Why is Recycling Important

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Before you read this article, let’s take a look at how much knowledge you currently have about recycling. Read the three bullet points below and see if you know which of these facts about recycling aluminum cans is true?

  • Recycling ONE aluminum can saves about the amount of energy to listen to your iPod for 15 minutes.
  • Recycling ONE HUNDRED cans could produce the energy needed to light your bedroom for two weeks.
  • It only takes 6 weeks for aluminum cans to be recycled and ready for reuse.

Did you pick the first bullet point, or the second or the third? Whichever fact you selected, you were correct, because all of the facts above are correct. And from these three simple facts you can already see the importance and positive effects of recycling.


For a large number of people in the United States, when they hear the word “Recycling”, the first thing they think of is the third “R” in the “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” slogan that they learned in grade school. But most people probably do not know the background of recycling and personally I never understood what recycling was or why it was important, all I knew was that there was blue bin for recycling that was separate from the trash for the landfill.

In the simplest of terms, recycling is the process in which waste is converted into “new” reusable materials. Rather than throwing all solid waste into one large pile, recycling allows people to separate unusable waste, such as food scraps, from recyclable waste, water bottles or paper. The major items that are able to be recycled are paper, plastic, glass, metal, cardboard and even electronics. In some scenarios it is expensive to take a recycled material and transform it back into it’s original form, for example taking recycled paper and turning it back into new paper, so it may be used for another purpose.

In order to understand and learn more about the process of recycling, we are going to look at a few specific pieces of recyclable materials and see the journey they go on. Take a piece of paper, for example. You are at the printer and accidentally print one too many copies of your homework, so you recycle the extra copy. Once that recycling reaches the waste management facility, like the Lycoming facility we visited on our class trip, the waste is separated by type, paper with paper, plastic with plastic, etc. The paper is then mixed with water and chemicals in order to break the paper down. Next the wet paper mixture is chopped up and then heated to break the paper down into even smaller strands of cellulose, which is a type of organic material from plants. The mixture of cellulose strands is referred to as “pulp” or “slurry”. The pulp is then strained through multiple screens to prevent lumps of glue or plastic from the original paper. Finally the “paper” is de-inked, then bleached and mixed with water. This mixture is the mixture used to make new paper, so this mixture is used to make “new” recycled paper. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) paper is able to be recycled between 5 and 7 times before the fibers become too weak to construct paper. The diagram below shows you the entire process, for a newspaper, from the production of the original paper to through the steps for recycling.

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A detailed diagram showing the process of making paper, recycling paper and produced “new” recycled paper.

You may be wondering if recycling that one piece of paper actually makes a difference, so lets take a look at paper recycling in the United States. One stark statistic that should impact you is that recycling one ton of paper, about 2000 pounds, saves 17 trees, on average. In 2009, about 63.4% of all paper used in the United States, about 53.5 million tons, was recycled, which saved 909,500,000 trees. In recent years, the use of paper has declined but the percentage of recycled paper is still growing slowly, and to me that seems pretty successful.

Now let’s take a look at a process that is slightly more complex: recycling glass. Recycled glass bottles or containers are taken to glass treatment plants, where the glass is cleaned and sorted by color. Next the glass is crushed into incredibly small pieces and melted down in 1000-degree F heat in order for easy molding. This “liquid” is then molded or mechanically blown into “new” glass products. While this process may not seem like more or less work than the paper process, the major difference in the glass example is the cost. When we visited the Lycoming facility, we were told glass is rarely recycled into new materials because it is too expensive, but let’s take a look at some concrete numbers and see if this is the case.

Overall there has been a major debate about whether or not recycling is worthwhile due to many factors, mainly the cost and the impact on the environment. For example in New York City, recycling of glass, plastic and metal cost $240 per ton, which is almost twice as much as it costs to simply throw those materials away. Obviously for some cities this cost will vary depending on the number and location of landfills, the cost of labor and the actual recycling process.

While some people want to stop recycling due to the cost, others support recycling because of its positive impact of the environment. Landfill sites release an increasing amount of greenhouse gases and harmful chemicals, so recycling reduces this pollution by decreasing how much waste enters the landfills. In addition recycling allows for less usage of raw materials, which in turn reduces the amount of deforestation and habitat destruction. Using raw materials also requires large amounts of energy, while recycling uses much less energy. In terms of new raw materials versus recycled materials, the environmental costs are very important. Producing recycled paper produces 73% less air pollution than the production of paper from raw materials. When glass and plastic materials are thrown into landfills, plastic will take up to 500 years to decompose, while glass will never decompose, it can only be eroded.

Screen Shot 2015-11-01 at 2.21.13 PM
A graph, from the 2013 report by the EPA, showing the recycling rates from 1960 until 2013.

In a 2013 report by the EPA, it was determined that since 1980 the number of people who recycle in the United States has increased, but there are still many things we can do in order to make recycling even more popular. In 1980, recycling and composting prevented 15 million tons of materials from being thrown into landfills. In 2013, this number jumped up to 87.2 million tons, almost 6 times the number from 1980. Preventing 87.2 million tons of waste from entering landfills stopped almost 186 million metric tons of CO2 from being released into the air, which is equivalent to removing 39 million cars from the road for a year, which is about 15.5% of all US cars on the road.

Now after reading this article you are probably wondering what you can do individually in terms of recycling to reduce your own material waste footprint. The first and most important step is to buy a recycling bin, if you don’t already have one. It may seem incredibly simple, and it is, but in the long run it is quite impactful. When you only have a trashcan, you will just throw everything in one big pile, but as soon as you have another bin for recyclables, you will think about what you’re throwing away and whether or not it is recyclable. Next, you should research the recycling rules and guidelines in your community. Some neighborhoods have curbside pickup, while others require you to bring your recyclables to locations throughout the community. For example, my cousins live in Michigan and they have curbside recycling for everything except glass in their town. They have to put the glass in a separate container and bring it to a sorting desk, mostly these are located near grocery stores, and they are given small monetary “rewards” for recycling their glass. The other important thing you can do, in addition to recycling, is buying recycled materials. Without people buying recycled items, there is no legitimacy given to the process of actually making these products. In most grocery stores, there are sections within the aisles of home supplies where the recycled materials are located, such as recycled paper plates or napkins. Finally the last thing you can do is spread the word about recycling and it’s importance. The next time you see your friend or family member throwing away an item that you know can be recycled, stop them and tell them why recycling is important. This will, hopefully, create a domino effect, with them going on to tell their friends and so on and so forth, until everyone is recycling. You read about the immense change from 1980 until 2013 in terms of recycling in the United States, so  2imagine what can happen over the next 30 years.

 


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Should We Recycle? by Eric

Reduce reuse recycle — words every American is familiar with.  For the past several decades, America has been obsessed with recycling.  Yet for the most part, recycling goes unquestioned; it’s assumed to be an environmental, social, and economic benefit.  But is recycling really that helpful?  Does the stuff we throw in the blue bin just end up in the same pile as the stuff in the green bin?  We are going to take a look at why we recycle so much today, and the whether or not we actually should.

It all started with the Mobro 4000…

http://static01.nyt.com/images/2013/05/06/us/video-retro-report-mobro/video-retro-report-mobro-videoLarge.jpg
http://static01.nyt.com/images/2013/05/06/us/video-retro-report-mobro/video-retro-report-mobro-videoLarge.jpg

The “recycling boom” started as a result of the Mobro 4000, a  barge carrying over 3100 tons of garbage out New York City and down to North Carolina.  The Mobro was owned by mobster Salvatore Avellino, who was planning to ship the garbage down to North Carolina, and then eventually Louisiana, for methane production, a newfound technology at the time.


Methane is a poisonous gas naturally produced by bacteria in landfills through anaerobic digestion, but harnessing it for electricity poses huge economic and energetic profits.  A single landfill in New York makes the city $12 million per year.   And according to the Environmental and Energy Study Institute, the 605 landfill projects across the U.S. produce about 15 billion kWh of electricity every year.  For comparison, the average American household uses 11,000 kWh of electricity per year.  By these numbers, current landfill projects in America can power over 1.3 million American households per year.


The problem for Avellino was that his partner, Lowell Harrelson, never got a written agreement for the barge to port anywhere, and therefore were not guaranteed to be able to dump their garbage.  Avellino’s reputation as an organized crime boss preceded him, and North Carolina’s government did not allow the barge to port because of suspicions of hazardous medical waste being aboard the ship.  The Mobro 4000 ended up traveling up and down the east coast, all the way down to Belize, before returning to New York two months later with no one willing to take their waste.  People did not realize that there was available space for the garbage, and Americans who watched the Mobro sail up and down the Atlantic thought there was a crisis.

The Mobro 4000's path https://theliucommpost.files.wordpress.com/2013/11/mobro-4000.jpg
                            The Mobro 4000’s path
https://theliucommpost.files.wordpress.com/2013/11/mobro-4000.jpg

In reality, the shortage of landfills was caused by what this New York Times article from 1987 describes as the “Not in my backyard” syndrome, a phenomenon observed even today.  The phenomenon can be described as when people are happy to support beneficial measures, as long as their area is not affected (for example, supporters of nuclear energy most likely would not vote to have a nuclear reactor in their town).  People did not want landfills anywhere near them, and that’s why New York voted to close all Long Island landfills by 1990, sparking the Mobro 4000 crisis, and the road to recycling.

The backlash at the recycling movement…

With the ability to view the results of the Mobro 4000 and the new recycling movement, an antagonizing New York Times article from 1996 titled “Recycling is Garbage” points out the futileness of the recycling boom that swept America.  Here’s a quote from James DeLong, a Washington scholar, from the article:

“I don’t understand why anyone thinks New York City has a garbage crisis because it can’t handle all its own waste… With that kind of logic, you’d have to conclude that New York City has a food crisis because it can’t grow all the vegetables its people need within the city limits”

According to DeLong, if all the trash produced by New York City came from materials that were shipped into the city, then why should the city be responsible for holding that trash?  New York understands this sentiment today, as it ships 23,000 tons of garbage out of the city per day.  That’s the equivalent of seven Mobros, or almost 8 million tons of garbage per year.

That sounds like a lot of trash.  But we don’t see landfills overtaking cities, and it’s not like we do, or can, recycle all of that garbage.  Can landfills actually hold that much garbage?  The answer is yes, they can.  And according to A. Clark Wiseman, if Americans generate the same out of trash as they do now (it was 1996 when Wiseman said this) for the next thousand years, they could fit all of the trash in a 1225 square mile landfill… small compared to the 150,000 square miles of parkland in the U.S.

A comparison of landfills versus recycling…

According to the EPA, in 2012 the U.S. generated 251 million tons of municipal solid waste (trash).  About 54% of this went to landfills, with another 34% recycled.

Landfills:

Just as Salvatore Avellino saw in the 80’s, methane production from landfill gasses is extremely profitable because of its energy yields.  As mentioned earlier, landfill projects currently yield 15 billion kWh of electricity according to the EESI, or even 16 billion kWh according to the EPA, enough to power 1.3 million American homes.  The basic steps of how landfills produce the necessary gasses for energy creation is as follows:

First, aerobic bacteria, which consume oxygen, begin to break down the organic materials in the landfill, producing carbon dioxide in the process.

After all the oxygen has been consumed, anaerobic bacteria, which do not require oxygen to live, break down the compounds created by the aerobic bacteria into acids and alcohols.  This process creates hydrogen and carbon dioxide.

Other anaerobic bacteria will consume the acids created in the second step and produce acetate.  The landfill becomes less acidic during this process.  This gives way to methane-producing bacteria which consume carbon dioxide and acetate.

In the last phase of the process, the landfill stabilizes.  For the next 20 to 30 years, the landfill will produce landfill gas, which is about half methane and half carbon dioxide.

