EarthTalk: Can earthquake energy be
harnessed for power, particularly in places like Japan?
Also, how can Japan, so vulnerable to earthquakes, even
have nuclear power?
—Sasha M., Australia
earthquakes throw off vast amounts of energy, but
fault lines run deep below the Earth's surface,
so tapping into that energy would be a challenge
way beyond what humans -- at least at present --
have the technological capability to achieve. Pictured:
Port au Prince in the aftermath of the earthquake
that rocked Haiti in January 2010.
Photo Marco Dormino/United Nations Development Programme
it is no doubt theoretically possible to generate electricity
by harnessing the kinetic energy of shifting tectonic plates
below the Earth’s crust, pulling it off from a practical
standpoint would be a real logistical challenge—not
to mention prohibitively expensive compared to harnessing
other forms of energy, renewable or otherwise.
earthquakes throw off vast amounts of energy. According
to Beth Buczynski of the CrispGreen website, researchers
have calculated that the January 2010 magnitude 7.0 earthquake
that killed upwards of 220,000 people in Haiti released
as much energy as 31 of the atomic bombs the U.S. dropped
on Hiroshima in 1945. And the magnitude 9.0 earthquake that
struck northeast Japan in March 2011 unleashed the equivalent
of more than 15,000 Hiroshima bombs. That’s a lot
of energy indeed.
total energy from an earthquake includes energy required
to create new cracks in rock, energy dissipated as heat
through friction, and energy elastically radiated through
the earth,” reports the U.S. Geological Survey’s
Earthquake Hazards Program. “Of these, the only quantity
that can be measured is that which is radiated through the
earth.” Likewise, only this radiated energy—which
is what shakes buildings and is recorded by seismographs—could
be harnessed given the dedication of enough resources and
the proper implementation of the right technologies.
how to harness tectonic energy is the big question. One
way would involve stringing quartz crystals, which can transfer
electricity via piezoelectricity, underground along known
fault lines. When tectonic plates shift, the crystals could
transfer the energy they pick up to a grid-connected storage
medium for later use. But this is hardly practical, for
one because earthquakes rarely happen in a predictable manner
let alone in the exact spots where energy harvesters would
have set up their gear. Also, fault lines tend to run deep
below the Earth’s surface, so laying down a network
of quartz crystals would involve mining out shafts and connecting
them underground on a scale way beyond what humans have
done to the present.
why Japan is so reliant on nuclear power despite the tectonic
risks is a matter of economics. Lacking the rich oil, coal
and other energy reserves of many other nations, Japan relies
on nuclear power for some 30 percent of its electricity.
Prior to the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami, Japan was
gearing up to boost its nuclear power reserves to account
for half of its electricity needs by 2030. This increased
reliance on nuclear power was set to play a big part in
the country’s rollback of greenhouse gas emissions.
to the earthquake and tsunami, the Japan Atomic Energy Agency
had modeled a 54 percent reduction in carbon dioxide emissions
from 2000 levels by 2050, and a 90 percent reduction by
2100, with nuclear energy accounting for upwards of 60 percent
of the country’s total energy mix. Now it looks like
the country may scale back its nuclear expansion plans,
which in the short term will only increase its reliance
on fossil fuels which will in turn drastically limit Japan’s
ambitious plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Of course,
one would hope that turning away from nuclear expansion
would spur the growth of alternatives such as wind power
and other forms of renewable energy.
Geological Survey’s Earthquake Hazards Program.
EarthTalk: I have a carpet made out of recycled
PET bottles in my baby’s room and I started noticing
a lot of the fibers on our clothes and even in my mouth!
Is it dangerous for me or my baby to be in contact with
and possibly ingest these fibers?
—Ashley Riccaboni, via e-mail
is no documented proof that recycled PET plastic
carpet fibers are dangerous if ingested in small
amounts, but it is advisable to stay safe by keeping
them out of our mouths and noses by vacuuming often.
Pictured: PET bottles headed for recycling.
The jury is still
out as to whether PET plastics can leach contaminants into
our systems, but most reputable consumer advocates seem
to think the stuff is relatively benign. That said, it can’t
be good to ingest carpet fibers of any kind, and a 2009
study by German scientists found that some PET water bottles
contained trace amounts of chemicals that could mimic hormones
if ingested. So while there is no documented proof that
PET carpet fibers are bad for you, why risk it? Stay safe
by keeping them out of your mouths and noses. Also, frequent
vacuuming (once a week or more often) should help to contain
the problem, and is recommended for general maintenance
carpet—which is indeed made from recycled soda and
water bottles and is sold under the name brands Resistron
and Permalon, among others—is a pretty green choice.
Buildings in several national parks have used PET carpet
in lobbies and other high-traffic areas with minimal need
for maintenance and excellent results. PET fibers are naturally
stain resistant and do not require the chemical treatments
used on most nylon carpets, and they retain color and resist
fading from exposure to the sun or harsh cleaning. PET carpet
advocates report that because plastic beverage containers
are made with top quality resins as required by the U.S.
Food & Drug Administration, recycled PET is superior
to lower grades of virgin synthetic fibers used in making
other brands of polyester carpet yarns.
Also, old PET
carpet can live another day when it is “down-cycled”
for use in other applications such as car parts, insulation,
and even furniture stuffing. PET carpet advocates brag that
their products keep plastic soda and water bottles out of
the landfill, but who knows how many of those sacrificed
bottles could have lived on as more bottles instead of other
end of the line products.
publisher of the popular yearly-published National Green
Pages, recommends the 100 percent post-consumer recycled
PET carpets for sale on Liberty Carpet One’s GreenFloors.com
website. Liberty Carpet One claims that every square yard
of PET carpeting they sell keeps 40 water or soda bottles
out of landfills. The company also reports that its dyeing
method is less polluting and requires less energy to produce
than other flooring options, and that all of their carpets
have been tested and meet indoor air quality standards set
by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Of course, if
you’re starting from scratch, good old natural fibers
such as wool, sisal, jute and seagrass may be the greenest
and healthiest carpet choices out there, especially when
paired with pads made from cotton or rag (not petroleum).
Other than GreenFloors PET carpeting, GreenAmerica also
vouches for natural fiber offerings from the likes of Contempo
Floor Coverings and Natural Home. And besides carpeting,
there is a whole world of harder flooring choices that meet
environmentalists’ strict criteria, from sustainably
harvested hard woods to bamboo to cork.
Water Bottles May Pose Health Hazard,” Discovery News;
Green Flooring; GreenAmerica.
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