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Moore’s Law, Hydrocarbons and Infinity

April 17, 2010

If you look at BusinessInsider’s top 14 frightening things for our economy that came out last week, it’s essentially a long winded way to say two things matter – oil and sovereign debt.

Hormuz, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Malacca etc, are not listed because terrorism (which has been around forever) or regional peace in random faraway lands are world shaking in themselves; it’s listed because of the effect on the price of the most valuable commodity on earth – oil.

It doesn’t seem so catastrophic now, because most underestimate the impact that a serious shortage or significant price hike would have. The reason we can support the population of earth today is because the increase in productivity, provided by this formerly cheap and seemingly limitless commodity.

It isn’t only essential for transportation, heat, farming productivity and electricity – it is an essential ingredient in thousands of products most don’t realize. Plastic, vinyl, asphalt, fertilizer, medicines, CDs, batteries, vitamin capsules, ammonia, house paint, tires (it takes 22 gallons of oil to make a single truck tire) and countless other products are made with oil.

Hydro-carbons are the most concentrated dense form of energy on earth and is a unique molecular marvel. It took billions of years for carbon based life forms to decay and become pressurized to produce the stuff. The amount of pressure and time is what determines whether these hydro-carbons turn into oil, natural gas or coal. We have dug up what took the planet eons to create and consumed it in an orgiastic frenzy.

This was done in a miniscule fraction of the amount of time, it took the earth to create. Billions of years of pressure and heat applied to decayed carbon based life forms; extracted and used up in less than a century. How long is a century of consumption relative to the amount of time it took to create? Roughly 1 ten millionth.

How Oil and Gas were Formed
Hydrocarbon Systems
The Mysterious Origin and Supply of Oil
Where Does Coal Come From?

Moore’s Law is an analogous boost that has allowed us to double computing power every 18-20 months. This is not just an abstract thought exercise – computer productivity has also increased the amount of sustainable life. This exponential productivity growth (to a lesser extent, after oil) also allows us to sustain the population and comfort we have now (including billions living below the poverty line currently, before the likely shortfall). In other words, if we don’t maintain this geometric growth we must assume a painful population contraction and the phenomenon that always come with it (war, famine, conflict and strife).

Most think these productivity gains (created by man’s technology) and commodity supplies will continue forever, because of some bizarre notion that these things have to be limitless with no ceiling…

It’s more likely that there is a finite limit on oil supply, just as it’s moore likely there is a limit on how small we can make transistors. Sure Moore’s Law hasn’t been wrong yet, but it doesn’t mean that it will likely continue doubling (every 18-20 months), ad infinitum. I don’t underestimate the ingenuity of man here, I just think there may be a limit to how much we can bend the physical universe.

It doesn’t mean Kurzweil isn’t right here – Law of Accelerating Returns
He’s probably only going to be wrong in a few instances.

I think it’s likely that upper limits exist for certain technologies. I don’t think we’ll ever make transistors smaller than electrons or other even infinitesimally smaller particles (assuming an electron sized transistor was built). Not saying it’s impossible, just not very likely. Maybe as likely for man to come up with a way to send a 2 ton ship faster than the speed of light. Some things might simply be impossible to execute, regardless of how clever the monkey is trying to do it.

The problem that is being underestimated re: oil is that, it is a dwindling, contracting resource, with constantly expanded demand from overall world development (except for recessions, like we’re facing now). Yes, this current recession has halted this price increase temporarily, but any eventual recovery will inevitably increase the speed at which oil price climbs.

And when technologically sophisticated countries go through hard times, (like Japan and Germany went through in the 1930) – they generally try to compensate through military conquest or empire expansion. If a growing portion of population is going through this pain, who has military/technological ability – they usually invade and steal other weaker states’ resources. That scenario is far more likely than most realize, because of the overconfidence we have in the civility of modern societies.

Take a look at the wealthiest societies on earth and how they are trying to respond to these issues….. look at portion of military spending vs scientific research (by the 5 largest economies on earth). Our current path is not exactly the optimal strategy to solve our problems in the long run.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. Chris permalink
    April 17, 2010 3:13 am

    “it’s moore likely there is a limit on how small we can make transistors”

    Is that a typo or a pun?

    • April 17, 2010 5:06 am

      Hehe, it was intentional.

      A cheesy pun. Honestly didn’t think it was gonna be noticed.

  2. eunho permalink
    April 20, 2010 5:21 am

    “Sure Moore’s Law hasn’t been wrong yet, but it doesn’t mean that it will likely continue doubling (every 18-20 months)”

    You are right and wrong. Heard of Hwang’s Law?

    In fact, Chang-gyu Hwang, CTO of Samsung Electronics, argued that memory density could be doubled every 12 months unlike Moore’s every 18-20 months in 2002 in San Francisco conference, ISSCC. To prove the theory, Samsung has been doubled memory density every year for nine years and they reached to 64 gigabit NAND flash memory chips. Unfortunately, they had weak semiconductor market a few months after the 64 gigabit achievement, and Samsung decided to focus on the current chip rather than developing new one.

    There’s some speculation that technological limit on reaching less than 30 nanometers in operational stability. It doesn’t mean it cannot double the density, but there might be only 30% of products will be usable condition at the moment, so the cost of making per sqnm is too high compared to older chips. In the same year, the memory market had worst year ever and after…

  3. eunho permalink
    April 20, 2010 5:28 am

    I believe even the weathiest society itself is getting ripped off by the certain elite group in the society. Money, food, commodities including oil, and even wars are just mere means of re-gaining the control for the certain elite group. There’s interesting book called ‘Currency Wars’ by Chinese author, Song Hongbing.

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