Science & The Simpsons, Part II: What does the future of energy hold?

Editor’s note: In our last post, we left off with Radioactive Man battling The Fossil Fuel Four, an episode of The Simpsons where the show personifies all major aspects for retrieving and releasing energy. Nuclear energy (fission) is represented by Radioactive Man, and his sidekicks Solar Citizen and Wind Lad represent solar and wind power respectively. In this episode, they face their nemeses: a rough group of villains who call themselves The Fossil Fuel Four. They’re made up of King Coal, Petroleumsaurus Rex, Charcoal Briquette, and the Fracker. Through their battle, we see the struggle between sustainable resources and fossil fuels.

Will climate change continue unabated? What will happen to Radioactive Man now as he battles The Fossil Fuel Four? Will he defeat his foes — or is it too late? 

The world’s first fission nuclear reactor was built in Chicago in 1942. Touted by scientists as the energy of the future, some believed that electricity produced in this manner would be so safe, plentiful and inexpensive that companies would no longer have to monitor usage.

But things haven’t quite panned out that way.

While there was a veritable boom in the construction of nuclear plants in the 1960s and 1970s, some very high profile setbacks (such as Chernobyl, Three Mile Island and Fukushima) have cast serious doubts about safety in the mind of the public. In response to Fukushima specifically, Germany intends to shut down all of its nuclear reactors within the decade, and Italy has banned nuclear power within its borders.

It remains, however, that nuclear energy has resulted in fewer deaths per unit of energy created than all other major sources of energy. Many scientists are still holding out hope for the development of nuclear fusion technology, which would be much more stable, secure, create more energy per unit, and not produce dangerous nuclear waste. This could be an economically viable option by 2050.

In the meantime, proponents of nuclear energy insist that the complete lack of carbon emissions from nuclear power plants should be a huge incentive for its use and maintain that it is a sustainable, safe method for the production of energy.

Additional sustainable energy options include solar and wind power (also hydropower, but since The Simpsons omitted it I will, in this case, refrain from delving into it further). Odd as it may seem, wind and solar power both capture energy from the same source – the sun. While solar power seeks to capture energy directly from the sun’s rays, wind power capitalizes on the fact that the sun’s energy heats the earth unevenly, creating wind currents (technically, even fossil fuels release energy from the sun, since that energy supported the life of the now fossilized organisms).

In the past few decades, these two processes of capturing energy and converting energy from the sun to electricity have grown by leaps and bounds. And while it’s still a small portion of total energy creation on a global scale, it seems to be one of the most promising ways in which we can create a truly sustainable energy environment for years to come.

Solar technology is generally categorized as either passive or active, depending on the method in which the sun’s energy is captured and converted for human use. Photovoltaic panels and solar thermal collectors are examples of active solar technology, while designing spaces to naturally circulate air and the selection of materials with light dispersing abilities are examples of passive solar technology.

Wind power uses airflows to run wind turbines. Harnessing wind for its energy has been a viable technology for millennia, but was (until recently) used to generate mechanical power (like using sails on ships), rather than electricity. As the wind blows, it turns the turbine to generate electricity. The greater the wind speed and strength, the more efficient this process becomes. This is part of why offshore turbines are becoming popular, since wind can be up to 90 percent stronger and occur more regularly out at sea than on land.

As you can see, this is a very exciting time for energy science with a lot of innovation going on. New technologies are being explored every day — from new methods of extracting fossil fuels from the Earth’s crust to new models and applications for nuclear, solar and wind energy production.

But the goal for all of this innovation is really the same: powering the future. So let’s revisit this idea of Radioactive Man and The Fossil Fuel Four.

Instead of The Fossils Fuel Four being evil, they and Radioactive Man should be the elders in the Energy League — a group of superheroes mentoring the new heroes in the league such as Citizen Solar, Wind Lad, Grid Smart, and Tidal Ti.  The Energy League should lead the fight against Baron Blackout and his cohorts, Social Disruption and the twins Ignorance and Want (OK, they’re Dickens characters, but wouldn’t they make great super-villains too?).

Let’s hope.

Science & The Simpsons, Part I: What’s a fossil fuel anyway?

When The Simpsons started in the late 1980s, very few people would’ve believed that the show could last as long as it has. Like the show or not, you can’t deny how it’s changed the way TV shows look at controversial material and incorporate current events and topics into their plots.

For instance, take Episode 450, “Married to the Blob,” which aired this past January. While the main story line deals with Comic Book Guy’s search for love, in quasi Much Ado About Nothing fashion, the first few minutes of the episode regale us with yet another adventure from the show’s favorite superhero, Radioactive Man.

And therein lies the show’s genius — what seems to be a short aside (an introduction at best) is actually an acute commentary on energy literacy: reflecting some of the struggles the industry faces as we seek to maintain energy independence, all while steadfastly moving into the future of energy production.