                             Gaseous byproducts of landfills http://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/HAC/landfill/html/images/fig2_1.gif

 

In order to convert the landfill gas into energy, first the landfill needs to capture the gas.  They start by closing off part of the landfill to additional waste – these are known as “cells.”  They then set up extraction wells, which penetrate through layers of ground, soil, and gravel covering the trash.

http://www.aacounty.org/sebin/f/z/MLF%20Gas%20Well%20sm.jpg

The gas then goes through a moisture separator.  The gas is very warm when it is extracted from the ground, but cools as it travels through the collection system.  This causes condensate to form.  If the condensate is not removed, it could disrupt the entire system.  Attached are the blowers, which pull the gas from the wells into the rest of the system.  The gas will then either continue through the system to be converted to energy, or it will go to a flare.  Flares burn any excess landfill gas that is above the capacity of the energy conversion system, or during renovations, as to prevent any methane from being released into the atmosphere.  Here’s a look at what the typical system looks like:

http://beginwiththebin.org/images/innovation/landfill/landfill_large.jpg

About 3/4 of current landfill projects are focused on electricity generation.  Most of these use internal combustion engines, which are capable of running on projects designed for anywhere from 800 kW to 3 MW (megawatts).  Gas turbines are usually used for large projects handling over 5 MW of electricity.  Microturbines are for smaller projects, as each unit is capable of handling about 250 kW at most.  The rest of the landfill projects are for direct use, which heat local buildings and facilities, usually within 5 miles of the landfill.  The Puente Hills landfill, the largest landfill gas to electricity program in America, is currently producing 50 MW of electricity annually, which could provide power to about 50,000 homes.  For a look at current landfill projects and potential future ones, check out this EPA page.

Not only do landfill gas to electricity projects pose energetic benefits, they also pose huge environmental benefits.  The carbon dioxide released is not considered to add to climate change, because it was from recently living biomass, and the carbon dioxide would have been released anyway from decomposition.  Landfill projects capture from 60% to 90% (for more efficient recently designed projects) of the methane produced by the landfills.  With a 90% collection rate, there is barely any gas being released into the atmosphere.  In addition, using electricity from landfills displaces the energy that would come from burning fossil fuels, which is arguably the largest contributing factor to climate change.  In 2014, landfill gas projects reduced approximately 127 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions, equivalent to carbon dioxide emissions of over 14 billion gallons of gasoline.  If landfills are so viable, is recycling just a waste, or is it still better than landfills?

Recycling:

In 2013, America recycled 34%, or 87 million tons, of its waste, over double the 16% recycled in 1990 .  Here’s a quick look at what materials we recycle, and how much of each:

http://www3.epa.gov/epawaste/nonhaz/municipal/images/2012_rec_rates_sel_prdcts_fig3_lg.png

Lead-Acid batteries are toxic and highly processed, so it makes sense that we tend to recycle them almost 100% of the time.  Newspapers and paper are recycled extremely heavily at the industrial level, which is why the rate is so high.  Typical items like bottles and glass are recycled about a third of the time, and aluminum cans come out to be recycled just over half the time.  Here’s a look at what kind of waste we are producing:

Total Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) Generation (by material), 2013 254 Million Tons (before recycling)

http://www3.epa.gov/epawaste/nonhaz/municipal/images/2012_totl_msw_gen_fig4_lg.png

And here’s how much we are recycling (data from 2011, check this EPA fact sheet for more current data):

http://environment.marcblogs.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/totalRecovery.gif

 

The comparison…

The EPA’s WARM (Waste Reduction Model) was created to help organizations track their energy usage and greenhouse gas emissions, and help compare them to different waste management strategies.  You insert the tons of each product that you recycle or toss in a landfill.  You are then able to choose what kind of landfill you would be using (I chose one with gas-to-electricity capabilities).  It then produces data on the difference in metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (basically just the amount of greenhouse gas emissions) and in Btu, which measures the energy cost.  I used WARM to compare two different scenarios:

One scenario uses the 2013 EPA data on municipal solid waste.  In the other scenario, I reversed the numbers.  How many tons of a material that we currently landfill, were entered as being recycled, and vice-versa.  Obviously, we recycled a lot more in the second scenario, 64% of the total MSW was recycled and 34% was put in landfills.

According to the data, recycling is leaps and bounds better than landfills.  The second scenario (recycling more) resulted in a reduction of 11,717,984 metric tons of carbon dioxide being emitted.  1,137,729,915,000 Btu were saved by recycling as much as we put waste in landfills now.  These numbers are the equivalent of fulfilling 10,119,583 households’ annual energy consumption, conserving 195,822,705 barrels of oil, or 9,101,839,318 gallons of gasoline.

While this data shows that recycling is positive and better than landfilling, we still need to support landfill gas to energy projects.  A lot of materials and products cannot be recycled, so landfills are going to be an important aspect of America’s waste management for the foreseeable future.  Additionally, landfill projects create energy even after landfills are out of commission, which is almost like free energy.  They also prevent almost all of the methane being produced from landfills from reaching the atmosphere.  So even though the New York Times was wrong in 1996 that recycling is pointless, landfill projects are still increasingly important.  That being said, we need to continue striving to recycle as much as possible, and to keep recycling awareness in the public’s mind.

Dealing With Global Warming and its Skeptics

I’m sure by now that we have all heard of climate change. As a well established consensus in the scientific community, one would expect the conclusions on the subject to be uniform. However, there is a lot of incorrect information out there about climate change that misleads people to different perspectives. This misinformation is caused by either people misinterpreting the science behind the change, or by people, influenced by lobbies, who have claim an exaggeration of the climate change data. My goal of this blog is to convince you of the right perspective on climate change: that is that it is real, and that we are already seeing the effects it has on our world today.

The Legitimacy of Climate Change

The National Academy of Science in the United States has concluded after years of research that anthropogenic climate change is real and needs to be addressed. The IPCC (International Panel on Climate Change) has stated that they have a “very high confidence that the global average net effect of human activities since 1750 has been one of warming.” Their confidence that Global Warming is human caused is over 95%. Although Global Warming is agreed upon by most as a valid phenomenon caused by humans, it is still a group of scientific theories, therefore not absolutely certain. However, we can essentially say that recent warming due to human activity is a fact, although it is difficult to prove 100%. The IPCC comes out with a report every few years, stating the probability of human interaction. IPCC has presented increasingly higher percentages as the years have gone by, getting ever closer to the absolute fact that it is human caused.

Starting with the work of John Tyndall in 1859, we have known that water vapor and C02 in our atmosphere strongly determine the temperature of our earth. With the use of his spectrophotometer, Tyndall saw that gases like oxygen and hydrogen released very little radiant heat when warmed compared to CO2 and water vapor. He concluded that these latter gases must be the reason for the warmth of our atmosphere and oceans.  The more water vapor and CO2 in the atmosphere, the higher the temperatures will be due to the heat absorbing and radiating properties of the gases. Also known as the Green House effect, as the sunlight enters our atmosphere, it has more trouble leaving due to our pollutants.

http://i.livescience.com/images/i/000/053/475/original/Greenhouse-effect.jpg?1370382117
http://i.livescience.com/images/i/000/053/475/original/Greenhouse-effect.jpg?1370382117

As we have industrialized our society into pumping out large amounts of CO2, we have increased the amount of gases that absorb the heat from the sun. Nowadays, we receive roughly 66% of our energy from CO2 producing processes, not to mention the carbon footprint stemming from transportation. In the United States, around 32% of green house gases comes from electricity and heating, while 27% comes from transportation. If we can somehow find a way to reduce the amount of CO2 created by electricity production and transportation, we can decrease the rate of our CO2 output.

The most hazardous form of human pollution includes the burning of coal and fossil fuels to create energy and heat. Through the combustion of these materials, the carbon within them is made into a product of CO2 which is released into the atmosphere. The heat increase due to these emissions is known as Global Warming and is the cause of the global heat increase we have seen over the years. There are those who doubt that this heat increase is human made although, suggesting that the world is naturally emitting more CO2. Luckily, we have sufficient evidence to prove that the CO2 increase is anthropogenic, due to the unique type of CO2 we produce. The burning of coal and fossil fuels, releases a light, less dense form of CO2 as compared to other sources (such as natural processes caused by the ocean or animal respiration). Below is a graph showing the increase in overall CO2 (red line) as compared to our output of lighter CO2 gas (grey line) from 1981 to 2002. The graph shows that as we have increased our output of CO2 gas, the overall CO2 emissions into the environment has increased as well. This shows a strong correlation between our output and the overall trend of CO2 increase. 

Untitled_Panorama1
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pbBb-SvRFjMA

Scientists have also shown that global warming is a trend that has happened for thousands of years through the recording of satellite data, ancient ice cores and fossilized trees. The trend shows that the earth goes through periods of warmth before getting cold again and starting an ice age. This is earth’s natural flux, as the CO2 levels rise and fall so does the temperature of the earth. People use this fact as an argument against human participation in the recent warming. What is most significant to note is that the rate of our warming is faster than anything ever seen before in history. Scientists conclude that even though earth is currently going through a warming period, we are speeding up the process too fast for nature to catch up. During the time of the dinosaurs, CO2 levels were high and temperatures were immensely hot. The reason these creatures and plants thrived at that time was due to the slow increase of CO2, which allowed evolution to adapt with the world. As humans quicken the process of global warming, we change the environment of animals and plants too fast for them to survive.

Below are the temperature and CO2 fluctuations that have been occurring since 450 thousand years ago. As you can see, the temperature correlates with the CO2 increases and goes through continuous waves of heating and cooling.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ice_age#/media/File:Vostok_Petit_data.svg
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ice_age#/media/File:Vostok_Petit_data.svg

Here are the organizations that back Global Warming with their records of increasing temperature since 1880:

http://climate.nasa.gov/scientific-consensus/
http://climate.nasa.gov/scientific-consensus/

Some figures like Alabama representative Gary Palmer, have claimed that scientists manipulate the data of weather stations in order to achieve their own agendas. People have accused weather organizations like NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) of increasing temperature measurements to prove global warming. Although it is true that scientists manipulate weather and temperature data, it is only to create more accurate data through a process called homogenization. Basically, any outlying data that doesn’t stem from climatic change is removed in order to accurately portray the climate temperature. The NOAA has thousands of weather stations around the world on land and water. When the NOAA changes their data, they do so by removing non-environmental factors that can skew data. These include the types of temperature monitors that stations use (liquid in glass or resistance thermometers) and/or human interference such as the construction of buildings near stations (casting shadows or changing wind patterns). The NOAA also does large changes to temperature for stations over the oceans; however, these changes actually decrease the amount of global warming that was previously thought. When scientists reported on their actions, they stated that if anything, “it is likely that maximum temperature trends have been underestimated,” disproving those who claim conscious temperature inflation. It is dangerous when people like Gary Palmer make public claims like this because it leads others in the wrong direction. Thankfully, we have scientific evidence to disprove them.

Another argument against global warming is the case that the amount of human made CO2 is minuscule compared to the amount that is naturally produced. In our atmosphere, there is a cycle of carbon being emitted and absorbed in a constant flow that keeps the equilibrium of CO2 stable in our environment. The total amount of natural CO2 emissions per year is 772 giga-tons, with 332 giga-tons coming from the ocean and 439 giga-tons produced by animal respiration and vegetation consumption. In terms of absorption, the ocean takes in 338 giga-tons with land plants absorbing around another 450 giga-tons. The 16 giga-ton difference keeps our atmosphere in a rough balance, with periods of low and high carbon dioxide in our air. Human created CO2 averages out to only 29 giga-tons per year, substantially less than natural amounts. Global warming deniers claim that 29 giga-watts is too small to make a difference and ignore the fact that it is enough to upset the carbon balance. Only 40% of the human made CO2 gets absorbed leaving 17.4 giga-tons unaccounted for. Because the earth can only absorb a set amount of CO2, the added 17.4 giga-watts per year creates a huge swing in the equilibrium causing drastic increase in our CO2 levels. Due to this rapid increase in CO2, our environment is showing signs of degeneration.

https://www.skepticalscience.com/human-co2-smaller-than-natural-emissions-intermediate.htm
https://www.skepticalscience.com/human-co2-smaller-than-natural-emissions-intermediate.htm

The Effects of Climate Change

As more CO2 gets put into our atmosphere, our Earth gets heated as a result. We have plotted our temperature since 1884 and have seen a dramatic increase since then. NASA has created a map showing the temperature difference over the years, and how we have rapidly been approaching the 1 degree Celsius mark. We currently lie 0.68C over the world’s historic average and are only expected to increase. The 9 warmest years on the 134 year record have occurred since the year 2000 with 2014 being the hottest year on record. Scientists and governments around the world have negotiated a 2C cap on the increase of heat. They have concluded that any increase over 2 degrees celsius would cause catastrophic changes that would irreversibly change the way we live as human beings. They have predicted with our current output of emissions for a 2040 reach of the 2 celsius mark unless immediate changes are made to our society. 

