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Environmental News

"EARTH TALK"

From the Editors of E / The Environmental Magazine

THIS WEEK'S COLUMN

Dear 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

Big 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

While 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.

Big 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.

“The 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.

Just 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.

Regarding 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.

Prior 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.

CONTACTS: CrispGreen; U.S. Geological Survey’s Earthquake Hazards Program.

 
 

 

Dear 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

There 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.

Photo © Twicepix/Flickr

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 anyway.

Overall, PET 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.

GreenAmerica, 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.

CONTACTS: “Plastic Water Bottles May Pose Health Hazard,” Discovery News; Go Green Flooring; GreenAmerica.

A SYNDICATED COLUMN ONLY ON AMERICAJR.COM

 

 

SEND IN YOUR QUESTIONS...

GOT AN ENVIRONMENTAL QUESTION? Send it to: EarthTalk, c/o E/The Environmental Magazine, P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881; submit it at: www.emagazine.com/earthtalk/thisweek/, or e-mail: earthtalk@emagazine.com. Read past columns at: www.emagazine.com/earthtalk/archives.php.

 

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