The show personifies all major aspects for retrieving and releasing energy. Nuclear energy (fission) is represented by Radioactive Man, and his sidekicks Solar Citizen and Wind Lad represent solar and wind power respectively. In this episode, they face their nemeses, a rough group of villains who call themselves The Fossil Fuel Four. They’re made up of King Coal, Petroleumsaurus Rex, Charcoal Briquette, and the Fracker (the names are likewise pretty opaque, with the characters representing coal, petroleum, charcoal, and the technique of fracking). Through their battle, we see the struggle between sustainable resources and fossil fuels.

It would be difficult to overstate the importance fossil fuels have had in creating the modern industrial world. The Industrial Revolution would’ve never occurred without ready access to coal, and the industrialized world still depends on it to a great extent. Fossil fuels have provided a ready source of energy for centuries now because they are easily burned to release their stored energy. When these fuels burn, they oxidize releasing carbon dioxide and water and produce large amounts of energy relative to their weight. These fuels can be found in solid, liquid and gaseous states (like coal, oil, and natural gas).

As these resources have become more scarce, new techniques have been developed to extract them from the earth, such as fracking (technically called hydraulic fracturing, which uses controlled explosions to break up the bedrock where these fuels are held) and surface mining (which removes vast amounts of surface rock to gain access to minerals).

Part of the reason why these new techniques have come into use is that fossil fuels are not easily or readily replenished. They are — quite literally — fossils, and therefore take a long time to form. (The word fossil simply means “evidence of past life.”) Over millions of years, tiny plants and other organisms would settle on the floor of a body of water (ocean, lake, etc.). Other sediment would settle over them, causing them to decompose in anoxic (read: with depleted oxygen) environments. After hundreds of millions of years of exposure to heat and pressure from added sediment, the organic matter is chemically altered. Depending on the type of organic matter, the amount of time and pressure applied, you get different types of fossil fuels.

It’s the depletion of fossil fuels and the negative consequences from them (such as poor air quality, which can lead to smog and acid rain, and the massive amounts of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere, which has caused drastic changes in climate) that has led to our current quest for sustainable energy sources.

Editor’s note (Please read the following bold text in a cheesy, comic-announcer-type voice): Will climate change continue unabated? What will happen to Radioactive Man now as he battles The Fossil Fuel Four? Will he defeat his foes — or is it too late? 

Tune in next time as we catch up with our superhero.

In the spirit of Dickens, waste less this Christmas

Ah, Christmas — one of the most beloved holidays ’round the world. There’s nothing like spending quality time with loved ones, giving (and receiving!) gifts, and the smell of your choice of decadent deliciousness roasting in the oven.

But did you know that most of what we consider to be “normal” Christmas behavior is a relatively modern invention?

Back in the day, spreading holiday tidings used to consist of merry carolers roaming from house to house. This practice of “wassailing” was sometimes rejected as a sin by the Puritans, because it often was accompanied by debauchery and raucousness.

Fast forward to the the 19th century, where author Charles Dickens and his famous novella, A Christmas Carol, resurrected and popularized the sentiment of being charitable toward those less fortunate (and not so wasteful and greedy) during the Christmas season.

In fact, the invention of the modern concept of Christmas is widely (yet somewhat erroneously) attributed to Dickens. But we can generally credit him for influencing many aspects of Christmas that are celebrated today in Western culture, such as family gatherings, seasonal food and drink, dancing, games, and a festive generosity of spirit — lots and lots of generosity.

As for so many of you, Christmas is the holiday where an entire side of my family gets together — somewhere between 20 and 30 people. When large groups of people get together, you know what happens: we consume large quantities of energy!

So, being the energy-efficient steward that I am, I thought, “Where can my family save energy?” (And yours, too, of course.) Here are a few suggestions:

1. LIGHTING & HEATING

If you eat (or are entertaining) early enough, use as much natural light as you can! If you don’t have windows, see how many lights you really need to turn on. Candles can help create a homey and festive atmosphere while conserving electricity.

If you use incandescent Christmas lights, consider switching to LEDs, which use a fraction of the electricity, and will almost certainly be heavily discounted right after the holidays. Get a deal, pack ‘em up, and save energy next year!

And how about the temperature in the room? The human body produces heat, so if you get a bunch of people together, you’ll raise the temperature in the room — meaning you can set your thermostat a little cooler than normal.

If you’re cooking (who isn’t?), ovens also produce excess heat, raising the temperature of a room another few degrees — and BAM! You can turn down that thermostat.

2. COOKING

You probably know that the most efficient ways to cook are microwaves, toaster ovens, and slow cookers. While less efficient, ovens and stoves are probably the way you’ll end up going for a big crowd (and we don’t blame you). But there are still ways to be more efficient while using them.

Cook different dishes together and make the most of the oven space. Try not to open the oven door once your food is cooking — every time you do, heat escapes. And while nearly every recipe will tell you to preheat the oven, it’s usually unnecessary. You’re gonna cook that turkey for 6 hours; 10 minutes of preheating won’t make much of a difference.

