Industrial Revolution & Beyond

Dana Bauer
September 01, 2003
black and white photo of power plant
Matthew Pickett

An old coal power plant, one of a dwindling number in the United Kingdom.

On a rainy spring morning in Cynwyd, Wales, a group of Penn State students and faculty gather in the local youth hostel, a coal fire burning in the small stove, to recount the stops on their energy tour of Iceland and the United Kingdom. Lara Owens, an undergraduate studying geosciences, begins by describing Icelandic hydroelectric and geothermal power plants that produce enough energy for the small nation, and the country's lone hydrogen-powered car—the first in a fleet, the government hopes—with its own fueling station.

What surprised Owens more than anything else, she tells the group, is how well average citizens understand the cost of a clean environment. "You talk to people on the street in Reykjavik, and they say that they're willing to pay higher taxes for clean air and water, for a beautiful countryside."

Semih Eser, associate professor of energy and geo-environmental engineering, nods in agreement. "That consciousness is reflected in the energy policy of Iceland," he says. The country, far exceeding the standards put forth in the Kyoto Protocol, has vowed to be fossil-fuel-free by 2020. "You see it in the UK, too," Eser adds, where the government has pledged to derive ten percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2010.

"In Iceland, at least, the goal doesn't seem to be about progress," says Owens.

But, this two-week trip—part of an undergraduate seminar called "Industrial Revolution to Industrial Ecology"—is about charting progress, specifically the role that energy resources have played in transforming the West from an 18th-century rural economy to the post-industrial economy of the 21st century.

Eser and Derek Elsworth, professor of energy and geo-environmental engineering, taught a similar course three years ago. They took students through the American West to see how energy is generated from wind, hydroelectric, solar, geothermal, oil, and nuclear power sources. The students focused on energy sources for the future. This time, Elsworth and Eser teamed up with Jonathan Mathews, assistant professor of energy and geo-environmental engineering, to take the students back to the Industrial Revolution, to help them understand how resources like coal led to the growth of a nation. In the three days I had traveled with the group so far, before we landed in the hostel in Cynwyd, we had been to an 18th-century coal-mining site, a modern wind farm, and a research center where fuel is created from rapeseed.

Under the Rainbow

inside of bridge from water’s view
Matthew Pickett

The Iron Bridge at Coalbrookdale, world's first cast-iron bridge, was built in 1779.

Bristol, England—The bus from Heathrow airport is nearly full, and a sticker posted on its back bumper advocates opting for public transportation over a personal car: "Avoid high petrol prices and the hassle of parking!" Gas prices here are around 75.9 pence per liter, which translates to nearly five dollars a gallon. Low-sulfur diesel—a popular alternative in the UK—is a tad more expensive, but can yield nearly twice the fuel mileage. During the two-hour ride, I see mostly smaller European cars on the M4 highway—Volkswagens, Citroens, Opels—and a few small model Fords and Nissans, some diesel, some not. Only one sport utility vehicle moves high and wide through the tide of cars. Who can afford it?

At the bus terminal in Bristol, the sky is overcast and a chill wind spits rain in my face. I hop into one of the group's two vans, joining Eser and Mathews, and students Duane Castaldi, Lauren Kologe, Lauren Ziatyk, Becca Klossner, Pete Clark, and Eric Chastain. The students are a bit punchy from lack of sleep and long days on the road. Last night they had a farewell party for student Katie Strauss, who left the group early to work in El Salvador with an organization called Engineers Without Borders.

Despite last evening's revelry, the students rallied by eight in the morning, par for the course on this trip. Today, they began an exploration of the roots of the Industrial Revolution by climbing aboard the legendary steamship SS Britain, designed in the 1820s by Isambard Brunel. The ship, a coal-powered, long-range passenger vessel hulled with iron, far exceeded the size of its nearest competitor and in its day boasted the most powerful engine in the world. Now it is docked permanently in Bristol, a monument to the pioneers of modern industrial technology.

This afternoon, buzzing along in the van, we cross a suspension bridge over the Severn River into southern Wales. The terrain goes from flat to hilly—lumpy, actually—and it looks as if a blanket several shades of green has been draped over the countryside. This part of Wales reminds me of parts of Pennsylvania, except that the hilltops here are denuded of trees. The result is stark and inhospitable-looking, but beautiful nonetheless.

