Over the last few years the price of gasoline has risen dramatically. People with various backgrounds have made suggestions on how to control those prices. Added to the debate have been the disasters over the past two years; the Earthquake in Japan this past March (and the nuclear energy issues that resulted) and the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico around this time last year. These debates have left the public looking for clean, reliable, safe, and efficient alternatives to meet energy demands. Whether you watch the news on television, listen to it on the radio or read about it in the newspaper, alternative energy resources seem to be a popular topic these days, but what exactly are they?The Principles
- Fossil Fuels
- Common Alternatives Energy Sources (hydroelectric, geothermal, wind, solar, and biofuels)
- New Alternatives
What are fossil fuels?
The most common fuel used to power our automobiles is through gasoline. Gasoline is made from crude oil (to see how gasoline is made from crude oil, read this article). Crude oil is a type of petroleum. All of these, gasoline, crude oil, and petroleum are referred to as fossil fuels. There are other types of fossil fuels as well, such as coal and natural gas. Fossil fuels provide more than 85% of all the energy used in the United States according to the U.S. Department of Energy (http://www.energy.gov/index.htm). This shows the great demand we have for fossil fuels here in the United States.How are fossil fuels formed?
Of course we can deduce from the information above that fossil fuels come from the ground, but how did they get there? As the name suggests there is a tie between fossil fuels and fossils themselves. The characteristic that they share is that they are both formed from the remains of once living things. They were formed from prehistoric plants and animals that were alive millions of years ago.
As these plants and animals died they eventually decomposed and became buried under layers of rock and soil. Over thousands of years they decomposed even further into little pieces of organic material. This organic material then was exposed to great amounts of pressure and high temperatures which transformed it into the fossil fuels we use today. To see a more in-depth look at the creation of fossil fuels, read this article.What are some common alternative energy resources?
Most people are familiar with some forms of alternative energy resources such as hydroelectric, geothermal, wind, solar and biofuels. While these resources have provided clean and safe energy sources, a major criticism has been their efficiency and reliability.
1. Hydroelectric Energy - falling water turns a turbine which then spins a generator which in turn creates electricity (for a deeper look at hydroelectric power see this article.)
2. Geothermal Energy - heat from inside the Earth turns a turbine which then spins a generator which in turn creates electricity (for a deeper look at geothermal power see this article.)
3. Wind Energy - wind turns a turbine which then spins a generator which in turn creates electricity (for a deeper look at wind energy see this article.)
4. Solar Energy - there are really two ways solar energy can be used; 1) solar energy rays can be collected and used to heat objects, or 2) these same rays can be collected by photovoltaic cells and converted into electricity (for a deeper look at solar energy see this article.)
5. Biofuels - these are fuels that are made from biological raw materials; they differ from fossil fuels in that fossil fuels come from organisms that were once alive and biofuels are living things (plants- generally extra/left-over crops); there is still much research going on around this category (for a more in-depth look at biofuels explore the resources on this page.)
What is on the horizon?
There are several "new" alternative energy innovations that have been popping up over the past several years. Click on the links below to get a closer look at each.
1. Pure (human) Energy - humans using their own mechanical energy to create electricity
2. Floating Wind Farms - wind turbines are placed in floating platforms in the ocean
3. Bug Excrement - bugs can excrete crude oil
4. Piezoelectricity - some metals, when hit, can generate electricity
5. Biogas Digestion - converting waste and kitchen garbage to useable energy
Have students conduct a home energy audit (an example of what to look for during a home energy audit can be found here). After students have collected the data for their home, have them research ways to "fix" these issues and determine an approximate cost savings if their solutions are completed (see this article for common "fixes").
Use the Drive It Green lesson to investigate fuel efficiency of different cars and green transportation initiatives. After completion of the lesson, have students apply their own innovation and creativity to develop a commercial for the car that they chose.
Did You Know?
3M is working to improve the reliability and efficiency of both solar energy and wind energy technologies. Click on the links below to see how 3M's innovations have revolutionized these industries: