Wednesday, November 9, 2022

Fossil fuels powered the industrial revolution, but that is not the whole story.

 At the start, power came from water, wood and charcoal and animals. Early experiments with coal were not entirely successful. Impurities made it unsuitable for smelting, it was also polluting such that the burning of coal was banned in the city of London. 

Yet coal was freely available, often on the surface by the coast of north east England - hence its full name sea-coal as opposed to char-coal. It was the demand for wood for the making of ships that forced a second look at coal. 

Impurities were addressed by burning them off into the atmosphere; later they were captured and uses found for early plastics for example. Coal now drove the smelting of iron. An early use for coal was in the coal mines, to power steam engines to extract water and drive ventilation as well as powering engines to bring coal to the surface and onward to the user. 

The railways provided the perfect use for coal as new lines connected the country. Coal powered ships connecting the world. 

Oil was first discovered in Britain in coal  seams and used for lighting and lubrication. The big oil finds were in the USA and Russia. It was only later that the Middle East took it place in energy supply. 

In looking at British manufacturing, coal remained king much longer than elsewhere. British shipbuilders and railway locomotive manufacturers stayed with coal probably far too long. The famous red flag which slowed the British car industry was initially to protect people from coal powered steam vehicles.

 It is interesting that one of Britain’s greatest engineers, William Armstrong, was wedded to the power of water. Water also powered the aluminium industry with the early hydroelectric schemes.

Hydrocarbons are part and parcel. In Britain the first plastics were made from chemicals derived not from coal as in Germany or oil as in the USA, but from molasses, the byproduct of sugar beet.

Britain built the world’s first nuclear power station at Calder Hall. Plans were in place for many more before North Sea gas made electricity from gas turbines much cheaper. France, on the other hand, built some sixty giving it a lead in nuclear power technology. Britain stuck with massive power stations powered by pulverised coal producing steam in cathedral like boilers.

Britain’s energy plant manufacturers are now mainly owned by Siemens and it is they who are rolling out renewables. Rolls-Royce, which once owned boiler maker Northern Engineering Industries, is focusing on smaller local nuclear plants. Alternative sources of energy are very much the focus of much of British industry. Companies like Scottish and Southern are promoting renewables projects but often turning to non UK suppliers. Companies like ITM Energy are exploring hydrogen. There is much going on.

I write more on this in How Britain Shaped the Manufacturing World and in the sequel in progress Whatever Happened to British Manufacturing.

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