Like Pennsylvania, the industrial history of Wales centers on coal. While the group stands in the wind and rain in Blaenavon, Marielle Narkiewicz, a graduate student in geo-environmental engineering, reads a brief report she prepared before the trip about the significance of the big pit—pwll mawr in Welsh—a former industrial site nestled among the hills. Coal mining and iron production thrived in Blaenavon in the 18th and 19th centuries and, at the height of production, a quarter-million tons of coal each year were chipped from the ground and pulled to the surface with the help of a steam-powered elevator system. The advent of the railway allowed industrialists to bring southern Wales's anthracite, touted as a clean-burning fuel, to markets throughout England. Welsh coal even powered the Titanic in the early 20th century. But with the growth of steel production, the iron industry collapsed and the last iron furnace at Blaenavon shut down in 1904. By 1980, the only coal left in the pit was too deep and expensive to extract. In the last two decades, coal mining has fallen off 90 percent, and depressed villages stand half-abandoned in the valleys. Jobs are scarce, and many of the people who remain draw on unemployment.

Today, coal is one unpopular option among an array of energy sources in the UK. The country's lack of interest in coal is reflected in its university research programs, explains Mathews. "At the universities of Leeds and Nottingham, for example, coal research isn't very big at all," he says. In the United States, however, coal-fired plants still generate half of the country's electricity, and at Penn State, coal research is significant. Active research programs range from reducing mercury emissions at coal plants to producing premium carbon products—such as activated carbons for water and air purification, carbon black to reinforce tires, and graphite, used in products from electric motors to sporting goods—from coal and coal waste.

Back in Blaenavon, Narkiewicz reports that the lumps in the landscape are really hundred-year old piles of culm, a waste product of coal processing. In eroded places, we can see the dark debris hulking underneath. In the 1960s, in nearby Aberfan, a huge culm pile that had been deposited over a spring collapsed during a storm. The resulting landslide killed 144 people, including 116 children, who died when their school was crushed. Mathews shares this story as we wind along roads at the edge of the valleys, rain pelting the windshield of the van. Seconds later, the sun bursts through the clouds and a brilliant rainbow arcs over the Welsh hills.

The Right Stuff for a Revolution

shot of bridge over water surrounded by trees
Matthew Pickett

Ironbridge Gorge, "birthplace of the Industrial Revolution."

Ironbridge Gorge, England—We wake up early at St. Briaevel's in Lydney, a 12th-century castle turned youth hostel with modern amenities, including fantastic hot showers and Internet access.

The students have radically different packing styles, some bringing small, manageable bags, others risking the allowed weight limit for economy-class airline passengers. The heavy packers find negotiating the narrow castle staircases challenging, if not treacherous. The 15-passenger vans, too, are not easily navigated through the narrow stone streets of tiny English villages.

In the breakfast room at St. Briaevel's, the students huddle over cups of instant coffee while discussing their group research projects. Elsworth, Eser, and Mathews drink pots of tea at their own table.

"The students are really interested in renewables," Elsworth says. "Their research projects tend to focus on alternative energy technologies, not on fossil fuels or nuclear."

Elsworth's own research in the area of rock mechanics involves "understanding the processes that lead to the formation of fuels," he explains. He also does reservoir modeling and studies how contaminants flow through groundwater. One application of his work is finding appropriate storage areas for nuclear waste. Eser studies "the stuff at the bottom of the barrel," focusing on the conversion of crude oil into useful carbon products. Mathews's research program involves the molecular modeling of coal structures and the modeling of carbon dioxide sequestration processes. All three of them have an interest in teaching about energy and society. "This course is a marriage of the breadth and depth of our research and educational interests," Elsworth says.

We load up the vans after breakfast and drive two hours along the border of England and Wales to Ironbridge Gorge, considered the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution and now a United Nations World Heritage Site. The gorge had all the necessary ingredients for industrialization: coal, clay, ironstone, and limestone exposed at the surface; the Severn River, a vital transport link to major cities; and the ingenuity of men such as Abraham Darby.

Two hundred fifty years ago, this area boasted more furnaces and forges along two miles of riverbank than any such stretch anywhere. The world's first castiron bridge, spanning the Severn at Coalbrookdale, was built in 1779 using iron from furnaces owned by Darby; its scallops and intricate curves were designed by architect Thomas Pritchard. By the mid-1700s, the blood-red skies above the gorge meant power and success to the pioneering industrialists. But the water was so polluted that it wasn't fit to drink, life expectancy was low, and many of the children never made it out of infancy. Darby himself died at 39.

Ironbridge Gorge is a tourist site now, full of shops and museums. The furnaces and forges no longer roar. The river has been cleaned up. The four cooling towers of a small coal-fired power plant—one of a dwindling number in the UK—stand as backdrop to the old bridge, now limited to foot traffic.

We get a tour of the plant from Brian Edwards and Sydney Armstrong, a chatty pair of retired floor managers who now spend their days teaching ten-year-olds about energy as part of the national curriculum.

