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?

Not the second-largest port for nothin': Join us for the Summer Energy Teacher Workshop

When most people think of a port city, they think of beaches and a lot of waterfront property. They think of palm trees and salty sea breezes. But not all port cities are on the coast. In the United States, there are numerous inland ports (ports on fresh waterways) such as those in Milwaukee and Chicago.

But when you think of ports, Houston is not one that readily comes to mind (especially to non-natives or out-of-towners). Given that we are the second-largest port in the United States, this seems a bit odd.

photo courtesy wikimedia

Houston had an odd way of coming to be. Before Texas won its independence from Mexico, there was no city of Houston. After independence, the Allen brothers, a couple of real-estate dealers from New York, convinced the new president of Texas, Sam Houston, to have the government buy the land that would become Houston and establish the seat of government there.

In the early days of the Republic, the streets of the city were dominated by a tents. Slowly, buildings went up. And after a few years, a port was established on the bayou to run trade to and from Galveston. For a while there was an overnight passenger steamboat from Galveston to Houston. In 1900, the big storm came to Galveston and destroyed a large number of the businesses and buildings on the island, and Houston promoted the idea of an inland port that would be protected from hurricanes.

The Houston Ship Channel was dug and opened in September of 1914. Since then the Channel has grown to be one of the largest ports in the United States. Now Houston ranks second in the United States for total tonnage (weight/mass of cargo) and first in international waterborne tonnage. As you can imagine, the port adds a lot to the city’s economy. In fact it brings about $200 million into the state each year.

As the energy capital of the world, a lot of crude oil, natural gas, and coal move through the Port of Houston. Several refineries are located on the waterfront, including the largest in the US, the ExxonMobil refinery. As in the energy industry, the majority of the maritime workforce will reach retirement age soon.

Join us for our week-long Summer Energy Teacher Workshop, where we will be going to energy destinations like the Port of Houston and learning about what kinds of opportunites exist in the energy industry.

Inspired by energy: Get poetic and win a tour of the Wiess Energy Hall

In the time before TV or radio, people had to entertain themselves. Some of the quickest games to start were word games.  Either take a theme and pun away, or set up different rules like starting the next word with the letter that ended the previous word.  For more formal entertainment, you could create a poem using a variety of different structures. Maybe you gravitated toward the villanelle, a 19-line poem. Or a haiku, a non-rhyming poem of 5, 7, and 5 lines.

But for this poem inspired by energy (cable’s out) I’ve gone with the always-classic sonnet.

Wiess Energy Hall 3

Here is a short sonnet written about oil
And a couple of things you can do during the summer
So that your bills and budget aren’t foiled
Leading to your vacation being a bit of a bummer
When you’re driving around in your car
Make sure your tires are full of air
Tires without air don’t go far
Keeping up your car should take your care
And don’t forget about things in your trunk
The car’s gas mileage can be affected by that junk

But I could have just as easily gone with a limerick like:

There once was a man out on his luck
He couldn’t find a job, but wouldn’t give up on his pluck
He got a job harvesting bio mass
So that he could get some cash
So now he harvests algae muck

So here’s the deal — make a silly summer sonnet of your own, a lovingly lined limerick, a high-minded haughty haiku, or any other poem about saving energy this summer.  We’ll post it on the ECC website and a couple of other places. In two weeks we’ll have a drawing for a few different prizes, the grand prize being a free tour of the Wiess Energy Hall by moi.