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People in the chemical field will understand the concept of ‘irreversibility’. Certain chemical reactions can go only in one direction and but not in the reverse direction. But some reactions can go on either direction and we can manipulate such reactions to our advantages. This concept has been successfully used in designing many chemical reactions in the past and many innovative industrial and consumer products emerged out of it. But such irreversible reactions also have irreversible consequences because it can irreversibly damage the environment we live in. There is no way such damage can be reversed. That is why a new branch of science called ‘Green Chemistry’ is now emerging to address some of the damages caused by irreversible chemical reactions. It also helps to substitute many synthetic products with natural products. In the past many food colors were made out of coal-tar known as coal-tar dyes. These dyes are used even now in many commercial products. Most of such applications were merely based on commercial attractiveness rather than health issues. Many such products have deleterious health effects and few of them are carcinogenic. We learnt from past mistakes and moved on to new products with less health hazards. But the commercial world has grown into a power lobby who can even decide the fate of a country by influencing political leaders. Today our commercial and financial world has grown so powerful that they can even decides who can be the next president of a country rather than people and policies. They can even manipulate people’s opinion with powerful advertisements and propaganda tactics by flexing their financial muscles.

Combustion of fossil fuel is one such example of ‘irreversibility’ because once we combust coal, oil or  gas,  it will be decomposed into oxides of Carbon, oxide of  Nitrogen and also oxides of Sulfur and Phosphorous depending upon the source of fossil fuel  and purification methods used. These greenhouse gases once emitted into the atmosphere we cannot recover them back. Coal once combusted it is no longer a coal. This critical fact is going to decide our future world for generations to come. Can we bring back billions of tons of Carbon we already emitted into the atmosphere from the time of our industrial revolution? Politicians will pretend not to answer these question and financial and industries lobby will evade these question by highlighting the ‘advancement made by industrial revolutions’. People need electricity and they have neither time nor resources to find an alternative on their own. It is open and free for all. People can be skeptical about these issues because it is ‘inconvenient for them’ to change But can we sustain such a situation?

Irreversibility does not confine only to chemical reactions but also for the environment and sustainability because all are intricately interconnected.Minig industries have scared the earth, power plants polluted the air with greenhouse emission and chemical industries polluted water and these damages are irreversible. When minerals become metals, buried coal becomes power and water becomes toxic effluent then we leave behind an earth that will be uninhabitable for our future generations and all the living species in the world. Is it sustainable and can we call it progress and prosperity? Once we lose pristine Nature by our irreversible actions then that is a perfect recipe for a disaster and no science or technology can save human species from extinction. One need not be scientist to understand these simple facts of life. Each traditional land owners such as Aborigines of Australia or Indians of America and shamans of Indonesia have traditionally known and passed on their knowledge for generations. They too are slowly becoming extinct species in our scientific world because of our irreversible actions. Renewability is the key to sustainability because renewability does not cause irreversible damage to Nature.

Chemistry has revolutionized human life and it has affected each and every one of us in some way or other for the past several decades. We were happily using these chemicals in our everyday life without really understanding their side effects.Individuls and companies who invented and commercialized chemical products were keen to offer end products to consumers often without explaining the side effects of such chemicals.They themselves were not fully aware of long-term consequences of such chemicals. Classical examples are Chlorine and its derivatives.

Chlorine is a common chemical that is used even today in many countries to disinfect drinking water in water treatment plants. Their usage is sill continued though they found that Haloethanes, which are formed by the action of Chlorine on decayed organic leaves in water storage, causes cancer (carcinogenic). DDT is another chemical that was used widely as a pesticide, known as “atom bomb of pesticides”,  until their side effects proved deadly for human beings and to the environment. It was officially banned in USA in 1972 by EPA, though it is still continued in some third world countries. Bleaching powder in another example of powder disinfectant ( a popular form of disinfectant used on roads in India when  prominent political leaders visit municipalities; though they are only chalk  powder with no traces of residual Chlorine).