Recently, scientists have come out in protest against the 2C cap, claiming that we will easily reach the 2C mark and have to work for a 1C cap in temperature change. In order to avoid the rise of 2C (with it’s catastrophic implications) we will have to radically change the way we live in order to reach the newly proposed cap. Scientists predict that in order to avoid hitting the 2C mark, we will have to cut our emissions by 80-90% by the year 2050. This means making significant changes to our CO2 output as quick as possible.

For more information on rethinking the 2C cap: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/energy/2014/02/1402277-global-warming-2-degree-target/

With rapid rises in temperature, comes rapid melting of the Arctic ice. In 2012, we reached our lowest levels of sea ice in the Arctic since our start of satellite observation. The melting of sea ice in the arctic means that our oceans will warm due to the lack of ice and the increase of water. As the water heats up, it expands and takes up more space, therefore pushing it’s way onto our land. Although sea ice is a large factor to the rising ocean levels, it is the ice sheets of Antartica and Greenland that truly contribute to the rise in our oceans. Much like an ice cube in a glass of water, the water will remain the same height even with the melting of the ice. However, ice sheets have land ice, meaning that they do not contribute to the ocean mass already. As the world heats up, the glaciers and ice masses outside of the water melts, and eventually finds it’s way to the oceans. As of now we have reached a 20 cm rise in ocean levels since 1880. By the end of the century, scientists predict a rise of about 0.5m to 1m.

A point that skeptics bring up in relation to sea level is the dip in sea rise that we saw in 2010. Critics of climate change stated that the sea rise wasn’t anything to worry about, because of the decrease during the 2010 year. What the critics didn’t mention though, was the mass flooding that occurred in Australia and Brazil during those times. As these areas received torrential amounts of rain, the land trapped the water from returning to the ocean. Normally, this amount of rain makes its way back to the ocean, but due to the location and dryness of the time, it was locked up in the ground. It took several months for it to seep back to the ocean, which is why we see a decline in our sea level during that year. Shortly after returning to normal, the oceans began to rise again and are now higher than they were prior to 2010. When dealing with climate change and science in general, it is important to include the entirety of evidence so that we don’t get focused on one detail which misrepresents the bigger picture.

https://cmgpbdnweathermatters.files.wordpress.com/2012/11/average-sea-level-rise1.jpg
https://cmgpbdnweathermatters.files.wordpress.com/2012/11/average-sea-level-rise1.jpg

Here’s more information including data on sea level rise:

If the scientists were correct in their 1m rise estimate by 2100, this would mean an end to many coastal cities around world. National Geographic states that if levels reach that high, it could cause “destructive erosion, flooding of wetlands, contamination of aquifers and agricultural soils, and lost habitat for fish, birds, and plants” (http://ocean.nationalgeographic.com/ocean/critical-issues-sea-level-rise/).

Combatting the Climate Change

One of the most obvious ways to prevent climate change is the ways we can limit our CO2 emissions. In 2013, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) created restrictions on how much CO2 can be emitted from new natural gas or coal power plants. In the future, the EPA will limit coal plants to 1,100 pounds of CO2 per megawatt-hour, compared to the 1,768 pounds on average today. For natural gas plants, the limit will be set to 1,000 pounds per megawatt-hour. It will be easier for natural gas plants to limit their CO2 output because natural gas on average creates less CO2. The modern combined-cycle gas plant already meets this new standard on CO2 emissions for natural gas, so it will be mostly coal plants that struggle to decrease their carbon emissions. The plan for new coal plants is to embed systems that will allow the plant to capture emissions and store them underground. If future coal plants wish to meet the new standard, they will have to bury between 20-40% of their emissions. These systems are still in development and will likely cost millions for the coal plants to install, so likeliness of burying CO2 for all coal plants is slim. The recent boom in natural gases makes it illogical to build new coal plants at the moment as prices for oil will likely stay cheap for the coming two decades.

Although the NRC has placed most of its importance on the mitigation of green house gases they have suggested other ways to prevent Global Warming. The two other strategies that the National Research Council have put forth are: the removal of CO2 from the atmosphere and, albedo modification. The removal of CO2 comes largely from reforestation projects which will aim to plant mass amounts of trees in order to absorb CO2. They also have suggested Iron Fertilization as a way of stimulating a growth in phytoplankton. Phytoplankton live on the surface of the ocean and absorb the CO2 around them in order to grow. Iron helps to stimulate phytoplankton growth, and would ignite an increase in phytoplankton population, as well as increase the amount of CO2 absorbed. The second way of reducing CO2 from our atmosphere lies in the reflection of sunlight in our upper atmosphere. Albedo Modification, also known as Solar Radiation Management, is the manipulation of sunlight that reaches the earth. Scientists have suggested the injection of sulfate aerosols into our stratosphere to reflect sunlight and prevent it from warming our earth. Because this solution does not address the the acidity of our oceans (due to increased levels of CO2), albedo modification is seen as a quick fix and not as a long term answer to global warming.

The first step in tackling climate change is to push for an ultimate consensus on the situation, so that we may act swiftly in order to change our future. It is important to keep our observations and data about our environment accurate, in order to intelligently address the problems at hand. Whether you are a global warming skeptic or simply indifferent to the matter, the evidence is clear and available to the public. There is no denying that our response to climate change today will be crucial to the way we live our lives as humans on this planet in the future.

 

Works Cited

“Anthropogenic Climate Change.” Global Greenhouse Warming. N.p., n.d. Web. 01 Nov. 2015.
By Marianne Lavelle, National Geographic PUBLISHED February 28, 2014. “Scientists: Global Warming Likely to Surpass 2°C Target.” National Geographic. National Geographic Society, n.d. Web. 01 Nov. 2015.
“Climate Intervention Reports.” Climate Change at the National Academies of Sciences Engineering and Medicine. National Academy of Sciences, n.d. Web. 02 Nov. 2015.
“Climate Science Glossary.” Skeptical Science. N.p., n.d. Web. 08 Nov. 2015.
An Introduction to Climate Change in 60 Seconds. Perf. The Royal Society. National Academy of Sciences, 2014. Youtube.
It’s Time to Find Common Ground — Speed-Drawing Video on Bipartisan Solutions to Climate Change. Perf. Union of Concerned Scientists. Ucusa.org, 2013. Youtube.
“John Tyndall : Feature Articles.” John Tyndall : Feature Articles. N.p., n.d. Web. 01 Nov. 2015.
“Nothing False About Temperature Data.” FactCheckorg. N.p., n.d. Web. 01 Nov. 2015.
Plumer, Brad. “Everything You Need to Know about the EPA’s Carbon Limits for New Power Plants.” Washington Post. The Washington Post, n.d. Web. 02 Nov. 2015.
“Scientific Consensus: Earth’s Climate Is Warming.” Climate Change: Vital Signs of the Planet. N.p., n.d. Web. 01 Nov. 2015.
“Sea Level Rise — National Geographic.” National Geographic. N.p., n.d. Web. 02 Nov. 2015.
Sutter, John. “Climate: 7 Questions on 2 Degrees.” Cnn.com. Cable News Network, 15 Apr. 2015. Web.
UQx DENIAL101x 2.2.3.1 Sea Level Rise. Perf. UQx DENIAL101x Making Sense of Climate Change Denial. Edx.org, 2015. Youtube.
“U.S. Energy Information Administration – EIA – Independent Statistics and Analysis.” What Is U.S. Electricity Generation by Energy Source? N.p., n.d. Web. 01 Nov. 2015.
“Vital Signs: Global Temperature.” Climate Change: Vital Signs of the Planet. N.p., n.d. Web. 01 Nov. 2015.
Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 01 Nov. 2015.

Wind Power and its Impact on the Environment

With the world becoming more and more interested in renewable energy sources, wind power too has gotten more and more attention as an extremely viable source for electricity generation.  In fact, in 2013, Spain reported that wind farms produced more electricity than any other form of energy production, including coal and nuclear power stations.  This shows just how important wind power is becoming on a world stage.

To harness the wind’s power, large wind turbines are erected.  These can be as tall as a twenty story building with 200 ft. blades. To create electricity, the wind spins the blades of the turbine.  This, in turn spins a shaft that is connected to an electrical generator.  In order to maximize energy production, turbines are often clumped together, sometimes hundreds in a row in a wind farm.  These farms attempt to place the turbines in windy spots, such as on ridges or off shore, and space them out in just the right way, again to maximize energy production.

Fenton Wind Farm in Minnesota

Wind power is also growing in popularity because it is an extremely inexpensive form of energy.  Wind is free, so, once the turbines are up and running there is very little cost to run these farms.  Mass production of the wind turbines themselves has reduced the costs as well as government tax breaks and incentives designed to bolster the wind-energy industry.

Wind turbines also have a net energy gain, meaning that eventually, they produce more energy than was consumed during their construction.  In fact, during a turbine’s lifetime, it produces several times more energy than was required to build it, making turbines both economically and energetically efficient.  Furthermore, the energy return on investments, or the EROI is quite high.  For wind turbines, this number (calculated by dividing the total energy generated by the energy required to build the turbine), ranges from 5 to 35 according to a meta study.  This study examined data from 1997 to 2007.  So, the lower EROI can be attributed to older, out of date technology.  Now, the most common wind turbines have an EROI of 16.  This is important because in developed countries, 7 is considered the minimum EROI.

So, wind turbines seem like the perfect system.  They take free wind and turn it into electricity at a very low cost.  But what are the effects of these structures on the surrounding environment?  Is wind power too good to be true?

First, let’s consider the variability of wind itself.  Wind turbines can only produce electricity if there is wind to move the blades.  So, in order to prevent the entire system or the electrical grid from shutting down when the weather does not cooperate, many wind farms employ a buffering system.  Meaning that in order to continue energy production, many farms switch energy generation reserves.   These are systems that are able to adapt to accommodate changes in energy supply and demand.  Ideally, these are powered by a reliable and clean energy source, such as hydroelectric energy (energy produced by the kinetic energy of flowing water).  But, in the United States, most of these reserves are actually powered by natural gas.  So in reality, wind power in the U.S. is not entirely renewable because it is a hybrid of wind and this natural gas.  Therefore, the environmental impact is not as minor as it would appear.  Yes, the wind power does offset some the CO2 emissions created by the natural gas power plant.  In fact,  scientists believe that on average, the addition of only 3 more MW of wind energy to the U.S. electric grid would decrease the emissions of CO2 from fossil power plants by 1,200 pounds per hour.  But, even so, they are not replacing these emissions.  Since wind is only available about 30% of the time, in reality, most of our “wind energy” actually comes from natural gas, a non renewable resource.

Again, it is possible to employ the buffering system without using fossil fuels.  A great example of a country that makes it’s wind power work without using fossil fuels is Denmark, one of the most wind-energy-intensive countries world wide.  Instead of buffering their wind energy against fossil fuels like the U.S., they partner with nearby Sweden and Norway and take advantage of their hydroelectric energy.  So, when wind is blowing, Denmark exports electricity to Sweden, who can then store more water in their dams.  Then, when the wind is not blowing, Sweden can release the stored water and export electricity back to Denmark.  This symbiotic relationship is relatively eco-friendly because it uses all natural and renewable resources.  However, it is only viable because of the unique geographic features and locations of the countries.

Another aspect to consider when examining environmental impact is harmful emissions which create air pollution.  While in operation, wind turbines do not release C02 emissions, which is one reason why wind power is so popular.

