Penny Thoughts

Tag: engineering

Fracking 101: Are Flaming Taps the Future for the UK?

I’ve been seeing a lot of media coverage about fracking recently. It isn’t something that I’ve ever really delved into but with all the media attention recently I thought I would look a little into it. I knew very little about fracking and after doing a little research into the topic I found out some really interesting things. Also with the use of fracking being considered in the UK I thought I would do a fracking 101 post for those readers like me who are new to this idea. So let’s start with what fracking actually is. “Fracking” is actually the name for the process of hydraulic fracturing which involves pumping liquid into drilled holes in the earth. The liquid is injected at very high pressures leading to shale rock  deep into the earth’s crust fracturing and releasing natural gas. So fracking is a method of extracting natural gas locked up in the shale rock of the earth’s crust, but what is actually involved in the process? So obviously water is required; this is the core component of the liquid injected into the ground. However, I had no idea just how much water would be required, with 1-8 million gallons of water needed for just one fracking job. 1-8 million is one of those figures so large that you can’t really come to terms with it so I thought I’d help to visualise it. Let’s split the figure at 4 million gallons of water. That is the equivalent to filling 80 000 bath tubs, or a swimming pool the length of 4 football pitches, 200 ft. wide and 40 ft. deep. Basically, it is a hell of a lot of water. But it is not just water that is required in enormous amounts; “fracking fluid” is made up of water mixed with sand and a cocktail of 600 chemicals. 40 000 gallons of this chemical concoction are mixed with the 1-8 million gallons of water per fracturing job. This mixture of 600 chemicals is made up of some nasty products, many of which are carcinogens and human, animal and plant toxins. These include the (unfortunately) commonly known polluting culprits like lead, mercury and uranium but also many other hazardous chemicals including ethylene glycol, radium, methanol, hydrochloric acid and formaldehyde. These chemicals have numerous detrimental effects when existing in unnaturally high concentrations in the environment. Right, so once the fracking fluid has been mixed what is the process involved in extracting the natural gas?

The fracking can take place over land or ocean as long as the appropriate rock and gas stores are located there. The fracking fluid is pressure injected down a pipeline drilled into the ground at these sites. When it reaches the end of the pipeline the shale rock cracks due to the high pressure of the fracking fluid. This released gas enters the well and is extracted to fulfil our growing energy demands.

Like all other forms of non-renewable energy extraction and some renewable energy forms, there are many associated detrimental effects. These effects have been touched upon already but I’ll go into more detail as to the problems and risks involved. So firstly there is the massive water requirement. Water demand is ever growing for many reasons driven at their core by the world’s growing population. However, the ability to fulfil this demand is falling and it is predicted that water demand will be 40% higher than supply by 2030. This means that industries requiring huge amounts of water are becoming increasingly unsustainable. Therefore, practises like fracking need to consider new methods to reduce their water use or their future is hugely limited if not completely empty. The impending water crisis is predicted to lead to huge water deficiencies worldwide. Do we want our limited water to be driving frankly, unsustainable practices or nourishing the drought ridden landscapes and populations that are predicted to become increasingly common? The second issue I’d like to delve into a little further is the problem of contamination. It is known that methane and other chemicals from the fracking fluid can leak into nearby groundwater. This water can be extracted and used as the drinking water supply for nearby towns and cities. It is has been noted that methane concentrations in water supplies near to fracturing sites are 17 times higher than normal wells. In the documentary GasLand by Josh Fox there are numerous clips of people putting matches to their running taps and the water setting alight due to the presence of the flammable methane. If that is not enough of a visual representation of the effects of fracking, I don’t know what is. This documentary is incredible and I really recommend you watch it. Over 1000 cases of water contamination have been recorded near to fracturing wells. The consumption of the contaminated water has been known to cause numerous sensory, respiratory and neurological health problems in people in the affected areas. These contamination problems are further worsened by the fact that 50-70% of this toxic fracking fluid is left in the ground to continue leaching into surrounding rock and water. This fluid is not biodegradable so can remain for years polluting the earth 1000s of meters below our feet. Just because we cannot see the effects of this industry in plain sight doesn’t mean that this polluting activity does not affect us. The fluid that is removed is left in pits to evaporate. This releases VOCs (volatile organic compounds) including methane and formaldehyde which evaporate into the atmosphere and contribute to our already worsening problems of air contamination, acid rain and ozone pollution. So why is this important now? Practises like this cannot be maintained forever. With our ever increasing demand for energy and water not being matched by our earth’s dwindling supply, practises like this need to change.