A whole range of dyes known as coal-tar dyes derived from coal  were used in many applications including ‘food colors’, later substituted by petroleum-based organic chemicals. These ‘food colors’ are now substituted with ‘natural organic colors’ such as vegetable colors derived from vegetables and fruits. Industrial chemicals, both organic and inorganic have caused serious environmental damages all over the world for several decades, but Governments, companies and EPA did not realize the deadly consequences of some these chemicals for a long time. The ‘Bhopal Gas tragedy’ in India is one such grim reminder of such consequences.

Chemicals are not natural products even though one can separate them into various organic chemical molecules but some of the consequences of such separation and usage are not fully understood. Many natural herbs have outstanding medicinal values and when consumed in a Natural form, it has absolutely no side effects and they show tremendous therapeutic values. But when you isolate certain molecules from such herbs (Alkaloids) and used as a drug, they can cure a disease but at the same time, they create many side effects. Nature offers such drugs in a diluted form that is quite compatible to human beings. One such example is ‘Vinblastine’ and “Vincristine’, anti-cancer drugs derived from a herb called ‘vinca rosea’.

Of late there is awareness among companies, people and Governments about Green technologies that can help protect the environment. Greenhouse gas and global warming is one such issue. When Petrol or Diesel, an organic chemical known as Hydrocarbon is burnt, it not only generates power but also emits greenhouse gases such as Carbon dioxide and oxides of Nitrogen, that cause globe to warm. We were happily burning away such fossil fuels until scientists raised an issue on emission of ‘greenhouse gases’ in recent past. When we deal with chemicals and chemical reactions, the molecule is transformed into a new molecule and often such reaction cannot be reversed.It is not a physical change but a chemical change. When we convert water into steam, we can get back water by condensing steam; but when you convert Chlorine into PVC (Poly vinyl chloride) plastic, there are environmental consequences and reversing PVC into Chlorine gas in not easy, though it is technically possible with environmental consequences.

One has to observe and learn from Nature what is good and what is bad when developing a new technology, because such development will not only affect the environment but also many generations to come. When Nature teaches how to turn sugar into Alcohol by fermentation using air-borne microorganisms, we should follow Nature to make alcohol. We know how to turn Alcohol into PVC, but we do not know how to make biodegradable PVC from Alcohol. Companies call it ‘Green Chemistry’, but not until we can make a biodegradable PVC. Human knowledge is imperfect and we can learn ‘Green chemistry and Clean Technologies’ only from Nature and not by deviating from the path of Nature.

Renewability and sustainability are two critical factors that will decide the future course of the world. We have to learn from Nature how sun is able to sustain life on earth for millions of years without the slightest hitch. The sun provides light energy for the photosynthesis to generate Carbohydrate using carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and water. The green pigment in the leaves of the plant ‘Chlorophyll’ catalalyses the photosynthesis. The plant grows and serves as food for animals. After certain period both the plant and animal dies and becomes carbon. New plants and animals are produced and the cycle continues. The dead plant decays and serves as manure for the new plant. A sequence of combinations of atmosphere, photosynthesis, micronutrients in the soil, absorption of carbon dioxide from air and release of Oxygen into the atmosphere, food production, life sustainenace, death and decay play like a symphony in an orchestra. Microorganisms too play their role in this cycle.

It is obvious from the above process that life cycle is based on ‘Renewability’.The  death and decay of the old plant gives way to the birth of new plant and new cycle. There is nothing static .It is a dynamic and cyclic process, where ‘Renewability’ is the key. Only with renewability the process can ‘sustain’. Without a cyclic nature, the process will end abruptly. In fact ‘renewability’ and ‘sustainability’ are closely linked.

When we try to develop a new source of energy it is absolutely critical that such a source is renewable and available directly from Nature. Sun is the prime source of such energy, though it is also available in other forms such as wind, wave, ocean thermal etc. Such renewability can come only from Nature because human life in intricately linked with Nature such as earth, sun and wind. Everything that happens in Nature is to support life on earth and not to destroy. This is a fundamental issue.

