Nuclear: Risks and Rewards

The United States and India just came to an agreement that will further the expansion of nuclear power. This agreement will cause the creation of several nuclear plants in India by U.S. companies. With its expansion comes questions of its risks and rewards.

Nuclear energy has a bit of an ominous history. What comes to most people’s minds is Chernobyl. The Chernobyl disaster was caused by the explosion of one of the power plant’s reactors. The outcome of this is still being felt today by those impacted by the radiation. Due to this radiation there is a “zone of alienation” that extends 19 miles in every direction of the power plant. Many are afraid of nuclear power plants due to the effects of the radiation fallout that occurs many miles away from a destroyed plant.

The radiation fallout produced by the Chernobyl disaster.

The radiation fallout produced by the Chernobyl disaster.

Another concern with nuclear energy is the nuclear waste that is produced. It is estimated that each nuclear reactor will annually produce 20-30 tons of nuclear waste. Nuclear power works through the intense heating of water through uranium to spin a turbine and generator. The combined uranium and water creates toxic waste, which many are concerned with the disposal of. The current solution is to take the nuclear waste and bury it deep into the ground into a  “permanent geological repository”.

Nuclear power does have many advantages over natural gases though. Nuclear energy has the lowest impact on the environment due to the fact that it does not release any greenhouse gases such as oil and natural gases do. It is also extremely powerful and very efficient.

Many risks do come along with the implementation of nuclear power, but there are many advantages too. Its expansion is dependent upon weighing the risks and rewards.

Are American Wind Farms Helping the World?

To someone who may not know, American Wind Farms are exactly what they sound like; they are large patches of land in America with wind turbines as tall as a 30-story building.  These wind turbines have blades, which are rotating at a speed of 200mph, and provide hundreds of homes with clean and renewable energy. The difference between renewable and nonrenewable energy is that nonrenewable energy cannot be used again, while renewable energy can be recycled as well as used again. Some examples of nonrenewable energy are fossil fuels, natural gas, and coal, while some examples of renewable energy are solar energy, wind energy, and geothermal energy. The importance of using renewable energy is that even though it can be considered to be the most expensive source of energy, it is beneficial to the planet because it is clean. As I mentioned before, wind energy is one type of renewable energy and it is doing wonders around the world, especially in the United States. Over the past four decades, we are using more wind energy and it is providing an increasing amount of energy. Now a days, an average wind farm generates around 50,000 megawatts of energy. Figure 1 is a picture of a American Wind Farm that generates enough energy to support over 100 homes in its neighboring communities.

Figure 1.


Not only do these Wind Farms help provide the world with clean energy, but they are also helping the economy. While building these wind turbines can be expensive, they are helping save several thousands of dollars in local energy bills. The Wind Farms are also providing 75,000 americans with jobs. These wind turbines are providing a chance for workers from American communities to prosper. American companies are providing more than 65% of the parts needed for each wind turbine. Figures 2 and 3 show the factories where the parts are actually created.

Figure 2.


Figure 3.


In addition to this, as wind energy becomes more popular and the demand increases, a uprising worry is if congress will continue to support an important wind energy incentive, known as the Production Tax Credit. The Production Tax Credit provides financial support from the federal government for the development of renewable energy sources. If this incentive expires, then that means that several individuals will be out of jobs. It also means that there will be no chance that wind energy will cover 20% of Americas total energy used by 2030.  Furthermore, if the incentive is passed, then there will be a projected growth in the number of jobs as well as the amount of renewable energy that is used. Therefore, it can be determined that not only is wind energy good for the environment, but it is also good for the economy.

How the Second Law of Thermodynamics Took Down Ancient Egypt

I know what you are thinking. What does science have to with the fall of arguably the most remarkable and culturally rich nation’s demise? To understand this puzzling question, we first must understand the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Rudolf Julius Emanuel Clausius was born to a wealthy family on January 2, 1822 in Poland. In 1840 he attended the University of Berlin with hopes of pursing a degree in history. However, he discovered a new passion and concentrated on mathematics and physics instead.[1]

Clausius became famous in 1850 when he wrote his first paper on the mechanical theory of heat, otherwise known as the second law of thermodynamics[2]. This law essentially states three important facts: 1. Heats travels hot to cold, 2. Heat cannot be converted into useful work, and 3. Every isolated system becomes disorderly overtime. [3] The third part of this law is the most important in understanding the fall of Ancient Egypt. In simplistic terms, as time continues, things decay. For example, refer to the diagram below to look at a snow flake. Snowflakes start off as orderly systems with intricate patterns unique to every flake. However, as time continues snowflakes melt and turn into water. What once was an ordered system, turned into chaos. Disorder is always more probable then order in any system.[4]