The Vattenhall utility company studied greenhouse emissions for various forms of energy. Clearly, wind energy has some of the drastically lowest carbon emissions
The Vattenhall utility company studied greenhouse emissions for various forms of energy. Clearly, wind energy has some of the drastically lowest carbon emissions

However, one must examine the wind turbines from construction to dismantling, or the entire life cycle, in order to get a full picture of the environmental impact.  According to the life cycle assessments of wind energy, turbines do contribute harmful emissions into the atmosphere, particularly during the construction phase.  However, most of the emissions are nearly negligible, especially compared to more conventional methods using fossil fuels such as natural gas.  Unfortunately, wind farms do emit more particulate matter per unit of energy created (kWh) than do fossil fuel plants.  This particulate matter refers to any tiny liquid or solid that because of the wind turbines is suspended in Earth’s atmosphere such as natural or cement dust.

Furthermore, in 2006, a European study examined externality costs, or costs of external pollution.  Externality is an economic term that refers to the cost to a person who didn’t choose to receive that cost.  In our case, the externality cost would refer to the communities near these various power plants.  This study found that for wind power, externality costs were 0.09 – 0.12c€/kW.  This is an extremely low cost, especially compared the 1.6-5.8 c€/kWh externality costs of fossil fuels.  To put these numbers into perspective, energy costs in Europe are approximately 10 c€/kWh.  So, the externality costs of wind power are a tiny fraction of total energy costs, showing that wind power does not cause a significant amount of pollution.

One must also examine the impact on wildlife to form a full picture of the impact of wind power on the environment.  Wind turbines pose a huge threat to flying creatures such as bats and birds.  One study examined impact of wind turbines on bird deaths and estimated that wind turbines in the U.S. kill an average number of 234,000 birds annually.  However, there are a plethora of causes for bird death in the United States.  Compared to fossil fuel plants which are responsible for approximately 14 million bird deaths or even buildings and windows which are responsible for a shocking 365 – 988 million, wind turbines, again have very little relative impact on the lives of the birds.  That being said, wind farm can implement mitigation factors, especially to help conserve at risk species.  The Peñascal Wind Power Project in Texas has just such a practice in place.  It’s wind farm is located directly along a major migration route for birds.  So, the farm has implemented an avian radar to detect approaching birds.  If the birds appear to be in danger of running into the blades, then the farm shuts down the turbines and allows the birds to pass.  So, although wind farms can be harmful to birds, there are ways in which to minimize these harmful effects.  In fact, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds issued a statement saying that “climate change poses the single greatest long-term threat to birds and other wildlife” as well as saying that “the available evidence suggests that appropriately positioned wind farms do not pose a significant hazard for birds.”

As for bats, they face a similar problem with colliding with the turbines.  However, the situation is even more grave than that of birds.   One study examined this issue and found that 600,000 to 900,000 bats were killed by turbines each year.  This is because bats, in particular, the Hoary bat uses trees as a landmark.  The male hoary bat will locate the tallest tree and then circle it searching for a mate.  However, the bats cannot distinguish between trees and the turbines and may run into the blades.  Like with birds, biologists and conservationists recommend preventative measures.  Wind turbines normally stay idle when there is no wind and turn on when the air reaches a certain speed threshold.  Right now this threshold tends to be around 3.5 meters per second.  However, bats don’t like to fly when it is overly windy.  So, if wind farms up their threshold, especially during migration seasons, it could reduce bat fatalities by a staggering 43-93%.  So, as long as wind farm take preventative measures such as these, there is no reason that wind power should negatively hurt bats in a significant way.

Overall, wind power is an extremely good non option for clean, renewable energy production.  Of course no system is perfect.  Wind energy is susceptible to changes in weather so it is not reliable at all times.  It also does emit some particulate matter, which contributes to air pollution.  Finally, wind turbines do pose a threat to wildlife in the area, especially birds and bats.  However, wind farms are already taking steps to protect these creatures.  Thus, most conservationists agree that wind power “reduces carbon emissions, pollution, provides jobs and economic growth, so [ despite the negatives, they] see it as a net positive.”  For these reasons, wind energy has the potential to become one of the most crucial forms of energy world wide.

What Goes in Our Cars: An Analysis of Biofuels

A biofuel is a form of fuel that is yielded through modern biological techniques, for instance: agriculture. Let’s break it down. The term is made up of two syllables: bio and fuel. The first refers to the process of biological carbon fixation, which explains how inorganic carbon (in the form of things such as CO²) is transformed into organic compounds. Secondly, the word “fuel” simply alludes to anything from which we can extract energy. The method is an alternative to the common geological processes used in the creation of fossil fuels like coal and petroleum. If you’ve ever had a conversation surface regarding the topic of biofuels (because who doesn’t talk about biofuels at the dinner table?), then you’ve probably heard about a common form: “Biodiesel.”

http://www.ers.usda.gov/media/129447/err102_1_.pdf
http://www.ers.usda.gov/media/129447/err102_1_.pdf

Biodiesel: The Basics

Biodiesel is reported to be a “renewable” replacement for petroleum diesel. However, we’ll have to look into, and revisit, the verity in the term “renewable.” Biodiesel has been involved in commercial-scale production for just over a decade. As of 2012, biofuel accounted for 7.1% of total transport fuel consumption, which rounds out to about 13.8 billion gallons.11 This type of biofuel consists of long-chain alkyl (which can be methyl, ethyl, or propyl) esters. Esters are chemical compounds that are derived from acids. To produce Biodiesel, one must chemical react lipids (animal fat, vegetable oil, soybean oil, etc.) with alcohol-producing fatty acid esters. In more simple terms, Biodiesel serves as a vegetable oil or animal fat-based diesel fuel. 

This alternative source of fuel can be used in standard diesel engines. It is distinct from the vegetable and waste oils used to fuel modified diesel engines, for in this case, no engine modification is necessary. Biodiesel can be used alone or blended with petrol-diesel in many different proportions. For instance, a product reading “B20” includes 20% biodiesel and 80% petroleum diesel. This is a common blend for usage in conventional diesel engines, as opposed to the pure B100, though there are many blends in between these two extremes.The clip below shows how Biodiesel can be home-brewed and utilized in real-life situations, whether behind a community member’s old barn or in Adam Schwartz’s Green Guild Biodiesel co-op.

The Benefits 

It now proves necessary to examine the benefits of biofuel. There are a vast, and growing, amount of biofuel products, so we’ll continue to concentrate on Biodiesel. When analyzing a new idea or concept, it is important to compare it with something known and familiar. In this case, we’ll compare with petroleum diesel. Biodiesel improves and adds ease to engine operation, enhances performance, helps the economy, and most importantly, benefits the environment. As these topics encompass a substantial scope of information, we’ll focus on the latter two.

Biodiesel provides numerous economical advantages; however, before continuing, it is important to note and always keep in mind the partiality (towards biofuel production) of information gathered from advocating websites such as “biodiesel.org.” Firstly, the use of Biodiesel has created a plethora of new employment options, currently supplying more than 62,000 jobs. This effect has increased GDP, house income, and tax revenues.1 With the continued use of Biodiesel, GDP is expected to grow by 2.96% per year and by 64.2% between 2005 and 2022. Private consumption, or personal spending on goods, in the United States is expected to grow at an annual rate of 2.86 percent.6

There are more than 200 biodiesel plants across the country, with the capacity to produce about 3 billion gallons of fuel. This advanced fuel can be produced at plants in almost every state, lowering transport costs.1 We’ll revisit this fact later, however, to see if and how the production can succeed with ease. In the early 2000s, 25 million gallons of biofuel were produced, and this number increased to 1.7 billion gallons in 2014. This number is a small but growing portion of the annual U.S. on-road diesel market of 35-40 billion gallons. Supporters aim for Biodiesel to produce 10% of the diesel transportation market by 2022.1 Biodiesel practice also reduces the U.S. dependence on foreign petroleum, as it can be produced in the country. As of now, the U.S. imports about 1/3 of petroleum, 2/3 of which is used to fuel gasoline and diesel vehicles. These statistics suggest that the U.S. is constantly at risk for trade deficits, price changes, and supply problems.Switching to U.S.-produced Biodiesel would eliminate many of these problems.

Now, let’s take a look at some environmental benefits. In simple terms, Biodiesel usage reduces greenhouse gas emissions. How? The CO² released from biodiesel combustion is completely offset by the CO² absorbed when growing the soybeans or other feedstock material utilized.B20 reduces CO² by 15%, while pure B100 lowers CO² emissions by more than 75% compared to petroleum diesel (B20 provides 20% of the benefits of B100 usage).2 The EPA, short for U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, claims Biodiesel reduces total greenhouse gas emissions by at least 57%. These assertions can be seen in the emissions graph below, produced by the EPA in 2002, as most emissions are decreasing due to Biodiesel (increase in NOx explained later).

http://www.afdc.energy.gov/vehicles/diesels_emissions.html
http://www.afdc.energy.gov/vehicles/diesels_emissions.html

The use of biofuels like these would also reduce tailpipe pollutants from petroleum diesel, especially in older diesel vehicles. Biodiesel is less toxic than table salt and biodegrades as fast as sugar.This means it is far less harmful (than petroleum) if spilled or realized into the environment, as it also proves less combustible. Finally, Biodiesel is the first, and only, EPA-designated Advanced Biofuel in commercial-sale production.1

Traditional biofuels are made out of soybeans or animal fat. However, some of the more environmentally-sensitive biofuels are those produced by algae. The algae is harvested to then be processed into raw materials for transportation vehicles, whether they be trucks, trains, cars, or planes. Many advocates claim that algae could be 10, or even 100, times more productive than typical bioenergy feedstock. It can also be grown using waste water or saline, causes minimal effect on freshwater sources, and is biodegradable. Although it costs more than more typical biofuel crops, many believe it produces between 10 and 100 times more fuel per unit area.8 The higher this productivity, the more sustainable and/or renewable the product can become.7 Check out this video to watch the process of turning algae into fuel:

The Downfalls

Of course, when examining the benefits of Biodiesel, one must also note the disadvantages. A very obvious economical downfall is cost. At this point in time, Biodiesel is about one and 1/2 times more expensive than petroleum diesel fuel.The comparative pricing of fuel types can be seen in the graph and table below. You’ll notice the diesel (light blue line) is below Biodiesel (purple, light orange, and dark green lines). When looking at the table, you’ll see that while the B20 is only slightly higher priced than diesel, B99/B100 proves almost a whole dollar more per gallon.

http://www.afdc.energy.gov/fuels/prices.html
http://www.afdc.energy.gov/fuels/prices.html
http://www.afdc.energy.gov/uploads/publication/alternative_fuel_price_report_july_2015.pdf
http://www.afdc.energy.gov/uploads/publication/alternative_fuel_price_report_july_2015.pdf

The negative environmental effects prove a bit more extensive. While advocates of Biodiesel claim an easy production process, an assortment of factors, some particularly harmful, must go into this operation. For instance, many worry about the growth of materials necessary for Biodiesel in a world already burdened with food shortage. We’ll now discuss the reasons for that. There will be limitations to where it can grow, as biofuel feedstock needs water and fertilizer. Its growth could invade on the growth of other crops, requiring a tradeoff between food crop and biofuel feedstock.3 As of now, the land area requirement of Biofuels is extensive and unreasonable. If trying to supply for the average US usage of 368 million gallons per day of gasoline and diesel fuel, we would need to use 5.6 million sq mi of land growing soybeans to provide the necessary amount of Biodiesel. Considering this would be about 1.5 times the nation’s area of 3.8 million sq mi, this process would be impossible.3 Using the algae process mentioned earlier, however, would only require a land growth area between the sizes of Arkansas or Maine.3 These numbers need to be compared to the land usage for crop growth, which was 1,578 sq mi in the United states in 2012.9 While the side-by-side growth of food crop and algae biofuel feedstock seems entirely plausible, the growth of soybeans to create food does not leave any room for crops. This hunger risk also increases due to inflating food prices. If agricultural land can “earn more” if planted with biofuels, then farmers will demand higher food prices to balance what they lose by not planting biofuel feedstock.While delving into the causes and effects of food shortage would stray too far from the issue at hand, it’s important to note that a decrease in food supply due to less land area for growth and increasing crop prices could result in a food shortage.