When we dig out Carbon from the earth  that was deeply buried by Nature and burn them, we release Carbon dioxide as well as Oxide of Nirtogen.Though our primary interest is only heat, we also create by-products such as greenhouse gases that upset the natural equilibrium. Nature can make some adjustments in order to maintain equilibrium; but when this limit exceeds, the equilibrium is upset creating a new environment, which may be alien to human life. This is unsustainable. Nature does not burn organic matter indiscriminately to generate Carbon dioxide to promote photosynthesis. It judiciously and delicately uses atmospheric Carbon dioxide without the slightest disturbance to the equilibrium. Many chemical reactions are irreversible and can cause irreversible damages, similar to ‘radiation’ from a nuclear reaction.

Whatever we do in the name of science, we will have to face their consequences, if we fail to understand the process of Nature completely and thoroughly. Fossil fuel sources are limited and burning them away to meet our energy demands is neither prudent nor sustainable. Human greed has no limit. We live in a finite world with finite resources and there is no place for infinite greed and destruction. There is no solution in Science for human greed.

 

Those who studied chemistry and conducted laboratory experiments in universities will be familiar with precautionary measures we take to avoid  accidents. Aprons, gloves, goggles and fume cub-boards with exhaust fans are some few examples of protective measures from flames, hot plates and fumes. The blue color of the flame represented the degree of hotness of the flame from Bunsen burner; the pungent smell pointed to the ‘Gas plant’ that generated ‘water gas’ for Bunsen burners. The familiar smells of chemicals would bring ‘nostalgic memories’ of college days. Each bottle of chemicals would display a sign of warning ‘Danger or Poison’. We could recognize and identify even traces of  gases or fumes or chemicals immediately. Those memories embedded deeply in our memories and I vividly remembered even after few decades I left university.

I could smell traces of Chlorine in the air even at a distance of 20 miles from a Chloroalkali plant in sixties, when air pollution controls were not stringent. People who lived around the factory probably were used to live with that smell for generations. Many families had not breathed  fresh air in their life time, because they have not breathed air without traces of chlorine.They lived all their lives in the same place because agriculture was their profession. Many people developed breathing problems during  their old ages and died of asthma and tuberclosis.The impact of these fumes cannot be felt in months and years but certainly can be felt after decades especially at old ages, when the body’s immune system deteriorates. Bhopal gas accident in India is a grim reminder of  such tragedy of chemical accidents and how they can contaminate air, water and earth and degrade human lives. But we learnt any lessons from those accidents?

During experimental thermonuclear explosion in the desert of Australia by then British army, people were directly exposed to nuclear radiation. Many of those  who saw this explosion developed some form of cancer or other later in their life .They were treated as heroes then. After several decades of this incident, many exposed to this experiment are now demanding compensation from current British government. But have we learnt any lessons from those incidents? Many politicians still advocate ‘Nuclear energy as a safe and clean energy’. Yes, until we meet with an another accident!

We human beings identified the presence of  chemicals in Nature and used them for our scientific developments. We identified fossil fuels as ‘Hydrocarbons’ and burn them to generate power and to run our cars. We emit toxic gases and fumes every second of our lives, when we switch our lights on or start our cars.Imagine the amount of gases and fumes we emit everyday all over the world by billions of people for several decades. It is a simple common sense that we are responsible for these emissions and we contaminate the air we breathe. Nature does not burn Hydrocarbons everyday or every month or every year. In fact Nature buried these Hydrocarbons deep down the earth like we bury our dead.

Can people who breathed Chlorine for decades and died of asthma or tuberculosis prove that they died due constant inhalation of Chlorine emitted by the Chloroalkali plant? The Court and Authorities will demand ‘hard evidence’ to prove that Chlorine emitted by Chloroalkli plants caused these diseases. We use science when it suits us and we become skeptics when it does not suit us. They know it is almost impossible to prove such cases in our legal system and they can get away scot-free. The same argument applies to our ‘Greenhouse gas emission’ and ‘Global warming’.

