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.

Everybody wants you: Why gas is so important and how you can drive down gas prices


What’s transparent, powerful, and something that we use in our everyday lives? Nope, it’s not the government, (though some people may think they control it). No, it’s not the Internet, although we’ll see in the coming years how the government changes that.

I’m talking about gasoline. Gasoline is a transparent liquid containing mainly hydrogen and carbon, and, when burning, produces mainly carbon dioxide and water. Americans use it every day to get to and from work and home, and to run all the errands of our daily lives.

Gasoline was one of the byproducts sloughed off at the beginning of the oil industry; back in the early days, kerosene was king. During the 19th century, kerosene replaced whale oil as the preferred fuel for lights, but as the automobile became popular and the internal combustion engine became common, gasoline became the preferred product of crude oil.  In the end, gasoline beat out hydrogen, coal, and ethanol as THE fuel source for the automobile.

Today America uses over 360 million gallons of gasoline a day. That means on average we each use more than a gallon of gasoline every day.

Why is gasoline the fuel of choice? The quick and useless answer is because it’s what we have. A lot of other fuels (hydrogen, coal, natural gas, ethanol, wood, etc) were tried, but gasoline proved to be easy to use, relatively easy to create, and energy rich. A gallon of gasoline contains about 132 megajoules (MJ) or 13 kilowatt hours. Ethanol is about 121 MJ/gallon.

What about coal?  Coal isn’t measured in gallons because it’s a solid, but 1 pound of coal contains 16 MJ (where a pound of gasoline is 22 MJ). So we use gasoline because it’s useful.

As we all watch the price of gasoline creep up and up, we all start to worry about it. When I first started driving, gasoline was less than a dollar a gallon. These days we see it jump past $4. Gasoline, which comes from crude oil, is a limited commodity. There is only so much on the market (84 million barrels of crude oil a day). Out of each barrel (42 gallons) of crude oil, 19 gallons of gasoline is made.

Out of each gallon of gasoline, about 11 percent of the cost goes straight to state and federal taxes. Eighteen percent goes into refining the crude oil into gasoline. The lion’s share (62 percent) goes into the cost of getting the crude oil.

Saying all that, the price of gasoline is still important. In fact, a lot of our fellow citizens thought it was one of the major issues in the election, even though the President has little power over the cost.

What can we do to drive the price down? There are many corporations trying to find alternative ways to make gasoline. We know coal can be converted to gasoline. In fact, we know a couple of processes that work. Why are we not using them? As with most things like this, the answer is in the economics. If you have the plant in place, it’s a very expensive process. If you don’t have a plant in place, it takes years to build one.  Hydrocarbons, like gasoline, can be created by feeding algae plastics, but that’s a bleeding edge technology and not near production yet. We might even be able to pull hydrocarbons from the air, like a good magician. British scientists have come up with a way to take carbon out of the carbon dioxide in the air, combine it with hydrogen, and BAM! make gasoline. But all that’s in the future.

What can we do to lower the price today? Simple: Buy less of it. Because there is a larger supply of gasoline available, the price will go down to reflect the change in the supply and the demand. Plan out your errands ahead of time so you can do them all at the same time and in an efficient driving manner. Use your legs and the nice weather (while we have it) and walk places instead of driving. Are there grocery stores in your neighborhood? Or a bookstore? Walk around and find out. Find out more ways to use less gasoline at

Energy Endeavors Part II: Climbing around coal-fired plants and a day in the life of a drill bit

For Energy Endeavors Part I, click here.

On Thursday, the rains came down and the floods came up. There were some flooded roads between me and the Museum, but I was able to go around or just barrel on through. Understandably, not all the teachers were able to make it; some were trapped by flood waters while others had the added bonus of having no electricity.

We did eventually get on the road and on the way to the Coleto Creek Power Station, a coal-fired power plant outside of Victoria, Texas. It was pouring, but after a couple of hours we made it out into sunshine.

Energy Endeavor Part IIWe got to the plant right around lunch and as we ate, we listened to a presentation by Robert Stevens about the basics of coal-fired electricity.

A coal-fired plant works by burning coal to create steam, which is then used to turn a turbine. Coal-fired plants generate about 42 percent of all the electricity in the United States.  In Texas, coal makes up about 39 percent of our electricity. Unlike other states, the Texas electrical grid is its own. While we do have a few outside lines to other states, Texas could cut itself off from the rest of the country and still be electrically independent.

As you can probably imagine, a plant built to produce 600 megawatts is a huge undertaking. In front of the plant are train tracks that cart coal from Wyoming to be burned. The cars are made so that one of the ends can twist and the other is ridged. This is because they go into a building where the cars are locked in place and then turned upside down. The coal is taken by belt and piled into a coal field that sits atop a feeder. The feeder takes the coal in, crushes it, and sends it into the furnace. It all has to work 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year, because we need the electricity it produces.

The teachers loved this place. We were able to climb all over it. We saw where the train cars were turned over, we saw the turbines, and we saw where the coal was injected into the furnace. The teachers were especially delighted to get bits of coal and ash to take back to their classrooms.

Friday there was thankfully no rain, and we went to see drill bits being made at Varel International. They make drill bits not only for the oil and gas industry, but for the mining industry as well. At their site in Houston, they take each drill bit from the design stage to completion.

When the company gets a custom order (and seismic data), they start by designing the drill bit on a computer.  They have to make it strong enough to go through the rock that’s expected to be there and have enough flow from the mud to make sure nothing breaks down.  After that, they run a simulation mold of the bit being carved out — this way they can check to see if there will be any problems before they start production.

Energy Endeavor Part IIDuring the production phase, they hollow out a graphite block, and put place holders in to create holes for the bits and tubes to make sure the mud will have a path to flow through. Then, the mold is filled with metal and put into a furnace.

After awhile — as much as two days in some cases — the drill bit is taken out of the furnace and is broken free from its graphite mold. The bits are welded into place and the bit goes through a number of cleaning processes, making sure the clumps of excess metal are removed. A bit is then added to the collar (the part that attaches to the pipe). The bit is taken away, painted the company colors of green and silver, put in its container and shipped out into the world.

Our final destination was the Chemistry Department at the University of St. Thomas. We got to see some of the students’ projects, such as one student’s small reactor, and hear about the programming at UST.

As you can see, it was a very fruitful week. We had some adventures (some unintended), saw some wonderful sites and met a lot of people who not only loved their jobs, but were eager to share that enthusiasm with a bunch of teachers. It’s a wide world of energy out there and, at least in Houston, you don’t have to go very far to experience it.

All Along the Watch Tower: United States Military and Renewable Energy

“In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.” – President Dwight D. Eisenhower, Farewell Address 1961

Over sixty years ago our president warned us of not letting a group, no matter how good their intentions, have undue influence on our government and people. In specific he was warning about the military industrial complex, or the different defense contractors as an industry (Michael Crichton has since warned about the politico-legal-media complex that he argues has replaced them). He was worried that a coordinated effort by any group would give them power to incant changes that would be harmful to the government and its people. But just as it has the potential for harm, it has the potential to help. And that’s what the military will do with their new energy policy.

This is the first time the United States military has created an energy policy that focuses on efficiency. Before now, it has been a policy of using as much energy as needed to get the job done regardless of its efficiency.

What has changed?

The military has come to a public realization that its’ current reliance on conventional energy and fuels are unsustainable and therefore they should take an active hand in solving the problem.

USS Midway aircraft carrier
Creative Commons License photo credit: cybaea

The military has always been conscious of their energy needs and the need for a more efficient and usable energy source. The Navy first used wind, but as technology advanced they went with propulsion systems that could provide more reliable and efficient energy. While wind is free, it does not always blow in a given area. This would lead to ships lost because they did not have wind. The Navy changed to coal and established a series of bases around the world to hold coal for them. Then they switched to oil and were able to have fewer bases to hold supplies. After that some ships converted to nuclear power. This allowed them to stay at sea for years at a time.

While the military has been moving towards a more efficient model, they have not had a well defined plan. And now they do. Currently the military uses about 1% of the fuel used in the Unites States, or about 5 billion gallons annually. As we all know the cost of fuel goes up. The military spent around $13.5 billion on fuel in 2010. The price has increased by 255% since 1997, and they expect it to continue to increase.

The Department of Defense’s new energy policy calls for 3 specific goals:

More fight, less fuel.

More option, less risk.

More capability, less cost.

These are good goals for good reasons. In 2010 there were over 1,100 attacks on military convoys carrying fuel to forward units. Less use of conventional fuel would mean fewer attacks, and would free up more units to go to the front. Today’s soldier on the ground carries over 10 pounds of batteries to operate his equipment. By 2013 it will be up to over 20 pounds. They will need more efficient equipment to keep the weight constant or even reduce it.

The Department of Defense is also shrinking its budget.

The Army is planning to use $1.4 million to implement a program to monitor their energy usage. It’s important to know what goes where and how much. It can be a little bit more challenging if it’s spread across 4 continents. They have another $5 million earmarked to help develop solar and wind generators to be used on the front lines. While solar powered battery rechargers have already been used in Afghanistan, there is need for more and better use of solar and wind power generation. $20 million is going to help reduce the weight of batteries and expand the capability of the dismounted soldier.

The Navy has plans as well. They have set aside $133 million for science and technology research. $16 million will be used toward making hybrid electric drives for ships. What is that, you may ask. It’s a drive that while still using fuel, can also run on a battery. If you have ever seen a Toyota Pruis, you have seen a hybrid electric drive. Currently, most ships use steam power to turn a turbine, which powers and moves the ship. With a hybrid drive, like a Prius, the Navy would save fuel. Ships would work even better with a smart meter and a smart electrical system. A smart meter would keep track of which systems are using electricity. If the entire system was smart it would optimize the electrical usage by giving just the systems that currently (that pun again) need electricity just the right amount. The Navy’s fleet is also moving to more bio fuels. Imagine fleets of ships and planes that run off of a bio fuel.

The Marine Corp (OORAH) has an ambitious plan as well. Their first step is to instill an energy efficient conscience. They also plan to reduce their use of fuel by 50% over the next 15 years (with a 25% decrease in 4 years). This is so the modern day Spartans will be more self-sufficient. Instead of having to shepherd supplies to the front, the Marines can focus on the front. They will be deploying more solar and wind arrays and even doing the small things such as using LED lights.

Air power on display at Red Flag 10-4 [Image 3 of 3]
Creative Commons License photo credit: DVIDSHUB

The Air Force plans on reducing their fuel needs by 10% in the next 4 years. They are also doing research into new and lighter materials to reduce the weight of planes. The Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs is ramping up its use of solar energy and trying to become 100% renewable.

So why does this matter to me?

While I enjoy a good military thriller, how can an energy efficient military help me? If the military uses less fuel, there is more on the market for me to buy. By reducing their costs, and therefore the amount of money my government spends, they have the potential (however small) of helping to lower the deficit.

But what will help the most is all the technology and procedures that they’ll develop. The military industrial complex is a large industry. Because of that they try to find multiple uses and markets for their products. They’ll repackage as much as they can for non-military use. Do I want a car that has a smart power system, so it can use less energy? Sure, I would even be OK if it did not have a combustion engine (as long as it still worked). Do I want smaller batteries that last longer? Of course, I would love for the charge in my iPod to last more than one chapter of a Patrick O’Brian novel.