This image describes how over time systems become more disorderly. [5]


The Fall of Ancient Egypt

Ancient Egypt was one of the most influential River Valley civilizations that lasted from 3000 BCE until 332 BCE. This empire outlived Christianity by a thousand years and was already gone by the time western culture even existed.[6] The Egyptians created an empire that they thought would last an eternity. Due to its geological location, it was no surprise that Egypt became one of the most power nations in this region. Being near the Nile River and having fertile land made producing food a breeze. Having easy access to food, allowed the Egyptians to pursue other endeavors such as building the Great Pyramids of Giza (see image below). They also had an abundance of resources to create such huge monuments.

This is picture of the Pyramids of Giza. [6]

Unlike a snowflake, the Ancient Egypt’s transitions to disorder took about 3,000 years. It was very gradual, and can be broken up into 3 main periods: the Old Kingdom, the Middle Kingdom and New Kingdom. As each kingdom progressed, the entropy increased. Entropy measures the degree of disorder in the system.[6] As the entropy increased, this nation constantly got one step closer to destruction. In the path to demise, there where uprising, wars, corrupt rulers, oppression, droughts, and famine.[7] Finally around 300 BCE, the mighty Egyptians where defeated by the Second Law of Thermodynamics.

What does that mean for us?  

Have you ever wondered why the world seemed to be falling apart? There is murder corruption, war, and greed seen everywhere across the globe on the daily. The world as we know it, moment by moment is getting more chaotic. One day there will no longer be a United States of America or the even the ideas in which we hold dear. There will come a day our civilization will succumb to the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Every day entropy in our system increases; it is just a matter of time before we become like the Egyptians.

How Much Fossil Fuels do We Have Left?

Fossil fuels fall under the category of non renewable energy sources. There is a limited amount of oil, coal, and natural gas in the Earth’s crust. Fossil fuels are made when decomposable material, such as dinosaur bones, were buried in the earth millions of years ago. Coal is made from plants that once lived millions of years ago, oil is made from plankton that lived millions of years ago, and natural gas is mainly methane produced from the decomposition of materials in the Earth’s crust. These fossil fuels can be used to power machines, factories, and everything that requires electricity. The Industrial Revolution, from 1760 to around 1840, was what really started the world off in its fast paced consumption of fossil fuels. In the present day world, we annually consume the equivalent of 11 tons of oil. At this rate it is predicted that we will run out of crude oil reserves by 2052. We have enough coal to last hundreds of years, but if the reserves of oil and natural gas run out then coal will be used to fill that hole; this will cause the hundreds of years to be greatly lessened.


In this graph it shows that we will run out of all fossil fuels by 2088 if we continue to consume the fuel at the rate we do currently. Sixteen of the twenty largest oil reserves are already past their max capacity which means that we are not gathering as much fuel as we did now from them as we did. Fossil fuels are running out, and will be completely used up in the next hundred years or so. In the 1970s the Saudi Oil Minister said, “The Stone Age didn’t end for lack of stone, and the oil age will end long before the world runs out of oil.” He thinks that we will be moving on to greater, more efficient ways of generating energy. These ways are almost upon us with renewable energy sources such as wind power, solar power, or water power. Solar power especially has not met its full potential, as of now solar panels usually run around 11-15% efficiency, hydro-electric energy is 90% efficient, wind power is around 35% efficient, the efficiency of coal plants are around 40% efficiency. If the efficiency of the renewable energy sources can be bettered then a replacement for the consumption of fossil fuels will have been found. As the Saudi Oil Minister said it is only a matter of time before we find a replacement for fossil fuels.


HomeKit: The Future of Household Energy Use

There are issues with all of the aspects of energy, the creation of it, the uses of it, and the cost. Finding alternative renewable energy sources or inventing new technologies would help solve these problems, but it takes a long time and there is no guarantee that they will become widespread. Another way to improve the energy situation is to decrease the amount of energy being consumed. Decreasing the amount of energy that people everywhere use may seem like an incredibly difficult goal, but if anyone can create widespread change it is Apple. imgres

With its enormous influence in the world of technology and impressive amount of brand loyalty, Apple has the potential to make a lot of positive change. However, energy saving is not necessarily what Apple is known for. In fact, it has played a large part in the rise of energy consumption with the creation of the iPhone and other popular electronic devices. Nevertheless, Apple’s next product might help bring energy consumption back down. The new system is called HomeKit.

