What I Am Reading: #scio12 swag, Before the Lights Go Out

Feb 06 2012 Published by under [Science in Society]

One of the joys of attending Science Online can be a  pain as well. With all of those authors in the group, dragging home books can result in excess baggage fees. This year a lottery book distribution limited the problem. As I took my tickets down the rows of books and advance proofs, I picked some that looked delightful for me and some that family members would enjoy.

Available April 10, 2012

I won one of the latter, one I chose because my son is a first-year engineering student at Minnesota with a vague interest in green, clean energy:

Before the Lights Go Out: Conquering the energy crisis before it conquers us.

Maggie Koerth-Baker, currently affiliated with BoingBoing.net, explores our relationship with energy in the US. Early on, she points out that energy can be viewed through many lenses. Some people wish to end out dependency on foreign resources. Others are concerned about climate changes. Most people hope to save a few bucks along the way, even if that is not the primary motive.

Unfortunately, individual actions cannot achieve the changes we must make to preserve our way of life. Even if we all immediately change our light bulbs and buy electric vehicles, the same issues continue since generation of electricity constitutes our major consumption of energy and our major source of pollution. Why not build more renewable generators, like windmills, solar panels, and hydroelectric plants? We can; but electricity must enter the grid in the correct amount at the correct time. We simply cannot generate energy from these sources until we can store it for when and where we use it.

She examines each alternate source of energy in its turn, as well as many conservation options. Ultimately, our energy infrastructure built up to support our current lifestyle, and changing our relationship with energy will require big, expensive changes to infrastructure before anything of real significance can happen.

Does that observation mean that Maggie Koerth-Baker does not believe we should be changing light bulbs and buying more efficient vehicles? Absolutely not! Conservation remains part of the strategy - it just cannot be the sole approach.

The book ends with descriptions of some projects involving decentralization of energy generation. Local biofuel generation in Madelia, MN, particularly fascinated me. An environmentalist became concerned about topsoil loss in the area. Wanting to prevent erosion by encouraging farmers to plant "Third Crops (native grasses that take less toll on the soil but have little economic benefit), Linda Meschke needed to find a way to make these plants profitable. The solution came in collaboration with the University of Minnesota. They towed in  a microwave pyrolysis system to convert those cellulosic stalks into energy.

Pyrolysis involves heating organic material in an oxygen-free environment to just under 950 degrees Farenheit, a process that releases a bunch of volatile gases that can be condensed into liquid fuel. The solids that remain are biochar, a charcoal-like substance that traps carbon in ring structures for a long, long time. This energy generation is carbon neutral, and the biochar can bind nitrogen, perhaps making it a good fertilizer.

Wonderful! Why don't we go cut kudzu and crank out these microwave pyrolyzers?

First, the liquid fuel can be used as home heating oil or in place of industrial petroleum, but its acidic pH will not let it substitute for gasoline. Second, the data about biochar is preliminary; only long-term field tests will confirm its use as fertilizer. Finally, the system is not yet ready to be scaled up. While it is allowing farmers around Madelia to save a few bucks and profit from "Third Crops," it has not taken the town off the grid or closed the local gas station. It is a tantalizing first step, though.

The bottom line is that solving the energy/pollution/climate change crisis will depend on a lot of smaller experiments, novel technology, and infrastructure changes. No single solution will provide "The Answer" for the entire problem. Ultimately, some big, costly, large-group changes will be needed.

I hope we can find our way to make them happen.


5 responses so far

  • Wow. You're on top of things! I won this book also, and unfortunately, haven't yet had time to read it. I enjoyed your review, and it's spurred me to start reading the book very soon!

    • Pascale says:

      I made the mistake of telling my son about it, and he is chomping at the bit to read it. He is vacillating between mechanical and chemical engineering (after 1 semester he doesn't have to be committed), with interests in cleaner, greener energy. As I'm mailing him a goody package next week for Valentine's Day, I figured I would tuck this in with the other stuff.
      I was surprised by how compelling I found this book; this sort of science has never been that interesting to me, yet I couldn't put this volume down.

  • "This energy generation is carbon neutral"

    Um, really? What about the bit where they heat the grass to 950 F?

    • Pascale says:

      Yes they use electricity to run the microwave device, but the grass itself leaves no volatile carbon. Read the book for more detail. It's fascinating.

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