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Fracking, is it really safe ? PDF Print E-mail
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Question: What is Fracking, Hydrofracking or Hydraulic Fracturing?

Fracking, or hydrofracking, which is short for hydraulic fracturing, is a common but controversial practice among companies that drill underground for oil and natural gas. In fracking, drillers inject millions of gallons of water, sand, salts and chemicals—all too often toxic chemicals and human carcinogens such as benzene—into shale deposits or other sub-surface rock formations at extremely high pressure, to fracture the rock and extract the raw fuel.

Answer: The purpose of fracking is to create fissures in underground rock formations, thereby increasing the flow of oil or natural gas and making it easier for workers to extract those fossil fuels.

How Common is Fracking?
The fracking process is used to boost production at 90 percent of all oil and gas wells in the United States, according to the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission, and fracking is increasingly common in other countries as well.

Although fracking most often occurs when a well is new, companies fracture many wells repeatedly in an effort to extract as much valuable oil or natural gas as possible and to maximize the return on their investment in a profitable site.

The Dangers of Fracking
Fracking poses serious dangers to both human health and the environment. The three biggest problems with fracking are:

  • Fracking leaves behind a toxic sludge that companies and communities must find some way to manage. Safely disposing of the sludge created by fracking is an ongoing challenge.
  • Somewhere between 20 percent and 40 percent of the toxic chemicals used in the fracking process remain stranded underground where they can, and often do, contaminate drinking water, soil and other parts of the environment that support plant, animal and human life.
  • Methane from fracture wells can leak into groundwater, creating a serious risk of explosion and contaminating drinking water supplies so severely that some homeowners have been able to set fire to the mixture of water and gas coming out of their faucets.

Methane also can cause asphyxiation. There isn't much research on the health effects of drinking water contaminated by methane, however, and the EPA doesn't regulate methane as a contaminant in public water systems.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), a least nine different chemicals commonly used in fracking are injected into oil and gas wells at concentrations that pose a threat to human health.

Fracking also poses other hazards, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council, which warns that besides contaminating drinking water with toxic and carcinogenic chemicals, fracking could trigger earthquakes, poison livestock, and overburden wastewater systems.

Why Concerns About Fracking are Increasing
Americans get half their drinking water from underground sources. Accelerated gas drilling and hydrofracking in recent years has fueled public concern about well-water contamination by methane, fracking fluids and "produced water," the wastewater extracted from wells after the shale has been fractured.

So it's no wonder people are increasingly concerned about the risks of fracking, which is becoming more widespread as gas exploration and drilling expands.

Gas extracted from shale currently accounts [in 2011] for about 15 percent of natural gas produced in the United States. The Energy Information Administration estimates it will make up almost half of the nation’s natural-gas production by 2035.

In 2005, President George W. Bush exempted oil and gas companies from federal regulations designed to protect U.S. drinking water, and most state oil and gas regulatory agencies don’t require companies to report the volumes or names of the chemicals they use in the fracking process, chemicals such as benzene, chloride, toluene and sulfates.

The result, according to the nonprofit Oil and Gas Accountability Project, is that one of the nation's dirtiest industries is also one of its least regulated, and enjoys an exclusive right to "inject toxic fluids directly into good quality groundwater without oversight."

Congressional Study Confirms Fracking Uses Hazardous Chemicals
In 2011, congressional Democrats released the results of an investigation showing that oil and gas companies injected hundreds of millions of gallons of hazardous or carcinogenic chemicals into wells in more than 13 states from 2005 to 2009. The investigation was initiated by the House Energy and Commerce Committee in 2010, when the Democrats controlled the U.S. House of Representatives.

The report also faulted companies for secrecy and for sometimes “injecting fluids containing chemicals that they themselves cannot identify.”

The investigation also found that 14 of the most active hydraulic fracturing companies in the United States used 866 million gallons of hydraulic fracturing products, not including the water that makes up the bulk of all fracking fluid. More than 650 of the products contained chemicals that are known or possible human carcinogens, which are regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act or listed as hazardous air pollutants, according to the report.

Scientists Find Methane in Drinking Water
A peer-reviewed study conducted by scientists at Duke University and published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in May 2011 linked natural gas drilling and hydraulic fracturing to a pattern of drinking-water contamination so severe that faucets in some areas can be lit on fire.

