Thermodynamics? Its Not Just For Breakfast Anymore

oil well

For millennia mankind relied upon energy sources that were diffuse. We burned wood, which grows in energy-concentrating organisms called trees. We could only gather the wood if it had fallen, or if we could use our stone-based tools to break wood apart. Some folks were fortunate in that their environment held a form of turf that would burn, one we call peat. And once we domesticated animals, we discovered that we could burn their feces, if we could stomach the smell. But that was it. We could not leverage our power by harnessing energy sources to supplant muscle power.

Over time, we mastered the manufacture of metals. This made it easier to harvest wood, and made it easier to use it for heating and cooking. But only after we recognized as a species that we could use energy to create steam, and then harness the steam to do work, only then did we gain the possibility to advance society through the use of machines. Since that time, we have worked diligently to use ever more concentrated sources of energy in order to do our bidding. Coal was the first concentrated source of energy used to leverage man’s muscles, and entire regions rich in coal soon were honeycombed with tunnels where coal had been extracted.

Coal has its own problems, though. It is dirty, dusty, and burning it causes a sulfur stink to cling to the landscape where it is used. It also bears a human toil in the death and disabilities of those who work to mine coal. Oil has long been used by man for lighting, but the sources of oil were either vegetable in nature, or for a short time, based on blubber. This type of oil is a concentrated source of energy, but it is gathered by diffuse energy sources. It was only when man discovered how to extract virgin pools of petroleum oil from below the surface of the earth that it became possible to create a liquid fuel that could propel individual transportation vehicles. Once the miracles of fuel oil and gasoline were unleashed, the automobile age was enabled.

Concentrated sources of energy were viewed as inexhaustible in the earth, and man grew to believe it was his birthright to exploit these sources in perpetuity. Indeed, man even harnessed the second most concentrated source of energy known, that of atomic fission, and controlled it to convert mass into electricity. That source of energy creates its own problems, with long-lived radioactive waste, and with the narrow line separating safe operation from catastrophe. Still, the energy future for man looked bright.

But after centuries of exploiting concentrated energy sources, the problems resulting from their use have grown exponentially. In Appalachia, we no longer delve under the ground for rich veins of organic rock. The best veins are gone. Instead, we blow the top off of mountainsides in order to free up the 2′ and 3′ veins of coal that were left in bygone geological times. Excess dirt and rock is pushed over the sides of the former mountain, leaving behind a scar on the land where ground cover is grown to regenerate the soil that is long gone.

Standard oil wells have gone dry in many regions. The decline in oil production in the US, coupled with the expanding use of oil, led to over dependence upon foreign oil sources, particularly from the Arabian Gulf. In the 1970’s, this dependence led to the use of oil as a political weapon, as the Arab countries withheld oil from the US to protest Israel’s seizure of Arab lands after a failed Arab war on Israel. It was only with the advent of enhanced oil recovery through fracking that the long decline in US oil production was reversed.

But even with the impressive increase in oil and natural gas generated through fracking, there are other issues that need to be dealt with. This does not concern fracking wastes or earthquakes from waste fluid injection. No, it has to do with the depletion rates of wells drilled using fracking. Whereas a conventional petroleum reservoir has a depletion rate measured over decades, with fracking wells, the rate of production from a fracking well may decrease by over 50% in the first year. The depletion rate of a fracking well shows an exponential decrease in production, and the economic lifetime of a well may be less than 10 years. Thus it is necessary to keep drilling, inserting pipe into the ground, and dealing with all of the fluid handling for any oil or gas fracking well.

The net result is that it takes more and more energy to extract fossil fuels through fracking than the old method of production. Fewer and fewer BTU’s of useful energy is available from the well once all of the energy inputs of the well are subtracted. Subtract the energy used to make the steel pipe, the energy used to move all of the fluids and sand for fracking, the energy used to separate the fossil fuel from the comingled water, and the energy costs for pipelines and compressor stations for natural gas. One begins to come up against thermodynamic limits for obtaining useful energy out of fossil fuel extraction. For a link that you may find useful in pursuing this further, please check out This website has many different perspectives on oil – either we are swimming in it, or the last big discoveries have already been made.

Note that this discussion has not mentioned carbon dioxide’s role as a greenhouse gas. Any solution to humanity’s energy issues needs to take greenhouse gases into account, but the underlying demise of the oil economy may happen despite all of the efforts to keep the oil flowing. No, what is needed is that we must realize that we need to go back to the older methods of harvesting diffuse energy sources. And all of the diffuse energy sources we have are tied to the sun. Whether it is solar electricity, or wind power, or biomaterials generating hydrocarbon liquids, all of them use the sun as the ultimate energy source. If we are to avoid a crisis over the next decade due to depletion of fossil fuel sources, we must commit to harvesting diffuse sources of solar energy to keep our society running.

