Friday, March 23, 2012

Energy Crisis Before Petroleum

The human race is currently having an energy crisis because of our dependency on oil and petroleum. But did you know that before petroleum, we had another type of energy crisis involving oil?

Before petroleum, the primary material used to light our homes was whale oil.

Whale oil, also known as "train oil," is oil taken from the blubber of whales and other marine animals. Whale oil is animal fat that mainly consists of triglycerides, a compound that is broken down to produce glycerol and fatty acids. The nearly the whole body of a whale is saturated with oil, yielding 50-80% in blubber, 40-60% in bones, and 6-7% in muscles. When whales were killed, they were pulled in and the blubber was cut from them in strips, packed into barrels, then boiled to extract the oil. There were four grades of whale oil, from clear Grade 1 oil to smelly and dark Grade 4 oil. The most commonly used type of whale oil was dubbed "sperm oil," and was taken from the head cavities of sperm whales. An adult sperm whale can hold as much as three tons of this clear, yellowish brown oil, and because of this the species was nearly hunted to extinction.

Whaling peaked during the 1700-1800's, and whale oil was primarily used to light homes in candle wax and lamps. It was a good lubricant and was used to manufacture soaps, textiles, and explosives. It was used before vegetable oil to make margarine. It was used to oil wool and as a base for paint and varnish. Whale oil was also the first oil to become commercially available to the masses.

Because of it's widespread use, whaling became a thriving industry. In the United States, the number of whaling ships from 1833 to 1846 grew from 392 to 735 ships. In 1856, a gallon of sperm oil cost $1.77, and the US produced 6-10 million gallons of it annually. As the industry grew and the number of whales dwindled, the world started teetering on the edge of an energy crisis. Not to mention that if this industry had continued, several species of whales would have become extremely endangered.

In 1846, kerosene was invented from coal, and in 1857 Michael Dietz invented the clean-burning kerosene lamp. And when the process of drilling and acquiring petroleum developed, it replaced whale oil in most products. These oils were less smelly and had a longer shelf-life than whale oil, and were relatively easy to produce. In 1982 the International Whaling Commission passed a moratorium on commercial whaling, and since then most practices involving whale oil have ceased.

In a sense, the development of kerosene and petroleum industries probably saved the whales, and us, by lighting our homes and being the base of many of our daily products. But with the current energy crisis looming over our heads, what will save us?

Perhaps the answer lies with another form of alternative energy. Humanity can learn from the past. We've done it before, and we could do it again. And we can do it better.


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