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:


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.


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.


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.

Keystone XL: It’s not just a headline, it’s a pipeline — and here’s what you need to know

Nothing grabs our attention like big headlines. During the eras of radio and television, they provided the sound bites we used to sort big events. We all remember some of the more famous ones, like “Man Walks on Moon” (New York Times, July 21, 19, 1969), “Japan Surrenders, End of War” (New York Times, August 15, 1945), or “Shuttle Explodes!” (New York Times January 28, 1986). And who can forget “Dewey Defeats Truman” (Chicago Tribune, November 3, 1948), and “Passengers Safely Moved and Steamer Taken in Tow” (Christian Science Monitor, April 15, 1912)?

We still count on headlines to see not only whether to buy the paper, but also which stories we pay attention to. When we see headlines that say, “800,000 Americans tell Senate to Stop Pipeline,” or “Tar Sands and the Pipeline,” we take notice.  We want to know why .26 percent of the population is openly against something.

What are “tar sands”? And what do we even mean by “the pipeline”?  Here’s my stab at it:

photo courtesy wikimedia

The Keystone XL pipeline is a system of pipelines that will transport crude oil from Athabasca Oil Sands in Alberta, Canada through the United States to refiners and transportation hubs in Illinois, Oklahoma, and the Gulf of Mexico. That’s over 2,000 miles of pipelines. The Athabasca oil sands, or tar sands, is an oil-rich area of boreal forest and peat bogs. The tar sand may hold around 133,000 million barrels of oil (133,000,000,000 barrels of bitumen crude.)

Bitumen is a sticky, black semisolid also know as asphalt. Bitumen is usually mined from the surface. Then it is broken up, heated with water, and filtered down to just the crude oil. Techniques like steam-assisted gravity drainage can do away with the surface mining and make the bitumen flow like traditional crude. Bitumen-based fuel does contain more greenhouse gasses than conventional crude based fuels; it may contain at least 5 percent more carbon dioxide.

Currently Canada is our largest supplier of foreign crude. They supply us with 2 million barrels of oil per day out of the 19 million we use each day. Once the Keystone XL is finished, Canada would be able to deliver .5 million more barrels a day. That would be 500,000 that the United States would not have to buy from overseas.

The construction of a new pipeline system that large would provide a lot of temporary construction jobs, however no one is sure about the number. Some groups predict 20,000 direct jobs and another 100,000 ancillary ones while others predict only 6,000 jobs. Which one is correct? If you build it, they will come. That may be the only way to figure out how many jobs it will create.

Every time a new pipeline system is proposed for construction, controversy breaks out. People are worried about how it could effect the environment. A large pipeline system that will run across a state, states, or even countries has the potential to alter a large environmental area. It is important to minimize the effect on the environment.  In addition to the usual concerns, the Keystone XL is proposed to go across the Ogallala Aquifer, which supplies most of the water for the Midwestern states. If there were a spill, it could contaminate the water source of 4 million people. One of the reasons the pipeline was rejected in January of 2012 was to allow a more complete study of its potential impact and to discuss alternative routes.

Regardless of what the United States decides to do, Canada will develop their natural resource. The United States is not the only nation eager to bring in more oil. China has a huge growth demand for their economy and industry. From 2006 to 2010, China tripled the number of cars inside its borders, and the number will continue to grow. If we don’t buy the crude, China will. Because China and Canada are not physically connected, the trade will have to rely on tankers, so not only will China be using an oil that produces more carbon dioxide, they will have to produce more C02 to get the oil to where it can be used.

With all that, will the pipeline be developed? President Obama did address the pipeline in his June energy speech. The President has said he would only approve the pipeline “if this project does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution.” How much carbon does it take to exacerbate the environment? The groups that decry the pipeline say that any carbon added to the atmosphere during construction would be too much and groups that support the pipeline say any amount of carbon would be offset by the amount of jobs and energy security it would bring.

What sort of carbon credits could be used by the different construction companies?  We’ll have to wait to see what actual guidelines developed. What do you think?