Dear EarthTalk: can earthquake energy be harnessed for power, particularly in places like Japan?

Author:M., Sasha
 
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Dear EarthTalk: Can earthquake energy be harnessed for power, particularly in places like Japan? Also, how can Japan, so vulnerable to earthquakes, even have nuclear power?--Sasha M., Australia

While it is no doubt theoretically possible to generate electricity by harnessing the kinetic energy of shifting tectonic plates below the Earth's crust, pulling it off from a practical standpoint would be a real logistical challenge--not to mention prohibitively expensive compared to harnessing other forms of energy, renewable or otherwise.

Big earthquakes throw off vast amounts of energy. According to Beth Buczynski of the CrispGreen website, researchers have calculated that the January 2010 magnitude 7.0 earthquake that killed upwards of 220,000 people in Haiti released as much energy as 31 of the atomic bombs the U.S. dropped on Hiroshima in 1945. And the magnitude 9.0 earthquake that struck northeast Japan in March 2011 unleashed the equivalent of more than 15,000 Hiroshima bombs. That's a lot of energy indeed.

"The total energy from an earthquake includes energy required to create new cracks in rock, energy dissipated as heat through friction, and energy elastically radiated through the earth," reports the U.S. Geological Survey's Earthquake Hazards Program. "Of these, the only quantity that can be measured is that which is radiated through the earth." Likewise, only this radiated energy--which is what shakes buildings and is recorded by seismographs--could be harnessed given the dedication of enough resources and the proper implementation of the right technologies.

Just how to harness tectonic energy is the big question. One way would involve stringing quartz crystals, which can transfer electricity via piezoelectricity, underground along known fault lines. When tectonic plates shift, the crystals could transfer the energy they pick up to a grid-connected storage medium for later use. But this is hardly practical, for one because earthquakes rarely happen in a predictable...

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