APRIL 1998
A newsletter for alumni, students, and friends of the Mechanical Engineering Department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison

Message From the Chair

"The End of Cheap Oil"

Kenneth W. Ragland

Kenneth W. Ragland
(48K JPG)

In 1956, M. King Hubbert published his now famous bell-shaped curve of crude oil production. He correctly predicted that U.S. oil production would peak in 1969. Recently, the King Hubbert curve has been revisited by two distinguished geologists in the March issue of Scientific American. According to this article, the total world oil reserves are one trillion barrels, and 800 billion barrels have been consumed to date. The conventional wisdom that the world oil reserves have been rising for the last 20 years and will continue to do so for decades to come is shown to be an illusion. The world production rate of oil will peak within 10 years, according to the authors, while world oil consumption is rising at the rate of 2 percent per year. This is indeed credible cause for alarm.

The price of gasoline is now at an all-time low in the U.S., and the market and political system may not respond to the coming supply crunch until it arrives, and with a shock. The good news is that there is another one trillion barrels potentially available in oil shale; the bad news is that it is going to be environmentally messy to get it. While gasoline can be made from natural gas using steam reforming and catalytic synthesis, it seems to me that our grandchildren and great grandchildren (and, by the way, I have an 8-month-old grandson) will need natural gas for space heating, plastics, and chemicals.

As engineers and managers, we had better start preparing for some big changes rather soon. As a start on these needed changes, I am proud to say that our undergraduate FutureCar team is aiming to demonstrate 65 miles per gallon in their '94 Mercury Sable modified hybrid electric vehicle. And our graduate students in the Engine Research Center are investigating automotive diesel engines with the potential for 80 miles per gallon.

In addition to the problematic oil supply question, we need to conserve oil to combat global warming. Gradually we are seeing renewed interest in renewable energy--solar, biomass, and wind for heat, fuel and electric power. On the demand side, more efficient manufacturing processes and environmentally friendly products are needed. Indeed, there is much work for mechanical engineers to do these days.

P.S. Three of you wrote very thoughtful responses to my November '97 newsletter column on our ME curriculum goals calling for more communication skills, project management training, systems thinking, professionalism, humanities, and urging a five-year BS + MS degree to be the standard. I shared this input with the faculty at our winter retreat. We are continuing to work on our goals and strategies.

ME Newsletter is a periodic publication of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Department of Mechanical Engineering. Correspondence should be sent to the address below.

ME Newsletter
Department of Mechanical Engineering
University of Wisconsin-Madison
1513 University Avenue
Madison, WI 53706-1572

      Editor: Gail Gawenda

Designer: Lynda Litzkow

Last Modified: Wednesday, 20-May-1998 12:00:00 CDT

APRIL 1998 Contents