Changes in land use could potentially cause harmful effects. For example, many companies may turn to deforestation to create more land for growth, destroying animal dwellings, microcosms, and reducing the overall health of natural resources.3 Most of the deforestation for biofuels occurs to clear land for palm-oil growth. While it remains hard to estimate exactly how much pollution has occurred due to these efforts in specific, deforestation in general has accounted for approximately 15-20% of global CO² emissions. This same source, a biology study from Duke, went on to claim that “replacing peat forest with oil-palm plantations may not change the tree cover density, but it does lead to a large pulse of CO2 emissions because of reductions in both tree biomass and soil carbon.”10 Despite biofuel activists’ arguments regarding the reduction of CO², Biodiesel may create a carbon debt, as it takes an ample amount of energy to deforest an area and/or plant crops.3 As biofuel critic George Monbiot states, “Growing palm oil produces so much CO² that it makes crude oil look like carrot juice…it takes around 840 years for any carbon savings from burning this oil rather than petroleum to catch up with the emissions caused by planting it.”5 However, it proves extremely difficult to capture data that reveals, or verifies, whether this energy used balances the energy produced. Additionally, pure B100 could increase nitrogen oxide emissions, though many argue its ability to reduce CO² (as explained earlier) outweighs this. Some of the Biodiesel benefits are also canceled out with the requirement that all vehicles with engines from 2010 or later will have to meet the same rigorous emission standards, no matter the fuel type.2

https://richardbrenneman.wordpress.com/2011/08/10/david-horsey-another-hungry-mouth-to-feed/
https://richardbrenneman.wordpress.com/2011/08/10/david-horsey-another-hungry-mouth-to-feed/

While many critics find truth in the political cartoon above, the debate over biofuel usage continues. In conclusion, when considering the use of biofuels, and Biodiesel in particular, one must also examine both the advantages and disadvantages associated with this technology. Ultimately, one might find themselves wondering: “How renewable and/or sustainable are biofuels?” Our previously-stated acknowledgment of growth limitations, including available space and feedstock supply, proves that biofuel production cannot be effortlessly “renewed.” However, when compared with petroleum diesel made from crude oil, which may easily run out, it becomes clear to me that biofuels and Biodiesel in specific become the more sustainable approach to fuel production.

 

Sources:

1. http://biodiesel.org/what-is-biodiesel/biodiesel-basics

2.http://www.afdc.energy.gov/fuels/biodiesel_benefits.html

3.http://biofuel.org.uk/disadvantages-of-biofuels.html

http://biofuel.org.uk/land-use.html

4.http://www.berkeleybiodiesel.org/advantages-and-disadvantages-of-biodiesel.html

5.http://www.theguardian.com/environment/georgemonbiot/2011/feb/10/bristol-biofuels-plant-planning-permission

6.http://www.ers.usda.gov/media/129447/err102_1_.pdf

7.http://energy.gov/eere/bioenergy/algal-biofuels

8.http://rsif.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/7/46/7

9.http://faostat.fao.org/site/377/DesktopDefault.aspx?PageID=377#ancor

10.http://sites.biology.duke.edu/jackson/ng09.pdf

11.http://www.ers.usda.gov/data-products/us-bioenergy-statistics.aspx

 

 

 

 

Hydro-fracking: Environmental Destruction or Fuel Beneficiary?

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          What originated a matter of 65 years ago during the petroleum industry is now ruining wells around the world. As it started to be a minor source of fuel generation, it became one of the most popular methods for fuel generation, but now created an environmental worldwide debate.

Fracking, also known as the process of drilling down into layers of the earth while simultaneously releasing water at a high pressure, it’s goal to reach a series of rock and then be injected with a mixture of chemicals, water, and sand to create a gaseous mixture [1]. When looking at this from the perspective of it’s benefits, particularly being natural gas, which is a necessary commodity to the majority of households, power plants, and the basis of many objects we use today, fracking is a necessity. But from perspectives of environmentalists, the destruction fracking does to the ground outweighs these tremendous benefits.

One of the first questions about this booming industry focuses on why the United States is involved. From a governmental standpoint, the U.S. has relied on foreign oil, and with relations between the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries and the United States at times becoming thin, this 1st world country must find a different form of energy. Here is a video from a news source going further into the relationship between OPEC and the United States fracking processes.

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            Let’s begin by looking at the benefits of the fracking. The greatest benefit from an economic perspective is the price of natural gas.

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Looking at this graph below, you can clearly see due to the so called “Fracking Revolution,” natural gas prices have dropped 47% compared to years prior to 2013. Similarly, energy consumers see economic benefit, as gas bills have fallen $13 billion between the years 2007 and 2013 due to fracking. From a geographic perspective, the West South Central region and East North Central region, which includes states such as Arkansas, Lousiana, and Oklahoma as well as Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio respectively have seen upwards of over $200 per person in benefits. Essentially, if you are looking at the potential of the technology, it is widespread and already adapted, and has shown substantial returns in terms of energy and economic benefit. Yet, this does not address the health and environmental aspects.

Now with all of these benefits, this process seems like it should be widespread right? No, not so correct. When looking at fracking from a more environmental and resource conscious perspective, fracking takes up massive amounts of precious resources, take for instance the most important resource to humans, water. A study from Duke University determined that, “Energy companies used nearly 250 billion gallons of water to extract shale gas and oil from hydraulically fractured wells in the U.S. between 2005 and 2014, a new study finds. [4] During the same period, the fracked wells generated about 210 billion gallons of wastewater.” Now, if you refer this back to an economic perspective, not only are you transporting massive amounts of water to run these machines, but you are wasting gas from the trucks to transport the water.

Another concern about the production of something is its “clean energy,” also known as the production of something that releases nothing toxic and or containing no harmful byproduct. Some studies, including the documentary Gasland, highlight the environmental effects and aftermath these products provide. Below is a segment of the documentary focusing on the aftermaths of one home in Colorado:

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As you can see, there is at least some sort of environmental issues about fracking. Not only does the water look unclear, the chemical breakdown after examination found that this water was filled with bacteria infested species, clearly violating “clean energy” and showing major signs of concern. Furthermore, what makes many question the fracking industry are that the companies being non-complaint. Although professionals from these companies come to test the water, they do not provide an accurate judgment about the conditions they are living in. From the video above, your heard the women even say that the companies come but essentially lie to the homeowners faces. Moreover, as opposed to looking at the lives these companies are affecting, they seem to direct their attention more towards the economic upside of the potential customers they can reach if they put all their staff towards buying or signing deals with other properties to frack on.

A recent scientific study titled, “The Environmental Costs and Benefits of Fracking,” looked more in depth into this video as well as the general process of fracking. The article stated that, “Primary threats to water resources include surface spills, wastewater disposal, and drinking-water contamination through poor well integrity. An increase in volatile organic compounds and air toxics locally are potential health threats, but the switch from coal to natural gas for electricity generation will reduce sulfur, nitrogen, mercury and particulate air pollution.” As the article continues, it focuses on more hazards, saying that over 36% of the underground water in the United States, which could potentially be used for important aspects of life such as drinking and agriculture, can be ruined if fracking continues for another 5 years.

Focusing on the United States may be something too hard to imagine, so let’s go to scale with a local area in Philadelphia. According to the Council of the City of Philadelphia, there have been major problems with the contamination due to fracking, leading to Department of Environmental Protection and the Delaware River Basin Commission to ensure the health and safety of the regions drinking water [7]. Comparing the amount of illnesses in a more localized area, which from Philadelphia was recorded to be over 300 people, on a large scale can be affecting millions of people. Another article, titled “The Health Implications of Fracking” explains some of the reasons why the United States issues have spread nationwide. Specifically, failure of structural integrity of cements and casing, surface spills, leakage from above-ground storage, as well as the structural integrity of heavy transport vehicles are viable causes for the problems occurring. However, there should be no major blame on the leaking and the surface spills, as regardless of the health implications from the contamination coming up from the ground, fracking is causing this pollution of the water which eventually leads to these issues. This means that in theory, by eliminating fracking, the United States water pollution and eventually health issues should decrease.

One of the most shocking studies that you see below is comparing Estrogen and Androgen in contents of soil and water samples for regions where fracking has occurred versus regions that have not. As you can see from the image below, the amount of combined estimated marginal means of estrogenic, antiestrogenic, and antiandrogenic activities are much higher at the ground water level versus the surface level. Furthermore, based on this data, it is a reasonable consumption that the ground water could have been affected solely by fracking, creating these massive fluctuations of these chemicals. And because of these imbalances of these chemicals, the water can have discolorations and lead to future illnesses and hospitalities of people worldwide.

5

Now, looking at one study is not sufficient, as people for fracking might say this is a correlation causation trap, as these graphs can represented above could be media outlets misrepresent correlations. [12] However, many sources agree that fracking is a major health concern. Because of this, lets look at some other studies and focus on their similarities. A journal article, titled, “Human and Ecological Risk Assessment,” focused on potential health impacts of oil and gas drilling. This peer reviewed piece examined the chemicals used during drilling and the hydro-fracking process, and determined that 632 chemicals (a list unavailable due to trade secrecy exemptions) were identified during these processes. Furthermore, even more shocking was that 75% of those 632 chemicals have shown signs to harm skin, eyes, the respiratory and gastrointestinal systems. On top of those staggering statistics was that 40–50% of those chemicals could also affect the following: “brain/nervous system, immune and cardiovascular systems, and the kidneys; 37% could affect the endocrine system; and 25% could cause cancer and mutations.” And if these numbers are extreme, examine this graph below, which was conducted by biological diversity, one of the top research institutions and belongs to a refutable company of Taylor & Francis Group. This graph also took more than 300 samples of hydro-fracking chemicals, showing the overall effects these chemicals have.

6

[13]

As you can clearly see, more than one study shows that there are possible health risks involving hydro-fracking. And although the statistics may not be the same numbers in terms of percentage risk for a particular body part or organ, they do show a general trend that drilling and hydro-fracking pose major threats to our health.

Beyond the health risks can be permanent environmental risks, something much more dramatic. As you will see in this BBC video below, one theory suggested that a recent earthquake could have been caused by fracking.

7

[9]

Now, if this theory is correct, think about the potential devastations of fracking. The United Kingdom has just begun its fracking boom, so for countries such as the United States, there could be almost immediate potential disasters on a larger scale. With every risk comes a reward, but with a risk not only health wise, but environmental destruction wise may be a good reason to shut down fracking.

Now, in terms of future fracking endeavors, there has been some speculation in terms of what agencies are upholding fracking and how successfully are they thus far. Supposedly, the United States Congress urged the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to do a well in depth study on hydraulic fracking and its effects on the ground water. The U.S. Congress outlines on its government website that it wants the EPA to, “assess the potential for hydraulic fracturing for oil and gas to change the quality or quantity of drinking water resources, and identifies factors affecting the frequency or severity of any potential changes. This report can be used by federal, tribal, state, and local officials; industry; and the public to better understand and address any vulnerabilities of drinking water resources to hydraulic fracturing activities” [11]. However, there has been much speculation about this topic, including the EPA’s ability to run an in depth investigation, as plenty of new states and regions, such as Wyoming, have emerged and openly stated there has been a major environmental issue in their state due to fracking [12]. If you would like to watch a video on this topic, click here.

As you watch the video, be in mind that this is an investigation of many, something that isn’t new to the EPA. Tying back to earlier in this discussion, the Gasland documentary has protested and attempts the United States government to run its own 3rd party investigation in an attempt to put this debate to rest, and if there is a problem (which seems like there is), then there should be some immediate solution. Although these smaller population states such as Wyoming and Illinois may need fracking to produce jobs and economic stability, it should not come at the cost of environmental destruction.

One last thing you should be aware of is relative comparisons between fracking and other polluters. Looking at this graph below, if you consider shale gas fracking, it shows that comparing grams of carbon in MJ emitted, shale gas is substantially higher in polluting in the short term. However, in the long term, the amount between coal and shale gas is relatively the same.

8

[14]

However, lets compare fracking to a few other sources besides coal. Now lets look at fracking in comparison to multiple alternatives.

