Tag Archives: natural gas

In Defense of Carbon

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Carbon is the basic building block of life.  It is an element, indestructible.  We have the same amount of carbon on earth now as always.  It goes through a cycle.  Because it is so versatile, it can join with numerous other atoms to create complex structures.

I’m a climate change agnostic.  I know the climate changes every day and every season.  Whether human beings are changing the climate in a significant way is the subject of heated debate.  I do know humans are poisoning the environment, but the most dangerous chemicals involved are not carbon dioxide or methane.  These two are naturally occurring substances that are intimately involved in the cycles of life and death.

Organic chemistry is based on whether the compounds under study contain carbon.  Photosynthesis is the means by which plants use energy from light to convert water and carbon dioxide to food for the plant.  In this process, water is hydrolyzed (meaning broken down into its constituent atoms) with the hydrogen joining with carbon to form sugars, such as glucose and sucrose.  The sugars contain energy that fuels plant growth, maintenance and manufactures the substance of the plant itself, like cellulose.

That plants can make their own food from light, carbon dioxide and water is a marvel of solar technology, because all food ultimately comes from plants.  The mechanism of photosynthesis, according to my botany text (Botany:  An Introduction to Plant Biology, 6th edition, T., Elliot Weier, et al., 1982) took almost 200 years to be understood, and it still contains undiscovered secrets.  Researchers are now working on harnessing the 100% efficiency of plants to make electricity.  In contrast, solar panels are only between 15-20% efficient.

According to Botany, a series of discoveries beginning in 1700 led to the eventual understanding of how photosynthesis works.  In 1700, a Flemish physician and chemist Jan van Helmont grew a willow branch in measured soil and water.  It grew from five to 169 pounds in five years, but used only two ounces of soil.  In 1772, Joseph Fleming noted a sprig of mint could restore confined air that had been made impure by burning a candle, but in 1779 Jan Ingen-House noticed air was only revitalized when the green portion of the plant was exposed to light.  In 1782, Jean Sonebier discovered carbon dioxide was necessary in the “fixed air” supply of the green plant, and in 1796 Ingen-House determined the carbon went into the nutrition and structure of the plant.  In 1804, Nicholas Th. de Saussure observed water was also involved in the photosynthetic process, and in 1800 chemists discovered that carbohydrates were formed.  Experiments using “heavy oxygen” (oxygen with atomic weight of 18 rather than the usual 16) proved the oxygen liberated in photosynthesis came from water rather than CO2.

The basic chemical reaction for converting carbon dioxide and water to glucose is:

6CO2 + 6H20 +686 kcal –> C6 H12 O6 + 6O2

The oxygen is released into the atmosphere.  Plants also release water vapor through evaporation, and this induces liquids and nutrients to move upward through the xylem (the plant’s substance, including transportation “vessels”).

The glucose produced is used directly, or stored as insoluble starch.  It’s used to make cellulose and other structural components, or is combined with nitrogen, sulfur or phosphorus to make proteins.

When a plant or any life form dies, the stored carbon is either consumed by another life form or it is released as CO2 and methane (CH4), among other substances.

Igniting the hydrocarbon molecules reverses the photosynthetic process in a one-to-one ratio.  CO2 and water are re-created, and the energy bound up in the molecule is released as heat or used to do work.

The chemical reaction when the simplest hydrocarbon, methane (natural gas), is burned is:

CH4 + 2O2 –>  CO2 + 2H2O

Natural gas, oil, coal, ethanol, and plastic, to name a few, have the same carbon and hydrogen building blocks, in different combinations.  All have high energy contents and produce CO2 and water when burned.

Ethanol—which is now a federally mandated gasoline additive—has a lower energy content than gasoline so lowers gasoline efficiency. Ethanol, also called “ethyl alcohol,” is old-fashioned grain alcohol, the same substance distilled by farmers in Revolutionary War days, and the stuff that led to the Whiskey Rebellion when the whiskey tax was passed in 1791.

Plastic has a high energy content and burns hot.  Plastic waste is accumulating around the planet, in huge ocean “gyres,” as well as other bodies of water, sewage and drainage systems.  Its breakdown products are associated with endocrine (hormonal) changes in people and animals.

The main weakness of the climate change initiative is that the focus on “greenhouse gases” diverts attention from more immediate and ongoing threats to the planet.  The use of single-use packaging, for instance, uses valuable natural resources, such as paper, and environmentally harmful industrial products, such as plastic, that end up in landfill or in rivers, lakes, and oceans.

The ethanol mandate, passed in 2007, is a particularly toxic piece of legislation.  Under this scenario, farmland is used to produce corn, soy, or other carbon-containing plant matter, to be distilled into alcohol for burning in cars.  Not only does this deplete soil that might otherwise be used to grow food, but it requires massive amounts of water, time and money, so is a pox on the planet and on the engines that use it. It is particularly harmful in small engines, like lawnmowers, so conscientious users must use ethanol-free gas to protect their engines.  That Archer Daniels Midland, the main corporate beneficiary of the ethanol mandate, is set up to distill ethanol for cars as well as ethanol for drinking, should provide clues as to how regressive this mandate is.

In summary, I contend that, “climate change” includes changing the political climate to recognize that growing trees is better for the planet than giving corporations “carbon credits” not to cut them down.

