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.

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?

America’s New Energy Policy

On Wednesday, March 30 President Obama revealed an update on his energy policy for the country.  He called for a 1/3 reduction in the importation of foreign oil from 2008 levels in a decade or so.  His plans to pull this off include more domestic drilling, more reliance on other fuels and alternatives, and greater efficiency.

Every president since Nixon has tried to limit or end our reliance on imported oil.
“Let us set as our national goal, in the spirit of Apollo, with the determination of the Manhattan Project, that by the end of this decade we will have developed the potential to meet our own energy needs without depending on any foreign energy source.”
- President Richard Nixon (November 7, 1973)

Despite the fact that every president, regardless of party, has proclaimed the need to reduce oil imports and develop alternative energies, the amount of oil we import has almost always gone up. (There was a period in the mid eighties where it went down).  So what has changed?  What makes now different from 1973?

Technology has advanced; progress goes forward (if you’re a modernist).  But what has really changed is how we see energy in our lives.  From the 1980’s onward, the price of gasoline has continued to rise.  Two very different things happen as the price of gasoline rises.  One is that the gasoline costs more, not online dollars but as a per cent of our lifestyle.  The other thing is that alternatives become more attractive, cost effective, and more people use them.  It may not be worth my time and effort to pay a $1.25 to ride the light rail one way if gasoline costs $2.50 a gallon, but it does become time and cost effective around $3.75 a gallon. 

Barrels
Creative Commons License photo credit: barekim

The United States has 22 billion barrels (1 barrel = 42 gallons) of proved crude oil reserves.  Proven reserves are oil that we know where it is, have the technology to get to it, and it is economical to go after it.  Unproven oil reserves are what we think is probably there (based on the geology) or what we know is there but don’t have the technology to get to. Each year the amount of proved reserves changes.  This can be because new fields have been found; old fields are no longer producing, improvements in technology, and many other reasons.  To put that amount in perspective,  Saudi Arabia has 267 billion barrels in reserve and Mexico has 12.  We use 21 million barrels of oil a day, so if we had all our proven reserves producing 21 million barrels a day they would last almost 3 years.  So domestic drilling will help, but it can’t be the only way to go.

Other energy sources will have to be tapped.  One of the alternative fuels the presidents mentioned was natural gas.  Natural gas burns cleaner than coal or gasoline.  Right now natural gas is used mainly for electrical power generation and crude oil for transportation.  In order for natural gas to replace some or most of our crude oil use, there would have to be a major infrastructure shift.    Natural gas can not simply be put into gas tanks (it does not help that many different things are called by the same name).  A car would have to be retrofitted with a specially made natural gas tank.  That new tank would probably have some freezing element in it.  Natural gas in its gas state takes up a lot of space.  If you freeze the natural gas down to -258 degrees it is reduced in volume by 600%.  Also gasoline stations would have to be converted to be able to contain natural gas.

Full of Sparks
Creative Commons License photo credit: jurvetson

Electric powered cars could be added to the existing grid and infrastructure more easily. It would take a whole lot less work to convert gas stations into electric stations, although with the amount of time it takes to charge an electric car it might be easier to work with businesses to put electrical stations in parking spots.  That way you could charge your car while you shop for groceries (no matter the size of my shopping list it always takes at least an hour for me to grocery shop, partially because of all the free samples and partially to make sure I have all the spices for my Bouillabaisse).  The more electric cars on the road, the more electricity we need to produce.  This is where it makes sense to use the natural gas: burn it to create electricity instead of using coal.  However, not all the houses built in the past 30 years will have the ability to plug in cars

Conservation is where a lot of oil can be saved.  The president wants to increase the efficiency in the cars we drive.  Some of us drive nice little sedans that get 30 or more miles per gallon (some of us even drive hybrids), while others drive SUV’s that get 12 or so miles per gallon.  While the choice of vehicle is an individual one governed by affordability, space, and use (it makes more sense to haul around 7 kids and their sports gear in a SUV than in a 2 door sedan), all cars can be made more efficient.  Weight could be saved on the frame by using lighter materials, the software that runs the engine (yes, lots of cars have software now, but no apps yet) can be optimized, or any number of things that can even be done after you’ve bought the car. 