Much of the blowback against global warming refers to the “globalists” imposing their control agenda upon the brave and valiant people who fly the fossil fuel flag. They are insistent that it is their right to live as their (most recent) forefathers lived, and keep buying the biggest SUV or pickup that they may ever need to have, simply because oil is cheap, and will always stay that way. Those people will be the first to be blindsided when oil prices keep climbing inexorably, year after year, and they will not understand that even though more oil is being harvested, only a small fraction of that oil is truly available to keep their profligate lifestyle afloat. If we truly do enter a world where it takes more energy to extract a barrel of oil than that oil will release during combustion, then the end for our life of ease will come, and we will retreat back into the life of the past, where all of our energy was consumed just in order to survive.

Chemicals I Have Known (and Made) – Hydrogen Cyanide


As I look back on my career in industry, I realize that I became inured to the chemicals I dealt with and produced. I will be posting occasionally on some of the materials I worked with and made during the first part of my career. The first chemical I worked with was hydrocyanic acid – a simple molecule consisting of a hydrogen atom, a carbon atom, and a nitrogen atom (HCN). This molecule is so simple that there are molecular clouds in space where HCN is found, released from stars that have synthesized carbon and nitrogen in their core. But HCN has a well-known reputation as a poison, one that prevents oxygenated blood from being able to deliver their life-giving load to cells. Once oxygen transport ceases, energy production in a cell stops, and the cell and the organism that contains the cell dies.


So at the chemical plant I worked at, one of the requirements to work in the cyanide area was to ensure that I could detect cyanide leaks so I would not wander into an area with a fatal concentration. This was done by means of a sniff test. Three beakers of water were set on a tray. Two were plain water, and the third had a concentration of cyanide in it that resulted in small amounts of cyanide vapor in the air above the beaker. To pass the test, you had to tell which beaker held the cyanide. The first time I took the test, I was guessing somewhat. None of this “bitter almonds” smell, just something that was a little off. By the last time I took the test, almost 10 years later, I picked up the beaker with the cyanide and before it made it halfway to my nose, I put it back down on the tray and said “That’s the one.” What was originally too faint for me to be certain had become so overwhelmingly repugnant over the course of a decade that it gagged me.


Cyanide. What’s it good for? Hydrogen cyanide is used in quite a few chemical processes as a feed stock. One of the chemical processes is used to make another chemical called methyl methacrylate (MMA), used in acrylic paints and in plastics like Plexiglass. My chemical plant made MMA as well, but that’s a story for another day. The other main use of cyanide was to make sodium cyanide, which is used in the mining of precious metals. Sodium cyanide solutions are able to leach small concentrations of gold, silver, and other precious metals out of ore, allowing it to be concentrated and extracted into product. Our plant produced sodium cyanide as well as HCN. Some HCN is shipped to other locations for use. When it was shipped, the tank cars that contained it were painted in a distinctive manner. They had red stripes on them – one that circled the car lengthwise, and one that circled the circumference of the car, forming a cross on both sides of the car where the stripes collided. These cars were called candy stripers in the trade.


Hydrogen cyanide is produced when ammonia, natural gas, and air are heated and passed over a platinum – rhodium gauze mesh. The off-gases are then absorbed, and the cyanide produced is concentrated and purified. At our plant, HCN was stored in tanks surrounded by dikes. One of our safety features was flare guns mounted on posts throughout the tank farm. If the worst happened, and liquid cyanide were to leak out onto the surface of the dike, folks were instructed to fire a flare gun and set the liquid on fire. HCN is volatile (78ºF boiling point), but the vapor will not explode. Instead, it will undergo a deflagration where the combustion wave front is slower than the speed of sound. Other gases like methane will explode, where the combustion wave front is faster than the speed of sound, which causes the pressure wave that creates damage in an explosion. So for HCN, it is much better to let it burn and eliminate the toxic vapors evaporating from the liquid surface.


One day in 1979, I was out at the plant on a Saturday. I remember that Dr. Jenks was there on that day as well, and he invited me into his office. Dr. Jenks was one of those older generation chemists who knew everything about the chemistry and processes. He had a wooden box in his office, about 18″ on the narrow sides, and about 10′ long. In that box was the replacement platinum/ rhodium gauze for the catalyst change. At that time, when precious metal prices were at a 30 year high, his office held about 2 million dollars in platinum and rhodium. I was impressed.


