Here's a continuation of yesterday's topic. So, if you read yesterday's post it may seem that I'm not too motivated for "alternative energy." Nothing could be further from the truth-- I just want to find the most appropriate alternative. First, I feel we need to make sure our resources are focused on alternatives best address the issues of sustainability and affordability but also minimize the negative consequences of our energy use, namely global climate change. An editorial appeared in the Saturday New York Times (Energy Surge, Staff Editorial, Aug 11, 2007) that I think accurately reflects the interdependence between energy policy and climate change, and the need for energy policy that has complementarities that help address both ills simultaneously.
On this basis I cannot bring myself around to the viewpoint that coal represents a worthwhile improvement. That makes me pretty unpopular in my neck of Virginia. Coal is currently plentiful in relation to its demand, but that is due in large part to the fact that about a century ago, technological change led us to an alternative that was both more abundant and cleaner-burning. At that time, Malthusian Chicken Littles cried that the sky was falling and that Coal was both too scarce and too harmful to our air. Then came petroleum, which was plentiful and clean (in comparison), and was compatible with the fabulous new internal-combustion automobiles running off Henry Ford's assembly lines. No matter how "clean" the coal industry claims their product to be, we cannot shake the reality that coal is entirely composed of carbon, which, when burned produces carbon gasses.
In the same regard, my love for alternatives such as natural gas and ethanol is equivocal at best. Ethanol and natural gas burn cleaner than some alternatives, and ethanol is good for short-run sustainability, but, as my father-in-law (a corn and soybean farmer) puts it, "it just stretches out" petroleum products-- we don't yet have technology for using ethanol as a stand-alone alternative. These options also suffer from a lack of sufficient nation-wide distribution network. Hydrogen, you say? I'm personally still a tad skittish about the possibility of this happening on my drive to work:
So, here's what's caught my eye in the alternative energy debate: nanotubes. These little guys can be used for a lot of applications and their capabilities and limitations are pretty unknown, but the early research is promising. One of their advantages is that they can be designed to work as transistors, ultracapacitors, can be designed to have photovalic, semiconducting, or superconducting (at low temperatures) properties, and I've heard that they even do the laundry and wash windows. According to Collins and Avouris (December 2000, Scientific American), certain nanotubes can carry electrical current 1,000 times denser than copper or silver. I'm no expert on these little suckers, but I'd count them among the innovations to keep an eye on for helping solve our energy policy, cure disease, and protect our troops.