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Fossil fuels

November 6, 2006 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 84, ISSUE 45


Oct. 9, page 56. In our attempts to win the Ig Nobel Physics Prize, the Newscripts gang has been experimenting with time travel. This caused us to refer to the 2007 Ig Nobel Prizes in a story about the 2006 Ig Nobel Prizes. We apologize for the error and assure you that next year's Ig Nobels meet the standards C&EN readers have come to expect. The article posted on C&EN Online ( has been corrected.

I salute Pamela Zurer's editorial, "Biofuels Reality Check" (C&EN, July 24, page 3). Reducing our dependence on fossil fuels and our output of CO2 emissions fits with the green chemistry principle that it is better to reduce pollutants at the source than at the end of the pipeline. As Zurer points out, while we can act individually, such as by reusing grocery bags and buying more fuel-efficient vehicles, considerations on a broader scale are necessary. Distributing the revenues from a federal fuel tax to mass transit and implementing alternative energy generation and storage are excellent ideas.

We should demand that our representatives increase funding for development of solar and wind power, that suppliers remove hazardous substances from fuel before they can be spread to the atmosphere, and that mileage standards (corporate average fuel economy, CAFE) for U.S. autos be raised to those of the rest of the world. We need to become a world of conservers, not consumers, an issue bigger than biofuels or fuel subsidies.

It is time to demand that our elected representatives think for future benefits, not just for short-term profit, and we need to elect people with that vision.

Neal Anderson
Jacksonville, Ore.

We have dug ourselves into a hole through the exploitation of fossil fuels. These fuels were produced from biomass millions of years ago, but burning them now produces carbon dioxide that may be adversely affecting the atmosphere and producing global warming. Agricultural biomass produced by sunlight and then processed into biofuels is an obvious alternative, but its production may carry with it high costs and, to have an impact on the demand for fossil fuels, a negative impact on our food supply.

A sustainable supply of biomass for the production of biofuels is possible from ocean fertilization. The key problem here is the harvesting of the biomass produced. The diatoms that are the key plant life in almost the entire ocean are so small that harvesting must be left to zooplankton and fish. However, there is at least one area where seaweed grows in the open ocean, restricted by a circular current produced by the coreolis force. This is the Sargasso Sea in the North Atlantic. The water is deep, about 3 miles, and the Sargassum weed soon depletes the surface water of nutrients. Therefore, it is a prime area to increase productivity by the addition of fertilizing elements, primarily iron, phosphate, and fixed nitrogen.

The area of the Sargasso Sea is about 2 million sq miles, so we can grow a lot of weed for conversion into biofuel. I believe that we could produce about 5.7 billion barrels of fuel per year, or about 74% of current U.S. consumption, by fertilizing 20% of the Sargasso Sea area.

This approach is new and is covered by a recent U.S. patent application. It holds a promise of getting us out of the energy hole we have dug for ourselves without adding any carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, and fuel at a cost per barrel that is less than half the current price.

Michael Markels Jr.
Camas, Wash.

In all the discussions of the impact of burning fossil fuels on global warming, there is one idea that I have not seen discussed. Fossil fuels are largely hydrocarbons. If there were a process to convert these into hydrogen and carbon, the generation of CO2 could be avoided entirely. The hydrogen could be burnt harmlessly as a fuel, and the carbon could be converted to carbon fiber or nanotubes and put to some use.

Obviously, this solution would require a large research effort, but I don't think that we are starting from scratch. There are already catalysts that insert into C-H bonds, and with some investigation it ought to be possible to develop a catalyst that generates hydrogen and constructs some useful form of carbon. Maybe I'm overly optimistic, but I think this idea might be worth pursuing.

Ken Dyall
Portland, Ore.



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