My main job in manufacturing support was in the waste treatment process. As you can imagine, the waste water from these cyanide processes needed special treatment and segregation from other waste water. The “state of the art” water collection system consisted of cypress lined trenches, with cypress boards covering the top. This ran downhill to the bottom of the plant, where we had the Trade Waste water treatment facility. Waste water came into a collection point, where sodium hydroxide was added to make sure that the water was basic. If cyanide ions were in an acidic solution, cyanide vapor would be released above the solution, and that is not a good thing. So once the pH was adjusted to make the waste basic, then it would be mixed with liquid chlorine. Our plant produced sodium metal and liquid chlorine, so we had only to send the chlorine down a pipe to the water treatment plant, and mix it in with the waste water. When the chlorine hit the basic water, it produced chlorine bleach solution (sodium hypochlorite). Bleach attacks the cyanide and converts it to a non-toxic degradation product. To ensure that the reaction took place, after treatment the water was diverted into what were called 8-hour ponds. These ponds were on either side of the treatment building, and were unlined ponds where the water was held until the reaction was complete. Then the water was released into a baffled chamber called the one hour pond where it was analyzed to make sure that all of the cyanide was destroyed, and after the last test, the water was combined with the other sewer waste and went into the City of Memphis sewage treatment system. Unfortunately at the time, our interceptor sewer did not hook up to the sewage treatment system, and the water along with all of the domestic wastewater was discharged directly into the Mississippi River. Environmental protection has definitely improved in the 40 years since I was working in this process.


I would imagine that the staffing situation for the Trade Waste process has also improved. Back when I worked at the plant, there was a single operator who was stationed at the treatment plant. This individual sat in a central control room, and on either side of the control room were the chlorine injectors with the liquid chlorine flowing through them. Now, I don’t know about you, but I would be hesitant to work by myself, with cyanide-laden waters and liquid chlorine surrounding my office, but back in the late ’70’s, I didn’t think as much about the implications of what could go wrong. The plant had a safety procedure where the person working in a remote location had to check in with the main control room at least once per hour. Believe me, at that time, so much could have gone wrong in an hour’s time that the operator could have been dead for 59 minutes. But it never did at that facility during at least the first 30+ years of operation. Looking now at the facility on Google earth, it is obvious that they have made significant changes and improved the safety of the treatment operation. But some of the facilities look similar to what I worked with 40 years ago.


There’s much more I could go into. Cyanide has some amazing chemistry, and the waste treatment is almost an art unto itself. I did some large-scale testing there where we added a hydrogen peroxide waste stream that was what I considered to be fun chemistry. But it was definitely a good process to work on for my first real production support for making a nasty chemical.

Green Bank Observatory Trips

Green Bank Observatory Picture from Google Earth

In a narrow vale between two folds of earthen ridges in eastern West Virginia, a man-made structure stands nearly 150 meters tall. This is the Green Bank radio telescope, a unique resource that is the largest fully steerable radio telescope in the world, with an antenna 100 meters in diameter. The radio telescope is at the heart of what was once called the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, and is now run by the Green Bank Observatory. The facility is in the middle of a radio-free zone, where cell phones go to die, since there is zero cell service in this region.

The facilities at this observatory are not just for the use of professional scientists. There is a 40′ radio telescope that is available for use by school groups to learn the principles of radio astronomy, and the principles of scientific observation. I was fortunate enough to chaperone two groups of high school seniors from South Charleston High School (SCHS) on their overnight excursions to this wonderful resource. The International Baccalaureate Physics teacher at SCHS, Janet Richardson, arranged for this field trip annually. I went in the years that my sons were in her physics class.

When we reached the observatory, we had a lecture from one of the observatory staff who explained what we were going to be looking for. The 40′ telescope is now fixed in place, so it allows observations of what is directly overhead as the earth rotates. This means that you can see the galaxy rotating towards you for one part of the day, and you can see the galaxy moving away from you 12 hours later. If you have a radio telescope tuned to the correct wavelength, you can observe the emissions from hydrogen gas found in our galaxy. If you remember the Doppler effect from physics, and you think about train whistles, you will remember that as the train is coming towards you, the pitch is higher. Then when the train passes you, the pitch lowers. That is the same phenomena that the radio telescope is observing. As the hydrogen gas in the galaxy moves towards you, the frequency moves up – the signal is shifted towards the blue end of the spectrum. If the gas is moving away, the signal shifts towards the red. By taking measurements around the clock, you can see the rotation of the galaxy as measured from our position on one of the outer arms of the galaxy.