We contaminate  our air, water and earth with our population explosion, industrialization and our life styles. Yet, major industrialized countries are not willing to cut their emissions but want to carry on their ‘economic growth’. But these countries got it completely wrong. In chemical experiments, one can draw conclusions by ‘observations’ and ‘Inference’. Inference is a scientific tool and not a guess work. From overwhelming evidences of natural disasters occurring around the world one can ‘infer’ that human activities cause these disasters. Nature is now showing this by devastating ‘the business and economic’ interest of nations because that is the only way Governments can learn lessons. They don’t need ‘harder evidence’ than  monetary losses. According to recent reports:

“The monetary losses from 2011’s natural catastrophes reached a record $380 billion, surpassing the previous record of $220 billion set in 2005. The year’s three costliest natural catastrophes were the March earthquake and tsunami in Japan (costing $210 billion), the August-November floods in Thailand ($40 billion), and the February earthquake in New Zealand ($16 billion).

The report notes that Asia experienced 70 percent, or $265 billion, of the total monetary losses from natural disasters around the world—up from an average share of 38 percent between 1980 and 2010. This can be attributed to the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, as well as the devastating floods in Thailand: Thailand’s summer monsoons, probably influenced by a very intensive La Niña situation, created the costliest flooding to date, with $40 billion in losses.”

There is so much discussion about Hydrogen as a source of clean energy because, it is the choice of Nature. Nature has provided us with fossil fuels which are Hydrocarbons, chemically represented by CxHy, Carbon and Hydrogen atoms. In the absence of Hydrogen in a Hydrocarbon, it is nothing but Carbon, which is an inert material. The Hydrocarbon gets its heating value only from the presence Hydrogen atom. The natural gas, now considered as the cleanest form of Hydrocarbon is represented by the chemical formula CH4, containing 25% Hydrogen by weight basis. It represents the largest Carbon to Hydrogen ratio at 1:4.This is the highest in any organic chemicals. In aromatic organic compounds such as Benzene, represented by C6H6, the Hydrogen content is only 7.69%.Even in Sugar which is an organic compound from Nature, represented chemically as C12H22O11 has only 8.27% Hydrogen. But Bioethanol, derived from sugar represented by C2H5OH has almost 13% Hydrogen.  Ethyl Alcohol known as ‘Bioethanol’ derived from sugar is blended with Gasoline (Hydrocarbon), for using as a fuel in cars in countries like Brazil. Brazil is the only country that does not depend on imported Gasoline for their cars. The same Bioethanol can also be derived from Corn starch. But the starch should first be converted into sugar before alcohol is derived; that is why it is more expensive to produce Bioethanol from starch than from cane sugar molasses. The climatic conditions of Brazil are more favorable for growing Cane sugar than corn.  Brazil is in a more advantageous position than North America, when it comes to Bioethanol. US is one of the largest consumer of Gasoline.US has imported 11.5 million barrels/day of oil in 2010.It has used 138.5 billion gallons of Gasoline (3.30billion barrels) in 2010) according to EIA. (US Energy Information Administration) It is estimated that Brazil’s sugar based Alcohol is 30% cheaper than US’s corn-based Alcohol. Brazil has successfully substituted Gasoline with locally produced alcohol .They also introduced ‘flexible fuel vehicles’ that can use various blends of Alcohol-Gasoline. Most of the Gasoline used in US has 10% Ethanol blend called E10 and E15, representing the percentage of Alcohol content in Gasoline. Brazil is the largest producers of Bioethanol in the world. Both Brazil and US account for 87.8% of Bioethanol production in the world in 2010 and 87.1% in 2011.Brazil is using Bioethanol blends of various proportions such as E20/E25/E100 (anhydrous alcohol) (Ref: Wikipedia). Almost all cars in Brazil use Bioethanol blended Gasoline and even 100% anhydrous Bioethanol are used for cars. Brazil has set an example as a ‘sustainable economy introducing alternative fuel’ to the rest of the world. The ‘bagasse’ from cane sugar is also used as a fuel as well in the production of ‘Biogas’, which helps Brazil to meet sustainability on renewable energy and greenhouse gas mitigation. The above example is a clear demonstration of sustainability because natural organic material such as sugar is the basic building block by which we can build our Sustainable clean energy of the future. The same Bioethnanol can easily be reformed for the production of Hydrogen gas to generate power and run Fuel cell cars. Many companies are trying to use chemicals such as metal Hydrides as a source of Hydrogen. For example, one company successfully demonstrated using Sodium Borohydride for Hydrogen production. Many companies are trying to find alternative sources of Hydrogen generation from water, including Photo-electrolysis using direct solar light and special photo catalyst materials. We know Nature produces sugar by using sun’s light, water and carbon dioxide from air by photosynthetic process. Can man duplicate this natural process and generate Hydrogen at the fraction of the cost by simply using water and sun’s light? The race is already on and only time can tell whether our pursuit for cheap and clean Hydrogen can become a commercial reality or just stay as an elusive dream.