"Coal isn't very popular in this country, until the wintertime. Then people probably don't care where their electricity comes from," says Armstrong. He tells us that the plant produces 1000 megawatts of energy and supplies 400,000 volts of electricity to the UK's national electricity grid.

"Coal plants are being closed down, but with today's technologies, to replace a 1000 -megawatt power station would require thousands of wind turbines," says Edwards.

Indeed, when Edwards and Armstrong show us a map of the national grid, with bulbs of various colors designating the different types of power plants—nuclear, hydro, oil, and coal—the energy generated by wind isn't even represented. At least not yet.

Harnessing Wind at Harlock Hill

shot of 3 windmills
Matthew Pickett

Wind turbines, 44 meters tall, at Harlock Hill. The wind farm there is run as a cooperative.

Ulverston, England—It's not an easy trek to Harlock Hill's wind farm: You must drive several miles northwest of Ulverston on England's notorious back roads, narrow and lined by four-foot stone walls, surrounded by the vivid green foliage only possible in this country where it has rained every day for the last week and a half.

When we arrive, we gaze silently at the 44-meter wind turbine nearest the gate, a 500-kilowatt monster named Cloudlifter working against the impenetrable fog that rolls in and out of the valley, masking and unmasking the other pale-gray turbines. The five of them—generating a total of 2.5 megawatts of energy—provide a stark, futuristic contrast to the bucolic landscape, a powerful representation of human ingenuity and hope for generations to come.

An extraordinary aspect of this particular wind farm lies in its economic structure. Baywind Energy Cooperative Ltd. was founded in 1996 with the goal of energy independence for the Harlock Hill community. Modeled after successful Swedish ventures, Baywind provides a feasible alternative to centralized energy in the UK. Investments in the co-op come from individuals from all over England, with 43 percent derived from local sources. Each investor becomes a shareholder who is allotted one vote in company decisions, regardless of the amount of investment. Shares can only be traded among members. Half a percent of profits from sales to the UK's national energy grid go to an Energy Conservation Trust to support local projects, while the rest is returned to the members. The investment return rate has remained fairly constant at around six percent per year.

Baywind and other co-ops now springing up in the UK receive help from the British government in two ways. A subsidy returns 20 percent of the initial investment, and a Non-Fossil Fuel Obligation guarantees a fixed purchase price for surplus electricity provided to the grid for the next 15 years.

Electric Mountain

large towers at power plant
Matthew Pickett

Cooling towers at Ironbridge coal plant.

Llanberis, Wales—Three quarters of a mile inside "Electric Mountain" in Snowdon National Park, out of the rain but still damp, we watch six massive black turbines—each the combined weight of the seven largest dinosaurs ever found—rotate a dizzying 500 times a minute. Their vibration rumbles deep in my chest and throat, and as I step on the metal platform around one of the turbines, a slightly painful buzz travels from my toes to my stomach. Nearby, bright yellow valves the size of VW Beetles control the flow of water from a glacial lake 600 meters above.

In the 1970s, the British government transformed this mountain from slate quarry to hydroelectric powerhouse, commissioning the largest civil engineering project the country had ever seen: the construction of the Dinowig Power Plant. Local crews blasted open chambers inside already pillaged rock to create space for a pumped storage station, a method of power production that takes advantage of the most obvious of natural phenomena: water flowing downhill. In this case, 15,000 gallons of water are released every second from a high glacial lake to a lower reservoir. The water turns the massive turbines and can generate enough energy (1,300 megawatts) to power all of Wales for five hours. However, energy from the plant is only recruited during periods of peak demand—in the morning, for example, when all of England is making tea, or in the evening during the hottest half hour of televised British humor. At night, when the demand for energy is low and electricity shares on the national energy market are cheap, the water is pumped back up to the lake.

Stalactites hang like thin crystalline tubes from the ceiling, and pipistrelle and horseshoe bats remain tucked into dark corners of the corridors linking the massive chambers (the main cavern could house a 16-story building with room to spare). Our tour guide, David Mitchell, a thin, bespectacled man with wispy blond hair, whisks us into a tiny underground auditorium—just out of earshot of the turbines—to view a documentary that begins like a Bgrade horror movie. "Weather is not the only force that shapes the mountain," growls the narrator. On the screen, a bolt of lightning rips across the sky over a silhouette of hulking rock. "The mountain has been cracked and decimated by man for hundreds of years." The frame shifts to black and white photos of lean and dusty men and boys roped into the steep mountainsides, swinging pick axes to carve off sheets of slate. The quarry was once the second largest of its kind in the world, employing over 3,000 local people and supplying the world with pre-mium slate for roofs and floor tiles. But by 1969, after nearly 160 years of operation, business dwindled, leaving a wrecked mountainside and piles of slate chips too imperfect for market.