The 40′ radio telescope is one of the first telescopes within the quiet zone of the observatory. Once you enter the quiet zone, there are no powered vehicles except for old diesels. Spark plugs are capable of creating intense interference for the radio telescopes, so you see Checker cabs from the 1940’s and 1950’s available to transport people. There are some diesel vans as well that are used to move the students back and forth. You enter the quiet zone after passing by the start of the scale model of the solar system, with the inner planets grouped closely together. Then a significant gap, and finally the symbol for Jupiter appears on the side of the road. The gaps between the planets grows, and we reach our destination for observation halfway between Uranus and Neptune. The building that accompanies the 40′ scope is small above ground. Once you enter the door, you descend a short flight of stairs to come to the observation room. This is a scientific instrument history display, but all of the analog dials and gauges and chart recorders are still working. I probably used similar chart recorders back in my college days in the 1970’s.

green bank solar system model

The room where the measurements are taken has been used by various school groups for decades. Mementos of these groups can be found scrawled on the ceiling beams, and the wall beams, where you can see which colleges, and which high schools left their mark for future students to see. The students have been instructed on how to tune the receiver to the correct frequency bandwidth, to start the chart recorder, and to begin their observational period. They move the frequency detector manually through that range, and the chart recorder shows the response. Hydrogen gas, if it is not moving relative to the observer, will emit radiation at 1420 mHz. If it is moving towards the observer, the frequency will increase, and if moving away, the frequency will decrease. As they step through the frequency range, all of a sudden the antenna picks up the signal from hydrogen, and the chart pen goes up. The height of the response is proportional to the concentration of hydrogen being observed. The students move the frequency through the entire assigned range, and the pen comes back down to the baseline. Thus completes one set of measurements. Each group of students makes two observations over the course of their stay.

The first year I went, Janet asked me to stay with the students through all of the late night observation shifts. So while each student only got to see one measurement in the middle of the night, I got to see multiple hours of observation, and really got the sense of seeing the motion of the galaxy in real time. But once the last group of students took their measurements, I was ready to go back to the bunkhouse where the boys in the group were sleeping. The accommodations are not spartan, but the dual rows of bunk beds do not allow for any privacy. They do enable a bit of mischief, like the spray cheese some of the boys put on the hand of another sleeping student, ensuring that when they tickled his face, he would smear the cheese all over his face. I, being a sound sleeper, heard none of this mild mischief.

On my second trip to the observatory, we saw the place where conspiracy theorists (the tinfoil hat crowd) would love. We got to go inside of a room-sized Faraday cage. A Faraday cage is an enclosure that does not permit electromagnetic radiation of certain frequencies to enter or leave. This is where the computer equipment is for the observatory. Since the antennas are so sensitive to stray radiation, the computers have to be totally shielded away from the antennas. The walls, ceiling, and floor are all impregnated with a copper mesh. There are holes in the mesh, because they are only concerned with blocking radiation of certain wavelengths and the size of the holes in the mesh govern the size of waves that can escape.

For this middle-aged self-admitted science and astronomy nerd, the two days off work that I took for these trips were some of the better vacation days I ever spent. It’s now been 10 years since my older son took his trip. I asked both my sons about what they remembered, but it seems that the details of the science portion has been lost to the vagaries of time. I asked Janet what she had the class do with their measurements once they returned to the classroom, and she said that their task was to get an image of the galaxy by looking at their observations over the course of a day. I cannot express my appreciation to teachers like Janet Richardson, who help to ignite the spark of curiosity in classes of young men and women. She said that in the future, they may get involved in the programs that they have to discover pulsars. It’s a crowd-sourced project, where the data from observations are available, and interested volunteers can use their computers and software from the observatory to try to detect pulsars that have not yet been identified.

I noted at the first of this post that the observatory used to be known as the National Radio Astronomy Observatory. It was funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF). As part of the ongoing disinvestment in science that began years ago, the NSF no longer provides 95% of the funds for the facility. Up until late in 2017, it was even feasible that the NSF would call for the demolition of the telescope. But since that time, a compromise was reached that enabled the observatory to stand as a self-sustaining organization. The Green Bank Observatory now is partnering with universities, like West Virginia University, and is involved with several multi-year projects including Project Breakthrough Listen, which is surveying the million closest stars to us and looking for signs of intelligent life. But like all such facilities, the needs for funds continues. If you would like to support the science programs of this unique facility that seeks to expand our knowledge of our origins, here’s the link to get involved:

