Future Fuels: Sparks? Soy?
By KRISTEN STERNBERG | NIE Educational Consultant
The Earth's population continues to grow, and more people mean more development, more food production, more industry and more travel, for a start. All these activities-and many others-require fuel. What if the world ran out of fuel?
Fuel isn't only the stuff we use to heat our homes or drive our cars. It powers trains, planes, ships and rockets. It runs machinery on farms and in factories, and produces the electricity we take for granted. For heat, transportation and electricity, people most often use "fossil fuels" such as oil, coal and natural gas. They are called fossil fuels because they were formed during the time of the dinosaurs, hundreds of millions of years ago. Fossil fuels are a growing concern for many reasons. For example, when burned they release toxins that harm our environment. Also, they are a non-renewable resource. Non-renewable means there is a limited supply-new fossil fuels can't be produced as quickly as they're being used up. It takes millions of years for them to form under the earth's crust.
Throughout history, many materials have been used as fuel. Some sources were exploited and are no longer available (for example, whales, which were once hunted primarily for their blubber to be used in lamps, became almost extinct due to overhunting). Wood, used for both building and fuel, is also in shorter supply today than it once was. Nomadic (wandering) tribes, traveling in open areas without many trees, fueled their cooking and heating fires with "chips," that is, animal dung. Droppings from animals such as buffalo, camels, reindeer and llamas are sometimes still used today in some areas of the world.
To offset the threat of using up the Earth's fossil fuels, scientists are researching other natural products as alternatives. While there are still major pockets of fossil fuels to be discovered, drilling to find them is expensive. In addition, drilling and mining can hurt the environment and disrupt wildlife. There's also some danger when transporting fuel from one place to another-pollution from oil spills is one example of the risks involved.
Recent experiments with producing fuel from vegetable material look promising. For instance, fuel from soybeans and vegetable by-products (such as cooking oil) have been used in place of petroleum products (gas, oil, diesel fuel, etc.) in cars and to heat buildings. Check out this News-Journal article about a soy-burning Harley-Davidson. Developers of vegetable (called "biodiesel") fuels proudly claim that using biodiesel fuel can not only reduce our dependence on fossil fuels but also help keep energy costs down and cause less pollution to the environment.
Scientists are working to find other alternatives for petroleum products used for transportation. Ethanol is a fuel made from grains such as corn or certain types of grasses. Cars have been developed that can run on ethanol instead of gas. There are also cars that run on electricity. Advantages of electric cars are that they're cheaper to run, quieter and better for the environment than traditional cars, but so far they're expensive to produce and they can't go long distances because they need their batteries charged very often. You will probably hear more about biodiesel and electric cars in the near future, as developments continue to make them less expensive and more available.
Electricity, though, is routinely produced using coal and other petroleum products. Increasing our use of electricity means we will still need fossil fuels to produce it. Fortunately, experts around the world are studying alternate ways to produce electricity. Many are looking to resources like the wind, the water and the sun. In other words, they're searching for viable ways to harness these important natural resources for power because they have the potential to provide renewable, relatively inexpensive, non-polluting fuel.
Windmills have been used for thousands of years. In the Netherlands, energy harnessed by the wind is used to grind wheat into flour, for example. Water wheels are another ancient device for harnessing energy. (You can see examples of water wheels all around Central Florida, at some of our State Parks and Historic Places.) Some modern waterpower is generated by hydro-electric dams (hydro is a Greek word for "water"), and it's now common to see solar panels converting the sun's energy to heat homes and water, run electrical appliances and power batteries. Steam is another important resource, but to generate steam you have to have a way to heat the water-unless we tap into the Earth's resources and figure out a way to harness heat from volcanoes, etc.
Did you know people in industrialized countries routinely use up to 20 times more fuel every year than people in less-developed nations? Even if the perfect alternative fuel became available tomorrow, we would still need to conserve our resources. Many of our foods and everyday household objects are also made from petroleum by-products, and some companies have made major changes in their efforts to use fewer fossil fuels. For example, did you know that The Daytona Beach News-Journal is printed with ink made from soybeans rather than petroleum products?
What can you do to reduce consumption of fossil fuels? Think about it as you check out the newspaper activities and web links provided below.
