Carbon Can Be Beautiful But Often is Not

Diamond in Coal

Diamond in Coal

The slogan is “Diamonds are Forever”. Yes, when coal becomes a diamond, it is beautiful but the extraction of diamonds mostly is not. Diamonds can be beautiful or useful industrially.

The carbon family consists of the five elements that make up Group 14 of the periodic table: carbon, silicon, germanium, tin, and lead. The family is particularly interesting because it consists of one nonmetal (carbon), two metals (tin and lead), and two metalloids (silicon and germanium). (A metalloid is an element that has some of the properties of both metals and nonmetals.)

Carbon is one of the most remarkable of all chemical elements. It occurs in all living organisms. In fact, the field of organic chemistry, which began as the study of the chemistry of plants and animals, can also be called the chemistry of carbon compounds. In addition, carbon and its compounds are of critical importance to the world as sources of energy. Coal, oil, and natural gas—the so-called fossil fuels—all consist of pure carbon or carbon compounds. Finally, carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide, along with gem-quality diamonds in Kimberlite.

Carbon occurs both as an element and in combined forms. As an element, it exists in at least three different allotropic forms. (Allotropes are forms of an element that differ from each other in physical and, sometimes, chemical properties.) The two best known allotropes of carbon are graphite and diamond.

The second common allotrope of carbon is diamond. In striking contrast with graphite, diamond is the world’s hardest natural material. Its ability to bend and spread light produces the spectacular rainbow “fire” that is often associated with diamond jewelry. Skillful gem cutters are able to cut and polish diamonds in a way that maximizes the effect of this natural property.

In 1985, a third allotropic form of carbon was discovered. It is a 60-atom structure called buckminsterfullerene that looks like a soccer ball when viewed under a microscope. A geodesic dome, like the new molecule, is a sphere made of many plane (flat) figures like the hexagon. Because of this similarity, the new molecule was given the name buckminsterfullerene or, more briefly, fullerene. Less formally, the molecules are also known as bucky-balls.

Coal Miner in China

Coal Miner in China

Then, there are the “black diamonds”, Coal (from the Old English term col, which has meant “mineral of fossilized carbon” since the 13th century) is a combustible black or brownish-black sedimentary rock usually occurring in rock strata in layers or veins called coal beds or coal seams. The harder forms, such as anthracite coal, can be regarded as metamorphic rock because of later exposure to elevated temperature and pressure. Coal is composed primarily of carbon along with variable quantities of other elements, chiefly hydrogen, sulfur, oxygen, and nitrogen.

Throughout history, coal has been used as an energy resource, primarily burned for the production of electricity and/or heat, and is also used for industrial purposes, such as refining metals. A fossil fuel, coal forms when dead plant matter is converted into peat, which in turn is converted into lignite, then sub-bituminous coal, after that bituminous coal, and lastly anthracite. This involves biological and geological processes that take place over a long period.

Coal-Fired Power Plant

Coal-Fired Power Plant

Coal is the largest source of energy for the generation of electricity worldwide, as well as one of the largest worldwide anthropogenic sources of carbon dioxide releases. In 1999, world gross carbon dioxide emissions from coal usage were 8,666 million tonnes of carbon dioxide. In 2011, world gross emissions from coal usage were 14,416 million tonnes. Coal-fired electric power generation emits around 2,000 pounds of carbon dioxide for every megawatt-hour generated, which is almost double the approximately 1100 pounds of carbon dioxide released by a natural gas-fired electric plant per megawatt-hour generated. Because of this higher carbon efficiency of natural gas generation, as the market in the United States has changed to reduce coal and increase natural gas generation, carbon dioxide emissions have fallen. Those measured in the first quarter of 2012 were the lowest of any recorded for the first quarter of any year since 1992. In 2013, the head of the UN climate agency advised that most of the world’s coal reserves should be left in the ground to avoid catastrophic global warming.

