way down. I don’t really buy into your licensing argument. Some things are just too big to patent, and companies will just invent a similar but not the same technology. Just look at computer prices.

By Hydrogen fuel, I think Espèra meant those Hydrogen-based ‘solid rocket boosters’ that power Spacecraft. Everyone knows that Hydeogen fuel cells, although a lot more efficient that other cells, just aren’t powerful enough.


We can’t run commercial planes on solid rocket boosters, too. They are extremely powerful (obviously!) but are also way more expensive than the petroleum-based aircraft fuel we currently use!

I hope – hell, I’m sure – we’ll soon arrive at a viable solution.

Isn’t it possible to control the power by limiting the amount of fuel used? :/

It should be possible, why not?

But like I said, they are very powerful but way more expensive than petroleum-based airplane fuel. So expensive that even if we use them in airplanes, its running cost will definitely come out to be several times more than conventional airplane fuel.

Only spacecraft have that high power requirements, and that’s why they’re the only area where we use Hydrogen-based SRB’s.

And the ”Hydrogen-cars” we keep hearing about are a different thing entirely. They run on Hydrogen fuel cell-based motor, which is super-duper clean (releases water on burning). But like Ankur said in his reply, they can’t power airplanes. I think you and Ankur did study the Hydrogen fuel cell in class 12 Chemistry, btw (Electrochemistry, chapter 3?).

I’ve recently finished class 12, so I don’t know enough to delve into technical details.

Let’s leave the conundrum to the aero / chem guys.

Nice blog, Espèra (if it’s the one titled ”Yeah Whatever…”)


”quite close to solving the problem” != ”problem solved!”

Also, like Alex said, who says biofuels won’t be radically better 10-15 years later?

It has been long since I read that chapter. And electrochemistry wasn’t a particular favourite of mine even then.
For all practical purposes, my knowledge of fuel cells and electrochem in general is zero. 😀

Thanks, yeah that’s my blog 🙂

“Also, like Alex said, who says biofuels won’t be radically better 10-15 years later?”
So, recently, we had to give a presentation on some technology that we envision will be available in 2020. It was a research-based presentation, with everyone talking about what they imagine will be possible then, based upon what’s possible now.
It’s funny that here we are talking about fuels and biofuels and there they were, talking about flying cars and invisibility cloaks and human teleportation.

I wasn’t commenting upon the interestingness of the topics they chose to present upon, but the irony that some people human teleportation will be feasible in 30 years, while some think international flights will become extinct.

I guess the fuel problem’s solved then, Ankur! We shall all just teleport to the country of our choice. 😀

Just in via the numerous research blogs I follow: Scientists at UT Dallas, by slightly modifying the CMOS chip we find in most digital cameras (the other kind of image sensor chip in use being the CCD), have developed a chip that can see through…things we couldn’t see through before. And, btw, it can also see through clothes. Props to the guys there for realising the implications of being able to see through clothes and modifying the new chip so that it can only see through objects less than 4 inches away. (in theory, it can see through objects from quite a distance)

(about the CMOS modification: don’t know technical details, but this new chip can sense Terahertz radiation.)

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