Fracking is relatively common practise in the US and the government ruled in 2006 that methods like fracking were exempt from following the guidelines of numerous environmental safety acts. This alone shows how governments are putting money and unsustainable practises ahead of human and environmental wellbeing.

There is plan to potentially carry out fracking in the UK. Yes, energy demand is growing and needs to be fulfilled but is this short sighted approach to fulfilling that demand really going to help us in the long term? I found a really good website briefly outlining the facts and dangers involved in fracking which I would really recommend as a more visual and interactive representation of fracking.

Two Worlds Collide in The Mechanical Mind of Justin Gershenson-Gates

Justin Gershenson-Gates’s website, A Mechanical Mind is a treasure trove filled with the unique, the bizarre and all things mechanical.

His robot-like critters are made from a huge variety of mechanical parts, combining nature and mechanics in a way I have never seen before. I find it interesting, as a biologist, to see that the anatomy of these arthropods can still clearly be seen even though it has been replaced by materials very far from the natural.

I always love a bit of nature-themed art, and Justin’s mechanical crawlies are a new and interesting way of recreating nature. Most art projects that have a nature theme tend to use natural, organic materials. Whereas Justin’s methods include using man-made materials and parts to create these bizarre futuristic looking bugs. Maybe his next step could be to make them functional.. this is a bloody big ask but it would be brilliant.

Most of Justin’s creations are creepy crawlies but he also makes some lovely jewellery pieces, including heart pendants and a large variety of brooches. Some of the items are listed on Etsy so you can go and buy these  items for a really reasonable price; they’ll make a truly unique Christmas present!

I couldn’t resist adding a few pictures, there are a couple of jewellery pieces at the bottom too. Enjoy!

Herbert Girardet: Regenerative Cities

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For my final year project I’m investigating what measures are and can be employed in cities to maintain biodiversity. I was recently allocated this and luck would have it, that two days later I get an email saying that Herbert Girardet was coming to Imperial to talk about regenerative cities.

Girardet has worked in urban development for many years and is the co-founder of the World Future Council. He has released numerous books including “Creating Sustainable Cities” and  “Cities People Planet“. He has also directed more than 50 documentaries, working all over the world. All of this and his receipt of the UN Global 500 Award for outstanding achievements in environmental science suggest just how much influence this man has had in the field of sustainable cities over the years.

So as you can imagine, I was pretty excited about going to this talk and therefore, managed to arrive far too early and ended up sat alone in the lecture theater for about 15 minutes before anyone else trickled in.

Girardet was a great speaker and he oozed with the confidence that comes with many hugely successful years in his field. He started by outlining how our cities have developed across the world and how, even though applicable at the time, this type of development cannot continue forever. Delving into the threats that face us now and are inevitably set to worsen in the future, he emphasised the importance of changing the ways our cities function and develop.

Using numerous cities, including Adelaide, Australia, as examples he has been heavily involved in, he showed how cities could be, shifting from a linear system on resources in and waste out, to a more circular system with the regeneration and reuse of resources. I won’t dive into all of these methods Girardet explained but you can find a little more information on this website.

Girardet’s main message has now switched from his previous idea of sustainable cities to regenerative cities, saying that now, simply being sustainable is not enough. We need to start giving back and enabling regeneration of our environment, not just sustaining present levels.

After the talk there was a short Q&A session, but unfortunately there was no time for my question. However, he was hanging around afterwards so I managed to grab him then. He was huddled within a group of students which I managed to barge my way into. I asked him whether he thought that these actions and the move to becoming more proactive than reactive was realistically going to happen before we reach the ever looming point where our effects on our planet are completely irreversible. Unfortunately, like myself, he did not. It’s a rather pessimistic end but people like Girardet have spent the majority of their lives trying to take actions to reduce our effects on the world, however there is only so much scientists can do.

We need big cultural changes across the globe and actions to be taken now rather than when it is too late. One thing I have learnt recently is that scientists need to concentrate efforts on policy makers, politicians and governments before any serious action can be taken to attempt to resolve our greedy attitudes to the world we live in and the resources it provides.