Radford Words

Radford Words
The Future of Energy

In 1977, President Jimmy Carter outlined an aggressive energy plan that called for better environmental protection, conservation and the development of alternative fuel sources that could be relied upon into the next century.
At the time of his proposed plan, Carter was concerned that the United States would soon face serious energy shortages, saying that three-quarters of the oil and natural gas we consumed for energy was running dangerously thin. He claimed the decisions Americans made then about energy would serve as a character test and called those difficult decisions the "moral equivalent to war."
Now, nearly 30 years later, Americans still have concerns about energy. Much of those concerns have developed through a very real war in Iraq, political unrest in Venezuela and the surge of hurricanes that pummeled the Gulf Coast.
The world's turmoil, many claim, is largely responsible for the rising cost in crude oil, which rose sharply to $70 a barrel in August, greatly increasing the expense of filling gas tanks and heating houses. Cheap oil prices in the past have somewhat undercut the development of other fuels, but recent cost trends have reignited interest in alternative fuels.
So, naturally, with the price of gasoline at the pump reaching the $5-a-gallon mark in some regions, there is increasing interest in development of alternative fuels.
"There has always been an interest in alternative fuels among environmentalists and other grassroots groups," said Radford University chemistry professor Francis Webster. "But now, with the price of gasoline so high, everybody is interested. Every day you see an article in a newspaper or magazine about developing alternative fuel sources."
This increased interest is bringing to the forefront more information about alternative fuels, some of which now work and some of which are in the works.
One of those alternative fuels being praised is biodiesel, a fuel source Webster and his students have been working on for nearly two years. The interest has been so high, Webster and a handful of RU students have built a biodiesel reactor in the professor's basement at his house and use the fuel they create to power a 1970s model Mercedes.
Webster recycles waste cooking oil donated by a local Sonic restaurant, whose owner has taken a deep interest in the project. The Mercedes was donated to the RU chemistry department by engaged parents of an RU student.
"It's unbelievable how many people have taken an interest in what we're doing," Webster said. "It used to be a few people were interested. Now, it's teachers and parents and friends and neighbors. People are always asking about our project and about these fuels."
At the moment, biodiesel is the alternative fuel getting most of the attention. President George W. Bush recently touted biodiesel as one of the nation's top alternative fuel sources. Even country music star Willie Nelson is in on the act, burning biodiesel in his cars and tour bus. Nelson also has partnered with a group to form a company that markets a biodiesel blend, called BioWillie, at truck stops.
Perhaps the popularity of biodiesel comes partly because it's relatively simple to produce. Many plants produce burnable oils, and in the U.S., soybeans are the most common source for biodiesel, while rapeseed is the popular choice in England. This also creates an upside for farmers who could reap the benefits of increased demand for their crops.
However, as popular as the clean-burning fuel has become, skeptics say that while it can help, is not enough to meet American's fuel needs.
Other alternative fuels include ethanol, solar and wind power and hydrogen.
Hydrogen has become a hit with environmentalists because it promises to reduce greenhouse gas emissions while increasing energy efficiency. When used in a fuel cell, hydrogen can power a car without using gasoline while emitting pure water into the air instead of gas fumes. However, cost for research and development into perfecting hydrogen as a fuel for automobiles could be extremely expensive.
Despite the costs for development, Webster said he believes hydrogen has a strong future in becoming a fuel source Americans turn to for their ever-increasing energy needs.
"I think fuel cells and hydrogen will eventually win in the end," Webster said. "But it must become cost effective to enter the mainstream. I do hope that in the future we take a broad approach to energy and not just toward one fuel source."
So, how will these alternatives to gasoline and diesel change the lives of fuel hungry Americans? More than likely, Webster says, lifestyles won't change much at all. "What people hope for is to develop technology that does not change our lives--a change so seamless you don't even notice."

Article courtesy of Radford University (www.radford.edu).