Coal is extracted from the ground by coal mining, either underground by shaft mining, or at ground level by open pit mining extraction. Since 1983 the world top coal producer has been China. In 2011 China produced 3,520 millions of tonnes of coal – 49.5% of 7,695 millions tonnes world coal production. In 2011 other large producers were United States (993 millions tonnes), India (589), European Union (576) and Australia (416). In 2010 the largest exporters were Australia with 328 million tonnes (27.1% of world coal export) and Indonesia with 316 millions tonnes (26.1%), while the largest importers were Japan with 207 million tonnes (17.5% of world coal import), China with 195 million tonnes (16.6%) and South Korea with 126 million tonnes (10.7%).

Both the mining for “white” Diamonds and the mining for Coal are replete with horror stories. Our family, the Yemms come from a long-line of coal miners, beginning in the Gloucestershire area of England, and arriving in the United States to work the coal mines in Pennsylvania and Illinois primarily, later migrating into Indiana doing the same work. Thankfully, our ancestors found better and healthier ways to make a living. We live and work in rural Missouri. Our energy is provided by a Rural Electric Cooperative. While the blessings of electricity helped to improve the quality of life for all rural peoples in the state of Missouri, we are not proud of our rural electric cooperative’s stance regarding the pressing issue of climate change. For a very long time now, the rural electric cooperative’s management has encouraged us to resist efforts to reform the usage of coal to generate our electricity mostly depending on the fear of higher electric rates and the dislike of “big” government telling local folks what to do.

Stop EPA

Our cooperative maintains a grassroots effort via Action.Coop (the Cooperative Action Network) to send a message to our elected officials via their website “NRECA” (National Rural Electric Cooperative Association) – saying “MAKE YOUR VOICE HEARD TODAY – America Needs a Common Sense Solution – Americans count on affordable and reliable energy to power our communities, promote job and economic growth, and keep costs in line for the basic necessities in our family budgets. The recently proposed EPA regulations that target existing power plants could add to the price of electricity, and have serious consequences for our communities. Join the more than half a million supporters of electric cooperatives who have asked the EPA to stop implementing costly new regulations. Speak out now and make your voice heard.” I’ve been reading Elizabeth Warren’s new book “A Fighting Chance” and it is an eye-opener about how government functions and about how hard it is for concerned citizens to actually win against the well-funded lobbyists in Washington DC.

Just like with the effort to reform health care, President Obama can only get his foot into heavily barred doors, in order to make any future progress possible. Michael Grunwald writes about “New Energy” for Time magazine and in the June 30, 2014 issue he says that he believes that our current president has done MORE to address climate change than any other president to date. His stimulus bill launched a clean-energy boom, his fuel-efficiency rules have racheted down greenhouse gas emissions from cars and trucks and his new regulations on soot, mercury and other stuff coming out of power plants has helped to accelerate the shift away from carbon. Coal continues to produce 3/4s of our emissions from electricity but it generates just 1/3 of our electricity. One could easily believe that President Obama has been conducting a tiny but plausibly denied “war on coal” and our rural electric cooperative has certainly responded as though they are under attack !! Just the week before, Grunwald noted that Americans trail 5 other countries in our belief in climate change and our willingness to do anything about it. (See “The (Slow) Greening of America” in the Information Resources below.)

Jo Ann Emerson’s replacement, Rep Jason Smith, is in lock-step saying – “The EPA is once again declaring war on rural American with these new regulations. The carbon capture technology the EPA wants to mandate is not even commercially viable. If these proposed regulations go into effect, utility rates will sky rocket for families in Missouri’s Eighth Congressional District. These regulations would halt all construction on new coal-fired power plants. Over 80 percent of families in my district rely on coal to power their homes, businesses, schools and farms. Bureaucrats at the EPA do not understand or appreciate our rural way of life here in Missouri. I plan to fight these regulations that would raise utility rates on folks who are struggling to makes ends meet.” Let us hope that the regulations DO halt new construction of coal-fired power plants !!

