Energy and Environment
The conversion of energy from one form to another often affects the environment and the air we breathe in many ways, and thus the study of energy is not complete without considering its impact on the environment (Fig. 2–62). Fossil fuels such as coal, oil, and natural gas have been powering the industrial development and the amenities of modern life that we enjoy since the 1700s, but this has not been without any undesirable side effects. From the soil we farm and the water we drink to the air we breathe, the environment has been paying a heavy toll for it. Pollutants emitted during the combustion of fossil fuels are responsible for smog, acid rain, and global warming and climate change. The environmental pollution has reached such high levels that it became a serious threat to vegetation, wild life, and human health. Air pollution has been the cause of numerous health problems including asthma and cancer. It is estimated that over 60,000 people in the United States alone die each year due to heart and lung diseases related to air pollution.
Hundreds of elements and compounds such as benzene and formaldehyde are known to be emitted during the combustion of coal, oil, natural gas, and wood in electric power plants, engines of vehicles, furnaces, and even fireplaces. Some compounds are added to liquid fuels for various reasons (such as MTBE to raise the octane number of the fuel and also to oxygenate the fuel in winter months to reduce urban smog). The largest source of air pollution is the motor vehicles, and the pollutants released by the vehicles are usually grouped as hydrocarbons (HC), nitrogen oxides (NOx), and carbon monoxide (CO) (Fig. 2–63). The HC emissions are a large component of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) emissions, and the two terms are generally used interchangeably for motor vehicle emissions. A significant portion of the VOC or HC emissions are caused by the evaporation of fuels during refueling or spillage during spitback or by evaporation from gas tanks with faulty caps that do not close tightly. The solvents, propellants, and household cleaning products that contain benzene, butane, or other HC products are also significant sources of HC emissions.
The increase of environmental pollution at alarming rates and the rising awareness of its dangers made it necessary to control it by legislation and international treaties. In the United States, the Clean Air Act of 1970 (whose passage was aided by the 14-day smog alert in Washington that year) set limits on pollutants emitted by large plants and vehicles. These early standards focused on emissions of hydrocarbons, nitrogen oxides, and carbon monoxide. The new cars were required to have catalytic converters in their
exhaust systems to reduce HC and CO emissions. As a side benefit, the removal of lead from gasoline to permit the use of catalytic converters led to a significant reduction in toxic lead emissions.
Emission limits for HC, NOx, and CO from cars have been declining steadily since 1970. The Clean Air Act of 1990 made the requirements on emissions even tougher, primarily for ozone, CO, nitrogen dioxide, and particulate matter (PM). As a result, today’s industrial facilities and vehicles emit a fraction of the pollutants they used to emit a few decades ago. The HC emissions of cars, for example, decreased from about 8 gpm (grams per mile) in 1970 to 0.4 gpm in 1980 and about 0.1 gpm in 1999. This is a significant reduction since many of the gaseous toxics from motor vehicles and liquid fuels are hydrocarbons.
Children are most susceptible to the damages caused by air pollutants since their organs are still developing. They are also exposed to more pollution since they are more active, and thus they breathe faster. People with heart and lung problems, especially those with asthma, are most affected by air pollutants. This becomes apparent when the air pollution levels in their neighborhoods rise to high levels.