Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Oil and Water

You may have heard that oil has been leaking in the Gulf of Mexico for weeks as a result of a rig accident and is causing an environmental nightmare. News about global warming and the effects of burning fossil fuels are all over the news. We are bombarded by dire predictions that we are running out of energy and that we need to reduce our dependence on carbon-based fuels. Why is it so difficult to get energy from other sources? To understand why this is tough we need to first understand energy and all its forms.

Energy is an illusive thing. From a physics standpoint it is the ability to do work on a system. Translated into English this means we can use energy to do stuff like propel our cars, heat our homes, power the refrigerator, send a baseball flying over the left field fence, etc. Carbon happens to be a very nice way to store energy. When you burn carbon, it produces heat, a form of energy (as well as water and carbon dioxide a.k.a. a “green-house” gas). Even cavemen knew that fire was good because it can be used to warm the cave. What they may not have realized is that energy is easily stored in the form of wood, oil or other chemical forms. They just knew: “fire good”. Long after the cavemen, electricity was discovered and quickly became popular because it is easy to transport from a central location and can be used to power up many devices that make life easier like toasters, fans, lights, etc. I’ll speak more about electricity later.

Getting back to the Gulf oil leak, the reason oil is so nice is because it can be refined into gasoline to power our cars. Like most chemical sources of energy, this is a very convenient form to store energy in for use at a later time. Have you ever run out of gas and tried to push a car down the road? It requires a lot of energy to move a car. Gasoline packs a lot of energy in a relatively cheap, easy-to-use, liquid form that stores well. Simply stated, it requires energy to move an object like a car from point A to point B. And while gasoline is the most convenient energy source for this task, there are many environmental drawbacks.

It has been difficult to find an alternative power source for automobiles despite all the scientific research. One alternative is Ethanol from corn, sugar cane and other sources. Although there is no chance of a catastrophic oil-leak-type disaster from a corn field, it has other drawbacks and still produces “green house” gasses when burned to power your car. Battery powered cars seem pretty cool. A battery is a nice way to convert chemical energy into electricity without any moving parts but they don’t last very long and currently are really heavy. Don’t be fooled into thinking that batteries don’t contribute to green house gases either as they are typically charged by plugging them into the wall. The electrical energy from the wall socket might come from coal-fired power plants. So I say, just bike it! Remember however that when you bike, you are burning (in the biological sense) calories and producing greenhouse gases each time you exhale.

In summary, chemical energy in the form of fossil fuels are particularly easy to store, use and extract from the ground. The typical way to release the energy from a chemical source is by burning them but remember this produces greenhouse gasses. I’ll consider other energy sources like electrical, nuclear, wind, etc later. Right now though, I have to go chop some wood so I can use it to heat my ‘man cave’ next winter.

1 comment:

  1. Enjoy burning the wood while you can. In case you have not been paying attention, the environmentalist whackos and global warming crowd are in the process of trying to ban our fireplaces and woodburning stoves.