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!

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.