Pollution is defined as the presence of or introduction into the environment of a substance or object that has toxic effects to the constituent biotic (living) and abiotic (non-living) factors. This can be witnessed through “garbage patches” or large areas in the ocean littered with pollutants ranging from microplastics to abandoned commercial fishing nets. These pollutants can spread across hundreds of miles on the surface and into the depths of the ocean (NOAA, 2019) and can be detrimental to both animal and human health coming in the forms of air, water, sound, light pollution, etc.. Water pollution affects every single organism on this planet, whether it’s from the lack of clean drinking water or a famine, due to crops dying as they receive polluted water.
One of the leading causes of water pollution is the extraction and burning of fossil fuels. David R. Hodas (2007), a Distinguished Emeritus Professor of Law at Williams College, defines the process of creating fossil fuels as, “Over tens of hundreds of years the dead plant and animals accumulated by the ecosystems … is ‘cooked’ by the heat from the sedimentary pressure.” (Hodas, 2007, p. 599). This means that fossil fuels are relatively plentiful but not renewable and can be used in a plethora of ways, such as electricity and fuel. The National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine (2015), a collective scientific national academy of the US states that, “The United States gets 81% of its total energy from oil, coal, and natural gas, all of which are fossil fuels.” (NASEM, 2015). However, before these fuels are used, they need to be extracted from deep in the Earth’s crust and processed in refineries across the US and abroad.
The most common way to extract coal is through surface mining and mountaintop removal which is the safest way as death rates significantly decrease with the use of this mining versus traditional shaft mining. Mountaintop removal occurs through the use of explosives allowing the seams of coal to be scraped off and transported to refineries. Jon Gensler (2010), a native of southern West Virginia and a former officer in the US Army, explains, “I had returned home … and … was thrust into the reality of the modern coal industry and the wasteland created by mountaintop removal (MTR) coal mining.” (Gensler, 2010, p.64).
This destructed landscape is a signature part of the extraction of fossil fuels and researchers from Lund University (2011) try to prevent the problem that Jon Gensler depicts by researching the use of biofuels instead of fossil fuels. Biofuels can be made out of any plant material and generally burns cleaner reducing pollution caused by emissions and the extraction process. The yearly surplus of harvested crops can be used to produce this fuel with the leftover being used as feed for livestock (Bird, Zanchi, Pena, Havlik, & Frieden, 2011, p. 13-14). But, this is not possible as the industry surrounding fossil fuels, and especially coal, is very powerful and wouldn’t allow for these plans to be carried out. Xunpeng Shi (2006), a Principal Researcher at the University of Technology Sydney, states, “Coal contributes greatly to social and economic development. It triggered the industrial revolution and has driven industrialization in the past several centuries.” (Shi, 2006, p. 314). Due to this historical dependence, mentioned by Xunpeng Shi, on coal in the United States, the nation is still dependent on it as it is the source of energy for 62.7% of its electricity, as stated by the US National Library of Medicine (NIH 2017).
Rebecca Leber (2012), a reporter in Washington D.C. specializing in environmental and climate policy, discovered that coal companies have spent a total of over $66 million on lobbying in the government since 2011 and this number only increases through the years (Leber, 2012) which shows just how much power the industry has gained due to this historical dependence defined by Shi. This factor also makes it difficult to switch energy sources from coal to other renewable forms meaning pollution from the burning and extraction of coal increases every year. This pollution affects water supplies around the world because the extraction of coal means that deforestation must occur and this exposed soil can wash into nearby bodies of water as there are no roots to hold it together. This new sediment can increase turbidity, the degree of cloudiness, which decreases the amount of sunlight that can reach aquatic plants, preventing them from performing photosynthesis. This eventually decreases the concentration of dissolved oxygen to the point where marine life cannot survive because they cannot perform cellular respiration.
Another marine problem is the acidification of the oceans due to an increase in atmospheric CO2 levels. A group of researchers from the Australian Institute of Marine Science headed by Elizabeth Mcleod (2013), studied these effects and found that the ocean absorbs around 93% of the carbon in the atmosphere and with increasing levels of CO2 being released every day, the amount of carbon in the ocean increases proportionately, causing acidification. The effects of this phenomena can be drastic as coral reefs need very specific conditions in order to thrive and as the oceans become more acidic and the average temperature of the planet rises, they are not able to survive leading to global bleaching or death of the reefs.
Coral reefs are one of the most biodiverse ecosystems on the planet and as they slowly diminish, so do marine populations. This has severe repercussions for humans as many countries’ citizens depend on fish from reefs as their staple food and only source of protein (Mcleod et al, 2013, p. 20-26). Nanotechnology pertains to machines engineered to perform tasks on a nano scale or 10-9 meters. Although nanotechnology is still in development, it is being researched and improved using the funding of millions of US dollars from the government, reflects Mihail Roco (2006), the founding chair of the US National Science and Technology Council subcommittee on Nanoscale Science, Engineering, and Technology (Roco, 2006, p. 39). Ilka Gehrke, Andreas Geiser, and Annette Somborn-Schulz (2015), professors at Fraunhofer Institute for Environmental, Safety, and Energy Technology in Germany, substantiate Roco’s summary with evidence of developed technology including descriptions of potential solutions to problems involving pollution, such as enzyme-functionalized micrometers that would remove CO2 from the water decreasing the acidity of the oceans (Gehrke, Geiser, Somborn-Schulz, 2015, p. 1).
Nanotech is often compared to carbon capturing and sequestration which is a method of capturing CO2 emissions and pumping them underground into the Earth’s crust in order to keep it out of the atmosphere. This technology is already available but quite expensive and difficult to use on a global scale to help reduce the emissions that oceans would absorb. This technology also wouldn’t be able to account for the pollution that is created during the extraction process and would only be able to reduce gases released during the refining process, making it a weak solution that would not be able to solve the entire problem. A simple solution for water pollution caused by fossil fuels is to use renewable sources of energy, such as wind or geothermal.
This would not only help reduce emissions and the CO2 in the atmosphere and water, but would also decrease the pollution caused by extraction. This could be done through converting old shaft mines into geothermal energy hotspots or old coal mining towns into wind energy towns. But, this is not possible as the economy in the US was created around coal and other fossil fuels that helped shape the country in the past, granting them the financial power to monopolize the market. This implication makes using nanotechnology to monitor and clean up pollution the best and most practical solution as it would create minimal pollution itself and would be relatively inexpensive as its use has already started to spread.
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