Try these interesting activities using The Daytona Beach News-Journal
1. Use The News-Journal's Classified section to find three automobiles for sale. (Choose ads that provide information on how many miles per gallon of fuel the car offers.) Next, find a newspaper dateline of a place in the United States you would like to visit. Use a map to determine how far the location you chose is from your hometown. Using the current price of a gallon of gasoline, compute the cost of taking such a trip. Do this for each of the three cars you chose. Finally, determine which car would provide the most economical trip. Draw a picture to show your results and share your findings with friends and family. (Sunshine State Standards MA.A.1.2.1, MA.A.1.2.2, MA.A.1.2.3, MA.A.3.2.2, MA.A.3.2.3, MA.B.1.2.1, MA.B.1.2.2, MA.B.2.2.1, MA.B.3.2.1, MA.B.4.2.1, MA.D.2.2.2 SC.B.1.2.2, SS.B.1.2.1)
2. How are scientists thinking ahead to the future? Science and technology continue to play a part in preserving our environment. Skim The News-Journal for display ads, pictures and articles that show examples of inventions, products and discoveries that are helping to clean the air and water and prevent the destruction of the Earth. Arrange your findings in a visual display entitled Science and Technology Help Preserve the Earth. Share your display with friends or classmates, or post it in a public place for others to learn from. (Sunshine State Standards SC.B.2.2.2, SC.B.2.2.3, SC.D.2.2.1, SC.H.1.2.3)
3. How does an increase in oil prices affect you? Find three stories in The News-Journal about world events that might impact the price of oil. Then, brainstorm ways your daily life might be affected. Continue checking The News-Journal to see how accurate you were. From time to time, share your findings to educate others around you. (Sunshine State Standards LA.A.1.2.4, LA.A.2.2.5, LA.A.2.2.8, MA.A.4.2.1, MA.D.1.2.2, MA.E.2.2.2, MA.E.3.2.2, SC.B.2.2.2, SC.B.2.2.3, SC.G.1.2.1, SS.A.1.2.1, SS.B.1.2.4, SS.B.2.2.3, SS.B.2.2.4)
4. People require energy not only for cars, airplanes, trucks and other kinds of transportation, but also for heating and lighting homes. How can you make your home more energy efficient? Use The News-Journal to clip articles and ads about products and methods that are available to help you use energy more efficiently. Draw a picture, or make a model, of your home showing how you might use what you have learned. Share with your family. (Sunshine State Standards SC.B.1.2.2, SC.B.1.2.3, SC.B.1.2.4, SC.B.1.2.5, SC.B.1.2.6, SC.B.2.2.2, SC.B.2.2.3, SC.C.2.2.1, SC.D.2.2.2, SC.18.104.22.168)
5. Skim News-Journal articles for keywords that relate to energy use, fuel, pollution, conservation, etc. (Make a list of the words as you find them. You'll need from about 10 to 20 words for this activity.) Then, create a word search puzzle using all the words from your list. Duplicate your puzzle and hand out to classmates or family members for them to solve. (Sunshine State Standards SC.B.1.2.2, SC.B.2.2.2, SC.D.2.2.1)
A copy of Florida's Sunshine State Standards can be found at intech2000.miamisci.org.
Follow these links to learn more
Check out the great graphics and get some of your questions answered about hydro (water) power at this site called How Hydropower Works. www.wvic.com/hydro-works.htm
Find some great photos and fun facts about windmills as you learn about their importance not only in history but also to the future. www.looklearnanddo.com/documents/history_windmills.html
Unlock the secrets of a diesel engine so you can better understand the role fuel plays in transportation. www.howstuffworks.com/diesel.htm
Peat is rotting vegetation formed in bogs and other wetlands. Peat is still cut, dried and used as fuel in many countries of the world. You can see lots of pictures and learn interesting facts when you take this virtual tour of a peat bog in Ireland. www.geocities.com/mptadams/Ireland_2001/Bog_Tour/Bog_Tour.html
The Big Chalk Library offers a site called the Energy Story, where you can see examples of all kinds of energy, including ocean, wind and nuclear.
Plan to spend time at this Energy Education site from the California Energy Commission. You can read a scary story, find ways to save energy, find puzzles and games, check out vehicles of the future and lots more. www.energy.ca.gov/education/
Learn about different types of energy, from wind to solar to geothermal (using heat from inside the Earth) at this kid-friendly U.S. Department of Energy site. www.eren.doe.gov/kids/
Take a journey down the "Energy Trail," where you'll find special activities for your age group. www.dti.gov.uk/renewable/ed_pack/trail.html
Here's a neat camping or picnic activity (be sure you have an adult's permission first): Make your own solar oven-and then, use it to make cookies, pizza and more. www.solarnow.org/pizzabx.htm
In addition to exploring soy as fuel (called soy biodiesel), scientists are working to develop an amazing number of other products from soybeans-birthday candles you can eat, ink and car wax are just a few. Find out more at this on-line Museum of Soy. www.thesoydailyclub.come/members/TheMuseumofSoy/museum_of_soy%20lobby.asp
The Newspaper Association of America's web site contains links to many newspapers in the U.S. and around the world. Visit the site and check some of them out, to see if they have recently published any articles about the future of fuels. To access the newspapers at the site, select a state. Click on the "Internationals" button to view choices from other countries.
The Daytona Beach News-Journal NIE Program, published January 7, 2002