Energy and Earth - Real-life applications

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Energy and the Living World

One of the most interesting components of the entire energy picture is the relationship of energy input, energy output, and the biosphere. Particularly important is the use of solar radiation for the purposes of photosynthesis, an activity that constitutes a small but vital sector of Earth's energy budget.

Though it accounts for only about 1% of the energy received from solar radiation, photosynthesis is essential to the sustenance of life. In photosynthesis, plants receive solar radiation, carbon dioxide, and water, which chemically react to produce carbohydrates and oxygen. Animals depend not only on the oxygen but also on carbohydrates, such as sugars, and thus photosynthesis makes possible the development of the food chains that constitute the world of living creatures.


Even though food chain is a well-known expression, modern scientists prefer the term food web, because it more accurately portrays the complicated relationships involved. The term food chain, as it is commonly used, implies a strict hierarchical structure in which (to use another popular phrase) "the big fish eat the little fish." In fact, the relationship between participants is not quite so neatly defined.

It is, however, possible to describe a food web in terms of a few key players, or types of players. There are primary producers, which are green plants, and primary consumers—herbivores, or plant-eating animals. Secondary consumers (and those at further levels, such as tertiary and quaternary) are either carnivores—that is, meat-eating animals who eat the herbivores—or omnivores, which are both plant and animal eaters. For example, omnivorous humans eat herbivorous cows, who have eaten plants.

Carnivores and omnivores, however, are not really at the top of the food chain, so to speak; rather, in line with the non-hierarchical idea of the food web, they represent points in an interlocking set of relationships. Materials from plants, herbivores, carnivores, and omnivores ultimately will all be consumed by the lowliest of creatures, that is, detritivores, or decomposers, including bacteria and worms. At each stage energy is transferred, and, as always, the second law of thermodynamics comes into play. The energy is degraded in transfer; specifically, the further away an organism is from the original plant source, the less a given quantity of fuel contributes to its growth. It is interesting to note the economy of energy use at the detritivore stage.

Worms and other decomposers are exceedingly efficient feeders, working the same food particles over and over and extracting more stored energy each time. They then produce waste products that increase the vitamin content of the soil, thus enabling the growth of plants and the continuation of the biological cycle. Also, detritivores may contribute directly (and, from the larger energy-cycle perspective, less efficiently) to providing fuel for carnivores, as when a bird eats a worm.


The food web is the mechanism whereby energy is cycled through the biosphere, as fuel in the form of food. Plant matter and other biological forms also can serve as direct sources of heat, providing fuel that can be either burned without processing or converted into gas or alcohol. In such situations the plant matter is described as bioenergy, or energy derived from biological sources that are used as fuel.

Materials that are burned or processed to produce bioenergy are called biomass. Examples of the latter include wood logs burned on a fire, probably the oldest type of fuel known to humankind and still one of the principal forms of heating available in many developing countries. In fact, some of the least technologically advanced and most technologically advanced nations are alike in their use of another variety of biomass: waste.

Dried animal dung provides heating material in many a third world village where electricity is unknown, while at the other end of the technological spectrum, some Western municipalities extract burnable biomass from processed sewage. Since Western countries have at their disposal plenty of other energy sources, they typically burn off the methane gas and dried waste material from treated sewage simply as a means of removing it, rather than as an energy source. Those materials could provide usable energy, however.

The products of sewage treatment, of course, are the result of processing, which involves the conversion of biomass to either gases (for example, methane, as mentioned previously) or alcohol. Farmers in rural China, for instance, often place agricultural waste and sewage in small closed pits, from whence they extract burnable methane gas. In the United States, Brazil, and other countries with abundant farmland, some of the agricultural output is directed not toward production of food but toward production of fuel in the form of ethanol, a type of alcohol made from sugarcane, corn, or sorghum grain. Ethanol can be mixed with gasoline to run an automobile or burned alone in specially modified engines. In either case, the fuel burns much more cleanly, producing less poisonous carbon monoxide than ordinary gasoline.

