Why Running Out of Coal is a Good Thing

(Aside from the reduced air pollution, of course.)

I read an interesting post on Treehugger today about why the Earth will not form any more coal once we have used the last of our reserves. Coal formation is started by the buildup of lignin (a result of decaying plants), which contains unreleased solar energy previously stored by plants. According to today’s biologists, a fungus that can decay lignin evolved at the end of the Permo-Carboniferous period, meaning lignin will no longer build up under the Earth’s crust.

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Coal is not a renewable energy source, and it is quickly running out. Coal consumption has actually been increasing, as China continues to use coal to fuel its industrial growth spurt. However, coal is a limited resource, and we must begin to seriously move towards more renewable energy sources as global energy consumption increases and global fossil fuel supplies decline.

What I view as the most important takeaway from this post is that there are numerous possibilities for extracting energy from plants. There are many parts of a plant that humans have not yet figured out how to utilize, whether for food or fuel, so we let a great deal of potential energy go to waste. If we can discern how these fungi are able to extract this stored solar energy from plants, we may be able to advance the field of biofuels. What if we could extract energy from decomposing grass clippings or old bouquets of flowers? Maybe through a new form of composting? Once again, I am impressed by the possible solutions offered to us by our natural surroundings. Technology can be wonderful, but Earth’s own ecosystems seem to provide the best models for sustainability.

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