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

people-walking

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 ECC.hmns.org.

It’s ice, ice baby?

I recently came across an article with the title of combustible ice, also called “fire ice.” I realize that anything can be made to combust.  I never thought of ice doing that.  My next thought was that ice might mean something else than frozen water.  Diamonds are referred to as ice because of their ability to transfer heat. The United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) can be a hot topic in some quarters.  Snow Crash has linked frozen water with the mes collected by Enlil.  As you can see I was very curious about the article.

It turns out the ice referenced in this particular article is hydrocarbons frozen in ice crystals.  It is natural gas (mostly methane) that has been trapped in the crystalline structure of water as it froze.  We can easily imagine the liquid methane atmosphere of Neptune or methane sheets and snow on Makemake (a newly discovered plutoid in the Kuiper Belt) and Eris, but it is not something we think about on earth. 

Methane needs to be below -297 degrees Fahrenheit for it to become solid, but because it is inside the ice, the “fire ice” can remain stable at much higher temperatures (around 29 degrees Fahrenheit).  Methane is in the atmosphere of all the gas giants in our solar system and might be found in ice form on the dwarf planets like Pluto (we’ll have to wait for the New Horizon’s fly by in 2015.  None of the extrasolar planets seem to have methane in their atmosphere (although HD 209458 b might have water vapor in its atmosphere).

The “fire ice” on Earth usually forms deep under the surface of the oceans – down hundreds of meters into the dark depth.  That’s not the only place on the Earth where it is. China has reported that it has found this “fire ice” in Qinghai Province. 

Methane hydrates have been known since the 1960’s, but they have not been in the news much.  You might ask why.  The early known methane hydrates despots were deep on the ocean floor and mining for them was too expensive for what they could sell the methane for.  With the current rise in the cost of fuel, the “fire ice” is looking more attractive.  Japan plans to have a full scale mining operation up and running by 2016 and China is putting aside nearly a billion dollars on research of mining and using “fire ice”.

So how does “fire ice” differ from the run of the mill natural gas?  Well, they don’t.  Hydrates are routinely formed during the refining process.  The hydrates can cause damage to the pipelines by blocking the flow.  Ethylene glycol (antifreeze) can be used to stop the hydrates from forming. 

Since methane hydrates are a form of natural gas, why are methane hydrates important?  One reason is that it is natural gas.  Natural gas is used primary in electrical generation in the US.  Natural gas burns cleaner then coal or petroleum.  Another reason the “fire ice” can be important is in transportation.  To ship natural gas around the world, it is common to change it from a gaseous form to a liquid.  This, very logically, is called liquefied natural gas.  It takes a lot of energy to cool the gas down to – 256 degrees Fahrenheit.  The “fire ice” remains stable at much higher temperatures, -4 degrees Fahrenheit.    

“Fire ice” might be cheaper to transport, but it will not be a “silver bullet” that solves all our energy needs.  For that there is no single, easy answer.


Here Comes the Sun

I had the chance to go talk with a wonderful and smart bunch of 5th graders at Oran M. Roberts Elementary School about solar energy. I have been interested in solar energy for over two decades now. It started as a cub scout; we built small solar powered cars, which were made from a 1 foot square piece of plywood with four wheels and a small motor attached to a small solar cell. It only worked in clear and direct sunlight and went very slowly, but solar power has improved a lot over the last 20 years!

So what is solar energy? It’s everything – all energy comes from the sun or other stars. Fossil fuels come from microorganisms that used the sun for energy and now we use the solar energy they stored. Wind comes from the sun. The sun heats part of the earth, creating the wind.

Solar energy even helped create the heat at the core of the Earth. After the death of a few stars, the Solar System started to form. The planetary nebula helped create a little blue green planet with an iron nickel liquid core. That core and its rotation create what we know as geothermal power.

People have been using solar power for years without even realizing it. Every time you turn off the light in a room and use the natural light coming into the room to read, you’re using solar power. When you go out in the sun to get warm, that’s solar power too.

But the type of power we’re going to talk about is the type used to make electricity, whether directly (such as photovoltaic cells) or indirectly (solar thermal arrays).

To put it all in perspective:

daniel graph 1

The graphs above show the energy use in the USA in 2008.

Coal, natural gas, nuclear and renewable energy are mostly used for electricity.

Petroleum is used mostly for transportation. Renewable energy only make up 7% of our energy and solar energy only 1% of that.

daniel graph 2

Solar power is mostly used for residential and commercial power and not for transportation or large-scale electrical generation.

daniel graph 3

Over the next 20 years, solar is projected to grow.

What are the advantages of solar energy?  Well after you get the solar cells installed, you don’t have to pay for the energy. Also, collecting solar power produces no pollution. You can put solar cells on nearly everything, and it can work anywhere there is sunlight, which can be great if it is somewhere far off the grid, or you don’t want to spend the resources to attach it to the grid.

However there are some disadvantages to solar. The largest one is that solar power is dependent on the sun. This means that solar panels cannot generate electricity when it is dark. That’s 12 hours or so a day that the solar panels can’t work. Weather also effects solar power. It may not work if it’s cloudy or rainy outside. Also, the land cost for large solar power generation stations are large. Solar 2, a large scale solar thermal power station out in the Mojave Desert, used 891,000 ft² of land to produce up to 10 megawatts of power.

Currently electricity produced by solar plants is more expensive than most other sources.

Types of solar collectors:

Concentrated (Dish) solar – the panels are made into a parabolic shape to concentrate the light collected into a sensor.

Flat Photovoltaic cells – these are what most people think about when they think of solar power. These cells are what you usually see connected to street signs or on top of buildings. They use their surface area to collect light instead of concentrating it into one sensor.

Stay tuned next week for when I reveal the exciting Q and A from the students at Oran Roberts. I’ll tackle such questions as “Does solar power work on other planets?” and “What countries outside the USA use solar power?”

So be here next week,  same bat time; same bat channel.