Oil & Gas Summiteer

April 1, 2017

From petroleum to Thomas Edison’s electric vehicle


By Sonny Atumah

As the clock ticks the rat race gathers momentum for the evolving fourth industrial revolution otherwise known as Revolution 4.0. Revolution 4.0 systems of production and corporate governance are being remodeled by alternative energy sources that are less dependent on fossil fuels.

The revolution’s exponential breakthroughs laid by inventors and innovators anticipate cyber-physical system innovations in artificial intelligence, AI as driverless smart cars and drones, software that invest, and virtual assistants. They are also in solar powered air planes, robotics in hospitals, biotechnology, nanotechnology, mobile banking, quantum computing and 3.D printing.

The first three industrial revolutions were powered by fossil fuels of coal, oil and gas. With the Second Industrial Revolution of 1870, division of labour, electricity and mass production were key development models that produced the internal combustion engine, ICE, aero plane and moving pictures. The automobile industry grew with unimaginable innovations and frontiers pushed beyond dreams by great inventors over the period.

A key participant of that era, and front liner in global technological revolution that helped to build the American economy during its early vulnerable years was Inventor Thomas Alva Edison (1847-1931). His thought on oil and solar (renewable) energy in the 19th century was: “I’d put my money on the sun and solar energy. What a source of power! I hope we don’t have to wait until oil and coal run out before we tackle that.”

Edison’s reasoning for alternative to fossil fuel was not given a rational public thought. The perception was that a lot of revenue would be generated from petroleum tax. His quest for innovation and the dependence on fossil fuels drove him to think about solutions in natural energy that was not exhaustive. The bane of mankind has been short term gains and would continue to be so.

He developed a suitable storage battery that could power what was the first electric car in 1912.  For their money Edison was misunderstood when he announced that renewable energy and not oil was the future. The system Edison developed in the auto industry was abandoned for the gasoline-powered internal combustion engine which cost was half the price of his electric car valued at between US$500 and US$750.

The threats of carbon emissions from fossil fuels, global demand dynamics and geopolitics of oil, reduction and availability of renewable energy is giving a policy shift to the electric vehicle that was not to be considered in a hundred years when Edison had the invention breakthrough. The immediate past United States President, Barack Obama in reigniting Edison’s thought in his final state of the union address on January 12, 2016, announced that America’s priority was to invest in the future and avoid subsidizing the past.

To Obama, the fossil fuel was becoming a thing of the past and renewables as the future. He meant America would use solar and wind energy to solve the challenges of climate change to reduce carbon emission from power plants by 32 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. Although President Donald Trump last Tuesday signed the executive order that called for the scrapping of the Obama Clean Power Plan.

Edison’s rise from uneducated railroad worker to one of the most famous men in the world made him a folk hero. More than any other individual, he was credited with building the framework for modern technology and society in the age of electricity. Popularly known by the Press as, “The wizard of Menlo Park” he created great innovations as the practical incandescent electric light bulb, alkaline storage batteries, the phonograph, the telegraph, and Kinetograph (a camera for motion pictures).

The lessons of Edison and the evolving Fourth Industrial Revolution which is characterized by the digital technology is that Nigeria must break out from stereotypes and encourage our lads and ‘lasses’ with innovative thinking  to see needs and capitalize on opportunities in diverse spheres of human endeavours including petroleum. Inventors and innovators thrive in funding and patenting irrespective of their educational statuses.

He created the world’s first industrial research laboratory and had 1,093 United States patents for his inventions before he died at age 84 in 1931. He encouraged innovators and inventors on perceived failures this way: ‘’I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.’’ His Industrial Research Laboratory complex in West Orange, New Jersey gutted by fire on December 10, 1814 and rebuilt in the next spring fuelled speculation that he compromised his electric car project. Some believed that an oil cartel at the time may have influenced Edison and his automobile tycoon friend and admirer, Henry Ford to abandon the electric car. He indeed collaborated greatly with other innovators and entrepreneurs to achieve results.

A writer recently said that science takes its time in trickling down to industry level and patience is required. The United States and China is collaborating in the Clean Energy Partnership despite their geopolitical differences. The inter-government collaboration is being extended into a long term knowledge sharing Clean Energy Research Centre for each country’s mutual benefit. Nigeria can equally collaborate with others to train her potential innovators.