9

[15]

                As you can see from the graph below, fracking via natural gas is one of the process that requires a large amount of water. However, there is still signs that coal and other alternatives such as nuclear create more of an issue. But as a whole, it is clear that as opposed to using things like natural gas, nuclear, and coal, we should be using wind and solar.

From this discussion, I hope you conclude and truly understand the controversy about this product. It seems like society is divided between economists versus environmentalists. People for fracking focus on the economic benefits of lower costs and the concept of self-sufficiency from OPEC, something that sounds reasonable from just a pure business point of view. However, when taking into account environmental factors, health, and potential natural disasters including earthquakes, something needs to be taken into greater consideration. There needs to be more of an immediate study by the Environmental Protection Agency or an outside 3rd party source to determine the true effects of this oil and gas production process. The last thing society needs, especially in the United States, is a natural disaster that will further ruin the economically and the environment simultaneously.

Sources:

[1] https://www.asme.org/engineering-topics/articles/fossil-power/fracking-a-look-back

[2] http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-14432401

[3] http://www.brookings.edu/blogs/brookings-now/posts/2015/03/economic-benefits-of-fracking

[4] http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/09/150915135827.htm

[5] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cutGpoD3inc

[6] http://www.annualreviews.org/doi/full/10.1146/annurev-environ-031113-144051

[7]http://documents.foodandwaterwatch.org/doc/Frack_Actions_PhiladelphiaPA.pdf#_ga=1.37629600.1482881610.1442544077

[8]http://search.proquest.com/docview/1513845581?OpenUrlRefId=info:xri/sid:wcdiscovery&accountid=9784

[9] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_E3A-D8mAb4

[10] http://www.napavalley.edu/Library/PublishingImages/fracking-infographic.jpg

[11] http://www2.epa.gov/hfstudy/executive-summary-hydraulic-fracturing-study-draft-assessment-2015

[12] http://www2.epa.gov/sites/production/files/documents/EPA_ReportOnPavillion_Dec-8-2011.pdf

[13]http://www.biologicaldiversity.org/campaigns/fracking/pdfs/Colborn_2011_Natural_Gas_from_a_public_health_perspective.pdf

[14] http://desmogblog.com/fracking-the-future/myth.html

[15] http://www.theenergycollective.com/grantmcdermot/203111/us-shale-gas-european-climate-change-policy-carbon-emissions-natural-gas

[16] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4DtYCl4eK_8

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lets Talk About… Nuclear Waste Storage

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Cred: http://nielsonschool.blogspot.com/2013/01/nuclear-power-plant-model.html

What is Nuclear Energy?
When you hear nuclear energy, you probably think “that stuff that makes bombs” or “isn’t that in the ugly plant Homer Simpson works in?”  National Geographic tells us that nuclear energy is “the energy in the nucleus, or core, of an atom”.  When you consider the impact of nuclear bombs, that is a massive amount of energy.  How else do we use nuclear energy?  Nuclear fuel, a source of nuclear energy, made with a mix of uranium, plutonium, and a hodgepodge of other radioactive elements, is used to power a nuclear reactor which creates nuclear energy which in turn is used to create electricity.  Let me repeat that.  Nuclear Energy makes   E-L-E-C-T-R-C-I-T-Y.  Yeah you heard right!  No coal and no natural gas!  No non-renewables!  But theres a catch,   Nuclear fuel produces nuclear waste.  Remember that mess in Japan?  Fukushima? Fukushima was one of the largest nuclear disasters the world has ever seen and it was just a
few years ago.  In 2011, following the tsunami that hit Japan, equipment in this Japanese Nuclear Power Plant began to fail and after three boiling water reactors were shut down, their spent fuel pools needed cooling and it resulted in a massive nuclear meltdown. Radioactive material released into the environment as a result of the meltdown poses the greatest threat.  Although no deaths were reported as an immediate result of the meltdown, there are increased cancer risks as a result of ingesting groundwater contaminated from said radioactive material.  Also due to the backlash nuclear energy safety has seen, several power plants have closed around the country contributing to a lack of energy in Japan, and in turn contributing to worsened economy.

How Would Nuclear Be Better Than Fossil Fuels? 

For starters, how do waste generations compare?  If we look at coal waste, once coal is burned to produce energy, a couple things happen.  Of greatest concern are the large amounts of solid waste in the forms of ash and sludge that are produced and the cooling water used throughout coal power plants is released back into bodies of water(i.e. lake, ocean, etc.) at temperatures much higher than the body of water.  Within the sludge and ash are many toxic substances that taint the surrounding environment especially if they are not properly regulated.  The largest safety concern surrounding the solid waste is it’s contamination of groundwater, which can commonly contain arsenic and mercury and can be incredibly harmful to anyone drinking it.  Additionally, the release of hot water threatens any ecosystem it is released into because it creates “thermal pollution” which put the health of all animals and plants at risk¹.  Oil is similar in that it has major carbon emission issues when burned.  Also, Carbon emission is an issue both oil and coal burning add to.  The largest risk associated with oil is generally with oil spills as a result of a burst or leak in midstream or upstream extraction.  This basically is when oil companies are trying to obtain oil and the pipes carrying it from the ground have a crack and oil spills all over the surrounding environment.  These oil spills contaminate groundwater, kill wildlife of all kinds ranging from the environment itself to the animals that inhabit it, and are pollution that cause permanent damage².  So when comparing both these fossil fuels with nuclear, nuclear seems to be the lesser of the two evils.  After the few major nuclear disasters such as Chernobyl and Fukushima, not only are the amount of nuclear disasters fewer, but also the amount of directly associated deaths and observed environmental impacts have been less.  However, it is important to remember that although nuclear waste is better in these ways and is more energy efficient(meaning you get more energy for less waste, need little Uranium to make a lot of energy, and need a little land to make a lot) than most fossil fuels, the costs of treating and disposing of nuclear waste are much higher than that of fossil fuels³.

The real question then becomes, how do we continue to use nuclear energy to avoid using up all our non-renewables without ruining environments everywhere? In other words, what do we do with nuclear waste storage and how can we get rid of nuclear waste?

Nuclear Waste Protocol as of Now

The entire nuclear industry produces “generates a total of about 2,000 – 2,300 metric tons of used fuel per year”(4).  To put that in perspective for you, one metric ton is equivalent to 1,000 kilograms; that is a lot of waste.  What is currently being done with that waste?  Well, currently in the United States we use a method called “Deep Geological Disposal” where nuclear waste is buried deep underground in areas generally far away from the general populace where the waste can live out its half-life and lose its radioactivity.  To learn more about how waste management currently works check out this interactive timeline.  Another form of waste management has taken the form of repurposing, which is something many countries in Europe have taken to, but because the United States does not approve of it we are forced to do something else with the growing amounts of waste we do have.

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Cred: http://pubs.acs.org/cen/coverstory/8027/8027yucca.html

So where do we put these disposal sites and are they safe?  This hotly debated issue has been greatly contested in the recent Yucca Mountain Project.  Yucca Mountain, located in Nevada near the Nevada Nuclear Test Site, was a mountain selected under the Nuclear Waste Policy Act to hold about 70,000 metric tons of nuclear waste however with already more waste waiting for a home than the site can contain, the facilities intended capacity is essentially already reached.  The way it works is that nuclear plants typically use Interim Dry Cask Storage to house waste short term but eventually that waste needs to be moved to a long-term storage facility as more and more waste is created.  Yucca was to be among the only long-term nuclear waste storage centers in America; a necessity because of the long time that it takes for nuclear waste to become non-radioactive.  The reason this waste has yet to be stored at Yucca is because of the large amount of backlash the Nuclear Waste Policy Act has received over environmental and safety concerns. Yucca Mountain has raised many concerns about radioactive leakage into groundwater for the population surrounding the mountain, but the largest concern being what would happen if there were an earthquake.  Nevada, being an area where earthquakes are fairly commonplace could cause a rise in the groundwater table which could come into contact with the nuclear waste or even break storage canisters.  Even all that aside, the Yucca Mountain could cave in!  Yucca may not be the best long-term solution for environmental reasons, but with nuclear waste generation growing at its current rate, the Yucca facility wouldn’t even be enough to truly make a dent in housing all of our waste.  With the immense backlash, federal funding was suspended and the US is now without any long-term nuclear waste storage facility for non-defense generated waste.   

So what are we left with?  The search for a long-term solution to nuclear waste storage that A. does not threaten humans safety and environment and B. is large enough to house or eliminate all the waste we currently have and waste we will generate by the time we find said solution.  To make matters worse we need to keep in mind that waste production is constantly increasing.  At the current rate of nuclear waste production with 70,000 metric tons currently being stored at reactor sites(making our formula: 70,000 metric tons currently + 2,150 metric tons per year multiplied by years), by 2050 we have 145,250 metric tons of nuclear waste to deal with.

A Future for Nuclear Energy or Rather, Better Containment? 

However, not all hope is lost.  More research has been done on a molten-salt reactor that could not only solve the waste problem, but also the safety problem we currently face in using nuclear power(5).  The molten salt reactor is a kind of fission reactor with the primary coolant being a molten-salt mixture.  They’re “ideally suited for thorium, an alternative nuclear fuel that is cleaner, safer, and more abundant than uranium” and we can forget about radioactive spills with this new foolproof reScreen Shot 2015-09-17 at 11.00.57 PMactor.  They operate like bathtubs and if something goes horribly awry, a freeze plug in the reactor container melts and the reactor core drains out into an underground container.  What else can it do, you ask?  While they can create thermal power in a safe manner, they can also “consume nuclear waste from conventional reactors”.  SO that means that they can produce energy, avoid mining for uranium which in and of itself destroys environments, can be catastrophe-proof, and can eliminate the current problem of what to do with nuclear waste.  AND it still gets better!  Researchers working on it now believe it could be made in ten years!

However, while I find this molten-salt reactor very exciting, there are plenty of critics.  The biggest concern surrounding this molten-salt reactor is the fact that “radioactive fission products” they might not be properly contained.  “Radioactive fission product” can be both radioactive and chemical that can be very problematic when the chemical elements eat away at the containment of the reactor.  So while there may be some technical difficulties, I think the concept presented by this molten-salt reactor is very exciting and is good news for the nuclear community.  Unlike other waste management solutions, this could be a better, more long-term, more sustainable solution to dealing with nuclear waste.

 

So remember, not all hope is lost and nuclear power may STILL be the way of the future, but it may take some time to iron out more final details!

 

 

Footnote Resources: 

¹http://www.ucsusa.org/clean_energy/coalvswind/c02d.html#.VggYHyBViko

²http://www.conserve-energy-future.com/effects-of-oil-spills.php

³http://www.greenworldinvestor.com/2011/07/07/nuclear-energy-efficiency-vs-fossil-fuels-oilgas-in-power-load-factorsenergy-density-and-waste/

4http://www.nei.org/Knowledge-Center/Nuclear-Statistics/On-Site-Storage-of-Nuclear-Waste

5http://www.technologyreview.com/news/540991/meltdown-proof-nuclear-reactors-get-a-safety-check-in-europe/

 

Has Nuclear Fusion Taken The Forefront in Sustainable Energy?

The Background and Its Current State

If someone were to tell you that nuclear fusion would ever take the helm for sustainable energy, you would look at them like they were crazy. Even now, the concept that the process of nuclear fusion can yield sustainable energy in the technologically advanced world we live in is absurd. But how did we even come to this discussion? What advances have we made to even make this concept a possibility? What is nuclear fusion anyway? By providing an overview of nuclear fusion and the massive project related to it, it may become a little clearer.

The way we create energy today has had detrimental effects on the Earth. Every year, coal power stations are burning million tons of fuel hurting the environment through excess carbon dioxide emissions. Eventually, even this way of creating energy for our daily tasks will soon become obsolete for we only have a limited amount of coal to burn and fuel to make. It’s just not sustainable the way it is and an alternative for a more sustained planet is required. This is where the discussion about nuclear fusion as a sustainable energy source came into being.

The current process looks something like this:

coal-combustion

During this process, there is a lot of excess carbon dioxide being released and the transport of this energy causes even more strain for the environment. Overall, this process can be streamlined and many scientists are hoping that it is through nuclear fusion.

