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Energy Problems

May 3, 2004 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 82, Issue 18

April 12, page 18: The photo credit should read "copyright Matthew Gilson, all rights reserved." Gilson is an independent photographer not affiliated with Northwestern University.

Energy problems

I read with delight your Editor's Page "A Challenge We Must Meet," in which you clearly outline the imperative that we move away from fossil fuel use (C&EN, March 15, page 3). Echoing the sentiments of Richard Smalley and David Goodstein, your statement that "ending our dependence on fossil fuels should be the highest science and technology priority of our nation and the world" is, in my opinion, exactly right.

However, I was horrified by your editorial "A Challenge We Must Meet--II," in which you assert that "nuclear energy will be an essential component of any strategy for weaning humanity from fossil fuels" and "it is disingenuous for environmentalists to argue against nuclear energy and suggest that renewable energy resources can replace fossil fuels in the near to mid-term. They cannot" (C&EN, March 22, page 3).

I strongly disagree with these assertions. To advocate the further development of a nonsustainable industry that requires the quarantine of dangerous waste for tens or hundreds of thousands of years is irresponsible in the extreme. Furthermore, the potential for providing large quantities of fissionable material that could be a potential target for terrorists is equally irresponsible.

The technology for maintaining our civilization using sustainable resources largely exists now. The fundamental technologies for efficiently converting sunlight to energy were developed several hundred million years ago. The core technology is called photosynthesis, and all that is required to harness, store, and distribute this captured solar energy is a shift in our economy and in our thinking.

About a third of our fossil fuel use goes to building and maintaining our homes. By utilizing passive solar designs and materials with a low embodied fossil fuel component (stone, wood, straw, mud, and so on), this fossil fuel use could be brought to nearly zero with existing technology, with no effect on lifestyle. Furthermore, if we grew more of our own food at home using nonpetrochemical techniques, even less fossil fuel use would result.

The rest of our energy generation, storage, and distribution needs could be met using existing and emerging technologies, including photovoltaic and wind generation, fuel cells, hydrogen generation, and carbohydrate chemistry. In principle, anything that can be made from hydrocarbons can be made from carbohydrates. In these areas, chemists and physicists can take the lead in advancing sustainable technology.

I submit that the required technologies are well in hand. What is required is a change in our economy. Cheap fossil fuels have engendered an economy based on global transportation and decentralization of production. Movement toward sustainable energy will tend to localize production, minimize long-distance transportation, and reduce the production of disposable commodities that are choking our landfills. But there need not be a reduction in quality of life. One could probably expect an improvement in our quality of life as we return to a more holistic involvement in our own existence.

The details of the transformation of our economy from fossil fuels to sustainable sources are not clear. Nor do they need to be. All that is necessary to achieve this transformation is economic incentive. If fossil-fuel-based energy production were taxed in such a way as to phase it out in a predictable way over the next 20 to 30 years, the transformation would occur relatively painlessly. Market forces would dictate the most efficient way to accomplish the transformation and dictate the technological developments needed.

The most effective way to end our dependency on fossil fuels is to call for an accelerated increase in the taxation of fossil fuel production. The rest will naturally follow.

Mark Schauer
Dublin, N.H.

"A Challenge We Must Meet--II" is right on target. In addition to supply limitations, the world's continued heavy dependence on fossil fuels comes at a heavy price. Environmental damage is very near the top of the list; however, there are other equally serious consequences from our thirst for petroleum in particular. It is very likely that much of the financial support for terrorism comes, through various channels, from oil income. Saddam Hussein's "evil empire" was entirely supported by the sale of Iraqi oil.

On a different note, as a chemist, it appalls me that we are burning a valuable, limited source of industrial feedstock for the purpose of generating energy that could be obtained from alternative sources. Thus, the pressing need for alternatives.

Your proposed plan to shift to nuclear energy as an interim source while new technologies are being developed that derive energy from the sun makes sense. Advances in nuclear technology since Three Mile Island, such as the advent of pebble-bed reactors, seem to have a smaller price attached to them than what we are currently paying for foreign oil. Biomass converted to ethanol is a sun-derived, recyclable source of relatively clean energy. An example of a promising new technology for the utilization of ethanol was recently reported<br > [Science, 303, 993 (2004)]. What may be needed at this time is leadership with imagination and a greater appreciation of the potential of science and technology to address this problem.

Sumner Burstein
Worcester, Mass.

Despite the prediction that "the world will soon start to run out of conventionally produced, cheap oil," the marketplace continues to send a different signal. In fact, motor fuel today is a smaller part of total transportation expenses than it was 60 years ago.

