Steaming Ahead

3 Nov
Coal, one of the fossil fuels.

Image via Wikipedia

Think of steam power and you might imagine big, black locomotives puffing white clouds as they chug across the tracks, or steam boats paddle-wheeling down the Mississippi, or maybe dark, dirty, coal-choked factories of the Industrial Age.

In other words, steam–and the coal furnaces that produced it–may seem like a relic of the 19th and early to mid 20th centuries. Especially in our new, post-industrial age of software and fiber-optic cables, it’s difficult to consider coal and steam as still relevant to how things work in our seemingly clean, computerized, wireless world.

And yet, of course, burning coal to produce steam is still the basis of nearly every contemporary technology. Using voice recognition software on your iPhone to schedule a teleconference meeting next Thursday may seem entirely removed from the age of coal, but firing up the phone and activating its microprocessors requires electricity–electricity produced by and large in power plants that burn coal to superheat water to create steam under sufficient pressure to spin giant turbines that produce electricity.

In other words, the base sources of energy haven’t really changed over the past few centuries. Power plants have become more efficient, and renewables like solar and wind are growing in scope and capacity, but for the most part, the great bulk of the electricity we consume nearly every minute of every day depends directly on coal/steam power.

This is not a secret, exactly. But I bet that if I were to poll random people in the street, 9 out of 10 would have only a vague sense of how electricity is made and where it comes from. And I bet they’d be shocked to learn that the vast majority of it comes from coal.

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