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The Great World Energy Dilemma


By James Donahue

February 2006


In his State of the Union address this week, President Bush repeated his tread-worn approach to solving the world’s oil crisis by promoting new technologies for alternative fuel sources. He said he believes America can break its dependence on Middle Eastern oil.


Mr. Bush is either lying through his teeth, or he is foolishly listening to some very bad advice. We all know the Bush family is heavily linked to the oil business and there is reason to doubt that he has any real incentives to wean us off that bottle in the near future.


But there are some very concerned people in this world that understand the looming consequences of having reached peak oil potential at a time when more and more new industrialized nations are competing for this now limited resource, and when greenhouse gasses from the burning of fossil fuels is heating our planet.


Thus teams of engineers and scientists are working with energy interests in a frantic search for clean and alternative fuel sources to generate electricity, meet growing world transportation needs, run our factories and heat our homes.


Thus there is a demand is for engines that operate on inexpensive and readily available fuels that do not pollute the air or the planet. And we are searching for power sources from a wide variety of different places.


One thrust by capitalistic-driven engineering is to find alternative oils from vegetables and animal fats, and to even recycle used engine oils. Thus we have developed bio-fuel from corn, canola, rape seed and other natural plants that can be processed for burning in diesel engines that power not only cars, trucks and buses, but home heating. This fuel has been hailed as the world’s answer to the oil crisis, and an entire industry is being built today around biodiesel in various parts of the world, including Europe, Brazil and India.


The industry boasts that bio-fuel is non-toxic and emits fewer emissions than petroleum based fuels. Also it is a fuel that can easily fit into the contemporary infrastructure. Existing vehicles can be equipped with engines that burn this fuel. The bio-diesel emits fewer greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, although some amounts of both carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide are produced.


Another downside to bio-fuel is the cost per unit. Its production is based upon an increased capacity of farm crops produced for conversion to vegetable fats. This means more fuel used to grow the crops, more chemicals in the fields, and more valuable farmland used for the manufacture of fuels instead of food for the masses. Thus there is an increase in pollution from the operations of farm machinery and chemicals used in the fields. For these and production reasons, bio-diesel is more costly than petroleum-based fuel to manufacture. Thus it is not the perfect answer to the world oil crisis.


President George W. Bush has been promoting the development of hydrogen engines for the operation of vehicles, and car makers are on that track as well. In response to this promotion, the legislature has appropriated a billion dollars to support research for the development of hydrogen engines.


The problem with hydrogen as a fuel is not the development of engines. A German, Rudolf Erren developed the first known hydrogen burning engine in the 1920s. He developed a conversion system and was thought to have converted from 1,000 to 3,000 cars, buses and trucks to hydrogen. Hydrogen engines are now being developed by major automobile companies including Ford Motor Co. and BMW.


Hydrogen is interesting because it is an extremely clean burning fuel and when used in a fuel cell, the only byproducts are heat and water.


Hydrogen can be procured through electrolysis, but to make enough of it to meet world demands the reforming process utilizes energy from other sources, mostly fossil fuels. Thus the manufacture of large quantities of hydrogen is not only a source of more air pollution, the energy used to produce this energy source is not efficient.


The search is on for better ways to produce hydrogen, and the optimistic view is that we may have it within the next 20 years. But there is no guarantee, and we need a solution to this problem now, not 20 years down the road.


America has an abundant supply of natural coal deposits. Some of this coal is found deep under the earth while in the southwest, it is strip mined right at the surface. This is an ugly scarring of the environment. Coal continues to run American industry, and especially our electric generating plants. While its abundance makes it very economical, it is a dirty fuel. When burned, the impurities like sulfur and nitrogen are released into the air, creating acid rain. The burning of coal also produces large amounts of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that is a major contributor to global warming. Thus the hunt is underway to find new ways of making coal burn cleaner. The technology exists to capture the bad gasses, sulfur and nitrogen at the stack, but it is very costly, so industry balks at the installation of this technology.


There is an alternative source of crude oil now being recovered from oil sands or bitumen, a heavy black viscous oil found in large quantities in the ground in Alberta, Canada. It is only in recent years that a process has been found to refine this material, separate it from the impurities, and refine it to produce gasoline and diesel fuels. The price of crude oil is now high enough that the bitumen industry in Canada can refine bitumen at a profit. It is currently producing 2.5 million barrels of oil per day and it is believed that there is enough oil in the Alberta soils to match, if not exceed all of the oil in the ground under the Middle East.


The problem with bitumen is that the process of recovering it involves ugly strip mining, which is devastating to the natural environment. The process of refining it involves the use of energy. And it is a carbon fuel so burning it in our cars, trucks and home heating systems is still polluting our atmosphere.


Mr. Bush also mentioned nuclear energy as an alternative power source. We have been down that road for enough years now that we have learned from mistakes how to utilize uranium to generate electricity and run our naval vessels with a relative degree of safety. But the big problem has always been the disposal of the deadly radioactive waste from these systems. Where ever it goes, that area is contaminated virtually forever afterward. We have resorted to burying it deep in the Earth, but this is not a perfect solution. The old nuclear generating plants built 20 and 30 years ago are now wearing out and the problem of disposing of these giant contaminated systems will be an even larger challenge.


The Russians are considering a cargo transport system between the Earth and the moon, to be in place by 2020, with a permanent moon base, for the mining of a rare isotope Helium-3 that appears to be plentiful on the moon. Helium-3 is a non-radioactive isotope that can be used in nuclear fusion. Some experts believe this would be an ideal fuel because it is powerful, non-polluting and generates almost no radioactive by-produce. The high cost of building such a system, mining and transporting the isotope back to Earth, however, may make this fuel impractical.


Then we have the natural earth energies from the sun, the water and the wind.


A plan for construction of a giant solar tower is in the works for this year. The 3,280-foot tower will be surrounded by a vast greenhouse that is expected to heat the air to drive turbines located around the base of the tower. The power station should be capable of powering up to 200,000 households.


Scientists also are working to develop solar, or photoelectric cells or synchronized mirrors called heliostats that track the sun’s movement to develop better ways of harnessing the sun’s energy. They also are working on a solar cell that heats hydrogen gas in an automobile tank.


Wind generating systems work when the wind blows. But it takes a lot of them to produce enough power to light up a city. And a lot of people see them as unsightly rows of windmills that destroy the natural beauty of the environment where ever they are located. And that usually has to be on high ground, where the wind blows, which makes them most visible from miles away.


Science also is looking at water as a natural solar energy collector. Ocean thermal energy conversion is being developed as a way to use the temperature differences between surface water heated by the sun and the ocean’s chilly depths to generate electricity. The problem with these systems is they operate on such small temperature differences they are only one to three percent efficient.


Water power on rivers and natural falls has been used for years to generate electric power.


The drawbacks of all of the natural energy systems is that they call for the utilization of large spaces for the equipment, and they operate at the whims of the weather. Solar cells do not work at night and on cloudy days. Wind generators depend upon wind. Water movements depend upon rainfall and the tides.


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