Saturday, June 17, 2006

Energy Crisis: Part I

In honor or celebration of the movie of Al Gore's now famous slide show presentation, An Inconvenient Truth, I'm kicking off a series of posts about energy and the environment. I'm going to refrain from calling our present situation global warming, as a more accurate and more widely accepted term used by the scientific community is global climate change. This term is more accurate because the anthropogenic effects of greenhouse gas emissions includes changing climate patterns which have and will cool as well as significantly heat parts of the globe beyond their normal ranges. I highly recommend this movie for viewers of almost all ages, but particularly for anyone who is still saying they don't get it or doesn't know what their role in a solution could possibly be. This is a big and complicated issue that no one fully understands the entire implications of, but the basic facts, that which is not in dispute, is layed out clearly and powerfully in this movie. Until there is a sea change in our social consciousness which can profoundly change the course we're plotting, Gore's message cannot be said loud enough or often enough.

The movie provides several basic insights into what can be done by individuals to combat climate change and greenhouse gas emissions. Any other ideas?

Many people know that recycling is a key to reducing green house gas emissions and use of petroleum products. Composting is an important way to reduce waste and to effectively recycle the nutrients and energy stored in our fruits and vegetables. What many people don't know is that composts are producers of methane, the product of decaying matter, as well as heat. There is a kind of engine called the Sterling engine which runs off of temperature differentials (see diagram below from TwoPiston-Still.adp). This engine was designed by a chemist studying thermodynamics and it works extremely efficiently, steadily, and with absolutely no emissions or byproducts. Anywhere in the world where two areas of different temperature are found near each other, a Sterling engine may be run. Sterling engines are basically the engines which drive nuclear powered submarines and aircraft carriers; the heat needed to power the engine is generated by decaying radioactive material.

In the spirit of being part of the solution rather than part of the problem, I propose a project designed to test the possibility of running Sterling engines for the generation of electricty off of composts and landfills, as each gives off a significant amount of heat lost to the atmostphere, and are found in places where areas of cool air are nearby and immediately available. If large scale processes could be built to generate this power, all the better, but if enough electricity could be generated by a compost powered Sterling engine to light your house a couple of days each year, the reduction in carbon dioxide emissions worldwide would be enormous.

This method could be used in combination with methane collection from landfills and composts for energy production, already begun and which still has a long way to go before it reaches full capacity. Remember the car in Back to the Future II powered by apple cores and banana peels? Maybe the future's not so far off as we think.


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