Today, the Dinowig Power Plant employs 130 people; 30 of them work inside the mountain. Only six are needed to run the facility on weekends and holidays.

Morgan Windram, a Penn State geography student, is looking at how local economies are affected by different methods of energy production. "I want to know what an energy plant like this one can do for an area in terms of monetary contributions and employing local people," she tells me as we sit in the Electric Mountain snack shop, 200 meters above the vase chambers of the power station. Says Windram, "A lot of the plants we've seen in the UK have only a few employees." Indeed, some of the alternative energy plants—wind farms, for example—have just a handful of employees at each facilities, a big change from the days when the coal mines and slate quarries were the biggest employers in town.

Fields of Energy

electricity tower
Jonathan Matthews

Any energy source you can think of has both advantages and disadvantages, says Harold Schobert. "What we need to figure out is how to strike a reasonable, sensible balance."

Stanlow, England—While thundering along the highways in our diesel-powered van, I've been noticing fields of bright yellow-flowered plants, waving in the wind and glowing during those rare moments the sun comes out.

The plant is rape, and its seed is used to produce a bio-derived diesel fuel, explains Adrian Groves, a chemist at the Shell Oil plant just outside of Stanlow. Methyl alcohol is added to rapeseed oil in a process called transesterification. The technical term for the fuel is "rapeseed oil methyl ester," or RME.

"In the United States, it's SME because they use soybeans," Groves explains. "You have to grow what the farmers know."

Most diesel engines do not need to be modified to use biofuels. Biodiesel can be used as a substitute for conventional diesel, or it can be added in any proportion. However, because biodiesel has a lower energy content than regular diesel, the fuel mileage is not as good.

Groves's research at Shell is on automotive fuels for the future. "The auto manufacturers have come up with a range of technologies for gas and diesel engines to help reduce emissions," says Groves. "Now it's up to the fuel suppliers to follow suit."

The European Union has proposed a biofuels directive that includes two target goals: all gasoline and diesel fuel produced and sold in its member states must contain at least 2 percent biofuels by 2005, 5.75 percent by 2010.

"This is a little unrealistic, perhaps," says Groves. "There are 300 millions tons of gas and diesel used in Europe each year. We're going to replace two percent of this with biofuels? It takes a year for the crops to grow, another year or two to build the fuel processing plants, and you have to install new pumps at fueling stations throughout the country. I'm not sure we can do all of this in two years.

"It's not clear that the ecological benefits justify the additional cost of producing the fuel," Groves says.

Back home at the Energy Institute, Harold Schobert, director of the Energy Institute, tells me about biofuels research at Penn State.

"Pennsylvania is an important agricultural and forestry state," he says. "Certainly there is a huge opportunity for biofuels.

"We're focusing on two areas: the combustion of biomass fuels in boilers, and bio-derived liquid fuels for internal combustion engines in cars and trucks."

Alternative fuel and energy research is a growing area in the Energy Institute, with researchers focusing on bio-diesel, fuel cells, and hydrogen.

"Basically our mantra is that Pennsylvania and the nation need to have a balanced energy portfolio," Schobert says. "In other words, we should not be relying on only one or two energy sources."

He continues, "Any energy source you can think of has certain technological and economic advantages and certain technological disadvantages and economic disincentives. What we need to figure out is how to strike a reasonable, sensible balance."

Schobert expects some alternative energy technologies to become niche technologies. "Some people believe that east of the Mississippi River, Pennsylvania has the greatest potential for wind power development," he says. "Geothermal power plants, on the other hand, wouldn't work very well for Pennsylvania, and neither would solar panels. We'd freeze in the dark," he says, chuckling as he points out his window at dark rain clouds on a stormy UK-reminiscent day. "But solar in Tucson? You bet."

"Harnessing the Wind at Harlock Hill" was reported by Joshua Tanon, an undergraduate student studying environmental systems engineering.

Derek Elsworth, Ph.D., is professor of energy and geo-environmental engineering and associate dean for research in the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences, 221 Walker Bldg., University Park, PA 16802; 814 865-7659;; Semih Eser, Ph.D., is associate professor and associate head for undergraduate education in the department of energy and geo-environmental engineering, 156 Hosler Bldg.; 863-1392;; Jonathan Mathews, Ph.D., is assistant professor of energy and geoenvironmental engineering, 151 Hosler Bldg.; 863-6213; Harold Schobert, Ph.D., is professor of energy and geo-environmental engineering and director of the Energy Institute, 102 Hosler Bldg.; 863-1337; Dana Bauer is writer/editor in the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences; The trip was funded by the Center for Advanced Undergraduate Study and Experience (CAUSE) in the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences.

Last Updated September 01, 2003