As if security weren’t already a good enough reason to get off petroleum-based fuel sources, their escalating price is a wonderful motivation to stop using them completely. With oil and gas becoming ever more problematic for a variety of political, economic, inter-cultural and environmental reasons, alternative fuels are making great gains as we reduce our addiction to petroleum.
Fossil fuels are everywhere. We are practically swimming in them. They are in almost everything we use. If a product isn’t made from some component of oil, it was transported to market by and packaged within some other product that was.
Even our food is tainted — shipping or storing food in containers produced from petroleum products imparts petroleum to the food itself. Using glass or metal containers for food would be better, but those containers were still forged using technology powered by petroleum to some extent (and there’s still the issue of transport and packaging).
But all is not lost. With new social pressures creating a need for inventive research and technology, there is an amazing array of options coming into prominence. Whereas the other portions of this column have focused on what you can do directly to live greener (by being more conscious of your interaction with water, earth and air), this installment will provide information about large-scale actions concerning cleaner energy.
Almost everyone by now is familiar with the eco-friendly concepts of hydroelectric dams and solar energy. (Even the Vatican is going to implement clean energy by covering a large portion of St. Peter’s with the large black, sun-grabbing squares.) For this column, I want to focus on those resources that, to date, haven’t gotten as much attention in the press.
Windmills are an ancient technology. They were first used thousands of years ago to grind grain into flour or meal for the production of various breads. The merchants of Medieval Europe used windmills to churn various concoctions and the American landscape was once completely littered by them as they pumped water to the surface in areas that would otherwise have been uninhabitable.
Today windmills are attached to turbines and connected to power grids. They generate electricity very efficiently, cheaply and cleanly — when the wind blows. Although it is not possible to forecast the amount of energy that will be produced over short spans, in the course of months, seasons and years wind is an exceptionally prolific generator of energy.
In fact, wind energy now supplies 1.2 percent of the energy consumed in the U.S., up from only 0.12 percent in 1999. Yes, a perfect 1000 percent increase in a decade. The U.S. Department of Energy is so impressed by this that it has done studies revealing that wind farms in only three states, given proper maintenance and responsible development, could eventually power the entire nation.
Compressed air cars
Another use of air that requires more research for implementation in modern technology is compressed air. This also is not new technology. Pressurized air that is controllably forced through engines has been used in the past in mineshaft trains, torpedoes and jets. It is absolutely clean, replenishable and inexpensive. Prototype cars are already being tested on a limited basis.
It would cost about $0.75 per 50 miles to fuel the cars, which would hold about 300 pounds of heated, compressed air in their tanks. The exhaust is air, along with a few spatterings of lubricant from the engine (which, if greased with oil made from biomass materials, is a negligible concern for the environment). The difficulty for now is that the tanks are possible hazards in collisions and it’s difficult to maintain enough heat in cold weather to give the compressed air enough oomf.
These resources range from grasses to micro-algae to raw sewage. Because oil is the compressed remains of biological materials, it’s obvious that a great deal of our own waste is actually a fuel source. Plants and algae have oils in them that can be processed and used directly as fuel. Human and farm waste is used both directly and as a source of ammonium, which can be used in fuel cycles as well.
These re-uses not only allow for the production of an alternative fuel, they also provide a means for cleaning up biological pollution. It should be noted that plastics can now be made from the oils retrieved from biomass sources.
Aside from dams, there are also turbines that can be powered by the rise and fall of waves and tides, as well as the constant currents in the ocean. Although a constant source of energy, for now these types of turbines are expensive, inefficient and negatively impact the environment — sucking fish and marine mammals into their blades. When this technology is fully developed, it will yield a colossal source of clean, cheap, inexhaustible electricity.
Another potential energy option is seawater itself. In 2007, researcher John Kanzius accidentally set sea water on fire while pursuing treatments for cancer. While trying to desalinate the water with a radio-frequency generator Kanzius found that the water would burn as long as it was exposed to this particular frequency.
The radio waves weaken the bonds within the molecules that make up salt water, causing them to emit hydrogen. The fire created can reach nearly 3000 degrees Fahrenheit. Seawater is the most abundant resource on the planet, but the process requires more energy than it currently yields
U-235 is the variety of Uranium most commonly used in nuclear power plants. However, U-238 is nearly 140 times more common, produces less waste that is less toxic and yields more energy. This variety of Uranium is being considered for implementation in more plants throughout the world.
Turbines that are powered by the steam rising from the hot innards of the planet are an efficient alternative to fossil fuels. Iceland in particular has freed itself from a large portion of its oil dependency this way, allowing it to funnel resources to other parts of its economy. As a result, Iceland has managed to convert itself from a depressed economy to a nation with one of the world’s highest per capita ratings.
There is some debate as to how long a particular site can safely and responsibly provide energy (because of concerns about the effects on the surrounding ground stability), with estimates ranging from five decades to five eons.
For now the best way to incorporate alternative fuels is in combination. The Massachusetts Maritime Academy says researchers there have achieved near 100 percent fuel efficiency through a combination of wind, solar, bio-gas and hydrogen storage.
In time we will finally come out of the quagmire of oil. The only question left, since we have had this capability for years: When will green life finally become more valuable than green money?
— Jack Kirven holds an MFA in Dance from UCLA and a national certification in personal fitness training through NASM.
Q-Notes’ “Health and Wellness” column rotates between physical fitness, spirituality, green living and medical wellness.