When you move over to the stovetop, make sure to use pans that fit the burners. If the pan is too small, you’re losing heat; if it’s too large, it takes far longer to cook. Much like Goldilocks and the Three Bears, you want it to be just right. Make sure to have the right lid for the pot to better trap the heat in the pan.

3. CLEAN-UP 

Once the meal is done, it’s time for the clean-up. My family has a ritual for this. After the meal, the men do the dishes. Depending on whose kitchen we are in, we’ll have a line of three to five people scraping, wiping, soaping, washing, rinsing, drying, and stacking.

Believe it or not, the dishwasher uses less water and energy than doing all the washing by hand, but many of the cups and plates used for holiday celebrations are not dishwasher-safe.

So, before you run that dishwasher, make sure it’s full of dishes — not half-full.

One of my favorite parts of the meal follows cleaning the dishes: the distribution of the leftovers! Every household brings a handful of containers and we parcel the food out. When you are getting those leftovers together, let them cool before you put them in the fridge. Hot food causes more of a temperature change inside the fridge than lukewarm food.

So have yourself a Merry Christmas. Enjoy the food and the togetherness — and save some money on your electric bill this holiday season!

Turning the tide on power: Could we get energy from the Moon?

The Moon has captured man’s imagination from the beginning. Unlike the Sun, it is easy to gaze upon, and unlike the stars and wandering stars, it appears close. Despite classical Greek philosophy, it turned out to be our nearest celestial neighbor.

The Moon is a powerful symbol. But did you know it’s a place from which we could get power?

Courtesy of Texas A&M Engineering Works

Courtesy of Texas A&M Engineering Works

When typing in “moon power” on Google, you get a lot of very interesting and silly responses. For example one of the top results is the Tumblr page for the Sailor Moon franchise. And while it’s exciting to have celestially-powered superwomen, I don’t think we’ll get much usable power out of them.

Thankfully, we’ve been able to use the Moon to generate electricity since 1966. That sounds very much like something of a science fiction plot, but it’s science fact that we’ve harnessed the gravitational effect of the Moon — or, as you might have heard of it, we use the movement of the tides through a turbine to create electricity.

In 1966, the first (and largest) tidal generation station opened in France on the Rance River. It’s still in operation today and produces about 540 gigawatts annually. There are only seven operational tidal power stations in the world, and none in the United States. Tidal power stations, much like dams, have the power to significantly alter the ecology of their area.

But when most people think of “moon power,” they think of actually being on the Moon. The Moon does have a couple of different great energy-rich resources. One of those resources is Helium 3. Helium 3 is an isotope of Helium, meaning that it has more neutrons than regular Helium. While Helium 3 is inert when buried in the regolith, it could be a great fuel for a fusion reactor.

Slam two molecules of Helium 3 together and you get a proton, Helium 4 (what we find on Earth). You can use that escaping proton to generate electricity. And it’s not radioactive. There’s enough on the Moon to give over a century worth of power.

However, there are two large challenges. The first challenge is creating a fusion reactor that can use the fuel, use it for sustained periods, and produce more energy than it uses. The second challenge is creating the infrastructure to mine the Moon. No one’s been there in over 40 years, and only a handful of robotic probes have been sent there. So it’s been a while since we’ve been up there or tried to bring some of the moon back.

We could build a moon base, station people there to mine the moon, and send back the Helium 3. We could create a totally automatic system to do it — but how long would it take to put either system in place? Decades, at the very least. And why would you start on a mining operation before you have a need for what you mine?

The Moon’s other great resource is sunlight. That seems an odd thing to say, but the whole reason we notice it in the first place is the sunlight it reflects on us. Unencumbered by atmosphere or people, it would be a wonderful place to put a large-scale solar power generation plant. We know massive amounts of sunlight would hit the panels without being filtered by the atmosphere.

However, the challenges are about the same as the fusion. There is nothing up there. It would be a massive undertaking to build and transport enough panels that distance.

There is technology — in its infancy — that could take care of that problem: 3D printing. Have a 3D printer on wheels land on the moon and get to work. In time, the massive solar array will be built. All the materials are there; we simply need to add direction, much as a conductor adds direction to an orchestra.

And after we have this solar ensemble built, we need to figure out how to get the power safety back home. It would take a huge power cord to run from the Moon to Earth, so we’ll probably try to avoid that option. If we could safely beam it back to power stations across the world, safe, cheap, and clean electricity could be had. Or it could be used as a death ray against those who haven’t paid their bills on time. Before we turn it on, we’ll have to work out how to use it.

That great eye catcher in the night sky is full of temptation. She has given us a taste of her power and has shown that she has more for the taking. If we are smart enough and devoted enough to get to her, she could provide the bounties of the heavens. But for now, she sits just out of reach.