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Chemistry Quiz

  1. What is the difference between organic and inorganic chemistry?
  2. What is this molecule?

                           CH4

3.  What is this molecule?

                           CH3-CH2-OH

Answers:

1.  The difference between organic and inorganic chemistry is carbon. Carbon (C) is the basic building block of life, thus “organic chemistry”. Everything that lives or has ever lived contains it.  Carbon dioxide (CO2), considered a “greenhouse gas” in today’s parlance, is part of the natural life cycle, exhaled by human beings and animals, used by plants for growth.  The earth’s atmosphere is composed of 78 percent nitrogen and 21 percent oxygen.  The remaining one percent consists chiefly of argon, with extremely small amounts of other gases.  Carbon dioxide, then, constitutes significantly less than one percent of the earth’s atmosphere.

Green plants take in carbon dioxide and give off oxygen in “photosynthesis,” a process involving chemical reactions, using the sun as an energy source.

Life is an organizing force which defies “entropy.” “Entropy” has several definitions, but it is generally perceived as the ultimate degradation of matter and energy in the universe toward patternless conformity, degradation, disorder, and death.  However, the organizing force of life concentrates the energy in the living or dead organism.  Wood, coal, oil, and natural gas are examples of stored energy sources derived from living or formerly living organisms.

2.  If you answered that CH4 is methane, you would be right. Methane is another so-called “greenhouse gas.” It is produced by all living and decaying organisms.  It is the simplest molecule in organic chemistry, consisting of one carbon and four hydrogen atoms.  Everything from marshlands to landfill, from animal waste to human farts, add methane to the atmosphere.

If you answered that CH4 is natural gas, you would also be right.  This is why natural gas is considered the cleanest fuel of all, because it produces no toxic by-products.  The chemical reaction for natural gas when used for energy production is:

CH4 + 2O2 + flame = CO2 + 2H2O

Translated, this means that one methane molecule plus two oxygen molecules plus heat of combustion generates one carbon dioxide molecule and two water molecules. Thus, burning natural gas generates twice as much water as carbon dioxide.

If you are considering “greenhouse gases,” you must recognize that water (steam) is a potent one. The cloud cover of the earth has the effect of trapping heat inside the atmosphere.

You will note that “climate change scientists” want to reduce CH4 levels, but oil and gas companies want to capture and sell CH4 in the “global economy.” They are using “fracking” and other techniques to extract CH4 from trapped deposits in the earth.

3.  If you answer that CH3-CH2-OH is whiskey, you would be right. Whiskey is a distilled alcohol, usually from grain, such as rye and maize or corn. It is also distilled from barley.  Corn liquor was an early American product and used in bartering by cash-strapped farmers to pay bills.  George Washington was a large-scale whiskey distiller.  In his later years, he made most of his money from the distilling business.  Distilleries are examples of “economic narrows” that operate as toll gates between producer and retail purchaser.  Washington and Alexander Hamilton conspired to enact the “Whiskey Tax” in 1791 to undermine the bartering system and replace it with a cash-based system that could be more easily taxed. (Alexander Hamilton, Ron Chernow, 2007) This led to the infamous Whiskey Rebellion, in which Washington betrayed the farmers who had fought in the Revolution (thereby neglecting their farms) and were going bankrupt because of debt, taxes, and the devaluation of the Continental dollar, after the new United States currency was introduced.

If you answer that CH3-CH2-OH is ethanol (or ethyl alcohol), you would also be right.  The 2007 Congressional mandate to blend gasoline with at least 10% ethanol proved a boon for Archer Daniels Midland and other corporate giants, which benefitted mightily from the mandate, through tax breaks, other ethanol subsidies, and price supports.

It must be remembered that “farmers” and the “farming industry” are not the same. In fact, “farmers,” as we perceive them, are being displaced in large numbers by corporate mega-farms.  The corporate “farming industry” has significant political clout through donations to both major parties.  They also have armies of lobbyists, lawyers, and friends in federal and state regulatory agencies like the USDA and EPA.  They are the major beneficiaries of federal and state mandates, subsidies, and price supports.  They have their fingers in every point of the farm to table (or vehicle) distribution chain, including storage, distilleries, commodities futures markets, transportation (ADM Trucking is a subsidiary of Archer Daniels Midland), and global sales.

In this election year, while the media and public are focusing on the presidential candidates, let us not forget that the entire House of Representatives and one third of the Senate are up for grabs. Whatever anyone thinks of Donald Trump, we must admit he is a game-changer.  His grass roots appeal is showing the power of the people to make a significant difference in how the game is played.  We may be moving closer to a true democracy, by default, as the “ruling elite” of the two-party system desperately tries to recapture its “market share” of public trust and acceptance.

Yes, the individual can make a difference, whether at the national or local level. If that individual is informed well enough ask the right questions of all candidates, from local to national levels, and to demand informed answers, we might wrest a revolution in consciousness from this circus of political psychodrama.

So far, Ted Cruz is the only presidential candidate who has come out against the ethanol mandate, but he has begun to waffle under political pressure from the “farm lobby” and others. Hillary Clinton does not seem to know the difference between natural gas and methane.  She is not alone.  It is frightening to think that so many people with zero knowledge of science are in positions to write and pass legislation mandating, regulating, and subsidizing industries that affect us all and to such a great extent.

It probably doesn’t matter much who becomes president. The real power is in Congress, which has the power to repeal stupid legislation, like the ethanol mandate.  Especially now that there’s a worldwide oil glut—one of the premiere reasons for passing the mandate—it’s especially good timing to revisit that law and its consequences.