Fuel vs. energy: A new narrative, from A to Z

Karen Pinkus is author of Fuel: A Speculative Dictionary, which is an idiosyncratic, speculative dictionary of fuels, real and imagined, historical and futuristic, hopeless and utopian. From “Air” to “Zyklon B,” entries in this unusual dictionary include Algae, Clathrates, Dilithium, Fleece, Goats, Theology, Whale Oil, and many, many more. This dictionary can help scramble our thinking about fuel in order to open up potential ways of interacting with real and imaginary substances, by wrenching them out of narrative and placing them into an idiosyncratic dictionary to be applied by readers into new narratives.

Here, Pinkus adds an addendum to Fuel.


Cornell University

Since I completed my book, I’ve come across a number of headlines with some version of the following format: “Scientists discover X as a fuel.”

Here are some fuels that didn’t make it into the book.

* indicates an entry in Fuel.

Coffee grinds: Korean scientists discover a new source of fuel as they gaze into bottoms of their coffee cups! But wait . . . not fuel, exactly. More like a substance that could help bind methane* (natural gas), making it potentially more efficient to combust; waste as a coagulant for a fossil fuel that gets by on its name and its status as “transitional.” Fuel from waste: it’s the ultimate (alchemical) dream! What’s the harm in dreaming? None, maybe, unless dreaming means disengagement from any thought about what we are facing. Good to the last drop.

Carbon dioxide (CO2): Speaking of waste and alchemy . . . scientists may soon turn pollution into fuel! [1]  To be clear, carbon dioxide is already being subjected to a number of transmutations. For one thing, carbon (and its non-use) is traded as commodity in various markets. Some experts believe that a global carbon pricing scheme would make it easier to manage emissions. But if carbon is going to be buried or used for some practical purpose, it can’t really be classified as “waste” (see carbon monoxide, below). Carbon capture and sequestration (one of the main techniques of geo-engineering) is already underway in various parts of the world and it is likely to be scaled up. Carbon could be buried (for future generations to release, or not), and/or used to enhance production of oil in low-yield wells. Icelandic scientists, injecting it into basaltic rock, have found it solidifies very quickly—it turns into stone! (Is this the reverse transmutation of early modern alchemy? A sign of the alchemist’s bad technique or his bad soul*, depending on where you stand on the practice vs. theory spectrum?) Moreover, carbon dioxide is actually polyvalent. As Gökçe Günel writes, “Carbon capture and storage professionals acknowledge how the multiplicity of the molecule makes it difficult for them to produce carbon dioxide as a commodity, characterized by exchange and commensurability. Yet CCS professionals do not intend to create ‘sameness’ across the market. In formulating carbon dioxide as a commodity, they seek to create ‘links’ between the different existences of the molecule. In this context, the process of making carbon dioxide into a commodity is not a practice of flattening but rather ‘linking’ its various versions.” [2] This observation is ever more important as the corporate and governmental management of carbon is becoming a reality.

But what if we could actually recycle carbon, turning it (back) into fuel? A group at the University of Illinois in Chicago is looking at capturing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere (perhaps using structures similar to Lackner leaves) and instead of sequestering it for some future generation to deal with, by a chemical process and through the use of the sun* as fuel, recycling it for an “infinite” loop of combustion. Leaving aside the biogeochemical aspects of this process, and noting that in Science, where they announce their findings, the authors make no broad critical or cultural claims other than to say that their discovery could have positive impacts on the environment, the use of CO2 as an efficient syngas is not an epistemological break, just a lucky break in the laboratory.

Carbon monoxide: “Biological wizardry ferments carbon monoxide into biofuel.” [3] Scientists are working on the right combination of microbes to turn waste into ethanol. Wizards vs. alchemists? In Fuel I make a case for the alchemical analogy—with all of its historical, figurative, and cultural baggage—as crucial to thinking fuels, beyond the common sense of “magic.” But we are in the era of Harry Potter and we should probably forgive some lack of linguistic rigor in everyday speech. Or should we? And then, can the microbes themselves be termed a kind of fuel since they do the energetic work of breaking down “waste”?

Cow manure: Recently, T: The New York Times Style Magazine ran a stunning series of photographs of a farm/museum in Nothern Italy that is transforming cow dung into biofuel and also into a new building material called merdacotta. Yes, you read right, the style section! A spread of aesthetically pleasing images including vats of shit painted in earth tones. The manager talks of “getting back to zero.”

Dancing/stepping feet: Various new technologies placed in floor tiles (the Watt disco in Rotterdam, for instance) generate energy when people dance or step (triggering small photovoltaic cells).

Data: I recently gave a talk at the Humanities Lab of American University. There, Joshua McCoy suggested to me that data itself—by virtue of the fact that it is entered into a complex (and carbon-intensive) system and generates more data—might, somewhat perversely, be considered a fuel in the terms I set out in my dictionary.

Fish poop: A potential biofuel source for jet fuels currently under investigation by Boeing.

Hurricane: A Japanese company is working on capturing extreme wind* power (from hurricanes and typhoons, ever more frequent) in specially equipped turbines.

Tobacco: Oil could be extracted from (nicotine-free) tobacco and used as jet fuel, also helping growers who are suffering due to anti-smoking campaigns.

Urine:Benzina addio!” (“Goodbye gasoline!”) runs a headline from an Italian newspaper. La pipì will run cars, ships, turn on our computers, appliances, and so on. Give me a cup and let’s get started! But as we read on, it turns out that energy might some day in the future be obtained from urine. Okay, good. But then, some vague language: “used as an additive, urine combats the emission of CO2 into the atmosphere serving as a marvelous tool for the environment and for our health.” [4] So after it passes through a filter made of pure Sardinian Sheep’s wool, Sardinian pee could—if the right technology comes along—be transmuted into a cleaner carburante fuel. Until then, let’s keep waiting and hoping.


Karen Pinkus is professor of Italian and comparative literature at Cornell University and chair of the Faculty Advisory Board of the Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future. She has widely written on climate change and the humanities, as well as on literary theory, visual arts, Italian culture, and cinema. Her books include Fuel: A Speculative Dictionary (Minnesota, 2016), Bodily Regimes: Italian Advertising under Fascism (Minnesota, 1995), and Alchemical Mercury: A Theory of Ambivalence.


[1] Ironically, carbon dioxide was not classified as “pollution” when the 1970 The Clean Air Act was ratified, and this might be a loophole to undo the U.S.’s commitments under the Paris COP 21 accords. Via.
[2] Gökçe Günel, “What is Carbon Dioxide? When is Carbon Dioxide?,” Political and Legal Anthropology Review. Vol 39, n. 1, 2016: 33-45. DOI: 10.1111/plar.12129. P. 33
[3] Headline from an article on Cornell University research project that has been experimenting to see what kinds of microbes might metabolize CO1 most efficiently. See: Blaine Friedlander, Cornell Chronicle, July 26, 2016.
[4] Sara Ficocelli, “Benzina Addio,” La repubblica. 13 November, 2013. I am grateful to Lia Turtas for pointing out this article and alerting me to the work of Edilana’s green businesses.

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