Fossil Fuels

Biomass is potentially renewable, whereas another source of bioenergy is not. This is the bioenergy from fossil fuels—buried deposits of petroleum, coal, peat, natural gas, and other organic compounds. (Actually, fossil fuels typically are considered separate from other forms of bioenergy, because they are nonrenewable.)

Fossil fuels are the product of plants and animals that lived millions of years ago, died, decomposed, and became part of Earth's interior. Over the ages, as more sediment weighed down on these organic deposits, the weight applied more pressure, generated more heat, and led to the concentration of this decomposed material, which became a valuable source of energy.


Given the vast spans of time that have passed, as well as the almost inconceivable numbers of plants and animals, the supplies of fossil-fuel energy stored under Earth's surface are enormous. But they are not infinite, and, as noted earlier, they are nonrenewable; once they are gone, they might as well be gone forever, because it would take hundreds of millions of years to produce additional deposits. Furthermore, humans are using up these energy sources at an alarming rate.

Up until about 1750, Earth's fossil-fuel deposits were largely intact, but after that time industrialized societies began to extract coal for heating, transportation, and industrial uses. Today it remains a leading means of generating electrical power. During the twentieth century, petroleum increasingly was directed toward transportation, and this led to the extraction of still more of Earth's fossil-fuel deposits. If civilization continues to consume these products at its current rate, reserves will be exhausted long before the end of the twenty-first century.


There are several reasons not to panic over the loss of fossil-fuel resources. First, known reserves are just that—they are the ones that energy companies, and their geologists, know about at the present time. As long as plentiful resources are available, corporations and governments do not feel a pressing need to search for more, but as those resources are used up, such searches become economically necessary. For a time at least, these searches will continue to yield new (though increasingly harder to reach) deposits.

Also, fears about Earth running out of fuel are built on the assumption that no one will develop other sources of energy, a few of which are discussed at the conclusion of this essay. Though most of the known alternative energy sources face their own challenges, it is thoroughly conceivable that scientists of the future will develop means of completely replacing fossil fuels as the source of electrical power, fuel for transport, and other uses. After all, there was once a time (during the second half of the nineteenth century) when Americans became increasingly anxious over dwindling reserves of a vital energy resource essential for powering the nation's lamps: whale oil.

Environmental Concerns

While the loss of energy reserves may not be an immediate cause for panic, the effects of fossil-fuel burning on the environment have alarmed scientists and environmentalists alike. At the most basic level, there is the environmental impact posed by the extraction of fossil fuels. Coal mines, for instance, have been used up and now sit abandoned, their land worthless for any purpose. There is also the environmental danger created by hazards in misuse or transport of fossil fuels—for example, the vast oil spill caused by the grounding of the Exxon Valdez near Alaska's Prince William Sound in 1989.

By far the greatest environmental concern raised by fossil fuels, however, is the effect they produce in the atmosphere when burned. For instance, one of the impurities in coal is sulfur, and when coal burns, the sulfur reacts with oxygen in the combustion process to create sulfur dioxide and sulfur trioxide. Sulfur trioxide reacts with water in the air, creating sulfuric acid and thus acid rain, which can endanger plant and animal life as well as corrode metals and building materials.


Even greater fears center on the release into the atmosphere of carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide, both of which are by-products in the burning of fossil fuels. The first is a poison, whereas the second is a vital part of the life cycle, yet carbon dioxide, in fact, may pose the greater threat.

© J. Mead/Photo Researchers
. Reproduced by permission. )

Earlier we discussed the greenhouse effect, which, when it occurs naturally, is important to the preservation of life on the planet. The large number of internal-combustion engines in operation on Earth today produce an inordinate amount of carbon dioxide, which in turn provides the atmosphere with more radiatively active gas than it needs. According to many environmentalists, the result is, or will be, global warming. If it takes place over a long period of time, global warming could bring about serious hazards—in particular, the melting of the polar ice caps. It should be noted, however, that not all scientists are in agreement that global warming is occurring or that humans are the principal culprits inducing these environmental changes.

Alternative Energy Sources

Whatever the merits of the various sides in the debate on global warming or the exhaustion of fuel resources, one need hardly be an environmentalist to agree that the world cannot forever rely only on existing fossil fuels and the technology that uses them. Today, even as scientists in laboratories around the world work to develop viable alternative means of powering industry, utilities, and transportation, many alternative energy sources are already in use.