After testing 68 private groundwater wells across five counties in northeastern Pennsylvania and southern New York, the Duke University researchers found that the amount of flammable methane gas in wells used for drinking water increased to dangerous levels when those water sources were close to natural-gas wells.

They also found that the type of gas detected at high levels in the water was the same type of gas that energy companies were extracting from shale and rock deposits thousands of feet underground. The strong implication is that natural gas may be seeping through either natural or man-made faults or fractures, or leaking from cracks in the gas wells themselves.

“We found measurable amounts of methane in 85 percent of the samples, but levels were 17 times higher on average in wells located within a kilometer of active hydrofracking sites,” said Stephen Osborn, postdoctoral research associate at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment.

Water wells farther from the gas wells contained lower levels of methane and had a different isotopic fingerprint.

The Duke study found no evidence of contamination from chemicals in the fracking fluids that are injected into gas wells to help break up shale deposits, or from produced water.

Helium running out PDF Print E-mail
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It is the second-lightest element in the Universe, has the lowest boiling-point of any gas and is commonly used through the world to inflate party balloons. But helium is also a non-renewable resource and the world's reserves of the precious gas are about to run out, a shortage that is likely to have far-reaching repercussions.


Scientists have warned that the world's most commonly used inert gas is being depleted at an astonishing rate because of a law passed in the United States in 1996 which has effectively made helium too cheap to recycle.

The law stipulates that the US National Helium Reserve, which is kept in a disused underground gas field near Amarillo, Texas – by far the biggest store of helium in the world – must all be sold off by 2015, irrespective of the market price.

The experts warn that the world could run out of helium within 25 to 30 years, potentially spelling disaster for hospitals, whose MRI scanners are cooled by the gas in liquid form, and anti-terrorist authorities who rely on helium for their radiation monitors, as well as the millions of children who love to watch their helium-filled balloons float into the sky.

Helium is made either by the nuclear fusion process of the Sun, or by the slow and steady radioactive decay of terrestrial rock, which accounts for all of the Earth's store of the gas. There is no way of manufacturing it artificially, and practically all of the world's reserves have been derived as a by-product from the extraction of natural gas, mostly in the giant oil- and gasfields of the American South-west, which historically have had the highest helium concentrations.

Liquid helium is critical for cooling cooling infrared detectors, nuclear reactors and the machinery of wind tunnels. The space industry uses it in sensitive satellite equipment and spacecraft, and Nasa uses helium in huge quantities to purge the potentially explosive fuel from its rockets.

In the form of its isotope helium-3, helium is also crucial for research into the next generation of clean, waste-free nuclear reactors powered by nuclear fusion, the nuclear reaction that powers the Sun.

Despite the critical role that the gas plays in the modern world, it is being depleted as an unprecedented rate and reserves could dwindle to virtually nothing within a generation, warns Nobel laureate Robert Richardson, professor of physics at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.

"In 1996, the US Congress decided to sell off the strategic reserve and the consequence was that the market was swelled with cheap helium because its price was not determined by the market. The motivation was to sell it all by 2015," Professor Richardson said. The basic problem is that helium is too cheap. The Earth is 4.7 billion years old and it has taken that long to accumulate our helium reserves, which we will dissipate in about 100 years. One generation does not have the right to determine availability for ever." Soon after helium mining was developed at the turn of the previous century, the US established a National Helium Reserve in 1925. During the Second World War, helium was strategically important because of its use in military airships.

When the Cold War came along, it became even more important because of its uses in the purging of rocket fuel in intercontinental ballistic missiles. The national reserve was established in the porous rock of a disused natural gasfield 30 miles north of Amarillo, which soon became known as the Helium Capital of the World.

A billion cubic metres – or about half of the world's reserves – are now stored in this cluster of mines, pipes and vats that extend underground for more than 200 miles from Amarillo to Kansas.

But in 1996, the US passed the Helium Privatisation Act which directed that this reserve should be sold by 2015 at a price that would substantially pay off the federal government's original investment in building up the reserve.

The law stipulated the amount of helium sold off each year should follow a straight line with the same amount being sold each year, irrespective of the global demand for it. This, according to Professor Richardson, who won his Nobel prize for his work on helium-3, was a mistake. "As a result of that Act, helium is far too cheap and is not treated as a precious resource," he said. "It's being squandered."

