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.

Christmas in March? I Want Coal Year Around

“I will honor Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year.” – Charles Dickens, Ebenezer Scrooge, A Christmas Carol.

We all know the story of Ebenezer Scrooge and How the Grinch Stole Christmas. We’ve all watched a Charlie Brown’s Christmas, and a few of us have seen Tokyo Godfathers. But as we start the count down to the seasons (yes, lots of people begin the count down to the next one as soon as the previous one is over and some of us have already begun our Christmas shopping), I am left wondering why “naughty” children get coal for Christmas.

After all coal is a useful thing.

The Sicilian tradition tracks back to pre-Christian Italy. There, La Befana, an old woman, would go around and leave light and fluffy candy for “nice” children and pieces of a dark candy or coal for the “naughty” ones (Note: Most of the history of the legend is shrouded in the mist of time. Other places such as Holland have also claimed to have begun the ritual).

Coal has many more uses than being given to “naughty” children. In America it is mostly used to create electricity. You may ask yourself, “how do they produce electricity with a darkly colored piece of rock?” Good Question!! Here is how.

 Anthracite Coal

Coal is a combustible sedimentary rock that is made from decayed plant matter that accumulated at the bottom of bodies of water, such as ponds or swamps. Coal takes millions of years to form, so while there will be a little more available in the future neither I nor my 10^2,000,000 grandchild will be able to use it (her name will be Carol, by the way).

There are four main types of coal. Anthracite coal is around 90% carbon. Of the coals, it burns the hottest, but only makes up about half of a percent of the coal used. Bituminous coal makes up 50% of the coal production in the United States and is used to turn turbines to make electricity. Sub-bituminous coal accounts for about 46% of coal production, but does not produce as much heat as Bituminous. Lignite is the youngest of the coal and holds the least carbon. There are other types of coal and coal related rocks. Graphite is a coal, but its ignition point is so high, it is rarely used as fuel. Coal and diamonds are both carbon products, but it would take a Superman to make coal into diamonds while you watch.

Coal has been used for 6,000 years. Its first use was as jewelry in China. The Romans used it as a heating source. Coal is best known as being the fuel supply for the Industrial Revolution in Europe.

Tagebau Garzweiler
Surface Coal Mine
Creative Commons License photo credit: Neuwieser

Coal is usually found underground. Most coal mines in the United States are surface mined. A surface mine is where you remove the surface and dig a large open air pit to get to a deposit - in this case coal.

In the present day, coal is mainly used to produce electricity. About 40% of the world’s electricity and 50% of the United States’ electricity come from coal.

How does coal produce electricity? The coal is burned for its heat. The heat is used to turn water into steam. The steam is used to turn a turbine, which produces the electricity.

So how efficient is coal at producing energy? A kilogram of coal produces about 2 kilowatt hours of electricity. It would take about 1 ton of coal to run a 100 watt light bulb for a year. (Natural Gas produces about 3.1 kilowatt hours per kilogram.)

It could make a light that yonder window breaks.

4th of July Party at Sara's and Steffen's Place
Creative Commons License photo credit: ReneS

Coal when burned emits a lot of undesirable emissions. 2000 pounds (1 ton that is used to keep a light bulb on for a year) of coal will produce about 5,720 pounds of carbon dioxide. Burning coal also produce sulfur dioxide and nitrous oxide, both of which are harmful gases. Particulate matter, also know as fly ash, is left over as well.

So why would we use coal?

We use it here in America, because America has the largest coal reserves. It is somewhat easy to mine and does not require a lot of refining to make it a usable fuel. Also coal remains a cheap way to produce electricity.

America is no longer the largest user of coal. China surpassed America in coal consumption in 2008.

Over the years the coal industry has developed ways to capture the harmful gases. Scrubbers remove the sulfur before it can become sulfur dioxide and catalytic converters take out the nitrogen. The particulate matter is now collected and sold to different companies which include cement makers, embankment producers, and many others. They are also creating ways to capture and store the carbon dioxide before it enters the atmosphere. The captured carbon dioxide can be used for many different things including improved oil recovery and even conversion into fuel.

The use of coal in electricity production is projected to rise over time. It will rise mainly because the need for energy will rise. Energy consumption will continue to rise with population growth and industrial development.

Charcoal, Bio Char and Nanotechnology

Where's the beef?!
Creative Commons License photo credit: Robert S. Donovan

Most of you, my dear readers, have heard of charring or charcoal at some point (a few might even know the term “Charyou Tree” from the novels of Stephen King). So you may be asking yourselves what is biochar? Is it different from normal charcoal? Why are people putting it in the ground and not using it for bar-b-q?

Biochar is organic material, mostly wood, that has been heated until it has been completely carbonized. How is this different from charcoal? It differs in its primary use. When people think of and use charcoal in America, it’s mainly for burning the charcoal. Biochar’s main uses are as a carbon sequester and a fertilizer. What that means is that when wood is turned into charcoal (or biochar) the carbon it holds is not released into the atmosphere. Instead you end up with a little lump of carbon (not like this, but like this). It turns out that lump of carbon can be used as a very effective fertilizer.

Now why do I bring all this up? It’s not only to talk a little about carbon sequestration or to talk about a hobby of mine, but to talk about up and coming science.

Over at Rice University they are using modern methods of chemistry to try and create the best biochar for fertilizer and how to promote it in developing countries.

Why is this important? First it is a way to improve soil quality without adding too many artificial fertilizers and pesticides. Second, it is a way to store the carbon without releasing it immediately into the atmosphere.

Using charcoal as fertilizer is not a new invention. The idea and practice has been around for thousands of years. One example of it has been slash and burn agriculture.

So what does biochar have to with carbon nanofibers?  Both are made from carbon. Both are being worked on at Rice.

So what is a carbon fiber nanotube? It is a string of carbon molecules that have been put together that are about 1 nanometer in diameter.

A man named 'Smalley' is meant to be a king of the Small world. He was.
Creative Commons License photo credit: TheAlieness GiselaGiardino²³

These smallest of the small have big potential. A long carbon string made using these carbon nanofibers (and buckyballs) have the potential to help revolutionize fields such as electronics and building materials.

Carbon nanofibers have the strongest tensile strength (how well the material stands up to stress) and can also hold an electrical current 1,000 times greater than the copper wires we use.

So, why aren’t we already using it? That’s the really amazing thing. The technology is so cutting (and bleeding) edge that the implementation is not there yet. 

And there are greater things yet to come. “Oh brave new world that has such people in it.”

Science Doesn’t Sleep (9.8.08)

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Bacteria loves milk.
Creative Commons License photo credit: IRRI Images

So here’s what went down after you logged off.

A NASA administrator insists he backs the upcoming retirement of the space shuttle (leaving the U.S. unable to send astronauts to the International Space Station)  - despite a leaked e-mail to the contrary. Oh – and, the BBC reports that Chinese astronauts (called yuhangyuan) will perform their first-ever spacewalk.

Got bacteria? New research indicates that you shouldn’t be washing your antibiotics down with milk.

Bad news for mathletes: using your brain might be making you fat.

NPR asks: Can physicists be funny? (The answer is YES.) Scientists at CERN are going through improv comedy training to help reassure the public that they’re not about to create a giant black hole that will swallow the Earth.

Arctic permafrost holds twice as much carbon as the atmosphere – making it a potential environmental threat. Good thing it’s not melting at a disturbingly fast pace.

Does the President need to be tech-savvy?