The climate crisis of the 21st century has been caused largely by just four men, who between them invented machines responsible for the majority of the greenhouse gas emissions generated since the dawning of the industrial age.
Left to right: Frank Whittle, Rudolf Diesel, Nicolaus August Otto and Charles Algernon Parsons
Prime movers, machines that turn thermal energy into electrical or mechanical energy play a fundamental role in the global economy. Without these you would not be able to get from London to New York in seven hours, ride the subway to work, transport your iPhone from Shenzen to Los Angeles, or even read this sentence. And the world of prime movers is dominated by a small number of machines: steam turbine, diesel engine, petrol engine and gas turbine. Not only are these machines of great economic importance, they are responsible for almost all of the carbon dioxide emissions from electricity generation and transport.
The steam turbine was invented by Charles Algernon Parsons in Newcastle, England in 1884. These are incredible machines, with the biggest capable of providing enough electricity to power a couple of million homes. They also provide the majority of the planet’s electricity. In 1900 the cheapest way to generate electricity was to burn coal and use a steam turbine. Things obviously have not changed much. When China started to build over 50 gigawatts worth of electrical capacity each year they decided to do it almost entirely with coal and steam turbines. And the carbon dioxide produced by one these machines is impressive. Running at typical capacity factors, a 1 GW machine will produce five million tonnes of carbon dioxide each year. The phenomenal growth of carbon emissions in China is very much a steam turbin driven affair. And this is all the result of the work of Parsons.
Without container shipping the modern globalised economy would probably be fundamentally different. The spread of container shipping was dependent on the simple, but disruptive idea, of putting cargo in a box, the development of complex logistics, and above all the diffusion of diesel engines. Invented by Rudolf Diesel in 1893, the diesel engine gradually took over the market for marine engines, reaching 50% market penetration in the 1950s, and now represent almost 100% of marine engines. Diesels now dominate in heavy duty vehicles, such as trucks and buses, and a high percentage of trains are powered by diesels.
The diesel engine however still only maintains a small share of the car market, despite its higher efficiency. Cars, whether they are Hummers or Honda Civics, are still overwhelming powered by the petrol engine, invented by Nicolaus August Otto in 1876. Attempts by luxury car companies to save the planet aside, close to 100% of new cars in North America are old fashioned petrol engines. Only Europeans have started to even transition away from them to diesels. Moving people and stuff around on land and sea therefore is still completely reliant on two machines invented before 1900.
There are few more reliable machines than a gas turbine. And there is no greater example of this reliability and efficiency than the engines of a Boeing 747. At peak thrust it uses a power equivalent of 290 megawatts, thirty times larger than the capacity of the world’s largest wind turbine. After their invention by Frank Whittle in 1936 the gas turbine spread faster than almost any primer mover in history, and today it dominates global aviation. In electricity generation CCGT power plants, which couple a gas turbine with a steam turbine, offer incredibly high power density, efficiency (typical thermal efficiency is 60% compared with 40% for coal power plants, and high flexibility. As a result gas power plants now make up more than 30% of electricity generation in many modernised countries, and continue to grow.
Here then is a summary. The vast majority of carbon emissions from electricity generation are from the steam turbine and gas turbine, the vast majority from aviation comes from the gas turbine, and the vast majority from transport comes from the petrol and diesel engine. We can therefore only conclude that the majority of global warming can be laid at the hands of four men: Charles Algernon Parsons, Nicolaus August Otto, Frank Whittle and Rudolf Diesel.
Or perhaps more enlightened attitudes can prevail over such logic.