It is embarrassing to be dependent upon such mindsets as we encounter among our rural electric cooperative administrators and local politicians. The Yemms do hope to eventually go off the grid, if or when we ever are able to afford to build a new place in which to live. We have a site and when the local rural electric cooperative representatives visited us there, they wanted to take their lines straight up the most environmentally sensitive aspect of our landscape, the perennial stream with rocky shut-ins to provide us with their electricity. We said, “no thanks”, and will find another way – most likely a mix of solar, wind and water generation. But that remains as yet unreachable and in the future.

Today, we are proud of our President Obama for trying to do something – anything – about the emissions from coal-fired electric plants because we know that without being forced into it, our rural electric cooperative will continue to do nothing. Just this month of June 2014, in the Rural Missouri Magazine the guest editorial by Jo Ann Emerson states (formerly our US 8th District Congresswomen, who dumped us one month after re-election to take the position of CEO for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association) “The EPA regulations to curb carbon dioxide emissions from power plants only stand to increase those energy bills. Even though not-for-profit electric cooperatives work each day to provide affordable and reliable electricity to the more than 42 million Americans we serve, the latest red tape out of Washington could present a serious challenge.” She states that “Electric co-ops already have reduced emissions rates from power plants by 10% and carbon dioxide emissions specifically over the past seven years.” She adds that “Any additional emissions reductions we achieve would be offset rapidly by emissions increases in China, India and other developing economies.” Is that any reason to continue to insist on using Coal to generate electricity ?

XPRIZE logo

I can certainly appreciate the initiative known as the Tri-State Carbon XPRIZE, which seeks to turn carbon dioxide from a liability into an asset by finding ways to convert it from a waste into useful fuels, chemicals and other products that will have market value. But I also agree with Michael Grunwald – “If we’re still getting over 30% of our power from coal in 2030, the EPA’s plan will be a huge disappointment. It will represent defeat in the Obama Administration’s crucial (though undeclared) war on coal. So it’s encouraging that the plan’s architect (EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy – a certified climate hawk) doesn’t seem to think it adds up either.” Actually, enacting any carbon rules will send a powerful signal to the market about dirty power (amplified by the Administration continuing to crack down on coal ash, ozone and other pollutants). McCarthy believes that “This will set expectations and things will just take off” from there. The Administration had to craft a plan that could withstand the certain legal and political challenges that any effort would face.

It’s a start and a start is better than not trying at all. Currently, my own optimism lies in the new High Concentration PhotoVoltaic Thermal System (HCPVT) under development capable of concentrating solar radiation 2,000 times and converting 80 percent of the incoming radiation into useful energy. The system can also provide desalinated water and cool air in sunny, remote locations where they are often in short supply. There is always HOPE !!

High Concentration PhotoVoltaic Thermal System (HCPVT)

High Concentration PhotoVoltaic Thermal System (HCPVT)

~ Information Resources

Carbon Family – http://www.scienceclarified.com/Ca-Ch/Carbon-Family.html

Coal – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coal

Guest Editoral “Time to turn the lights on in Washington” by Jo Ann Emerson – http://www.ruralmissouri.org/harttoheart.php

“Make Your Voice Heard Today” – http://www.nreca.coop/political-action/cooperative-action-network/epa/

“Carbon Rules Show Bad Arithmetic” by Michael Grunwald posted June 19, 2014 at Time.com – http://time.com/topic/new-energy-reality/

“The (Slow) Greening of America” by Michael Grunwalk posted June 12, 2014 at Time.com – http://time.com/2863213/the-slow-greening-of-america/

“Congressman Jason Smith: New EPA Regulations Will Raise Utility Rates” posted May 12, 2014 at News & Events from the Association of Missouri Electric Cooperatives – http://www.amec.org/content/new-epa-regulations-will-raise-utility-rates

XPRIZE “Making The Impossible Possible” Energy & Environment Prize Group – http://www.xprize.org/prize-development/energy-and-environment

“Made in IBM Labs: Collaboration Aims to Harness the Energy of 2,000 Suns” – http://www-03.ibm.com/press/us/en/pressrelease/40912.wss

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Blog author ~ Deborah Hart Yemm is co-founder of
Yemm & Hart, a green materials producer

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