Now, What Is Nuclear Fusion?

According to ITER, (what exactly ITER is comes further down), fusion is the process at the core of our Sun. What we see as light and feel as warmth is the result of a fusion reaction: hydrogen nuclei collide, fuse into heavier helium atoms and release tremendous amounts of energy in the process. Another way to explain fusion is describing fusion as the reason why our sun keeps shining the way it does. Deep down in the sun’s core, there are lots and lots of electrons and protons. Under the extreme conditions within its core, protons join together and in the process, release energy (and lots of it!). For a more interactive and visual medium of understanding nuclear fusion, please see below: (Time Frame: 3:30 to 4:20 provides a good overview of fusion and fission!)

How Is Energy Created Through Fusion (In Space)?

Short answer: Through the movement of atoms and atoms fusing together. In a hot environment such as the sun, which reaches temperatures of 15,000,000° Celsius, hydrogen atoms are constantly on the move (and moving at very, very fast paces). Although the positive charges within the hydrogen atoms naturally lead them to repel, these repulsions are overcome due to the momentum at which they’re moving and the hydrogen atoms end up fusing, creating helium. The force is created due to the velocity of the fast paced electrons and that movement naturally creates an overwhelming force that leads to the fusion of the atoms. This whole process produces expansive amounts of energy and the sun does this process at a rate of 600 million tons of hydrogen into helium every single second, creating an overall great net of energy.

How May Energy Be Created Through Fusion (On Earth)?

It’s quite a different process to create fusion energy on Earth. One thing scientists have to take into account is that in its natural state, nuclear fusion occurs at the sun’s core meaning that it is impossible to truly recreate this environment in order to achieve the same gains as in space. For example, in the sun’s core, when electrons are separated from the nucleus, the nucleus plasma (a hot gas) is created. In this plasma environment, energy is yielded. Thus, in the ITER, in order to control the plasma, the fusion will be achieved in a tokamak (uses a magnetic field to confine a plasma in the shape of a torus [taken from here]) device where magnetic fields contain and control the plasma to keep the environment stable.

This is how fusion energy is essentially created on Earth and what the ITER aims to do:

  • For a helium nucleus, one neutron, and energy to be created, there is a fusion that occurs between deuterium and tritium (D-T) through the unlocking of the chemical bonds in the Hydrogen atom itself (Hydrogen is an abundant source that can be found in the production of natural gas and other sources)
  • The magnetic fields of the tokamak responds to the helium nucleus carrying an electric charge—the nucleus stays confined within the plasma
  • ~80% of the energy generated is taken away by the neutron which has no charge at all (and therefore, is not affected by the magnetic fields) but to account for this, the neutrons get absorbed by the tokamak and their energy is transferred as heat to the walls
  • The heat absorbed and generated gets dispersed and eventually is used to produce steam (which then goes through turbines) to produce the eventual electricity you use daily

(Steps and definitions above adapted from here)

jet_tokamak_plasma_overlay_1

Source: Plasma within tokamak device

The process of a fusion reaction therefore, considering the immense energy created at the Sun’s core, can provide the creation of energy in a much more sustainable way than the burning of coal. In fact, Jeff Forshaw in his article in The Guardian, explains the extent to which nuclear fusion can provide energy compared to its current counterpart coal. Forshaw observes, “For every 100 tonnes of coal we burn, fusion has the potential to deliver the same amount of energy, without any carbon dioxide emission…” and goes onto explain how this can very much be a sufficient alternative to our current energy production methods.

Benefits (Nuclear Fusion)

Some of the most significant benefits of going this route (nuclear fusion) for sustainable energy are:

  • By going through atomic changes such as from hydrogen atoms in helium, more energy is released than with any other method thus far including nuclear fission (main process that generates nuclear energy) by about 3 to 10x as much energy, on average, relative to its mean
  • Resources are abundant—light elements (such as from the sun) are among the most common on Earth
  • No radioactivity involved throughout the process—Thus, environmental impact is minimal
  • Clean, green energy that is sustainable for millions of years if pursued correctly

Downfalls (Nuclear Fusion)

  • Minimal experiments have actually been able to be taken out and because of this, a lot of the current observations are theories
  • The danger is ever so present—Since no experiments have physically been done, numerical values determining break even points and understanding certain limits are still unclear

(Please check here for more information on advantages/disadvantages and what’s being done in the present time)

Now that we know a little background about what nuclear fusion is and how it relates to our world, let’s shift our focus to the main focus of implementing nuclear fusion as a sustainable energy source via the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER).

Understanding Einstein’s Theory of Special Relativity and How It Relates to Nuclear Fusion

According to Brittanica: In E = mc2 , Einstein concluded that mass (m) and kinetic energy (E) are equal, since the speed of light(c2) is constant. In other words, mass can be changed into energy, and energy can be changed into mass. The former process is demonstrated by the production of nuclear energy—particles are smashed and their energy is captured. The latter process, the conversion of energy into mass, is demonstrated by the process of particle acceleration, in which low-mass particles zipping through a device collide to form larger particles.

What ITER and Nuclear Fusion aims to do is to convert mass into energy, the first part of what the equation tries to explain. Mass and energy are essentially two sides of the same coin and thus, can be switched into one another. There are masses that are present within the tokamak such as the hydrogen atoms and electrons moving at very high paces. Through the Nuclear Fusion process, this energy is aimed to be converted into sustainable energy that may be used for day to day consumption.

For a more in-depth look at Einstein’s theory and its effect on the advancement of Nuclear Fusion, please look at:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mass%E2%80%93energy_equivalence#Radioactivity_and_nuclear_energy

 

Why ITER?

ITER is essentially a very large-scale science experiment aimed to determine if it is feasible to use fusion energy as a legitimate energy source. According to their website, the ITER project has a goal of delivering ten times the power it consumes back as usable energy. Hypothetically, if the ITER machine is inputted with 75 MW of power, ITER should be able to produce upwards of 750 MW of fusion power resulting in a net energy gain—first of its kind to produce net energy (Enjoy ITER’s visual for this goal below!). Currently (with the most recent updates), the ITER machine is capable of inputting 50 MW of power ending up with 500 MW of fusion power. Even with this input and output combination, the ITER is still able to produce a net energy gain. If done at higher frequencies as expected, the energy will be abundant enough for use. Essentially, ITER aims to answer one of the biggest and most important questions of our time: Is it possible to capture fusion energy for commercial usage here on Earth?

q10Q=the ratio of fusion power to input power.

Building Process

Construction for the ITER began in 2007 and were divided into two phases: clearing of the land and levelling for construction of buildings and physical capital. The ITER is being situated in 180 hectares of land in southern France.

The Clearing Process

The clearing of 180 hectares of land, the first phase, took over one year to complete. During this process, they have tried very hard to protect local fauna and flora which were present long before the proposal to build ITER came into fruition.

earth_moving_1

The Levelling Process

Leveling of the acreage began in March 2008 lasting for one year total. The leveling has led to a near perfect flat platform where construction can now begin (315 meters above sea level). To achieve this near perfect flat surface, more than 2.5 million meters of rubble were removed.

dsc_0108

Above are just the early phases of this massive project. Please see below for the other major phases to finally getting this ITER built.

iter_phase

Looking to the Future: DEMO

ITER is not the end for fusion energy. ITER is a bridge to the first plant (Demonstration Power Plant=DEMO) that will actually be the place where production of large-scale electricity will occur. DEMO’s conceptual design is planned to be completed in 2017. If ITER’s aims are achieved, DEMO will lead our already technology advanced world into a new generation: the Age of Fusion. As early as 2040, fusion energy could be at the helm leading the way. Or, at least, that’s the hope.

The Author’s Take: How’s The Future Looking?

To be completely honest, as I did my research, I didn’t believe in this process at all. The methods we use now to make energy seemed like the only viable options for our time. Considering that fusion takes place in very hot and dense environments within the Sun’s core, the likelihood of that same fusion here on Earth was a far fetch for me.

However, I am one to say that I believe nuclear fusion here on Earth is a viable method for sustainable energy in the near future. I believe that the strides that have been taken are tremendous and the years of research has paid off significantly. Considering that this field of research has yielded lots of failures and very few successes, it seems that the researchers and main players within the field are well equipped with the knowledge to move forward. The process is not simple but even within this complex process, progress is being made. As stated by Steven Cowley, director of the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy near Abingdon in the UK, “We have waited 60 years to get close to controlled fusion. We are now close in both magnetic and inertial. We must keep at it. The engineering milestone is when the whole plant produces more energy than it consumes.” With this progress, the whole project seems all the more viable.

In comparison to other methods of sustainable energy, this method is easily the most efficient and effective in producing the most day to day energy consumption without hurting the Earth as we are right now with our current methods. Instead of burning coal, we can produce the same amount of energy or even more without the consequences of the the destructive coaling process. Some places of the country use coal because it is an abundant source but with nuclear fusion, the compounds and break downs of certain atoms in a controlled environment leads to energy production. With the ITER machine, we are able to do this in large amounts that can be used as an alternative sustainable energy source.

In order to see the efforts and progress being made, please take a look at this link:

http://www.iter.org/proj/itermilestones

Nuclear fusion will take us into the new generation of sustainable energy. It’s just a matter of time.

SOURCES

http://blogs.britannica.com/2010/09/e-mc2-the-unforgettable-equation-of-einsteins-miracle-year-picture-essay-of-the-day/

http://www.iter.org/proj/iterandbeyond

http://www.iter.org/proj/buildingiter

http://www.iter.org/proj/itermission

http://www.fplsafetyworld.com/?ver=kkblue&utilid=fplforkids&id=16182

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Star

(All other sources are embedded within blog)

The New, Improved, and Smarter Electric Grid

 

Smart Grid Overview:

The Smart Grid is a system that is being put in place that will eventually make our electric system in the United States, more efficient, less expensive, and better prepared to deal with power outages. But these are only a few of the benefits of the Smart Grid. The Smart Grid also allows for a new type of technology that will lead to a better and more efficient system of using energy in households, companies, and other infrastructures. The smart grid will be able to turn off some electric appliances when they are not being used to reduce a household’s energy consumption . This will also allow for electrical companies to better estimate and produce the accurate amount of energy that is demanded by the population.

 

 

www.youtube.com/watch?v=dcqQSjas4xQ&feature=youtu.be

Our Current Electric Grid:

Currently our electric grid is having noticeably more and more problems. In the past 50 years, our technology and society has changed dramatically and the amount of energy consumption needed in America today is higher than ever. With greater energy consumption came better technology to improve our carbon footprint and the go green movement came alive. In the energy.gov article it gave an interesting statistic that said, “If every American household replaced just one incandescent bulb (Edison’s pride and joy) with a compact fluorescent bulb, the country would conserve enough energy to light 3 million homes and save more than $600 million annually.” This shows that even with this new, improved, and ecofriendly technology, Americans have not demonstrated and done their part by keeping the earth green. The electric grid is centrally planned which means that energy is coming locally from electric companies and are being transferred by wires connected to one another throughout your town. Currently, in the United States we are producing 25% of the world’s fossil fuels. We also produce half of our electricity by burning coal. To make the U.S. more environmentally friendly we need to incorporate the new technologies such as solar, biomass, and geothermal energy into our current electric grid. With our out of date technology it is hard to incorporate the full amount of energy these new systems can produce into our current electricity, but with the Smart Grid, these systems will be used significantly more. In a study done by the UCLA Smart Grid Energy Research Center, the leading professor speaks about how our current grid cannot maintain the amount of energy that we are using and new products such as electric cars will use an equal amount of energy that a house will use in a year. The professor also speaks to the point that the time is now to change our grid as the grid in the United States is a lot more dated than even some of the grids in Europe.

smartgrid_02

www.hitachi.com/environment/showcase/solution/energy/images/img_smartgrid/smartgrid_02.jpg

How and Why are We Going to Implement the Smart Grid:

