|I was wondering if there was any way to split
toxic, polluting chemicals into their constituent
parts of hydrogen, oxygen, and carbon, and then
maybe combine the hydrogen and oxygen to make
water for the water crisis and use the explosion
from that to power homes or machinery. I think
it's a stretch of the imagination, but is there
any way for it to be possible now or in the future?
|Question Date: 2008-10-04|
Cracking pollutants is one of our best hopes
for removing some kinds of pollutants. For
hydrocarbons which are only made of
carbon,hydrogen, and some oxygen, you can just
burn them. This makes carbondioxide
(CO2) and water, which are both
relatively harmless. CO2 isa
greenhouse gas, but it's much less of a danger to
the environment than the original hydrocarbons
(benzene, unburned gasoline vapors,and so on).
You do have to supply extra fuel to keep the fire
going,though, which can be expensive. A better
way would be to find or genetically engineer a
strain of bacteria to attack the particular
pollutant you're trying to get rid of. For
example, in the town where I grew up, an old
railroad yard had dumped a million gallons of
diesel fuel into the ground over the years, and
the diesel is still contaminating the town's
ground water to this day. If you could inject
bacteria which "ate" diesel fuel, you could clean
up the ground without having to dig it all up.
But then one problem is, if you have a bacteria
floating around which eats diesel, what happens if
it gets into your fuel tank? Gunk! Another
possibility is an electrical spark discharge to
crack the atoms apart. This is very effective,
but also expensive and difficult to
Unfortunately, even if you're able
to break down the hydrocarbon into carbon,
hydrogen, and oxygen, you won't be able to
generate power.It requires more energy to break
them apart than you would recover by burning
A bigger problem is pollutants which
contain heavy metals. None of the above solutions
will work for those, because you still have the
heavy metal atoms to worry about. You would have
to find a different process which can "scrub" the
heavy metal pollution from the air after you burn
the hydrocarbons. Heavy metals are a major source
of pollution from mining and from burning coal.
Thank you for your very insightful question!
You certainly have a great idea of how to
recycle chemical waste, something we dont want,
and turn it into water and oxygen and energy,
things we do want. The difficulty of your idea
comes because it takes a large amount of energy to
be break bonds in compounds to get individual
atoms. As we know, energy is not that abundant or
inexpensive right now either!
One example of
this, which you may have heard of before, is the
hydrogen fuel cell. A fuel cell is something that
has the potential to be used in place of a
gasoline engine because it uses hydrogen to make
energy without any of the toxic byproducts
produced by cars (carbon monoxide, etc). One
limiting factor of fuel cells is actually getting
the hydrogen to use for fuel- in this case, they
split water or other hydrocarbon molecules to get
the hydrogen (similar to how you suggested).
However, this takes either a large amount of
energy, extremely expensive materials, or both.
There is a lot of research going on all over the
world to try to figure out how to get hydrogen by
splitting bigger molecules in an easier and less
expensive manner. It is conceivable that someday,
if this research progresses enough, scientists
might be able to take larger molecules that are
undesirable pollutants and split them into their
individual atoms for positive uses!Keep up
with the great ideas!
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