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HomeKit will be a new feature of IOS. It is designed to allow smartphones to control various accessories in one’s home. It will allow one to remotely control lights, thermostat and much more. Users can interact with Siri, an intelligent personal assistant included in most iPhones, to control their HomeKit. The HomeKit will be a common database that will communicate with all of the various accessories in the home. There will undoubtedly be a rise in new products that can be controlled wirelessly and then can connect to the HomeKit. There is no limit to what the HomeKit can control as long as the accessories have wireless capabilities.

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The software is designed to be as user friendly as possible. For example, the user can name lights in their house, so they can simply tell Siri to, “turn the kitchen lights on,” and HomeKit will know which lights to turn on. This system will not only change day-to-day life for millions of people, but it also might help form energy efficient habits. Enabling people to perform these small tasks without having to physically move will make saving energy more convenient and attractive. It also allows users to control their home when they are not even in the home, therefore allowing them to conserve energy on heat and AC when the house is empty. Home automation can make it easier for users to be more energy conscious. This will in turn create a more energy efficient society.


Coal Energy: Bane or Boon?

Mpumalanga, a province located in the east of South Africa, is the home to eleven coal-fired power stations owned by Eskom, a South African electricity public utility. Katerina lives in Witbank, a small town in Mpumalanga. Like many other people who live in her neighborhood, she has to worry about the air pollution brought by coal mining around her house. Dust is the major problem for her – the water that they have access to is full of dust and her son’s chest is also filled with dust. A study of air quality in Witbank by a team of scientists from the European Union suggests that Witbank’s air is the world’s dirtiest. Figure 1 is a diagram of current coal and air situation in Mpumalanga.

Figure 1: Coal Mining in Mpumalanga

Figure 1: Coal Mining in Mpumalanga

Almost all the disadvantages of coal can be seen in this area. Not only can coal mining be harmful to human health, but also can cause death. A report by Eskom shows that air pollution caused by its coal mining is killing more than 20 people annually. The coal mining is destroying both animal habitats and human communities. The worst impact of coal in this area is that 37 million tons of CO2 is emitted into the atmosphere by the Kusile power plant, which contributes to climate change.

During my research for the past week, it bothered me to see that the coal is still largely used as a main energy resource in the world, even in the United States. So do people not care about the damages that coal can possibly make? Or does coal just have too many advantages to be replaced?

Figure 2: Everything You Needed To Know About That Lump Of Coal In Your Christmas-Stocking

Figure 2: Everything You Needed To Know About That Lump Of Coal In Your Christmas-Stocking

Figure 2 shows things that one needs to know about coal. Indeed, there are many advantages of coal. First of all, it is a very cheap energy source compared to others. Price of coal from many places is very affordable. It also does not cost too much to build power plants that use coal as a major source. Second, coal is ubiquitous. Coal can be found in many different parts of the world. The three major countries that are abundant in coal are the United State, China and India. The abundance of coal also enables people to build power plants wherever coalmine is. Third, it is a relatively reliable source. The energy based on coal can be produced continuously while other renewable energy like solar and wind is not quite stable.

If we cannot find another energy source to replace coal, what can we do? The most important thing is definitely to improve efficiency level of coal use. According to World Coal Association, 1% improvement of efficiency of a coal-fired plant can result in 2-3% reduction of CO2 emission. Sadly, the efficiency of the most efficient coal-fired plants is only 45% while the global average is 33%. I believe that developing a more efficient coal-fired plant is urgent considering the damages that coal is making to our planet. While we care about our energy source, it is also necessary for us to think of the way that we are using energy in daily life. Therefore, educating people how to efficiently use energy is so important and it is the ultimate goal of my team’s energy challenge project.

How Much Do We Know About Fracking?

Many people have heard of fracking and the controversy that surrounds it, but few know what it actually means, or what the environmental cost is. Fracking is a word that has a lot of politics behind it, and triggers a lot of immediate reactions, but many people do not even understand what it is.

Natural gas is a nonrenewable fossil fuel, but burns cleaner than coal or petroleum. Natural gas is used in many domestic and commercial applications. It is composed of simple hydrocarbons, mostly made up of methane. It is traditionally mined from gas fields using wells, but a large amount of gas trapped in shale formations cannot be mined in this way. Fracking allows that gas to be mined. Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, works by injecting a high-pressure mixture of water, chemicals and proppant (solid material used to keep fractures open) into the shale, causing the shale to fracture and release the gas.

