Posts Tagged ‘materials science’

I was surfing the Web earlier this week when I ran across an article from a London newspaper about the issue of peak oil.  For those of you who haven’t lain awake at night worrying about what happens when the gasoline pumps run dry, that is pretty much peak oil in a nutshell.

An oil engineer named King Hubbert created a graph back in the 1950s that showed the point where US oil production would hit its peak and start a rapid decline.  He was right to within a year of so.  The same sort of graph has been applied to world oil production, and it shows some ominous results.  This article quoted some pretty knowledgeable people in the oil industry who believe that peak oil actually occurred in 2005, and we are on the down slope.  This has huge implications for the price of gas at the pump and for the world economy.

So, I was excited to read about and see a video of a new Penn State invention that could help us to keep the world economy running while we get to work building solar energy infrastructure and wind farms.  A materials scientist named Paul Painter has invented a solvent that can be used to extract oil and tar from places like the Canadian and Venezuela tar sands without causing all of the terrible environmental problems that extraction currently requires.  The tar sands hold as much or possibly many times more oil reserves as currently exist in Saudi Arabia and the rest of the oil producing countries combined.  The problem is that it requires a lot of energy to get oil out of the sands and millions of gallons of water that is then dumped into huge, polluted holding sites.  It’s a nasty business.

Professor Painter’s solvent can extract the heavy oil without any water in a closed system that recycles the solvent and leaves the sand clean.  Even in oil spills on sandy beaches, the oil can be extracted and the sand cleaned up with a small amount of cold water.  The sand is returned to the beach cleaner than before the oil was spilled.  Will this kind of technology save us from what my post-carbonite friends cheerily refer to as Doomsday, that is the world after peak oil?  We won’t know until it is tried out on a huge scale, but I may be able to sleep a little better tonight knowing that we may have bought ourselves some time.  Read all about his discovery and watch a video of one of his students talking about the discovery here: http://www.matse.psu.edu/news/ionicliquids

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