Professor Richardson co-chaired an inquiry into the impending helium shortage convened by the influential US National Research Council, an arm of the US National Academy of Sciences. This report, which has just been published, recommends that the US Government should revisit and reconsider its policy of selling off the US national helium reserve.

"They couldn't sell it fast enough and the world price for helium gas is ridiculously cheap," Professor Richardson told a summer meeting of Nobel laureates from around the world at Lindau in Germany. "You might at first think it will be peculiarly an American topic because the sources of helium are primarily in the US but I assure you it matters of the rest of the world also," he said.

Professor Richardson believes the price for helium should rise by between 20- and 50-fold to make recycling more worthwhile. Nasa, for instance, makes no attempt to recycle the helium used to clean is rocket fuel tanks, one of the single biggest uses of the gas.

Professor Richardson also believes that party balloons filled with helium are too cheap, and they should really cost about $100 (£75) to reflect the precious nature of the gas they contain.

"Once helium is released into the atmosphere in the form of party balloons or boiling helium it is lost to the Earth forever, lost to the Earth forever," he emphasised.

What helium is used for


As helium is lighter than air it can be used to inflate airships, blimps and balloons, providing lift. Although hydrogen is cheaper and more buoyant, helium is preferred as it is non-flammable and therefore safer.


*MRI scanners

Helium's low boiling point makes it useful for cooling metals needed for superconductivity, from cooling the superconducting magnets in medical MRI scanners to maintaining the low temperature of the Large Hadron Collider at Cern.


*Deep-sea diving

Divers and others working under pressure use mixtures of helium, oxygen and nitrogen to breathe underwater, avoiding the problems caused by breathing ordinary air under high pressure, which include disorientation.



As well as being used to clean out rocket engines, helium is used to pressurise the interior of liquid fuel rockets, condense hydrogen and oxygen to make rocket fuel, and force fuel into the engines during rocket launches.



Helium can be used to estimate the age of rocks and minerals containing uranium and thorium by measuring their retention of helium.



The gas is used in solar telescopes to prevent the heating of the air, which reduces the distorting effects of temperature variations in the space between lenses.

Water from the poles PDF Print E-mail
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A bizarre plan to tow giant icebergs thousands of miles from the polar ice caps to drought-ridden hotspots in the Third World could soon become a reality.

Eco-entrepreneur Georges Mougin was dismissed as a crank when he first floated his plan to end drought 40 years ago.

But new computer technology has shown that his project to tap into the 'floating reservoirs' is in fact viable and affordable.

The 86-year-old first came up with the proposal in the early 1970s when he was an engineering graduate. He designed an insulating skirt to wrap around an iceberg, which could then be towed to warmer climates without melting.

Although Mougin initially received backing from a Saudi prince, experts told him that the project was too difficult and too expensive. It remained on the backburner for decades while Mr Mougin worked on other projects, including the Channel tunnel.

Almost 70 per cent of the Earth's fresh water is held in the polar ice caps, with an estimated 40,000 icebergs - weighing up to 30million tons - breaking away from ice shelves and melting each year.

After a suitable iceberg has been selected, it is lassoed by a floating belt.

An insulating skirt made from a geotextile is then unfurled, encasing the submerged section of ice mountain. The skirt acts like a wetsuit, holding in the meltwater and insulating the iceberg.

A tug, assisted by a kite sail and ocean currents, then drags the iceberg, travelling at just one knot.

After 141 days, the tug and its giant cargo arrive in the Canary Islands - a suitable holding location from where the water can be directed to drought spots in Africa.

But according to a report in the Times, French software firm Dassault Systemes approached Mr Mougin two years ago with a proposal to test out his theory.

And 3D computer simulations now show that a seven-million ton iceberg could be transported by a single tugboat from Newfoundland to the Canary Islands in less than five months without the iceberg melting.

The model showed that just 38 per cent of the 525ft-deep iceberg would melt during its journey - with plenty of fresh water remaining to funnel into drought-ridden areas.

A 30-million ton iceberg could provide 500,000 people with fresh water for a year.

Initial simulations suggested the project was unworkable after the tugboat became trapped in an eddy for a month.

But when the departure date was switched from May to June, the tugboat was able to complete its voyage in 141 days at a cost of £6million.

