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How Having Flare Harms Our Environment

Between the high cost of fuel, limited stocks of oil and the scientific consensus that humans are responsible for global warming, energy and its implications on the environment and economy are dominating headlines and proving to be one of the great technological challenges of our time. In the EMTM community, alumni and instructors are grappling with these issues and contributing to the national discussion about energy alternatives.

“There is a tremendous interest at EMTM in the energy field because that’s where so much action is right now,” says Noam Lior, professor of mechanical engineering and applied mechanics at Penn’s School of Engineering. Lior teaches an increasingly popular Energy Technology workshop at EMTM, giving students a broad overview of the energy picture from environmental, technological, economic and social perspectives. Though Lior emphasizes that any solutions to the energy crisis will come in a portfolio of approaches, he sees the most promising areas for long-term development as wind, solar power, clean coal and geothermal energy.

Meanwhile, Fred Maiden, EMTM’01, is focusing on intermediate solutions for stretching existing resources and making energy consumption more efficient. Last January, Maiden started a nonprofit organization called Energy Research Solutions. The group’s main goal is to stop flaring of natural gas worldwide by 2020. Flaring occurs when oil rigs uncover reserves of methane or natural gas while drilling crude oil, but because natural gas in its existing state is difficult to transport, the gas is set aflame. The result is increased levels of carbon dioxide are released directly into the atmosphere, significantly impacting global warming. In the meantime, a vital energy source is squandered. “The problem is that transporting the gas requires very expensive infrastructure, and there is no cost-effective solution to getting the gas to market,” Maiden says.

Maiden, who has worked as an economic analyst in the energy industry and continues to consult companies in IT service management and business analysis, is working on a number of fronts to discourage the practice of flaring. Michael Joseph, EMTM’01, has assisted with the development of Energy Research Solutions’ website, www.stoptheflares.org, and other marketing materials to raise awareness about the issue. The group is also working to form partnerships with universities to conduct research into better methods for harnessing and transporting natural gas. “For example, natural gas can be converted into methanol, which is similar to diesel fuel,” Maiden says. Maiden ultimately hopes the group will serve as a direct conduit for funding such research.

The World Bank has estimated that flaring activity around the world currently consumes 150 billion cubic meters of natural gas every year. “We’ve calculated that we could turn that into approximately 40 to 60 billion gallons of gasoline — It’s not enough to solve all our energy woes but it’s enough energy to power 25 percent of cars in the United States for one year.”

What’s more, leveraging natural gas as an energy resource may have important implications for raising the standard of living in some nations. Maiden recently submitted a white paper on this topic to the World Bank. In Nigeria, a hotspot for flaring, many people live below the poverty line without access to low-cost energy for their homes, yet stores of natural gas are burned off all around them. Maiden says that the right technology could help reduce the nation’s pollution, improve public health and provide cooking fuel for families.

Here in the United States, there is less tolerance for flaring than in decades past. “If you flew over Philadelphia in the 1970s you would see hundreds of flares in the refinery,” says Lior. “At the time there was no regulation or technology to limit the flaring, but today we have cut back. Ending flaring might not solve our energy dilemma but it can have an enormous impact.”

Stopping flaring will require collaboration between the oil industry, policy makers and governments but Maiden is optimistic. Recently, Russia, which is responsible for one third of the world’s gas flares, has declared that it wants to reduce its flaring by 5 percent in the next two years. “This is a global problem and we have to get the word out,” Maiden says. “But there’s definitely movement in the right direction.”

How Having Flare Harms our Environment

The World Bank has estimated that flaring activity around the world currently consumes 150 billion cubic meters of natural gas every year.

Professor Noam Lior

“There is a tremendous interest at EMTM in the energy field because that’s where so much action is right now.”

Noam Lior
Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mechanics
Penn’s School of Engineering

RELATED LINKS

> Emerging Technologies Seminar: Current and Promising Energy Technologies
> www.stoptheflares.org

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