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Term 3, 2012

Energy in a High-Tech World

snAlexander Whittle Anglican Church Grammar School Term 3, 2012

Energy in a High-Tech World Abstract: The objectives of this analysis were to investigate hydrocarbons through a study of their applications, their distillation and treatment, their chemistry, their combustion and their effects on the environment. Through research it was found that, today, hydrocarbons, as carbon emissions, have a severely detrimental effect on the environment and so their use needs to be restricted. Introduction: Industrially, Hydrocarbons are extremely useful. They serve vital roles in facilitating and fuelling a multitude of applications, yet, they are also very controversial. As a product of crude oil refinement, hydrocarbons also negatively impact the environment (BBC, 2012). While they are essential in driving the economy and improving standards of living, their excessive use has pushed world resource use to unsustainable levels (Livestrong.com). One key effect of this is man-made climate change, which is due to the release of carbon either directly from fossil fuels, or by processes powered by them (US Department of Energy). Furthermore, hydrocarbons affect the environment through spillages and pollution. Given their integral role in many scientific processes, especially industrially, a better understanding of the preparation and sustainable utilisation of hydrocarbons is a goal of paramount importance for the scientists of today. Origin of hydrocarbons: The term hydrocarbon is given to organic compounds composed of only hydrogen and carbon which form long molecular chains (C Michael Hogan, Encyclopedia of Earth). Hydrocarbons are categorised as either saturated or unsaturated with hydrogen, which has implications for the energy of the compound, through the type of bonds between carbon atoms (Table 1). They are the refined result of crude oil, coal and gases, which are formed from the anaerobic decomposition of carbon-based organisms, where photosynthesis has fixed energy to form high-energy compounds (Figure 1), deposited in large quantities in the earths crust (Figure 2) (Gale Cengage, 2003). Generally, the lower the temperature and shallower the depth in the earths crust, the heavier the hydrocarbon component formed (The Guardian, 2009). Though temperature is the critical factor, the amount of time that the organic material is exposed to heat and pressure is also an important factor in the production of hydrocarbons (Chandra, 2009). Most fuels used today are hydrocarbons, which are fundamental in society, especially in industry.

Figure 1: Shows the processes involved in the anaerobic decomposition of microorganisms (Alex Marshall, Clarke Energy)

Figure 2: Shows the Entrapment of fossil fuels - crude oil, coal and natural gas

The role of temperature in distillation and treatment of hydrocarbons The main hydrocarbon products formed from the refinery of crude oil are gas oil, diesel, kerosene, naphtha, paraffins, isoparaffins and alkenes. After crude oil is extracted, a

technique called fractional distillation is used in oil refineries to separate it into many different hydrocarbons (BBC, 2012). The oil is heated in a fractionating column, where the hydrocarbon components boil and rise through the column and are drawn off at the points where they condense. Those with high boiling points have large molecular structures and condense quickly, therefore settling low down in the fractionating column, where they are piped off for separation. Hydrocarbons with low boiling temperatures and small molecular structures condense slower, and therefore rise higher in the column before they condense and are piped off. This is shown in Table 1, where hydrocarbons with smaller molecules have lower boiling temperatures than those with larger molecules.

Figure 3: The fractioning of crude oil in a fractioning chamber (BBC, 2012)

What happens when hydrocarbons burn? As a hydrocarbon burns, it releases carbon dioxide, water, and heat (Dr Colin France, 2011). Hydrocarbons combust in two different ways: When oxygen is plentiful, complete combustion occurs, producing carbon dioxide and water. The other way is incomplete combustion, occurring when oxygen is in poor supply. It produces carbon monoxide, carbon and water (BBC, 2012). Because combustion of hydrocarbons releases heat, it is an exothermic reaction. To produce these by-products and no others, hydrocarbons must be burnt cleanly. It is more common for impurities to be present in the hydrocarbon, so that, when burnt, compounds such as nitrogen oxide and sulphur dioxide and harmful carcinogenic chemicals are also produced.

Figure 4: Chemical and word equations for the combustion of hydrocarbons

Environmental impact: Hydrocarbons negatively impact the environment in two main ways. The first is the extraction and transportation of oil. Frequently, oil spills during transportation cause damage to environment. Furthermore, oil extraction poses a deeper problem, with spillages and leaks constantly threatening the wellbeing of the environment. The second main environmental hazard is the pollutant products of hydrocarbon combustion. These include carbon dioxide, sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and particulates small particles of carbon. These tiny particles can cause a global cooling effect, by absorbing the sun's energy and also increased cloud formation which negates the heat of the sun (Auckland City Council, 2012). However, these particles can also cause global warming, and can also lead to respiratory health problems (National Center for Biotechnology Information, 2001). Sulphur dioxide is also the perpetrator behind acid rain, which has caused major environmental damage such as the biological death of lakes and can cause corrosion (EPA, 2011). Because hydrocarbons are refined from crude oil, they are a form of non-renewable fossil fuel. As humans use hydrocarbons, the worlds resources are depleted and become more expensive and will eventually run out, with severe economic impacts. Evaluation: Today, hydrocarbons as a fuel are misused and, as a result, have a severely detrimental effect on the environment. Furthermore, their excessive use as a fossil fuel is extremely harmful. However, the unreliable nature of alternate, renewable sources of energy means that the industry of today cannot economically survive without hydrocarbons. In summary, it is not feasible to completely stop use of hydrocarbons so as to save them for future generations: a more appropriate option would be to limit their use to prolong their existence, while alternate energy sources are developed.

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