Fracking is a new way of mining natural gas, and there has been little time to see what long term negative effects it has on the environment. There are several specific concerns about fracking’s environmental impact. Fracking uses an estimated 70 to 140 billion gallons of water each year. This raises concerns about the impact on drinking water resources and the effect on aquatic ecosystems. Proppant used in the fracking, usually silicone based sand, needs to be mined, and can contaminate groundwater. Various chemicals are also added to the fracking fluid, some of which have very serious health consequences. Pollution from the fracking fluid can seep into drinking water reserves and aquatic ecosystems, threatening both natural and human health. The concerns about fracking are not just theoretical. There are multiple examples of spills like this occurring. In addition to the spills, there is a worrying lack of accountability, with gas companies failing to report the spills to the government.

Natural gas may be the cleanest burning fossil fuel, but if mining for it involves fracking, the trade offs may not be worth it. We still do not know the full potential to cause damage to the environment that fracking has, but that has not stopped numerous companies from setting up fracking sites. There over 2 million hydraulically fractured wells in the U.S., and around 95% of new sites use the procedure. To continue this trend of using technology without any consideration for its environmental impact is irresponsible and near-sighted.




From Wind to Walking: New Innovative Ways to Harness Energy

Change is all around if you look for it. Today, it seems to the regular citizen that energy innovation has been at a standstill, with the fossil fuels coal, petroleum, and natural gas still making up 81% of the world’s resources used to create energy, and 84% of the United States’.

The World’s Energy Usage by Resource

The USA's Energy Usage by Resource

The USA’s Energy Usage by Resource

Though one may know that solar panels, wind turbines, and other renewable resources are much more efficient, they are still not yet commonly found in the general neighborhood. Upon reviewing the NRDC’s Renewable Energy for America Map , I observed that though the United states has much potential for using renewable energy resources, there is a notable deficiency. Only roughly 70% of the country uses wind turbine facilities, along with less than 50% using solar energy. There are many factors that influence this shortage, such as cost, convenience, and appearance.

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But do not fear, environmentally conscious citizen! There are most certainly plans for a greener future. This same map shows planned growth of amount of facilities. And expanding, bright minds are looking to go beyond just photovoltaic solar panels and towering wind turbines. Just as we students are trying to lessen our school’s environmental impact, intelligent minds around the world are creating fascinating innovations, that, if they are to succeed, will vastly lessen the energy impact of not just the United States, but the world.

There are few things that a typical person can say that they do each and every day. There’s our routine, whether it be going to school, brushing your teeth, or eating breakfast. But there’s also the innate: breathing, blinking, and walking. Walking holds kinetic energy that begs to be harvested, and a researcher by the name of Laurence Kemball-Cook has found a way to do just that. People walk up to 150 million footsteps in their lifetime, and he and his company Pavegen have found a way to turn these steps into electricity. Tiles, created from organic materials and easy to install, are planted into the floor. To harness the energy of a footfall, they have a slight, unnoticable give when stepped on. These steps can generate up to 7 watts of energy!

Pavegen works best in places with lots of consistent movement: schools, train stations, and  recently, soccer stadiums. The company has just created a stadium fitted with Pavegen tiles that can fully power itself. This is a major innovation, as it is situated in Brazil, a location where there can be frequent blackouts. However, there are even more ways to harvest energy with only movement. A short time ago, EPGL medical created a contact lense powered by blinking. This power is then used to give medical or any other information to the user.

I believe that these innovations, especially that of Pavegen, will be soon implemented into the world around us. The tiles are cheap, easy, and effective. I certainly hope that they come over from their birthplace in the UK and surrounding regions into the USA, as they have the potential for one small step from a man to one day power the energy for mankind.

Wind energy is another renewable resource with major potential. In a prime wind-filled location, it can generate much power with little environmental detriment. But with positives come negatives. Wind turbines are generally disliked by the general citizen, as they can be an eyesore on the landscape. Rolling treeless hills may be a windy location, but if there are surrounding properties and homes, these people are often not pleased when their view is scarred by technology.

Another problem comes from efficiency. Wind turbines are not active one hundred percent of the time, as it is not windy at all hours. Trying to attack these problems, Altaeros Energies in Boston is working to change the ways we harness wind energy forever. They have created the “BAT”, a sort of balloon turbine that floats up to one thousand to two thousand feet in the air.

This turbine can utilize eight times as much energy as ones on the ground, using stronger, more consistent high altitude winds. They wouldn’t be deployed in heavily populated areas, therefore reducing human and wildlife impact, but instead rural communities, off grid companies, and areas of disaster relief. They would be less noticeable the their counterpart, as well as more cost effective. This is a huge jump in the development of wind harnessing technologies. One can only wait to see if this method spreads, as it definitely seems like a breakthrough in the way that humans can gather their energy.

