To read the previous parts of this article click here.
Recap: Till now we saw how the evolution of energy has lived in a symbiotic relationship with the growth of humans. We saw the growth of electrical energy at the turn of the 20th century and how it quickly dominated everything around us. Around the same time Crude Oil also became an important source of energy and material. Discussing briefly on a couple of key features for every energy source, laws of thermodynamics, by-product and health, safety and environment we observed that every energy source has a delicate balance to maintain. We need to continue to maintain the balance for our survival. We saw that this balance can be tipped off when a major disaster happens such as:
- Oil and gas disasters: Piper Alpha, BP Horizon
- Nuclear Disasters: Chernobyl, Three Mile Island
- Hydel Disaster: Southfork Dam, Tigra Dam, Mohne Dam
These disasters remind us of the 4 key factors that we saw and help us increase our safety and knowledge.
Another way that this balance can tip to the Health, Safety and Environment side is slowly and often in an invisible manner. This can be equally dangerous, if not less, than a disaster. It acts like a slow poison that infects us or the climate around us, keeping us in the dark. It is really hard to explain these scenarios but I will try my best.
One of the stories that I can remember which depicts this scenario is about lead poisoning in gasoline.
I would like to present the story of Dr. Clair Cameron Patterson (June 2, 1922 – December 5, 1995). Dr. Patterson was a pioneering geo-chemist who is very well known for determining the age of earth. His experiments proved that the earth was about 4.55 billion years old. He was assigned this task as a PhD student in the late 1940s under Dr. Harrison Brown. Dr. Patterson came across a staggering observation which shook the very grounds and understanding of crude oil consumption. Dr. Patterson was trying to determine the lead content on a meteorite rock. After several experiments, he always came with erroneous values of lead which were very high. He slowly found out that this was due to lead contamination in the environment. He tried to have a cleaner working environment to remove any contamination. The data was so erroneous that he went on to create the world’s first ultra clean room. His quest on finding the age of earth and the increased lead content took him to expeditions where they conducted experiments to find the lead content in shallow and deep ocean waters as well as north and south polar ice caps.
It was very interesting to note that the shallow waters had a large amount of lead content in them but not deep. This only could mean that the lead in the air and shallow waters was a recent activity. More precisely, this lead was coming from the gasoline combustion in cars, internal combustion engines, lead in paint and other crude oil products. Dr. Partterson got scared of his discovery as it meant fighting with the oil industry. Bravely he continued to file lawsuits under constant pressure and threat (his research grants were forfeited overnight). It took him 22 years to get the US government to acknowledge his findings and have the bill passed to make it mandatory for the oil companies to make unleaded gasoline be available to consumers (1970s). Ever since we have observed a decline in the lead content in the air and water. This was a major win.
I will urge the readers to see the Cosmos-A Spacetime Odyssey (S1:E7) to learn more about this story or read about Dr. Patterson.
The reason I brought up the story of Dr. Patterson was to put forth 3 major points
- There sometimes can be consequences to our actions which we cannot see but are observable by others who hold a better scientific process and/ or equipment.
- The scientific community has a process which is peer reviewed. This means that papers published in peer-reviewed journals are thoroughly cross checked and audited by other experts of similar fields. These are different as compared to articles published in science magazines. Articles in these magazines do not undergo extensive peer review such as journals.
- Question Everything: Scientific community can be wrong! Although there is a process through which the entire peer review is done to ascertain the findings, there can be errors and they again need to be supported by strong evidence. For instance, Dr. Patterson’s findings were vastly overshadowed by the findings of Dr. Robert A. Kehoe. Dr. Kehoe had conclusively proven that the increased lead levels in the environment were in fact normal levels. With vast amounts of evidence that Dr. Patterson provided, Dr. Kehoe’s scientific findings were then proven to be incorrect and necessary steps were taken. It is essential to understand what constitutes evidence for science. I will cover this aspect later perhaps.
