The price of gas is more than most realize

By and

The next time you groan about spending your hard earned money to fill your gas tank, think first about what your money is buying.

It takes 196,000 pounds of prehistoric buried plant material-fossil fuels-to produce one gallon of gasoline.

Ecologist Jeff Dukes, former U postdoctoral researcher, conducted a study on the amounts of fossil fuels used in one year. The study is being published in this month’s issue of the journal Climatic Change.

“Every day, people are using the fossil-fuel equivalent of all the plant matter that grows on land and in the oceans over the course of a whole year,” Dukes said in a written statement.

Dukes said that filling up with gas is comparable to stuffing 40 acres of wheat into the car’s tank every 20 miles-roots and stalks included.

Dukes conducted the study with statistics recorded during 1997. His study estimated 97 million billion pounds of carbon was used in 1997-more than 400 years’ worth of fossil fuel production.

This means that from the start of the Industrial Revolution, in 1751, the amount of fossil fuel burned is equal to 13,300 years of plant growth on Earth, according to Dukes.

After a plant dies, heat, pressure and time transforms it into coal. The same process is involved with marine plankton, which eventually turns into oil and natural gas.

Each step of the process results in a loss of original energy. The most staggering energy loss occurs after humans become involved, according to the magazine The Economist. Dukes’ study shows that less than 10 percent of a plant’s energy content is converted into coal-the rest is lost during the extraction and consumption process.

One solution researchers have considered is to produce and burn “biomass”-modern plants converted to fuels such as ethanol. Dukes studied the numbers for this solution as well.

He concluded that 22 percent of all land plants must be harvested to produce enough energy to equal what was used in 1997. That would be 50 percent more plants currently removed or destroyed each year.

“Relying totally on biomass for our power…would force us to dedicate a huge part of the landscape to growing these fuels. It would have major environmental consequences,” Duke said.

The United States has had more than 160 years to perfect electric cars-the first was built in 1834 by Thomas Davenport. Other alternatives, including solar-powered vehicles, are on the drawing board as well.

According to Dukes, perfecting the alternatives should be a top priority. “It is much more efficient to use modern energy sources like wind and solar. As the reasons keep piling up to switch away from fossil fuels, it is important that we develop these modern power sources as quickly as possible.”

Dukes conducted his postdoctoral research at the U from 1999 to 2001 in the lab of Jim Ehleringer. He now works in the Department of Global Ecology in the Carnegie Institution of Washington, on the campus of Stanford University.

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