[VIEWPOINT]To stay in the black, think greenGreen chemistry is our new goal. Crude oil prices have climbed to $75 per barrel. This is an extremely grave situation for Korea, which recorded a huge growth in the rate of its energy consumption in recent years. The cost Korea had to pay to import crude oil increased more than 40 percent last year, and the amount we paid for imported energy totaled 25 percent of our imports. The jump in oil prices is attributed to the unstable international situation, but it is a problem that we have to overcome anyhow. Korea needs an active long-term plan.
Humans are clearly distinguished from other animals, because they use fire. It is assumed that Homo erectus, who was here before Homo sapiens, were the first to use fire. The main fuel was dry trees or leaves, or charcoal. In dry areas, the dried excretions of grass-eating animals were also used. We only recently started to use fossil fuel buried in the ground. Coal started to be used in full swing during the industrial revolution in the 18th century, and oil began to be used only in the 20th century. In the 1970s, natural gas started to be used as a safe energy resource.
Fossil fuel is the remains of huge amounts of plants from around 300 million years ago that were buried deep in the ground. The Earth at that time was one humongous continent where South America, Australia, Africa, India and the South Pole were all linked together, and thanks to the abundance of carbon dioxide in the air, it became a period of prosperity for various living things, including green plants. Then something surprising happened to the Earth. Enormous happenings such as the splitting of the land and the rising up of the mountains occurred for 40 million years continuously. The catastrophe made 95 percent of the animal species disappear and one-third of the insects become extinct.
The fossil fuel that we use today is the living proof of that disaster. Fossil fuel contains the energy of nuclear fusion from the sun 300 million years ago, saved through the mystical chemical action called photosynthesis, which occurs in green plants.
In a way, we have been able to live the safest and most prosperous life in history thanks to the precious energy and resources made through the disaster.
However, it’s frustrating to know that we have used up so much of the resources stored over tens of millions of years in such a short time and that nature has also been seriously damaged in the process.
It is quite late, but we urgently need to find a new energy source and new natural resources so we can continue to pursue our survival and prosperity. We need to actively develop methods of using alternative energy such as solar heat, solar rays, wind power and tidal power, and we cannot ignore the possibilities of utilizing hydrogen energy either.
We also must not give up the use of atomic energy, which was introduced in the 20th century but held back because of the risk of the accidental leak of radioactive materials and the difficulties of waste disposal.
The reason we are managing to go through this oil price hike without much difficulty, unlike other oil shocks in the past, is because we have invested a lot in atomic energy in the meantime.
There is no technology that is 100 percent safe for nature or human beings. It is important to protect the environment, but it is also true that environment protection at the sacrifice of our survival and prosperity is meaningless. We must quickly prevent the waste of energy and natural resources and develop methods to sustain useable resources and a policy that the people can trust.
Our ultimate goal should be “green chemistry,” which produces substances safer to nature and to humans in a safer and more effective way.
Oil is not only used as a source of energy today. The development of a natural resource that can be used in place of oil is as much important and urgent as developing an alternative energy, because there are incalculable numbers of products made from oil today.
* The writer is a professor of chemistry and science communication at Sogang University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Lee Duck-hwan