Coming back to our story. The tremendous amount of fossil fuel that we have started burning since the 1800s has created a slow but constant impact on the environment. The massive amount of coal that is burnt in thermal power plants or the automobiles on the road, natural gas in turbines, higher chain polymers in plastics; we have made ourselves “Slaves to Oil”. Whatever we see around us, from the button on a shirt to the giant airplanes, everything has oil in it directly or indirectly. It is almost impossible for us to stop using Crude Oil and coal completely. It will push us back to the era even farther behind the Steam Power.
Let us not touch the aspect of crude oil being used in other forms such as grease and lubrication, plastics, cooking etc. That requires a totally different discussion.
Since now it is obvious that we cannot live without energy and we also do not want to harm ourselves or the environment, so we started exploring other sources of energy. The basic classification of these energy sources is conventional and unconventional. Conventional are primarily fossil fuels, coal and crude oil. Unconventional is everything else. By definition conventional is something which is commonly seen around. Another classification is renewable and non-renewable sources of energy. The answer to the difference between the two lies in the source abundance. Sources such as fossil fuel are limited in nature and will deplete. It will take millions of years for them to be formed again, hence these are called non-renewable. Wind, Solar, hydel are almost limitless resources. They can never be depleted and hence can always be “renewed”.
Since we already have discussed and seen how Coal and Crude Oil have been part of the Evolution of Energy, let us see where unconventional fits in this journey.
Nuclear: With the accidental discovery of Nuclear Fission in 1938 this new form of energy was born for humans. Scientists in Germany were trying to split a Uranium atom by bombarding neutrons. Instead of splitting they observed that there was an exothermic reaction taking place and the Uranium remained intact with release of more neutrons. This baffled Dr. Otto Hahn and he consulted his colleagues Dr. Fritz Strassmann and Dr. Lise Meitner. Dr. Meitner was not only able to figure out what was going on but also gave this process a name, Fission. Only Dr. Otto Hahn was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. It is very sad that the contributions of Dr. Meitner were intentionally ignored just because she was a woman.
This process was slowly perfected and controlled (an uncontrolled fission process is also called a Nuclear Bomb). Loosely speaking it replaced the coal burner in a thermal power plant. The water was now heated from the heat produced from the nuclear fission reaction which produced steam and turned the generator. This was a completely carbon free way of producing electricity at such a large scale.
Nuclear Energy interestingly falls under non-renewable sources of energy (since there is a limited supply of Nuclear Fuel). The capacity factor or simply put, the amount of energy that can be extracted from Uranium is very high and since there is no combustion, there are no harmful gases expelled. The nuclear waste however remains to be an issue to deal with along with the inherent dangers of radioactivity inside a nuclear power plant. The tragedies of Chernobyl and Three Mile Island are reminders to understand that this form of energy, although efficient, can have a huge impact on the survival of all living things.
Solar Energy: The biggest source of unconventional energy is the Sun. Ironically this is the biggest, most powerful and limitless source of energy. Going back to the middle school basics, Solar Energy is actually the mother of all the energy sources we consume, including the energy we get from eating our food.
We have been using solar energy for more than 2000 years (lenses and copper shields to concentrate sunlight for heating and lighting lamps, ships!). It wasn’t until 1839 when Edmond Becquerel discovered the photo-electric effect when we started thinking in terms of converting solar energy directly into electricity.
Even though we see abundance of sun, the effect of solar energy is drastically dependent on the weather. The most common artificial way of using solar energy, now, is using a phota-voltaic cell. It uses a spectrum of Electro-Magnetic Radiation from the sun to convert into movement of electrons, i.e electricity. It is getting more common to see these photo-voltaic cells as solar panels on roof tops nowadays. I stick by my statement that every energy source is bound by the three laws of thermodynamics, has a by-product and has an impact on health, safety and environment. The best solar panels today can convert solar electromagnetic energy into electrical energy with the highest efficiency of 15%-22%. The process is irreversible and is dependent on many factors. The by-product and impact on health, safety and environment may seem to be zero from the first look. But there is definitely an impact. The manufacturing of solar panels requires setup of a plant which would eventually consume power from another source of energy. The panels are made of polymers, plastics or other materials to make them durable which can be linked to another source of energy (very likely, crude oil). Now this does not mean that we should stop using solar panels but there is a repercussion to every action we take. I will discuss how to quantify these effects in the next article.
