Week of May 3, 2020

Fuel for Thought


The beginnings of what we call “fossil fuels,” because the original ingredients are ancient organisms: Coal is the remains of plants that lived near swamps in humid regions millions of years ago.


Oil is the remains of ancient algae, plankton, and bacteria which got buried under rock.


The same ingredients and conditions that create oil also create natural gas, also known as methane or CH4. Oil and gas are often found together when drilling.


Ethanol, which you often see mentioned as part of the fuel blend at gas station pumps, is fermented from the starch and sugar found in common crops like corn, wheat, barley, potatoes, sugar cane, and sorghum. Notably, the Ford Model T ran on a gasoline / ethanol blend, but the grain fuel was temporarily banned in 1919 in the US as part of prohibition, since it was considered an alcoholic beverage.


The most common types of fuels for nuclear power plants are uranium-235 and plutonium-239. Natural uranium is mined, and after much refining and enriching, the metal is processed into fingertip-sized pellets which each contain the energy equivalent of a ton of coal or 149 gallons of oil. Plutonium, which fuels over a third of most power plants’ output, is actually a by-product of the initial uranium reaction.


Geothermal energy is clean and renewable, but this heat from underground the must be fairly hot to produce electricity. For this reason, areas near tectonic plate boundaries can produce more geothermal energy. El Salvador, Iceland, New Zealand, Kenya and the Philippines, all countries with major tectonic plate boundaries under or near them, are among the big geothermal power producers. Incidentally, the Earth’s heat itself is from leftover from our planet’s formation, still cooling off 4.5 billion years after it was first formed.


Those slick, huge, modern wind turbines are made of high-tech materials, but using windmills to harness windpower for food production goes back nearly 2000 years, and they were used for electrical generation as far back as 1888.