Some of these energy forms are very old, for instance, burnable biomass, water power, or wind power, all of which date back to ancient times. Others are extremely new in concept, most notably, nuclear energy, which was developed in the twentieth century. Still others are new, hightech versions of old-fashioned energy sources, the best example being solar power. In fact, all three major contributors to Earth's energy budget—solar radiation, tidal energy, and geothermal energy (discussed further later in this essay)—have been harnessed by human societies.


Several of the more ambitious ideas for energy creation, while they may capture people's imaginations, have significant drawbacks. There is the proposal, for instance, to extract hydrogen gas from water by means of electrolysis, potentially providing an extremely clean, virtually limitless source of energy. Hydrogen gas, however, is highly flammable, as the 1937 explosion of the airship Hindenburg illustrated, and, in any case, the fuel to provide the electricity necessary for electrolysis would have to come from somewhere, presumably, the burning of fossil fuels.

Nuclear energy, of course, has frightened many people in the wake of such well-known disasters as those that occurred at Three Mile Island, Pennsylvania, in 1979 and Chernobyl, in the former Soviet Union, in 1986. In fact, those two situations illustrate more about governments than they do about technology itself. No one died at Three Mile Island, and with an open society and media access to the site, the public outcry became so great that the plant was closed. By contrast, the Soviets' outmoded technology helped bring about the Chernobyl disaster, and the communist dictatorship's practice of censorship and suppression led to a massive cover-up that greatly increased the death toll. As a result, thousands died at Chernobyl, and thousands more died as the result of the indirect effects of nuclear pollution in the environment.

There is no question, however, that nuclear energy does pose an enormous potential environmental threat from its waste products. Spent fuel rods, if simply buried, eventually leak radioactive waste into the water table and could kill or harm vast populations. This all relates to nuclear fission, the only type of peaceful nuclear power in use today. In building the hydrogen bomb in the mid-twentieth century, physicists and chemists used the much greater power of nuclear fusion, or the bonding of atomic nuclei. If nuclear fusion could be produced in controlled reactions, for peaceful use, it would provide safe, cheap, limitless power to the planet.


Unless or until nuclear fusion or some more advanced alternative energy source is developed, societies will continue to rely on fossil fuels for the bulk of their energy needs. At the same time, alternative sources will continue to supply energy in certain situations. An excellent example of such a source is geothermal energy, harnessed by peoples in areas as widespread as New Zealand and Iceland centuries ago.

Long before the first Europeans arrived in New Zealand, the native Maori people used geothermal energy from geysers to cook food. Modern applications of geothermal energy began with the creation of the first geothermal well, by workers who accidentally drilled into one in Hungary in 1867. Today Hungary is the world's leading producer and consumer of geothermal energy, followed closely by Italy and Iceland. The word fumarole, used earlier in this essay, is Italian in origin, and it is said that the fumaroles near the town of Lardarello, used for the production of electricity since 1904, once inspired Dante Alighieri's (1265-1321) vision of the Inferno, as captured in his celebrated work by that name. As for Iceland, more than 99% of the buildings in the capital city of Reykjavik use geothermal energy for heat.

Heat is not the primary human application for geothermal energy. As noted earlier, in the context of the first law of thermodynamics, energy can be converted from one form to another. Thus, geothermal energy is applied for the creation of electromagnetic energy: steam or heated water from the ground runs turbines, which produce electricity.

Geothermal energy has enormous advantages, including the fact that its raw materials (heated water and steam) are free and relatively inexpensive to extract. It is also inexpensive environmentally, causing virtually no air pollution. Will geothermal energy ever significantly compete with fossil fuels as a significant source of energy for humans? It is conceivable, but at present a number of barriers exist. Geothermal resources exist only in very specific parts of the world, and the extraction of the raw materials may release noxious gases, such as hydrogen sulfide (the same compound that gives intestinal gas its smell). Also, ironically, there are environmental concerns, not because of true damage but because geothermal mines often pose a threat of sight pollution in the midst of otherwise gorgeous natural settings.


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