The future of renewable resources is bright. Every day scientists are working furiously to improve and enhance the ways that we get our energy. Whether it be by wind or humans themselves, power can be found anywhere, if one is willing to look for it. Hopefully, as the world turns greener, one day you’ll be able to stride across Pavegen tiles and squint to see a far off BAT on the horizon.

If you’d like some further information about Pavegen, here’s a Ted Talk:

Organic Farming

Many countries in this day and age are moving towards organic agriculture or organic farming. This means that many countries in the world are trying to make the food they produce healthier and more sustainable for the environment. In order to understand what is going on around the world, one must understand what organic farming is. According to the website, Introduction to Organic Farming,  organic farming is a method of crop and livestock production that involves the choice to not use pesticides, fertilizers, GMO’s, antibiotics, and growth hormones. However according to the Canadian Organic Standards organic farming is so much more than making certain choices. Organic farming is also protecting the environment by minimizing soil erosion, decrease the production of pollution, and many other things. There are many reasons as to why organic farming is beneficial. Not only is the products you buy healthier for you, you are also protecting the environment by improving conditions in which these plants or animals grow.

The United States has begun the transition to more organic farming, however it still has a long way to go. However I am going to focus on Canada and the progress that the country has made towards making the transition to a more sustainable food production process. The movement towards organic farming came about in the 1950’s, however not much was done until the 1970’s. The first “organic farm” came about in 1974 at the McGill University and the universities development of the Ecological Agriculture Projects program. This University not only set up the first organic farm it also became the clearinghouse for the entire country if Canada. In 1980, the creation of certification bodies was developed along with an increase in government involvement regarding the environment. This means that farmers who want to become an organic farm and be able to sell to the public must be certified in order to do so. Since 2003, the number of organic farmers in Canada is about 1.3% or 3,100 organic farmers. However instead of the number of farmers increasing, the number has actually been constant. The same can be said for consumers. There was an increase in consuming towards the beginning of the movement but now the number has remained constant. This is because organic food production does not alway mean it is healthier. Also the price to buy organic products is a lot more expensive than buying conventional food.

organic farming


However I think that organic farming is great. There have been studies that prove that there are environmental  benefits to organic farming and given our current environmental crisis, I think that the world should be doing anything it can to help protect the environment.

Could Cheaper Oil and Energy Be Dangerous?

In the article titled, “Preserving Ancient Art In Land Marked For Solar Energy Development” by Jeremy Miller, we get a look at the dangers that come along with the benefits of the new fracking industry that has boomed in the US. Cheaper oil and energy seems to be a good thing, but there are prices to pay, including increased carbon in the atmosphere, which only speeds up climate change.  In fact, Figure 1 shows a chart of all the amounts of carbon dioxide emissions by the United States alone. (2)  As you could have guessed from Figure 1, carbon dioxide is the most popular greenhouse gas being released into the atmosphere by humans, harming the environment.

Figure 1: All U.S Carbon Dioxide Emission Estimates (2)



Alternatives would give us a brighter future, but they also come with problems. One example is the BrightSource Ivanpah Solar Power Facility, almost operational on the southern border between California and Nevada. This will be one of the larges utility facilities in the United States, “supplying nearly 400 megawatts of electricity, enough to power 140,000 homes during peak sunlight hours.” (1) This means 400 million joules of electrical energy every second. Compared with fracking, and the damaging pollution that it brings, an array of solar panels seems like a great idea. However, a whole list of issues has come up in the recent months while the solar panels were being installed. For example, the air around an active solar panel becomes heated. A large array of panels can create a “solar flux” (1), which is a pocket of super heated air that could rise and kill birds. This utility is built in the remote Mojave Desert, and may be endangering a rare species of desert land tortoise. This article shows that there is no easy answer to our energy needs. Even though peak energy consumption dropped off slightly after the 2008 recession, our country still needs to find clean, new, and efficient sources of energy that will have minimal impact on the environment. 

I always assumed that solar energy was good, and I was surprised at how many problems were arising from one energy plant. Another one that really struck me was the cultural impact: the land contains some ancient rock art from early Aztec people. Now the archeology is endangered. The descendants of those first natives still live in the area, but their communities are cut across by the array, and some of their native languages, which are only spoken by a handful of people today, are also now endangered by the solar panels. The result is that any new source of energy comes with problems, and these problems and issues need to be weighed against each other.