Mr Mougin now hopes the latest evidence will enable him to raise £2million to fund a trial run next year, towing a smaller iceberg from the Antarctic to Australia.

Has the Moon the key to Earths energy ? PDF Print E-mail
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Gerald Kulcinski has a big problem.

The nuclear engineering professor at the University of Wisconsin needs a rare element to fuel his research into a fusion reactor.

But the cost of the isotope -- helium-3 -- is rising faster than a rocket headed to space. A few years ago it was $1,000 a gram, this year it is $7,000 and next year, well, he assumes it will be tens of thousands of dollars.

There are only about 30 kilograms of 3He on Earth, Kulcinski said. Most helium-3 comes as a byproduct of tritium, used in nuclear weapons, so the exact figure is secret.

Governments covet helium-3 because it works well in sensors that detect the presence of nuclear material, such as the ones that scan incoming cargo at the nation's borders and ports.

"Worldwide demand is very high, the supply is fixed and going down, and those of us who are trying using helium-3 for research purposes are paying very high prices," said Kulcinski, who is the director of the Fusion Technology Institute. "It'll basically shut off university activity pretty soon because we won't be able to afford it."

The Kulcinski team's approach toward creating fusion is unique. Ninety-nine percent of research is geared toward using deuterium and tritium together. But using helium-3 instead of tritium would be much safer and drastically cut the chance of nuclear weapons proliferation. If 3He-3He fusion works, there would be no radioactive waste.

A breakthrough would be huge, but the team needs more years and more helium-3.

The thing is that there are tons of helium-3 -- on the moon. About 1 million tons, Kulcinski said, adding that we also have a pretty good idea as to where the 3He is on the moon.

We would know precisely how many trillions of dollars of the stuff is there if someone goes back to the moon and establishes a base there.

"A few years ago we thought we were going back soon but that's all changed now," he said.

NASA at a crossroads

Apollo 17 astronaut and geologist Harrison Schmitt said the United States is behind in the race to return to the surface of the moon. Schmitt, who is the author of "Return to the Moon," has come to the conclusion that NASA's best days are a part of history and it would be best to start over.

The space agency is dysfunctional in many ways as a management entity and the past two presidents have lacked a good space policy or the implementation of one, he said. NASA could watch over our obligations to the International Space Station, he said, but missions to the moon and Mars should be handled by another group.

"It's probably time to create a new agency ... that would focus almost entirely on deep space," he said. "The agency has just gotten old and most of the experience is retiring."

Next space age has a business model, astronauts say

He foresees private companies leading the way to the moon. He thinks the fusion research, rocket building and moon base project can be done for $15-20 billion over two decades. By comparison, another big nuclear fusion project (on Earth), the International Thermonuclear Reactor Project, has a €12.8 billion ($18 billion) budget.

The big question for investors would be: Is it worth it when you compare it to the costs of producing other fuels like electricity from coal? Schmitt said yes, because the helium-3 on the moon is worth about $150 million per 100 kilograms.

Still, capital operating costs, which would be in the billions, will have to come down, he said. The concentration of helium-3 is low, so many tons of regolith -- a combination of lunar soil, dust and other material -- would have to be mined to collect 3He.

It's difficult to get investors to put money into any helium-3 project, Schmitt said.

"The folks at the University of Wisconsin have gone a long way in the early definition, or let's say, demonstration, of the physics of helium-3 fusion," he said, "but we are a long way and have to go through a (long) process" before they approach the break-even point where investors' interest will be piqued.

The real challenge is proving you can burn 3He

At their lab in Madison, Wisconsin, Kulcinski and his small team of scientific staff and graduate students have developed a tabletop 3He-powered reactor that can produce a small amount of electricity. They are making progress in producing more energy than when they started more than 25 years ago, but there's still much work to be done.

Gerald Kulcinski, a professor at the University of Wisconsin, holds the grid for his team's fusion device.

The catch? More energy is used than is produced.

As critics often note, the promise of nuclear fusion always seems to be 50 years away.

Kulcinski doesn't have an end date, a breakthrough date, in sight.

"I have no doubt that we'll be able to do it," he said. "With talented scientists and engineers around the world, if we really concentrated, we could do this.

"Our group, I have all the faith in the world in them, but we're a small group, and we could be at this for a very long time."

