by Richard Schiffman
The recent boom in fracking has turned America into the Saudi Arabia of natural gas, almost overnight.
Proponents say that this burgeoning industry has ensured U.S. energy independence for years to come, and created a more climate-friendly alternative to dirtier-burning fuels like coal and gas. It has arguably also hastened the demise of the coal industry, as power plants switch in large numbers to the cheaper gas, resulting in U.S. CO2 emissions sinking to their lowest levels in nearly two decades. And with less smog-producing particulates and deadly mercury in the air, we can hope that respiratory illnesses like asthma may begin to decline.
But fracking poses its own risks. While our air has been getting cleaner, opponents argue that America’s water has been getting dirtier as the result of the hydraulic fracturing of shale. Fracking uses lots of water—up to seven million gallons for every well drilled—which is mixed together with sand and a witch’s brew of industrial chemicals, then blasted a mile into the earth to the shale formations where the natural gas is located. This high pressure stream shatters the rock and releases the gas, which geysers up to the surface to be recovered.
Debbie Chachra is an Associate Professor of Materials Science at the Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering, with research interests in biological materials, education, and design. You can follow her on Twitter: @debcha.
In 1956, M. King Hubbert laid out a prediction for how oil production in a nation increases, peaks, and then quickly falls down. Since then many analysts have extended this logic and said that global oil production will soon max out—a point called “peak oil“—which could throw the world economy into turmoil.
I’m a materials scientist by training, and one aspect of peak oil I’ve been thinking about recently is peak plastic.
The use of oil for fuel is dominant, and there’s a reason for that. Oil is remarkable—not only does it have an insanely high energy density (energy stored per unit mass), but it also allows for a high energy flux. In about 90 seconds, I can fill the tank of my car—and that’s enough energy to move it at highway speeds for five hours—but my phone, which uses a tiny fraction of the energy, needs to be charged overnight. So we’ll need to replace what oil can do alone in two different ways: new sources of renewable energy, and also better batteries to store it in. And there’s no Moore’s law for batteries. Getting something that’s even close to the energy density and flux of oil will require new materials chemistry, and researchers are working hard to create better batteries. Still, this combination of energy density and flux is valuable enough that we’ll likely still extract every drop of oil that we can, to use as fuel.
But if we’re running out of oil, that also means that we’re running out of plastic. Compared to fuel and agriculture, plastic is small potatoes. Even though plastics are made on a massive industrial scale, they still only account for about 2% world’s oil consumption. So recycling plastic saves plastic and reduces its impact on the environment, but it certainly isn’t going to save us from the end of oil. Peak oil means peak plastic. And that means that much of the physical world around us will have to change.