As we approach the start of a new century, we must first recognize that our supply of fossil fuels is limited. Conventional petroleum resources in particular appear likely to become insufficient during the first half of the twenty-first century. Research into new catalytic processes will eventually lead to new technologies for producing liquid fuels from natural gas and coal. Even so, we cannot ignore the steady increase in the atmospheric burden of carbon dioxide that would result from the continued use of fossil fuels.

Extensive chemical and chemical engineering research has been essential to the development of reliable and powerful propulsion systems for our space program.

There are two ways to decrease the environmental impact of fossil fuels and to defer their ultimate exhaustion at the same time. The first is to increase the efficiency of our current fossil energy use, and the second is to develop alternative, non-fossil energy sources such as geothermal, wind, water, solar, and nuclear energy. If energy consumption continues its worldwide growth, the only alternative to our current use of petroleum may be the careful development of nuclear power. In the meantime, all of these alternative energy sources represent worthwhile areas of continued investigation. The following sections discuss the roles of chemical and chemical engineering research and their impact on the development of specific technologies associated with energy and transportation.

Designer Gasoline

The technology for conversion of fossil fuels into portable and storable transportation fuels is chemical in nature. Most molecules in gasoline, diesel fuel, or jet fuel have been chemically transformed by a catalyst in a process that changes the original molecule into one of different size and properties. Broad research efforts by chemists and chemical engineers are aimed at optimizing these chemical reactions to allow more efficient combustion, reduce volatility, or remove atoms such as sulfur and nitrogen that contribute to air pollution when the fuel burns.

Refined petroleum satisfies the present demand for clean transportation fuel at low cost. Large hydrocarbon molecules are broken down into smaller ones in the refining process known as catalytic cracking, and the amount



The National Academies | 500 Fifth St. N.W. | Washington, D.C. 20001
Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.
Terms of Use and Privacy Statement