Gold Fever


Carl Sagan famously said “We are made of starstuff.” That is, the elements of life, the carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, phosphorus, iron, sulfur, and of course hydrogen, all come from the life processes of normal stars. Through fusion, there is a progression in the atoms that are forged within stars. Hydrogen begets helium, and later on in a star’s life, helium begets carbon, nitrogen and oxygen. Further fusion reactions occur within a star’s core, releasing energy until iron predominates at the core of the star, where the fusion reactions proceed. Iron, though, represents a dead end in the fusion process. Iron cannot undergo a fusion reaction that creates more energy than it takes to react. So the swollen mass of the red giant star that was inflated by the energy released from fusion reactions, suddenly collapses upon itself. The in-falling matter creates critical masses in the outer layers of the star, exploding in a new pressure wave that expels the outer shells of the star. Thus, a typical nova occurs in a galaxy far, far away (even novas in this galaxy are far, far away).

A typical nova (or even a supernova) does not have the capability to create the large number of high atomic weight elements like gold, or uranium, or platinum. To create these elements, it takes an even more spectacular event. One such event, the spiraling collision of two neutron stars, was observed on August 17, and three separate types of instruments observed the event. First, the new gravity wave detectors in Louisiana and Washington state, and one in Italy, picked up the signal of gravitational waves rippling through space. This was followed within seconds by the detection of high energy gamma rays by the NASA Fermi space telescope. Then, with the directional information available from these instruments, optical telescopes were able to pick up the visible light emanating from the collision of two neutron stars, creating nuclear synthesis of myriads of elements in a blaze of electromagnetic radiation.

For those who are not familiar with astrophysics, neutron stars are the remnants of a certain type of supernova that lost their outer shells in an explosion, and contracted into small balls of condensed neutrons. Imagine a star about 1.5 times the mass of our sun, but contracted into a sphere about 12 miles in diameter. The density of this material is incredible. A cubic centimeter (about the size of a sugar cube) would weigh 100 million tons on Earth. Neutron stars are not black holes, though. They emit both light and radio waves. In fact, the first neutron stars were detected because they rotate incredibly fast. Slow ones rotate in little more than a second, while fast ones rotate hundreds of times per second. They can be detected by the radio waves they send out with each vibration. These types of rotating neutron stars are called pulsars.

So two of these neutron stars began a death dance spiral 130 million years ago on August 17. They spin together, faster and faster, until they actually collide, and then all hell breaks loose. Megatons of gold, platinum, uranium, and all of the heavy elements are formed from the intense bombardment of neutrons. These atoms form, cool, undergo nuclear reactions and form more stable isotopes that stream out into space. All of this matter spreads out, and settle inside of gas and dust clouds where gravity attracts them. Eventually, the gas cloud gains enough mass to start to collapse into itself, and a solar system with a new star emerges. The heavy elements from the neutron star collision are incorporated into the new planets. If there are enough of these elements in the gas cloud, and if intelligent life evolves on one of the planets, they discover these elements, and perhaps fashion them into rings, or necklaces, or fission bombs.

The detectors of the gravity waves are magnificent structures that bear homage to science and to the spirit of the countries that devoted resources to these instruments. Within the US there are two LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory) facilities. These facilities are situated thousands of miles apart, in order to eliminate any local vibrations from giving false signals. They are L-shaped structures, and the lengths of the arms is 4 kilometers per side. The core of the instrument is a vacuum tube, with lasers and mirrors situated inside to cause a laser beam to split and bounce back and forth for hundreds of times before it is sent to the detector.

Normally, laser beams that are split in two and then travel identical path lengths, and then recombined can be positioned so that the beams interfere with each other perfectly, and no light is detected by an instrument at the end of the beam path. But if something affects the length of the path of one of the beams, then the total path length of the two split beams is not the same. When that happens, the photodetector sees a beam. The beam that is detected is affected by the difference in distance between the two paths. Gravity waves cause the length of the path to differ slightly and as the wave sweeps over the two detector beams, first one beam moves with the wave, then the second beam moves. How much is the movement that is detected? One ten thousandth of the width of a proton is the amount of displacement that is caused by a gravity wave.

Since there are now 3 gravitational wave observatories located in different parts of the globe, each observatory detects gravity waves at slightly different times. By comparing the time differences between the signals, scientists are able to triangulate and determine where in the sky did the cosmic event happen. Scientists had detected the merger of two black holes several times with the LIGO detectors, but the events of August 2017 was the first time that they were able to see an event occur in the electromagnetic spectrum as well.

At this time of year, you will see many ads extolling the virtues of giving a gift of gold. If you do buy a gift of gold or platinum for someone, take a moment to realize that the metal you are buying was formed in a cataclysmic collision billions of years ago, before our sun and planet were born. And marvel that we now have the ability to detect and understand our universe and the wondrous events that shaped our world.