In 2003, 55 million people from 2 countries and 8 states were involved in a widespread blackout. This is only about 15% of the population of the United States but it was the biggest blackout in the United States to ever exist and costed our economy 4-10 billion dollars. This blackout, like most blackouts was caused by an flaw in the supply and demand relationship of electricity. In 3 different parts of the country the demand for energy was significantly greater than the supply so some of the plants shut down. When a plant shut downs the houses draw electricity from a different plant causing that plant to over exert and the domino effect continues until there is a mass blackout. During the blackouts, our research centers, government buildings, and many other infrastructures were shut down leaving the United States extremely vulnerable to terrorist attacks on our digital and secure information. This blackout also led to more and more research about how our society and our digital information needs to be better secured, which verified the idea that our country is in need of a higher quality and more technologically advanced grid. To implement this Smart Grid, the U.S. would have to set aside over 10 million dollars a year for the next 20 years to have enough money to move all the infrastructures underground and to create the software to make this thing work. To learn more about the developments and progress being made in this area watch the UCLA Smart Grid video below:

http://smartgrid.ucla.edu

 

Benefits of the Smart Grid:

The list of the benefits of the Smart Grid continues to increase but one of the major ones is integrating more and more environmentally friendly sources of energy. When using solar panels, wind mills, or geothermal heating systems the smart grid will have multiple sources of battery storage to maintain all the energy made from these systems. Batteries have become more and more sturdy and powerful as seen in the batteries of electric cars and in houses so the amount of energy they can store from the heating systems is incredible. Another benefit of the Smart Grid is the ability to have instant and accurate energy control. In a household the Smart Grid will be able to turn off and on lights, microwaves, and heating systems to control power. It is estimated that with the Smart Grid put into place the United States will reduce our carbon footprint by 12% directly and 6% indirectly.GTM_Muni_TopBenefits_535_316

http://www.greentechmedia.com/articles/read/What-Municipal-Utilities-Want-From-the-Smart-Grid

I think the smart grid will help the united states become more environmentally friendly and use different sources of energy to produce a faster and safer network for the citizens so overall I believe that the smart grid will be extremely beneficial to our society and future generations. Finally, a benefit that will come that is not directly from the Smart Grid is more data for research. The smart grid will be able to tell how many time you open the door or watch TV, etc. which will provide scientists with more data to see if any of these day to day lives have any impacts on a persons health or diseases.

 

Bibliography:

  1.   https://www.smartgrid.gov/the_smart_grid/smart_grid.html

2. http://boingboing.net/2012/05/21/the-history-of-the-u-s-electr.html

3. https://youtu.be/dcqQSjas4xQ

4.http://energy.gov/sites/prod/files/oeprod/DocumentsandMedia/DOE_SG_Book_Single_Pages%281%29.pdf

5. http://smartgrid.ucla.edu

6.http://www.hitachi.com/environment/showcase/solution/energy/images/img_smartgrid/smartgrid_02.jpg

7. http://sgip.org/PAP-17-Facility-Smart-Grid-Information-Standard

8. http://www.sciencemag.org/content/328/5981/979.full

9.http://www.pnl.gov/main/publications/external/technical_reports/PNNL-19112.pdf

10. http://www.greentechmedia.com/articles/read/What-Municipal-Utilities-Want-From-the-Smart-Grid

 

The Keystone XL Pipeline: Good or Bad?

keystone-oil-pipeline
(Source: http://www.davisvanguard.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/keystone-oil-pipeline.jpg)

What is the Keystone Pipeline? Is that different from the Keystone XL Pipeline?

The Keystone Pipeline is an oil pipeline that runs from Canada through the United States, commissioned in 2010. The entire pipeline is comprised of four phases, the first three phases are currently in use, and the fourth is awaiting approval from the United States Government. Phase IV is officially called Keystone XL because it duplicates the pipeline from Phase I, running through more areas of the US mid-west.

The Keystone Pipeline (Phase I) delivers oil from Alberta to Steele City, Nebraska and Roxana, Illinois, using 300 miles of piping. This phase was completed in 2010. The Keystone-Cushing Extension (Phase II) runs 300 miles from Steele City to storage and distribution facilities (tank farm) in Cushing Oklahoma. Phase II was completed in 2011. The Gulf Coast Extension (Phase III) runs 487 miles from Cushing to the refineries in Port Arthur, Texas, was completed in January 2014. A lateral pipeline, which will take oil to refineries in Houston Texas, is currently under construction. Finally, the Keystone XL Pipeline (Phase IV) is a proposal to duplicate the pipeline from Phase I from Alberta to Nebraska using a larger pipe, over a shorter distance. This plan included running through Baker, Montana where the U.S. crude oil reserves are located.

Phases I and II are able to move about 590,000 barrels of oil per day and Phase III is able to deliver 700,000 barrels of oil per day to the Midwestern and Texas refineries, respectively. You are probably wondering what these numbers mean, but it is simple. By looking at the United States oil production in November 2014, we can see 9,000,000 barrels of oil were produced per day1. Based on these numbers, we can see that the oil from the Keystone Pipeline only accounts for about 10% of the United States oil production, so that raises the question about the necessity or importance of the pipeline.

WASHINGTON, DC - AUGUST 6: Proposed Keystone XL Extension map. (Map by Laris Karklis/The Washington Post)
Proposed Keystone XL Extension map. (Source: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/special/business/keystone-xl-pipeline-primer/jpt/w-Keystone296.jpg)

How do we extract the oil from the oil sands in Canada?

The process used to produce the oil from the oil sands for the pipeline is called surface mining. The main focus of this process is removing bitumen, a semi-solid form of petroleum, from the sands. Surface mining is a form of mining that removes the soil and rock the cover the minerals, in this case bitumen. Surface mining is most frequently used for the mining of “commercially viable” minerals that are close to the surface.

sands-large
(Source: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/special/business/keystone-xl-pipeline-primer/)

If the pipeline was proposed in 2008, why hasn’t construction started yet?

Since the proposal for Phase IV of the pipeline there has been political controversies surrounding it. The extension was proposed in 2008, and by 2010, the Canadian National Energy Board approved it, now all the proposal needed was approval from the United States government. In December 2011, Congress, led by a core group of Republican senators, passed legislation forcing President Obama to make a decision on Keystone XL in 60 days. By January 2012, the president had denied the application for the construction to begin. But in March 2012, President Obama did approve the construction of Phase III (Gulf Coast Extension), which to some supporters of Phase IV seemed contradictory.

Map showing how the House of Representatives voting breakdown on November 14, 2014 for or against the Keystone XL pipeline
Map showing House of Representatives vote breakdown on 11/04/2014 for/against the Keystone XL pipeline (green – support; red – against) [Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Keystone_Pipeline]
Skip ahead to January 29th, 2015, a bill approving the construction of the Keystone XL was passed in the Senate with a vote of 62 to 36. Less than two weeks later the bill was passed in the House of Representatives 270 to 152. To the dismay of the supporters, President Obama vetoed the bill on February 24th, 2015, and the Senate was unable to override the veto, which requires a 2/3 majority, with only a 62 to 37 vote.

http://www.cnn.com/videos/us/2015/03/04/nr-sot-bash-senate-keystone-pipeline-bill.cnn/video/playlists/keystone-pipeline/

Who supports the Keystone XL Pipeline? Who is against the extension?

The pipeline has faced rejection and received support from people through the United States and Canada. One on hand, the Canadian government, oil companies and a handful of union laborers support the project because they believe it’s construction will produce a large amount of jobs. Residents in Montana and North Dakota also support Keystone XL because it would be much simpler for them to ship their oil to the refineries in Texas. Those in favor of the pipeline also focus on the concept that the pipeline saves money on the transportation of the crude oil. It costs about $10-$15 to transport one barrel of crude oil by train, while the pipeline cuts down the cost to about $5 per barrel.

Keystone-XL-Iowa-Rally-Supporters-640x387
(Support rally in front of Iowa’s state capital building [Source: http://keystone-xl.com/])
On the other hand, environmentalists and other landowners along the proposed pipeline have been in opposition to the Keystone XL. These people have argued that building the pipeline will make it much more difficult for the United States to lower their use of fossil fuels and it will produce more of Canada’s oil sands. As you can see by the picture below many people are outraged about the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline. This image shows a scene from March 2nd, 2014 when about 1,000 student protestors from Georgetown University marched to the White House to show their opposition to the pipeline. Many of the students were arrested for zip-tying themselves to the fence and laying on the black tarp, meant to represent an oil spill.

Students protesting against the proposed Keystone XL pipeline chant slogans in front of the White House in Washington,DC on March 2, 2014. tudents from around the country gathered to oppose the tar sands oil pipeline from Canada, which they say is dangerous for the environment. US Secretary of State John Kerry is set to announce in the coming months whether the proposed $5.4 billion oil pipeline serves the national interest and will be constructed following years of confrontation between environmentalists and the oil industry. AFP PHOTO/Nicholas KAMM (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)
Students protesting against the proposed Keystone XL pipeline in front of the White House in Washington,DC on March 2, 2014. (Source: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jamie-henn/keystone-xl-protest_b_4886208.html)

What are the benefits or concerns people see with the construction of the Keystone Pipeline XL?

Two of the main points of controversy between the supporters of the pipeline and the opposition to the pipeline are the creation of jobs and environmental concerns. Those who support the pipeline believe that it will produce thousands of jobs, if not more. The supporters believe the pipeline will increase construction jobs as well as jobs for the operators of the pipeline, in addition to jobs created indirectly in related industries.

“The Keystone XL Pipeline project is estimated to bring in $20 billion of private sector investment into the American economy, create 20,000 direct jobs, spur the creation of 118,000 spin-off jobs and pay out $5 billion in taxes to local counties over the project’s lifetime.” – Gene Green 

United States Representative for Texas’s 29th congressional district, Gene Green, an vocal supporter of the Keystone XL Pipeline, believes the jobs created by Phase IV will be incredibly beneficial for the United States.

Those opposed to the pipeline also agree that jobs will be created but only for a limited time. The graph below illustrates their opinion – they predict that after the construction is completed the number of jobs will greatly decrease.

pipeline4-1
(Source: http://www.popsci.com/slippery-truths?image=3)

When it comes to environmental concerns, the main focus is the effects of oil sands development on global warming. Extracting the bitumen from the ground emits about 15% more greenhouse gas emissions than the production process for a barrel of crude oil in the United States. James E. Hansen, NASA climate scientist and activist, said “if all the oil was extracted from the oil sands it would be game over when it comes to stabilizing the climate”. Industries in Canada are supportive of the pipeline and want to increase the oil production from the tar sands, but environmentalists have an issue with that goal. In a recent report, Reality Check: Air Pollution and the Tar Sands, environmentalists have determined that if the production of tar sands triples, which is what the industries want “it would mean a 230% increase in nitrogen oxides pollution, a 160% increase in sulphur dioxide emissions and a 190% increase in particulate matter”.

The Keystone XL pipeline also runs through multiple states throughout the U.S. and some residents are concerned about the danger of oil spills. For example, on January 17th, 2015, there was a massive oil spill, 50,000 gallons of crude oil, into the Yellowstone River.

Crude Oil spilling into the Yellowstone River
Crude Oil spilling into the Yellowstone River (Source: http://www-tc.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/next/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/CROP-bridger-pipeline-river-overview-1-19-2015.jpg)

What many news outlets failed to mention during this horrible event is that the Keystone XL pipeline would be build relatively close to this pipeline that spilled, but more importantly a spill from the Keystone XL in this area would be much worse. One specific example of a possible spill is in the Ogallala Aquifer, a fresh water reserve that spans eight midwestern states – Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, New Mexico, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas and Wyoming. The Ogallala Aquifer provides fresh drinking water for two million United States residents and supports $20 million of agriculture. An oil spill from the Keystone XL pipeline in the region of the aquifer would be detrimental to millions of people in addition to the United States agricultural economy.

pipeline_map_0
(Source: http://presscore.ca/2011/wp-content/uploads/2012/04/keystone-water-piepline.jpg)

Overall it is unclear whether or not the Keystone XL Pipeline will be approved in the near future, or at all. It is still a pressing issue that many prospective presidential candidates are being questioned on. So we may need to wait until the 2016 Presidential Election in order to see what the outcome for the pipeline is.


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