There is so much discussion about Hydrogen as a source of clean energy because, it is the choice of Nature. Nature has provided us with fossil fuels which are Hydrocarbons, chemically represented by CxHy, Carbon and Hydrogen atoms. In the absence of Hydrogen in a Hydrocarbon, it is nothing but Carbon, which is an inert material. The Hydrocarbon gets its heating value only from the presence Hydrogen atom. The natural gas, now considered as the cleanest form of Hydrocarbon is represented by the chemical formula CH4, containing 25% Hydrogen by weight basis. It represents the largest Carbon to Hydrogen ratio at 1:4.This is the highest in any organic chemicals. In aromatic organic compounds such as Benzene, represented by C6H6, the Hydrogen content is only 7.69%.Even in Sugar which is an organic compound from Nature, represented chemically as C12H22O11 has only 8.27% Hydrogen. But Bioethanol, derived from sugar represented by C2H4OH has almost 11.11% Hydrogen. That is why Ethyl Alcohol known as ‘Bioethanol’ derived from sugar is blended with Gasoline (Hydrocarbon), for using as a fuel in cars in countries like Brazil.

Brazil is the only country that does not depend on imported Gasoline for their cars. The same Bioethanol can also be derived from Corn starch. But the starch should first be converted into sugar before alcohol is derived; that is why it is more expensive to produce Bioethanol from starch than from cane sugar molasses. The climatic conditions of Brazil are more favorable for growing Cane sugar than corn. That is why Brazil is in a more advantageous position than North America, when it comes to Bioethanol. US is one of the largest consumer of Gasoline.US has imported 11.5 million barrels/day of oil in 2010.It has used 138.5 billion gallons of Gasoline (3.30billion barrels) in 2010) according to EIA. (US Energy Information Administration)

It is estimated that Brazil’s sugar based Alcohol is 30% cheaper than US’s corn-based Alcohol. Brazil has successfully substituted Gasoline with locally produced alcohol .They also introduced ‘flexible fuel vehicles’ that can use various blends of Alcohol-Gasoline. Most of the Gasoline used in US has 10% Ethanol blend called E10 and E15, representing the percentage of Alcohol content in Gasoline. Brazil is the largest producers of Bioethanol in the world. Both Brazil and US account for 87.8% of Bioethanol production in the world in 2010 and 87.1% in 2011.Brazil is using Bioethanol blends of various proportions such as E20/E25/E100 (anhydrous alcohol) (Ref: Wikipedia). Almost all cars in Brazil uses Bioethanol blended Gasoline and even 100% anhydrous Bioethanol are used for cars. Brazil has set an example as a ‘sustainable economy introducing alternative fuel’ to the rest of the world. The ‘bagasse’ from cane sugar is also used as a fuel as well in the production of ‘Biogas’, which helps Brazil to meet sustainability on renewable energy and greenhouse gas mitigation.