All in all, the president’s plan to reduce the amount of crude oil we import over the next decade or so is an achievable end.  In fact it has already started.  We reduced the oil we import by 1.7 million barrels a day from 2008 to 2009.  So now what happens?   Many people will sit on the sideline waiting to see what legislation and regulations the federal government hands down.  “Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.” We should all start the change ourselves. There are many different things we can do to use less oil.  Regular maintenance on your car, not having a trunk full of stuff, and driving less are just a few things you can do (for more information check out the ECC).

The Times, they are a Changing

There is an ancient Chinese curse, “May you live in interesting times.” For the past few months that seems to be a motto of the world.

The unrest in Libya that started with protest has now proceeded into a full civil war. The group of protesters formed a National Council on Feb 26th to give course to the now rebels. It took less than a month for the new national council to become recognized as the legitimate authority in Libya by both a western nation France (which was the first to recognize another regime change in another county, Go France!) and the Arab League, an organization of Arab nations that stretch from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean. A few days after that, the UN passed a resolution to establish a no fly zone in Libyan airspace. This means that UN air forces (United States, France, Britain, Quarter, etc) will take any and all action to help protect civilians in the country. This has led to a cease fire which both sides have mostly observed.

Colorful Old Oil Barrels
Creative Commons License photo credit: L.C.Nøttaasen

All this has led not only to tragedy, but also to a sharp decrease in crude oil production. Libya’s production is down from 1,400,000 barrels a day to 400,000 barrels a day. Remember that the world consumes 80,000,000,000 barrels each day and the amount we use goes up by 2% annually.

Is Libya the only reason that energy prices are going up?

No, our times are far too interesting to have just one event going on.

In addition to the ongoing protests in Yemen, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia, Mother Nature has added her own 2 cents.

On March 11th an earthquake of 9.0 on the Richter scale occurred off the eastern coast of Japan followed closely by a tsunami. The earthquake was the most powerful to hit Japan and the tsunami crested at 33 feet inside Japan (by the time it reached Chili the waves where down to 6 feet). The damage has caused tens of billions of dollars in damages and tens of thousands of casualties. It also caused major damage to the Fukushima I and II Nuclear Power Plants.

Vogtle nuclear power plant, Georgia, USA
Creative Commons License photo credit: BlatantWorld.com

A fission reactor works by having fuel rods made of uranium, which radiate neutrons and photons. Neutrons bombarding the fuel also helps to accelerate the reaction. Control rods are made of neutron absorbing elements like cadmium. Lowering the control rods closer to the fuel rods slows down the reaction. One type of energy given off by the reaction is heat. Water is used to control the reaction and to transfer the heat to another system to create steam which turns the turbine. The water inside the reactor is kept under pressure to raise its boiling point. If the water, or other coolant/moderator, can not transfer the heat away, it will eventual boil into steam. If the rods are no longer being cooled, then a meltdown (or a core melt accident) can occur. If the core is breached, radioactive steam can be emitted into the atmosphere, where it will be spread by the winds.

All nuclear power plants have back ups to power the cooling cycle. However, the tsunami washed away the emergency diesel generators at Fukushima I and II Nuclear Power Plants. Reactors at Fukushima I have undergone a partial melt down.

So how does all this affect you? (I’m glad you asked)

All the instability and stoppage of crude oil makes the price go up (less supply, more demand). In the short term the price of crude oil has gone down a little because of the disaster in Japan. Japan used its nuclear power plants to generate 11 Gigawatts of electricity (a third of their electricity) so in the near future it will have to import more coal and natural gas to make up the shortfall.

The disaster has also had repercussions around the world. It has caused the United States to put on hold some nuclear plans and reevaluate others. Other countries are also reevaluating their nuclear plans. The Germans have decided to accelerate the decommissioning of their nuclear plants.

So what can you do about it?

The first step, as always to understand the situation, which is one of the reasons you read this blog (the other of course being my good looks and charming personality). The next step is action which you can do by creating an energy plan for your self (what do you leave plugged in, what do you leave on, etc.). There are also innumerable places to help with disaster relief in Japan. Some of which can be found here.