Writer: Dhakshayani Suresh
What are Fossil Fuels:
Fossil fuels are rock-like, gas, or liquid resources that are burned to generate power. They include coal, natural gas, and oil, and are used as an energy source in the electricity and transportation sectors. They’re also a leading source of the world’s global warming pollution.
Impacts of Fossil Fuel Production and Consumption:
Water impact- When oil and gas are extracted, water that had been trapped in the geologic formation is brought to the surface. This “produced water” can carry with it naturally-occurring dissolved solids, heavy metals, hydrocarbons, and radioactive materials in concentrations that make it unsuitable for human consumption and difficult to dispose of safely.
Land Impact- A large amount of land is disturbed by the drilling wells, access roads, processing facilities, and pipelines associated with oil and gas drilling operations. In particular, noise and habitat fragmentation can harm wildlife populations. For example: one study found an 82 percent decline in the population of Powder River Basin sage grouse between 2001 and 2005, which was directly linked to the area’s coal bed methane production.
Global Warming Impact- Natural gas’s climate emissions are not only generated when it’s burned as a fuel at power plants or in our homes. The full global warming impact of natural gas also includes methane emissions from drilling wells and pipeline transportation.
Transport Impact- Natural gas is transported over long distances by transmission pipelines, while distribution pipelines deliver gas locally to homes and businesses. But natural gas is also highly flammable, making the process of transporting it from wellhead to homes and businesses dangerous. Between 2008 and 2015, there were 5,065 significant safety incidents related to natural gas pipeline transmission and distribution, leading to 108 fatalities and 531 injuries.
Current Alternatives to Fossil Fuel Production
1) Hydrogen Fuel Cells: Hydrogen is one of the earth’s most abundant elements. Hydrogen fuel cells can produce clean energy for a variety of different sources. They can be used in the transport sector in a similar way to lithium-ion batteries, but unlike batteries they do not run down or need recharging. But, uptake in hydrogen technology has been slow due to its cost.
2) Solar power technology has come a long way over the last few decades. Solar panels are now so advanced, they can be used for energy production on an unprecedented scale. Many homes are able to generate all of their required power from solar panels alone. The only thing holding solar power back from widespread adoption is the upfront costs. The cost of solar power installation is off-putting for many homeowners. To combat this, governments around the world have introduced initiatives to encourage more people to adopt solar power.
3) Wave energy utilizes the kinetic energy of the sea to generate electricity. Wave energy converters are placed far out in the oceans to harness the power of the waves and use it to produce energy. The advantage of this is that there is little to no waste produced. It’s very reliable and has a lot of potential. The only potential barrier is that, as of yet, scientists still don’t know exactly how these converters can affect local ecosystems.
4) Tidal energy is similar to wave energy and holds equally impressive potential. A recent report predicted that tidal energy alone could provide up to 20% of the electricity demands of the whole of the UK.
5) Wind energy is one of the planet’s most promising renewable energy sources. The wind is a limitless source of kinetic energy. Wind turbines can harness that energy by using it to turn spinning blades and generate electricity. The only ethical issue that has been raised is the appearance of wind turbines as many deem them ugly for the natural scenes of the countryside where they are placed.
New Discovery that Could Limit Fossil Fuels Effectively
Researchers have developed a standalone device that converts sunlight, carbon dioxide and water into a carbon-neutral fuel, without requiring any additional components or electricity. The device was invented by a team in the University of Cambridge. This device is a method of introducing artificial photosynthesis that mimics the ability of plants to use sunlight to create energy. The advanced “photosheet” technology converts sunlight, carbon dioxide, and water into oxygen and formic acid, a storable fuel that can also be converted to hydrogen. The new device can also be used on a large scale on energy ‘farms.’
What Problems Does the New Technology Address:
Generally, it is difficult to produce clean fuels without by-products. "It's been difficult to achieve artificial photosynthesis with a high degree of selectivity, so that you're converting as much of the sunlight as possible into the fuel you want, rather than be left with a lot of waste," said first author Dr Qian Wang from Cambridge's Department of Chemistry. The team was successful in addressing this issue in their device and was able to minimize the by-products produced.
While artificial leaf, a product similar to this device, used components from solar cells, the new device doesn't require these components and relies solely on photocatalysts embedded on a sheet to produce a so-called photocatalyst sheet. The sheets are made up of semiconductor powders, which can be prepared in large quantities easily and cost-effectively.
Limits of this Invention
While this technology will be easier to scale up than the artificial leaf, the efficiencies still need to be improved before any commercial deployment can be considered. The researchers are experimenting with a range of different catalysts to improve both stability and efficiency.
There may also be other potential risks to using such technology that has not yet been discovered which is why it may not be safe or completely effective in being a complete alternative to fossil fuels.
Ongoing Areas of Research in Fossil Fuel Alternatives.
Gut Bacteria E.Coli in generating renewable propane.
Whisky production for energy
Elephant Grass as an alternative to Fossil Fuel
With fossil fuels already adding on to the exponentially growing crisis that is global warming, any helpful change or technology is urgent. This new invention is a minor yet imperative solution that will help decrease fossil fuel production while also keeping the same costs for customers so that this method can work long term.
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Wireless device makes clean fuel from sunlight, CO2 and water. (2020). ScienceDaily. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2020/08/200824123406.htm