A Response to “The Spectacular Rise and Fall of U.S. Whaling: An Innovation Story”

The article “The Spectacular Rise and Fall of U.S. Whaling: An Innovation Story” from The Atlantic left us with some questions about the demise of the whale oil industry. Why it happened and why does it matter now?  What follows is an attempt to respond to those quarries.

Sensing a possible end in sight with rising costs of whale oil, the turpentine industry emerged as a low cost substitute for lighting fuel and other uses. It picked up steam in the 1840s and flourished until the discovery of petroleum as a yet cheaper solution and the conversion of coal gas to electricity, as in Stanley’s lighting the streets of Great Barrington over a century ago.

One thing that is important today is how the turpentine was produced, which was through the innovation and development of the gasification and pyrolysis systems for producing the turpentine. The innovated system for producing turpentine involved burning organic feedstock in the absence of oxygen, producing thermo heat, volatile gases that were burned off and the turpentine produced as an oil from the process and a byproduct of char ash resulted.

Today, these systems have evolved and the char ash produced is revered as Biochar, which can be sequestered in the soil to remediate the adverse effects of climate disruption for thousands of years. While not a fertilizer, Biochar raises the fertility of the soil by providing a dwelling place for microorganisms, protecting them from larger predators higher on the food chain and making this nutrition easily accessible to the plants to draw up into their system of producing nutrient-rich vegetables and fruits, and for conserving, filtering and purifying water, as the Biochar can be up to 90 percent pure carbon. We know the purification attributes of carbon.

Gasification and pyrolysis systems are working models that can be community-sized (less than a MW) and can be placed on farm sites as a distributed, clean, alternative, energy source that can use the thermo to heat greenhouses, provide gases that are converted to electric energy, oils for lubrication, and possibly to power diesel engines.

A technology that grew out of a need for an alternative for whale oil has re-emerged as a valuable innovation for today’s emerging needs for locally produced, alternative clean energy that are not going to disappear anytime soon.

Saving the whales was most certainly a valuable offset of the transition away from whale oil, with the adverse effect being the consuming of excessive amounts of fossil fuels that has resulted.  If we can deploy carbon-negative energy from similar production systems going forward, it could be a giant leap in the most eco-friendly direction, which has ongoing value today, tomorrow and on into the future.

Barry Hollister, Pittsfield, Mass.


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