So let’s talk about fracking. In today’s edition of #tuesdayswithbill, the Science Guy answers Susan’s question about hydraulic fracturing and green energy. Fracking isn’t a bad idea in theory, says Nye, but it can’t be allowed to go unregulated. The Science Guy runs through a personal anecdote about fracking before noting that new technological advances have opened the door to irresponsible practices with severe environmental and public health consequences. While it would be great to replace things like fracking with renewable energy, we’re, at the moment, hampered in several ways, the most notable being battery limitations. That said, it doesn’t mean our potential green energy future isn’t one to get excited about.
Susan: Hi Bill. My name is Susan, aka primordial soup, and I have a question about fracking. Are you for it or against it and why? And on the subject of energies what’s the holdup with the green energies? Is it that there’s not enough investment money, not enough profits, not enough public interest, other, all of the above? Thank you for answering my question.
Bill Nye: Are you primal or primordial? If it’s a primordial soup I love you. So let’s talk about fracking. I left Boeing because they wanted me to work on the 767 airplane, which wasn’t going to fly for 15 years. And when you’re a young guy that just seems like a really long time. So I took a job as an engineer in a shipyard at the place where they skim oil slicks. They made, at that time, the best or the most popular oil slick skimming boat. And then that led to a job for me in the oil field. I worked in the oil patch for a while where they frack. Now my uncle, my beloved mother’s younger brother really was this guy. He was a geologist, graduated from Johns Hopkins and he got a job with — then he was in the Army during the Korean War as an engineer. And then he worked for DuPont Dynamite going all over the world blowing stuff up. He loved to blow stuff up. It was big fun for him. He was — you’re not supposed to say your favorite but he was my beloved uncle. Anyway I have his books on this business and I have — he’s not living anymore. And I have a torpedo — and a torpedo is something that they used to use in the oil field and in mining. It’s a tube. In English units, it’s two and a half inches in diameter and four and a half feet long. And it has a crude funnel soldered on the top or brazed on the top. And according to him — now look I wasn’t there and the guy was a storyteller. He’s a raconteur.
They would usually stuff the torpedo with dynamite, but sometimes they would pour liquid nitroglycerine into this thing, this tube. I mean if it blew up that’s it. You wouldn’t even know it. You wouldn’t even know what happened. You’d just be powder or liquid powder, droplets. All right you’ve just got to keep it cold Bill. You just keep it cold, 54 degrees Fahrenheit. Just keep it cold. You’ll be able to — what? So anyway they would lower it into the oil well and then, apparently in his day, they would have wired electricity and they would set it off — boom — dynamite or nitroglycerine. But in the old, old days – I’ve seen his book — they had something like a shotgun shell and a rope and they would yank it — boom. So that would be fracturing or fracking right at the bottom of the well, straight down. That was the state of the art. But what’s happened now we can steer drill bits in just three meters, in just 10 feet from the floor to the ceiling in this room I’m sitting in. So now you can drill down like this and go sideways. And this has led to irresponsible fracturing or fracking. And this is where it’s not inherently a bad idea; it just can’t be unregulated. And apparently that’s been the problem where people — oil companies especially are not — or the foreman on the job, the tool push as he’s called, are able to get away with this irresponsible practice. And so the thing about it, you know, usually these gas-bearing shales, this rock real down deep is a layer formed from an ancient sea or what have you. So I like to describe it this way. I don’t’ know if you’ve ever been around an obnoxious kid at a sandwich shop. But he or she may take the straw — it’s usually a boy — take the straw and poke it into the sandwich and then suck sandwich out of the end of the straw. Now when you do that you’re going to get a little pastrami, but you’re going to get a lot of bread.
But imagine if you could go into the sandwich sideways. Then you can get all the pastrami or tuna salad or chicken salad or cheese or whatever vegan meal, whatever it is. You could get it all that way. And that’s the principle behind modern — it’s called hydraulic fracturing, fracking. You drill sideways and then you pump fracking fluid — it’s incompressible stuff and give it a pow and then it cracks everything and the gas comes up. The gas doesn’t always come out the tube that you put it in or the opening you put it in. Sometimes it comes out in somebody’s sink. So fracturing is not inherently bad. The problem with renewable energy right now is multipronged as you might imagine. The first thing is oil and coal are so cheap. Nobody pays for putting the carbon in the atmosphere. That’s the drag right now. We are all — and I did it my whole life. I mean hey man. We were all able to drive cars, burn gasoline, make carbon dioxide, make a greenhouse gas, leave open containers of gasoline around making — that’s also those volatiles are also are greenhouse. Methane — yes you can talk about cows, but natural gas being flared or just leaked is another greenhouse gas. All that stuff we’ve been able to do for centuries and nobody said anything. There’s no tax on it.