Hydel: Perhaps the oldest source of energy being used in its original form as it is. We have used flowing rivers for centuries as modes of transportation (it was only upstream which was a problem!). Water turbines to pull water from a well or crush the crops are very old designs of a water turbine. Currently the best form of using water energy is tapping the potential energy of the water to spin a turbine. This can be done by either constructing a dam or using a natural waterfall. The process has immense capacity and one hydel power plant has potential to power cities. A dam can virtually present a great solution towards energy resources provided the right capacity can be achieved.
However the drawbacks of building a dam (or breaking of a dam) are well known. The impact on the environment from a hydel power plant primarily is towards the dangers it inherits. Another big factor is the amount of energy it takes to build and maintain the dam (the number of machines, explosives, bricks, cement, concrete, reinforcement bars etc.) should also be considered an impact.
Wind Energy: Wind is another form of energy which is abundantly available in some places. Like water, wind has also been used as a source of energy for several centuries. The early sailors used the wind currents to propel the ships. Trade winds are used till this date. A wind farm (a collection of wind turbines spread across miles and miles of land) requires a good study of understanding the wind pattern of a given area. The wind turbines work on similar principle as a hydel power plant however the moving fluid is air and not water. The turbine blades are designed in order to rotate with the wind and hence rotate a gearbox which in turn rotates the magnet inside the coil. Using Michael Faraday law of induction, we can produce a large quantity of energy from Wind Farms. It is a silent provider and perceived as a completely harmless source of energy. Not commenting on the efficiency of a wind turbine, the impact of a wind turbine can be taken back to the same question of manufacturing and maintenance.
Others: There are other unconventional sources of energy which are gaining some interest all around the globe, viz. geothermal, tidal and biomass. Geothermal is a very good source of energy and practically limitless, similar to Solar. But there is a lot of cost required to drill a geothermal well and set up the plant. Tidal and biomass have their own issues with the initial investment, unconventionality and the efficiency (or the capacity factor).
Hydrogen and Fuel Cells: Fuel Cells are slowly gaining popular interest but remain to be a hot topic of debate. Although Hydrogen as a fuel and Hydrogen Fuel cell seem to have an excellent look towards the environment but safety aspect is debatable. The flammability of Hydrogen makes it a potential recipe for disaster and unlike fossil fuel, controlling the combustion of Hydrogen and transportation is not easy.
New Unconventionals: There are some new alternate sources of energy listed which are really interesting to read. To name a few
- Printable Solar Panels
- Body Heat
- Alcohol Waste
- Solar Wind
- Dead Heat
- Quack Technology
- Van Gogh Glow
- Exploding Lakes
- Feces and Urine
- Exploding Lakes
- Carbon Nanotubes
Cycle of Energy:
It is hard to explain how energy has a convoluted infrastructure with our current civilization scenario. Here is an Energy Cycle chart I prepared to represent the process which can be applied to any energy source. The chart shows 5 steps where each step has its own consumption of material and energy. Every consumption or conversion of energy produces losses and by-products. These by-products are produced at 2 stages; first before the energy is ready to be consumed and second after it is consumed. If you observe closely, you can see there is a never ending loop for every energy consumption which itself takes the user back through the same energy cycle. This shows our dependency on energy and the infinite loop it comes along with.
The evolution of humans was dependent on discovery of a source of energy. We owe our existence to our ancestral species for discovering fire. Since then it has been a crucial part of our genetic structure, survival and growth. With the development in technology we slowly progressed and harnessed more efficient sources of energy and learned to consume electricity in various forms. During this entire journey spanning almost 300,000 years we have only recently discovered that we are bound by certain laws of nature which we cannot break and there is a repercussion to every action we do. The burning and consumption of fossil fuels or construction of dams or nuclear fission or harnessing the wind or making solar panels; every form of energy comes with a price which should not always be monetized. We are at a point where we now know that Earth will prevail, but we cannot always. We are slaves to our own genetic structure, our own hunger for energy and our own EGO.
This is my honest approach to start my journey of discovering how each and every one of us can contribute towards the safety, survival and persistence of our species and our ecosystem.