Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Red-Dead Tunnel

As a pre-teen in central New York State, I frequently observed a scientific principle at work without being aware that it was, indeed, a scientific principle. The Seneca River flowed through our town, draining water from the beautiful Finger Lakes region farther west. An impressive dam structure deepened and widened the river. At one side of the dam there was a small power plant whose turbines produced electric power. The lock and dam in Baldwinsville provided reliable river navigation and a deeper pool of stored water to supply the power plant. But most important to me at age 12 was the excellent carp fishing below the dam rather than the science lesson it provided: the production of electricity from moving water.

A sidebar discussion during our recent travel through Israel focused on the Red Sea to Dead Sea water tunnel under consideration for many years. Most people are aware of hydroelectric power--the generation of electric power by moving water driving a turbine. It takes advantage of water’s potential energy, its “energy of position.” The elevated water possesses “potential energy.” If we permit the elevated water to flow downhill, its potential energy can be converted to other forms of energy, such as kinetic (motion) energy and finally, to electrical energy. But this is only one of many ways we are able to harness the potential of water to do useful work.

The proposal to build a tunnel between the Red Sea and the Dead Sea would solve several serious problems, such as the ongoing excess evaporation of Dead Sea water. It would utilize the “energy of position” of Red Sea water--420 meters above Dead Sea elevation. In earlier years the project was seen primarily as a possible power-generating scheme. Currently, scientists see desalination of sea water as an even more desirable outcome. Most people do not realize that ordinary water has great potential for accomplishing useful tasks such as desalination of seawater and energy production in a more environmentally-friendly way. How would it work? In osmosis, a term we may remember from high school biology, water tends to flow naturally across a semi-permeable membrane into a solution with a higher concentration of dissolved substances. “Reverse osmosis,” making use of pressure applied to the high concentration solution (seawater), reverses the direction of flow through the membrane and produces fresh water for agricultural and other uses. Under various controlled circumstances, “salinity gradient power” could also produce renewable energy without harmful emissions. Research continues to show promising potential for such processes in the future.

One might ask if knowledge of such details connects in any way with our faith. God is the author of natural laws and orderly physical processes which suffuse our everyday experience. I submit that knowledge of these laws and processes, together with discovery of the means to apply them, are vibrant faith strengtheners. Ponder Isaiah 41:18 (NIV) in the light of the Red-Dead Tunnel: “I will make rivers flow on barren heights, and springs within the valleys. I will turn the desert into pools of water, and the parched ground into springs.” The events described could illustrate a transcendent miracle, events beyond the laws of physics. Or, we could exult in the many wonderful and startling manifestations of natural laws which govern our activities on even the most ordinary days of our lives.