Not the only reason to go to the moon

Schmitt and Kulcinski wholeheartedly agree on one thing -- 3He is not the only reason to return to the moon.

As Schmitt said, "We've only touched the surface of exploring it."

There is 10 times more energy [on the moon] there than there ever was in fossil fuel on the Earth.

The main reason to go back is to learn how to live in space and use the moon as a jumping off place for missions to Mars, Kulcinski said.

There are other reasons, they said, including other elements available on the moon and using the lunar surface for telescopes.

But Schmitt, who has consulted for Kulcinski's project since 1985, and the professor think helium-3 has such potential it makes going back a vital mission.

After all, it could potentially power the Earth for thousands of years.

"You would go to the moon for long-term clean energy," Kulcinski said, "because this is really an enormous source of energy. There is 10 times more energy there than there ever was in fossil fuel on the Earth."

New home technology PDF Print E-mail
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A Japanese company has perfected the technology that will store green energy in the homes of the immediate future and control where and when that power is provided to the building.

Other firms are working on similar storage and control systems for individual homes, but Japanese companies have redoubled their efforts in the wake of the massive earthquake and tsunami that devastated the northeast of the country in March and destroyed the Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear plant.

Shorn of the energy produced at the facility, there is growing concern that major urban areas - primarily Tokyo - will experience blackouts when demand surpasses the amount that can be provided by other plants.

And with daytime temperatures that will rise above 30 degrees C as the summer begins to kick in, demand for power for air-conditioning units is already rising.

NEC Corporation has made a breakthrough with the launch of its household energy storage system, which is equipped with lithium-ion batteries and can simultaneously control electrical power throughout the home.

The first 100 units of this industry first will be made available to home construction companies and businesses from July 18, NEC said.

The system automatically controls power to the building by connecting to the distribution panel and enabling interactive coordination with the power supplied by a commercial energy company and the home's electrical devices, its solar power systems and other equipment.

"This interactivity enables the system to store power during nighttime hours, when power consumption is low, then to use the stored power during afternoon hours, when power consumption reaches its peak," NEC said.

"This reduces both the demand on power companies as well as household electricity charges.
"Recently, in consideration of the supply and demand conditions for electricity during summer in Japan, initiatives to shift the peak afternoon power consumption time and reduce the overall volume of power consumption are steadily advancing.

"Furthermore, households have become increasingly aware of the importance of access to electricity for essential needs in the event of an emergency or blackout, in addition to the necessity of power conservation," it said.

Panasonic Corp. is working on similar technology and operates a model home of the future in Tokyo where it showcases cutting-edge technology that will make homes in the future greener and more energy efficient.

The model home incorporates solar panels, pipes that carry hot water beneath the floor in the winter and cool water in the summer and reduced-energy lighting.

Until now, however, the largest obstacle to such systems being introduced on a large scale to homes has been the lack of a reliable storage system for the energy that is generated, a problem that NEC appears to have overcome.

Doubts about CCS finance PDF Print E-mail
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 American Electric Power Co. said it was putting a hold on its plans for a commercial-scale carbon dioxide capture and storage project in West Virginia because of uncertainty surrounding U.S. climate policy and what the company described as a weak economy.

Continuing to build the system at the utility's coal-fired Mountaineer power plant in New Haven, W.Va., doesn't make economic sense at the present time, said Michael G. Morris, AEP's chairman and chief executive.

"We are placing the project on hold until economic and policy conditions create a viable path forward," Morris said in a statement.

The company said it was terminating its cooperative agreement with the U.S. Department of Energy, which chose AEP two years ago to receive up to $334 million in funding to cover part of the costs of the project. A first phase, involving front-end engineering and design and the development of an environmental impact statement, would be completed but the project would not move forward from there, AEP said.

The government's tab for the first phase was expected to be about $16 million, the company said.

"We are clearly in a classic `which comes first?' situation," Morris said, explaining that while the technology was vital for complying with potential future climate regulations, it was difficult to recover costs without federal requirements to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in place. He said AEP found it difficult to attract partners to the project.

The system was expected to begin commercial operation in 2015 and would have captured about 1.5 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emitted from the plant each year and stored it about 1.5 miles below the surface.

Energy Department officials in Washington did not immediately return messages for comment on Thursday.

Columbus, Ohio-based AEP is one of the nation's largest generators of electricity, serving more than 5 million customers in 11 states.

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