Why so close? Chemical plants and oil refineries, and water.


Chemicals, oil, and water are linked eternally in a faustian bargain. In order to produce most chemicals, and all petroleum products, it is necessary to have access to immense quantities of water. Thus, the infrastructure for these industries is found in the low-lying areas alongside of rivers, and within the inlets and bays along the coastline of the oceans. When the inevitable floods happen, the potential for releases of chemicals and oil, and even explosions as seen in Crosby Texas this week can and will occur.

Why is there this dependence on huge quantities of water? In order to make many chemical reactions occur, it is necessary to provide heat. That heat normally comes in the form of steam. Steam is also used to enable separations of chemicals through distillation. The tall columns seen in chemical plants and refineries are usually distillation towers, where products and wastes are drawn off at various levels in the towers. These products must then be condensed, and they are condensed in heat exchangers with water being used to cause the vapors to condense. The chemicals and the water don’t mix in these condensers, since they are found on opposite sides of the heat exchangers. But immense quantities of water are used in heat exchangers, and the water is thus warmed, reducing its effectiveness in condensing and cooling chemicals.

The water used in heat exchangers and condensers may only be used once. This is single-use water and it is necessary to have a large volume of water nearby in order to release the warmed water without adverse ecological impact. If the water is reused, then it is necessary to cool the water back down in order to use it again. This is done in cooling towers, and you normally will see the plumes of water vapor coming up from these large structures, where water is cooled through evaporation as it drips on down through the wooden framework of a cooling tower. Cooling towers increase the concentration of salts in the water, since a portion of the water is lost to evaporation and may have many cycles through the cooling tower before being discarded to a body of water.

Since it takes lots of energy to move large quantities of water, and lots of money to run long lengths of piping, most chemical plants are found just adjacent to the water. They are sited so that they are above the normal flooding levels, but when unprecedented flooding happens like with Harvey, they are supremely vulnerable to damage from water. In my career in the chemical industry, I worked at two plants (in Tennessee and in West Virginia) that were situated along rivers. The plant in Tennessee did have problems long after I left when flooding from the Mississippi caused backwater flooding that buried part of the plant, which was situated on a smaller feeder stream. Fortunately, it didn’t cause the release of chemicals, and was not a large problem, but it highlights how close proximity to water comes with its own set of risks.

I have been to plants in Texas that were totally inundated from the floods this week. One along the end of the Houston Ship channel, that immense concentration of oil and chemical plants along Texas 225. The other was in Beaumont, situated right next to the marshlands leading to the Gulf of Mexico. The facilities at these plants are designed to be safe and to be able to be shut down without causing chemical releases. But. There are limits to what you can do and still be safe. When you have feet of floodwaters covering a site, then the power of the water can do things that cannot be controlled. Water can erode pipe supports, and the dangling piping will bend and break, releasing the contents of the lines. Floodwaters can shove vehicles and boats into pumps and piping, causing them to break. Even in the normal process of shutting down facilities, excess venting and flaring of flammable and toxic compounds can happen, which can cause irritation and concern among the neighbors of these facilities.

Just as there is a faustian bargain between these facilities and water, there is another relationship that comes into play. That is the relationship between the workers and their families, and their proximity to the plant. Very often the workers for these facilities are found in the neighborhoods surrounding the plants. Entire generations of workers have grown up nearly in the shadow of the towers of refineries and chemical plants. This is especially true in the region around the Houston Ship Channel. The towns of La Porte, Pasadena, Deer Park, and Baytown have a symbiotic relationship with their industrial behemoths. Only a single road separates the residential areas from the properties of the oil and chemical companies. Quite literally, the companies and the towns are all in the same boat at times like now.

The plant that had the explosions this week was a different type of chemical plant. This plant was not adjacent to a large body of water. What it manufactured was a chemical that is essential in the manufacture of plastics, but by its own nature, it was extremely unstable. In my chemical plant in West Virginia, we also manufactured a similar material. These materials are known as polymerization initiators, and they make it possible for chemicals like ethylene (two carbons bound by double bonds) to react with each other, and form long chains that we know as plastics (polyethylene). The materials we produced in West Virginia also have to be kept refrigerated or they will grow unstable and catch fire. Part of the lore of the plant involved the time when the manufacturing line for this material had a problem, and the temperature rose to the point where the chemical decomposed and ignited. That fire was remembered long after everyone who worked during the fire had left the plant. What made the situation in Texas worse, was that the organic peroxides they made are not only flammable but are explosive when they decompose.