In the past 60 years, the price of gasoline has increased about sixfold. Over the same period, the cost of an automobile has increased about 60-fold. When you witness 100-mile daily commutes in large SUVs and shopping center parking lots filled with cars, you must conclude that the owners of those $35,000 vehicles are not much concerned about $1.75 gasoline.

When the marketplace gives us the signal, we will convert our railroads to electric power, generated by nuclear power plants. In this way, nuclear power will release substantial quantities of diesel fuel for higher value uses in air and ground transportation. Nuclear power also will heat our homes and run our factories. All of this has been done in France and Japan for many years.

James E. Pritchard
Bartlesville, Okla.

I wish to congratulate you for very perceptive, well-written, and, yes, courageous editorials. To have someone draw the attention of the scientific chemical community to the challenges of energy supply is most commendable. To have someone tell the public that we are not yet there and that solar economic energy is not yet within our ability takes honesty. To point out that nuclear energy does not produce CO2, is in ample supply, and has proven itself for more than 50 years takes courage, unfortunately.

We have let informed people impose their naive views unchallenged, with the disastrous effects of wars for oil and pollution of the environment. The mixture of politics and science has never served humanity--be it the politicizing of AIDS or of energy.

Moshe M. Sternberg
Berkeley, Calif.

On your March 22 Editor's Page, you tout the good news about solar energy: "A relatively small fraction of the total energy falling on Earth ... could meet all of the world's energy needs, if we knew how to harness, store, and distribute it." Then you point out the bad news: "We have absolutely no idea how to harness, store, and distribute it."

I would take issue with your words "absolutely no idea." In fact, we are already using (hence harnessing, storing, and distributing) a portion, albeit small at present, of solar energy. It is the sun which lifts water back over hydroelectric dams, creates the winds which help produce some electricity, creates the biomass used for heat, operates photoelectric cells, heats water very efficiently in many homes, etcetera. It may not be too long before catalysts are discovered which can permit sunlight at Earth's surface to break water into oxygen and the renewable fuel hydrogen.

I also take issue with your touting the increased use of nuclear energy. Although you acknowledge some of the problems with the use of nuclear power, such as the yet-unsolved problem of safe disposal of nuclear waste and the further production of the "problematic material that is all too easily harnessed to produce weapons"--that is, plutonium-239--you do not mention an even more horrific problem for humanity. That problem is one we may well have to (try to) live with from now on: terrorism on a potentially horrendous scale.

Not only will terrorists figure out how to sabotage or otherwise release radiation from nuclear reactors, but they will probably first figure out how to release the far higher inventory of radioactivity from the spent-fuel storage areas around each reactor site.

Even more enticing to terrorists will be shipments over open roads, railways, and sea lanes, which will be far more numerous and vulnerable than any other high-level radiation targets.

If we are going to spend a lot more time, effort, and money on alternatives to fossil fuels--and we had better do so--then I would hope we could lead the world into a phasing out of the use of nuclear energy.

Joel Selbin
Baton Rouge, La.


AIChE joins the fray

I read your Government & Policy Concentrate "OSHA, EPA, trade groups form alliance on chemical hazards" with great interest, but also with a little dismay (C&EN, April 5, page 49). It is true that the alliance is composed of those government agencies and several chemical company trade associations. But the Center for Chemical Process Safety (CCPS) of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE) was another key player in its creation. CCPS and AIChE will also play a critical role in developing materials to educate industrial practitioners and students on better management of chemical reactivity hazards.

Your report rightfully cited the 2002 Chemical Safety & Hazard Investigation Board study that highlighted the gap in awareness of--and guidance for--chemical reactivity hazards and urged cooperative efforts to bridge this gap.

You failed to note, however, that, in early 2003, after working in parallel to the board's study, CCPS published a landmark book, "Essential Practices for Managing Chemical Reactivity Hazards." OSHA and EPA, in cooperation with the American Chemistry Council and the Synthetic Organic Chemical Manufacturers Association, joined to fund free distribution of the book on the Internet (see ccps/resources.htm).

Working together to distribute the book demonstrated to all of us the desirability of cooperative efforts in this area, and the idea of the alliance was born. The original partners, joined by the Chlorine Institute, the National Association of Chemical Distributors, and the Mary Kay O'Connor Process Safety Center at Texas A&M University, formalized the alliance this year, and we have begun work on new efforts to raise the awareness of chemical reactivity hazards and to provide tools for their effective management.

Scott Berger
New York City


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