Energy that is stored in the bonds of a chemical compound is referred to as “chemical energy.” It can be found in molecules and atoms, but is only released during a chemical reaction. When this energy is released, heat is the usual byproduct of the action, which is referred to as an “exothermic reaction.”
Many of the forms of energy that we use every day rely on the process of chemical energy to supply power. Batteries, natural gas, and even coal are all forms of stored chemical energy that can be released when a chemical reaction occurs.
The primary advantage of chemical energy is the fact that it is abundant in nature. Virtually any organic material can produce chemical energy. If you burn wood in a woodstove to heat your home, you’re benefitting from the processes that are provided by chemical energy.
The primary disadvantage of chemical energy is that it isn’t really a clean form of energy. Many forms of chemical energy can only be accessed through a process of combustion or consumption. That process releases emissions into the atmosphere and puts the environment at-risk of future harm.
Here are additional advantages and disadvantages of chemical energy to consider.
What Are the Advantages of Chemical Energy?
1. Most forms of chemical energy are released through combustion.
Combustion is one of the easiest methods to obtain energy. Instant power is received through the consumption of the energy resource. The efficiencies of that combustion can be controlled and directly maintained so the most possible energy can be harvested, making it a cheap and effective way to receive the energy forms that are needed.
2. It is an easy form of energy to stockpile.
If you’ve got a fireplace or a woodstove, then there’s a good chance you have a pile of wood in your backyard somewhere. That is just one example of how easy it is to stockpile a chemical energy resource. Even the starting of a campfire or lighting the charcoal for a grill shows how easy it is to take advantage of what chemical energy can provide.
3. Many forms of chemical energy have high density loads.
The power that chemical energy can release through the breakage of bonds is immense. That high-density load is enough for us to fuel transportation networks, fly people into space, and perhaps go beyond the solar system one day. Compared to other energy resources, chemical energy has one of the highest densities that is available to us, which means we can have a substantial amount of power to use with minimal available resources.
4. It is reasonably efficient.
Chemical energy requires the presence of oxygen to be effective. When the environment can be controlled so that the oxygen can begin the combustion process, the efficiency of this energy resource can be quite high. As long as the bonds can be ignited so their energy can be released, a properly controlled environment can direct that energy into specific outcomes.
5. The environmental effects can be controlled.
Although combustion naturally releases emissions into the atmosphere that could be potentially harmful, there are capture and storage technologies which can be utilized to limit the damage. One example of this technology would be clean coal. By capturing the carbon and other harmful gas and particulate emissions for storage, we gain the benefit of the chemical energy while reducing the risks of a negative outcome occurring.
What Are the Disadvantages of Chemical Energy?
1. It isn’t a sustainable form of energy.
Chemical energy resources can be replaced, but they cannot be replenished. Think of it like this. It’s cold outside, so you grab a couple of logs to put them into your fireplace. Then you light them to create a fire. That fire receives energy, in part, due to the chemical energy found in the wood. Over time, that energy is consumed and the wood turns to ash. Can you turn that ash into more wood? No. Can you get more wood? Yes.
2. It can be expensive.
Because most forms of chemical energy come from organic or naturally occurring items, accessing the resource can be quite expensive. We must mine coal before we can burn it. One must cut wood to size so it can fit into the fireplace or woodstove and that occurs after the tree has been harvested. And, since many of these products release particulates into the atmosphere, there are costly regulations in place to prevent excessive emissions.
3. Some forms of chemical energy are quite rare.
Let’s look at nuclear energy for this example of a disadvantage. Most nuclear facilities rely on uranium as a fuel. Uranium is such a scarce resource that some nations have not located any deposits of it within their borders. Once that uranium is depleted, more must be obtained. That rarity not only increases costs and deals with sustainability issues, but it also means that technologies used to access the chemical energy can become useless over time.
4. It can produce harmful waste.
Many forms of chemical energy release radiation as part of the combustive process. That radiation isn’t necessarily dangerous when it is well-controlled, but it can be deadly under the right circumstances. Issues at Chernobyl and Fukushima have showed us just how powerful chemical energy reactions can be when something goes wrong. Many radioactive isotopes have a long half-life, sometimes thousands of years, which means a catastrophic situation can be devastating to a local environment.
5. It can be used to create devastating weapons.
The rhetoric between the United States and North Korea, which escalated in 2017 to unprecedented levels since the armed truce was signed between the nations to stop the Korean War, shows us how chemical energy can be used for destructive purposes. Nuclear weapons use this form of energy. The devastation in Japan from the US dropping two of these weapons cost hundreds of thousands of lives over time. There are enough nuclear weapons today to completely devastate the world if they were all fired.
6. It offers short-term benefits for long-term consequences.
When the Industrial Revolution began, no one thought about how the emissions from these new technologies would impact the planet for future generations. The only concern was to improve living standards and promote wealth generation. Although our technologies have improved and we have renewable resources to use, we’re still trading short-term benefits for long-term consequences by relying on chemical energy. Even if we captured all forms of pollution from it, we’d be robbing our planet of a natural resource that could impact life for our children and grandchildren.
The advantages and disadvantages of chemical energy show us that it can be useful when properly controlled, but there may be better options available to us in the future. Starting a campfire isn’t going to send our planet to doom, but continuing to create nuclear weapons or improperly storing nuclear waste? Those are issues that we cannot kick down the road for others to handle.
What do you think about the current use of chemical energy in our society?