Part of the manufacturing process for chemical plants involves process hazards reviews. In these reviews, the participants go through a systematic review of the inherent hazards of the process and facilities, and determine if there were adequate safeguards to prevent incidents and injuries. Sometimes a significant hazard is discovered, one that had not been previously considered, and then the management of the plant faces the task of getting the fix done to remove the hazard. Since it takes time to implement new facilities (and get the authorization to spend the money to build facilities), normally there are administrative controls that are put in place to temporarily mitigate the risks. But even though I participated in many process hazards reviews in my career, I do not remember ever having considered the case of having my plant submerged in multiple feet of floodwater, and having no way to get anything working for days at a time. I imagine that the chemical and refining industries will have to go through substantial work trying to come up with new safeguards that will prevent releases and explosions such as are being seen in Texas now.

It Was Totally Worth It!


Photo courtesy of Sky and Telescope web site.

It was about 10:30 on Monday morning that we saw our first eclipse tailgaters parked in the ubiquitous church parking lots and also along dirt and gravel roads leading out into farm fields of soybeans and cotton. We were cruising down US 601, heading to Orangeburg, South Carolina, and my adult children were still berating me for getting them up at 6:30 because I was afraid of the gridlock that could have covered all of the roads south out of Charlotte. Traffic going down into the zone of totality was non-existent, and there were no backups anywhere.

Eclipse tailgating! That would have been a good idea. Groups had their shade canopies and lawn chairs, most folks had coolers, and some had even brought grills and other food items out to enjoy before the big event Monday afternoon. As for us, we had made a stop at Mr. Bunky’s Market on US 378 east of Columbia. This was quite an eclectic place, two gas pumps keeping sentinel outside, an interior with a second floor that was part antique store, part flea market. The main floor held everything from PVC pipe fittings to burlap bags advertising 50 pounds of Mr. Bunky’s Marijuana. There was a restaurant on the side that we didn’t go to, but we did get our commemorative eclipse t-shirts with the palmetto and sun phases on the back. Mr. Bunky’s was my fall-back viewing location if traffic was horrible, but since we were so far ahead of schedule, leaving this store by 10:15, we went on to my primary objective of Orangeburg.

Thank heavens for Google Earth and Google maps. Using those tools, I could scope out the entire route. We made it to Orangeburg by 11 AM and stopped at the FATZ restaurant near the intersection of I-26. They were advertising their eclipse party, and had 100 pairs of glasses to give away, but we didn’t need any since we were well equipped. After a leisurely meal and an appropriate beverage, we adjourned out to the back lot of the restaurant, where a few trees offered shade. We set up our lawn chairs and awaited the celestial events. Clouds were blessedly few, but still could have interfered.

Initial contact for us was at 1:14. Within a minute or two, it was evident that there was contact with a dark form just touching the rim of the sun. I started to take photos every 15 minutes of the ambient light, hoping to see the transition from light to dark after the eclipse was over. The word of the day was inexorable, as the moon continued its steady incursion over the sun’s surface. Still, there was no observable difference in the light that we saw.

A family in a van who had driven up from Charleston parked near us, and set up their display tools. Besides the glasses everyone sported, they also had brought a colander, a box with a pinhole for observation, and the best touch, a piece of cardboard with 8 20  2017 punched out with small holes. When they held that cardboard up, the second white piece of poster board held the image of the sun with an increasing amount of black displacing the light from the sun. They described the image as the pac-man sun, and that was very appropriate. They kept taking pictures of the date image as the eclipse progressed.

After about an hour, you got the sense that the light was changing slightly. Difficult to describe, but the light began to seem a bit fragile. I started taking pictures every 5 minutes at this time. The change in the light kept coming, and as it started to visibly darken, the light had a bluish tint. I thought about that, and it’s my belief that we normally associate sunrise and sunset with a reddish tint. That’s partially due to the longer path that the light takes through the atmosphere, and it tends to scatter the light and emphasize the redder wavelengths. But with an eclipse, the sun is shining straight down, and it is more of the blue of the sky that you sense as you head towards this unnatural dusk.

By the time you got to 10 minutes before totality, it became noticeably dark. The parking lot lights began to flicker on and tried to fight this unexpected dark. Still, I did not see any bird activity, nor did I hear crickets start their evening chorus. We were near woods that led towards a railroad track, so we could have seen these things, but I didn’t notice this happening. The tailgaters out in the country probably did.

As totality neared, everyone was craning their necks up with their eclipse glasses watching the last thin remnant of the crescent sun disappearing. We were not blessed with the brilliant images of Bailey Beads, or a diamond display as the last rays vanished behind the moon. Then, as the eclipse glasses grew dark, we removed them and saw…..