The above example is a clear demonstration of sustainability because natural organic material such as sugar is the basic building block by which we can build our Sustainable clean energy of the future. The same Bioethnanol can easily be reformed for the production of Hydrogen gas to generate power and run Fuel cell cars. Many companies are trying to use chemicals such as metal Hydrides as a source of Hydrogen. For example, one company successfully demonstrated using Sodium Borohydride for Hydrogen production. Many companies are trying to find alternative sources of Hydrogen generation from water, including Photo-electrolysis using direct solar light and special photo catalyst materials. We know Nature produces sugar by using sun’s light, water and carbon dioxide from air by photosynthetic process. Can man duplicate this natural process and generate Hydrogen at the fraction of the cost by simply using water and sun’s light? The race is already on and only time can tell whether our pursuit for cheap and clean Hydrogen can become a commercial reality or just stay as an elusive dream.

 

 

 

Seawater is an inexhaustible source of Hydrogen but the cost of generating Hydrogen from seawater is much higher compared to normal tap water. The quality of water should have a minimum electric conductivity at 0.1 micro Siemens/cm for electrolysis. Even our tap water is not up to this purity and it requires further purification. The electric conductivity of seawater is about 54,000 micro Siemens/cm.The conductivity increases due to the presence of dissolved salts. But seawater can be desalinated using the process of distillation or by the process called ‘reverse osmosis’. In both the above processes, desalination requires a large input of energy in the form of thermal or electrical. Currently the source of such energy comes from fossil fuels, which is one the biggest emitters of greenhouse gas emission. Many countries in the Middle East have shortage of fresh water and most of these countries depend on desalination of seawater for their fresh water requirements. The cost of desalinated water varies from $ 1.00 to $ 1.75/m3 depending upon the capacity, site and the cost of energy. The fresh water for potable purpose normally has a TDS (Total dissolved solids) of 500ppm (parts per million) or less and this can further be lowered to a required level using reverse osmosis.

Currently Hydrogen is generated as a by-product on an industrial scale by electrolysis of saturated sodium chloride brine during the production of Caustic soda. Chlorine is another by-product in the above process. Most of Caustic soda manufacturers use Hydrogen as a fuel or for the production of Hydrochloric acid. But there is an opportunity in caustic soda plants to use Hydrogen to generate more electricity using PEM (Proto exchange membrane) Fuel cell suitable for their electrolysis. This will aid these industries to cut their energy consumption, which is one of the highest in Chemical industries.

Alternatively, offshore wind turbines can be installed to generate power for seawater desalination and Hydrogen production. Offshore wind turbines generate 50% more energy than onshore wind turbines. An integrated process to generate fresh water, Hydrogen using wind turbine is an interesting renewable energy application. The stored Hydrogen can used to generate electricity in remote islands where diesel is used as a fuel. Most of the island in Pacific use diesel predominantly for boat as well as for power generators at exorbitant costs. The wind velocity in such islands is good to generate cheap and clean electricity. For example, the island of PNG has a severe power shortage and it is well located near Coral Sea, which has one of the highest wind velocities in Pacific Ocean. An average wind velocity of 7mts/sec and above is an ideal place for wind turbines. Since these islands are small with less population, wind generated Hydrogen is an ideal solution for their power problems. They can also desalinate seawater to supply drinking water using wind generated power. In fact they can also use Hydrogen as a fuel for their boats and generate power for their cold storage for fisheries. International financial institutions and local banks should come forward to fund such projects instead of funding diesel boats and generators. These islands have pristine water and abundant fish and their main income is only tourism.

Sun, Sand and wind is an ideal combination to generate renewable power all round the year and for tourism industry. It is an opportunity these islands cannot afford to miss. The author is personally involved in a wind based Hydrogen solution for a small island in pacific. The people of this island welcome such projects because it guarantees them an uninterrupted supply of clean power and drinking water. Otherwise they have to sell most of fish catches in a nearby city to buy diesel and drinking water just to survive!

 

 

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