Renewables are not — it’s hard to make them compete when these other energy sources are so heavily subsidized. Just think about this. Having a military on the other side of the world protecting oil fields. That is essentially a subsidy for oil and gas. But then in the next bigger picture, the problem we have technically or from a physics standpoint is the sun doesn’t shine all the time. We have — you’re probably familiar with it, a phenomenon called night. And then the wind doesn’t blow strongly all the time. It blows strongest in the evening and the morning. So what we need is the better battery. And when I say battery I mean writ large. We need better energy storage systems or new or just enhanced or amazing. Now the Tesla Motor Company is now selling batteries for your garage wall that have 10 kilowatt hours I think, which is a lot that can run your refrigerator for a day and a half, you know, two days. It’s pretty cool. But we need energy storage in a much — like on the scale of Hoover Dam, or Grand Coulee Dam on the Columbia River. Enormous energy storage capability. And there’s an idea that I am just thoroughly charmed by.
And that is you would make a huge hole in the ground on purpose and we are really good at this. I mentioned — we talked about fracking a moment ago. We, it was me doing the talking about fracking. We are really good at explosives, you know. We use almost half a billion pounds, which in old unit it’s like a quarter billion kilos of explosives every year just in the U.S. Imagine trying to dig all that stuff up without explosives. Put it out of your mind. It ain’t going to happen. That’s how Nobel got so crazy rich that he could just give away a million dollars five or six times a year and not think about it. The same with DuPont inventing explosives. Good idea. All right. Blow a big hole in the ground and use the tailings or the leftover rock to create a giant piston, a giant thing that you would lift up every day with solar or wind energy, let’s say — or even — I mean I’m not trying to get carried away. Even a nuclear power plant. A smaller one than you would have to build otherwise. And you would pump water under this piston, lift it up, and then at night or when the power is not running or just to deal with a peak load at a power plant, you let that piston fall down, squeeze the water back up, run it through a nice Francis turbine is a very popular style — by popular I mean they’re very efficient way to make — to run an electric generator. That’s what they use at dams and stuff. It’s a style where the water comes through the inside instead of running like a paddle wheel. Anyway, we would do that and you might have like a giant gravity weight cylinder water pump farm. You might have 10 of these things.
And then you start getting into being able to store megawatt hours of electricity. You’d be on an industrial scale. And the thing is it wouldn’t cost that much. We have the technology. We have explosives. We have guys that, people, that love to make concrete things. You take the broken-up the rip rap rock and make it into a giant piston. We have turbines. We have pumps. We’re good at all this stuff. No nuclear waste. No having to dam a river and screw up an ecosystem. And we have places around the country where we have power plants, which have a big environmental impact already. And we could build these things. And if you want to get crazy you could have a forest on top of them. I mean that’s a lot to ask, but this technology really charms me. What we need is energy storage. And the other thing we need, primordial soup, is better electrical transmission. We’re pretty good at it, but I had the rare opportunity and this is one thing that happens to you and I’m just some guy.
I interviewed Rick Smalley who, unlike many of us here in the studio, had a Nobel Prize. Anybody? I guess nobody here at Big Think has a Nobel Prize either. Anyway, he got a Nobel Prize for discovering buckeyballs. The buckminsterfullerenes. These are spheres of carbon. And his dream as a chemist was to stir it up, soup woman, and they would — this tube like you cut the sphere in half and a tube grows with the same pattern of interstices and network where you get this nanotube that not be a few nanometers or billionths of a meter long, but be meters long or kilometers long. And then the electrons would flow through these things with hardly any electrical resistance. If we could develop those things and run, let’s say, direct current power lines around. It would, dare I say it, change the world. That’s a great question primordial soup. Thank you for asking.