Totality! The pearly glow of the corona extended out about one solar diameter from the surface on all sides. It shimmered with white-hot ferocity around the black disk of the moon. At about 4 or 5 o’clock on the disk, there was just the faintest touch of orange extending over the moon’s surface. We actually saw a solar prominence with the naked eye. I had tried to take some pictures with my cell phone camera, but looking at the images later, it was obvious that the corona was too strong to image properly.  I didn’t want to look away from the corona, but forced myself to briefly look around at the horizon. Light shone faintly in all directions as the sky outside of the zone of totality stayed illuminated by the remnant of the sun.

It is impossible to fully convey the image of the corona. It was the single most incredible image I’ve ever seen myself. Dazzling. Irresistible. I can see why some people become eclipse chasers, willing to spend whatever it takes to experience this image repeatedly in their lifetime. And then, it was over. Sunlight peeked over the rim of the moon, and it became necessary to put the eclipse glasses back on. Cheers erupted from the crowd as we all knew that the best part of the show was over, but we all reveled in the experience.

I remember back in 1979 during the last eclipse, I was working at a chemical plant. There they had welding goggles that we were able to use to look at the sun, and I remember using the pinhole method to see the image of the sun projected and showing the portion swallowed up by the sun. But for anyone who questioned whether it is worth it to get inside of the zone of totality, it is totally worth it. It is only during the last few minutes when the solar illumination is about 2% or less that you really sense the difference in light level, and seeing the corona is just incredible and is an image that I will take with me through the rest of my life. Make your plans now for 2024, because it is worth it.

After totality, everybody started packing up. My older son was going on down the road to Folly Beach for camping, so we said our farewells. My younger son came back with us to the hotel to decompress from the event. We encountered much more traffic on the return trip than we did on the way into the zone of totality. Still, traffic didn’t prevent us from seeing, and no clouds obscured the entire time of totality. And I got to share this incredible experience with my whole family. It just didn’t get any better than this.

The Shadow of Moon’s Smile


It’s coming! An event that long ago showed up as a dream marker upon my imagined future life trail. The eclipse of August 21, 2017. As a child I was fanatical about all things related to the cosmos, and I devoured all of the books I could about astronomy and cosmology. I confess that I learned I was a nerd even before the word was invented. How many 2nd graders do you think had a strong conviction on the then current scientific controversy on whether the universe was the result of a big bang, or whether the steady state theory was the explanation for the observations of astronomers. I was quite firmly on the side of the big bang. This was a year before the discovery of the background microwave radiation that was the echo of the big bang, and there were indeed two schools of thought on the explanation for the observed universe. Being proven right on the big bang led to many more theories that I expounded upon during my childhood.

Since eclipses are known, predictable events, way back in the 1960’s I realized that if I was alive in 2017, a total solar eclipse would happen right over my head in Lincoln, Nebraska. That was the first total solar eclipse that I would be able to attend without travel to a foreign country (and back in elementary school that seemed to be so far out of reach). Now fast forward over 50 years, and I am now in the position of nervous anticipation of the event of August 21. I have our hotel reservation near the band of totality. Our two sons are planning to join us for the final journey to the strip of land that will experience darkness in the middle of the day.

Two things cause me nervousness in anticipating the event. First is traffic on the morning of the 21st. I will be 70 miles outside of the band of totality. I’m avoiding the interstate like the plague, but there will still be thousands who will follow the road that I will take, slowing our progress. I will probably antagonize my family by insisting that we get up and leave much, much sooner than we really need to, just to make sure that we get there in time. Ideally we want to go about 130 miles to our preferred viewing site, but the absolute must is to make it to the band of totality.

The second thing that causes me anxiousness? The weather. We will be in central South Carolina, and the sky conditions in this part of the south are iffy at best, both historically and in the extended weather forecast. I can say to myself that if clouds obscure the view, at least I will experience the coming of sudden darkness, followed by an instant morning, But that will never substitute for the absolute thrill of seeing the corona emerge, shining eerily over the surface of the darkened side of the moon. It would be extra special if there were a solar flare at the time that you could see, but just seeing the physical manifestation of the solar wind will be awesome.

Well, you pay your money and you take your chances. South Carolina offered the only opportunity for my entire family to attend this event, so we will be going in a spirit of optimism, rather than pessimism.

If we miss it this go around, there is a subsequent eclipse coming up in 2024 that bisects the country again. I hope to be able to travel to it as well, but the first shot I have will be my best hope.