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Replacing oil reserves

October 9, 2006 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 84, Issue 41

Jeff W. Eerken's letter points out that biofuel is not the answer to our energy problems (C&EN, July 17, page 4). I agree. However, his list of the benefits of nuclear power needs to be challenged. As a former nuclear engineer, I can foresee the demise of the nuclear power industry.

The 1980s witnessed a virtual worldwide collapse of orders for nuclear power plants. The previous decade had been marked by frequent technical mishaps, serious accidents, huge cost escalation, and a rapid decline in public acceptance of nuclear power. Many European countries have abandoned the use of nuclear energy and, more recently, turned heavily toward the solar-hydrogen economy.

Austria, Sweden, and Italy voted in 1987 to oppose or phase out nuclear power. Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands, and Spain decided not to build new nuclear plants and intend to phase out nuclear power by 2010. The reasons for the collapse of nuclear power include safety problems, inability to dispose of nuclear waste, the potential uncontrolled proliferation of nuclear materials in the hands of terrorists, and the dwindling supply of uranium. In addition, the Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Monju breeder (Japan) nuclear incidents led the death knell of the nuclear industry.

Controlled nuclear fusion power generation-that is, hydrogen fusion-is also not an option. In 1950, Edward Teller theorized the existence of nuclear fusion. However, even with heavy government funding in the past 35 years, there has not been any demonstrated sustainable controlled nuclear fusion power source. In the past five years, government funding for nuclear fusion has been greatly reduced.

Nuclear fusion research is now waiting on advances in superconducting magnets and new alloys for high-temperature containment. Both of these are large technical obstacles. In addition, nuclear fusion would not be expected to be commercialized until after 2065, if at all.

Thus, nuclear fusion will not be available when the remaining fossil fuel supply is exhausted. We must quickly develop renewable energy while we still have sufficient fossil fuel to make the transition.

Warren Reynolds
Escondido, Calif.

Eerkens is absolutely right to point out that biomass as we know it today cannot be a solution to replace depleting oil reserves if we continue to be as energy-dependent as we are today. However, he might be a little pessimistic.

Dramatic improvements in energy efficiency can—and most certainly will—dramatically reduce individual energy needs in the future. But because saving energy will not be enough to meet expanding worldwide demand, biomass production will have to be increased. It seems to me that significant progress can be generated from at least two sources. First, biomass photosynthesis can certainly be improved from today's average efficiency of 0.03%, but very little has been done in that direction because that kind of research had no economic value in a cheap oil environment. Second, when it comes to biomass production, we have a tendency to forget that most of Earth's surface is covered by oceans and that sea plants can also be quite efficient tools to transform solar energy into biomass, particularly in tropical waters where the quantity of solar energy available is great and does not vary much during the year.

Jean-Paul Vignal
Argyle, Texas

I agree with Eerkens that fast-burn nuclear power must be a significant component of future energy supply. If I understand the technology correctly, it makes much more efficient use of the radioactive materials; produces waste with much shorter half-lives; and, if electrochemical recycling is used, weapons-grade materials are not involved. Wind and solar energies are already practical and are also a part of the picture.

However, as to the production of ethanol from cellulose, I'm wondering whether garbage, which is 40 to 50% cellulose, couldn't be at least a partial supply. People normally think of using corn or grasses, and the net energy balance might not make sense (though it does in Brazil). However, the infrastructure for cellulose garbage pickup is already in place (the cost is already paid), the quality of the cellulose could be very high, and about the only requirement would be a few hours of television time to teach people how to separate the cellulose (paper) products efficiently.

We need to recycle anyway-wouldn't this cellulose be better as a feedstock instead of in a landfill?

Bob Grimm
Columbus, Ohio



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