Human Induced Extinctions

dodo

This is the sixth in a series of seven posts regarding the threats I see facing humanity. This threat is human-induced extinctions. Scientists have determined that we live in a new geologic era, described as the Anthropocene, where human activity is the predominant factor in describing how the Earth is behaving. It is reflected in the erosion that comes from agricultural practices, creating new river deltas much faster than in previous times. It is reflected in the effect of industrial and civilian gas emissions, which affect the composition of the atmosphere. It is reflected in the crowding out of wildlife due to the incursion of human activities into locations where wildlife has existed for millions of years.

Perhaps there is no place where the effects of humanity has been so pronounced as in the ocean depths. There we have found the ultimate repository of the plastic we use so gratuitously, single use plastic that finds its way into the ocean waters. Stories abound about the wildlife found to be starving to death, because inert plastic has filled the stomach and gut of an animal. It literally feels full, since the stomach is full, but will not take in new nutrients since there is no urge to fill the stomach. That is one form of human incursion into the oceans. Another is the cruel and indiscriminate fishing practices that go on throughout the oceans. Huge dragnets haul all creatures up and then the catch is sorted once it reaches the surface and is dying. Much is either discarded or kept as junk fish, good only to be ground up as food for other fishes, or for pet food. Some is from species we identify with as being intelligent, like dolphins. I remember the TV show Flipper, which anthropomorphized a dolphin beyond recognition. But it is undoubtedly true that dolphins are intelligent, and capable of compassion, since the stories of dolphins assisting humans to survive are common.

The worst fishing practices are those that drag the bottom of the ocean. Those vessels disturb all of the creatures colonizing the ocean floor. Very few of these species are considered as human food, yet those that are (like flounder) are highly prized. The ocean floor will not recover for hundreds of years, yet the fleets of fishing ships keep trawling continually.

Oceans are one thing, but no human has their natural habitat under the sea. The problems of species extinction exist for each class of plant and animal. Though it is extremely difficult to quantify (how do you prove a negative?), the rate of species extinction is estimated at between 10 to 100 times greater than the rate of extinction normally present on Earth without an external cause. And anecdotal evidence is that insect populations are being affected extensively. Journals such as Science in 2017 published a story titled Where Have All The Insects Gone? The article noted that scholarly research on insect populations is scarce, but that in certain long-term studies of populations, the number of insects found in fields has been reduced by over 80%. The study referred to the “windshield effect,” noting that many people have seen fewer insect / windshield collisions over the years. The damage to bee populations has been severe, with the colony collapse disorder causing massive losses to bee populations. A cause for the reduction has not been definitively named, but the class of insecticides known as Neonicotinoids is, as the police would say, “a chemical of interest”. These chemicals were originally marketed as reducing the need to spray more toxic organophosphates and organochlorine insecticides. They often are used to coat the seeds, and when the plant sprouts, the insecticide is absorbed into the plant where it provides defense. But since it permeates the entire plant, it is expressed in the pollen as well. That is how it appears to affect pollinator populations. Since honeybees are used in commerce, the losses in honeybees was noted first. But concern exists for all other pollinator species.

Much has been written about the intrusion of humanity’s effects on tropical forests. Nowhere is that seen more clearly than when a road is cut through virgin forests. Once a road is available, it is soon followed by those who exploit the opening. Forestry now tackles the old-growth trees, reducing stable ecosystems into a maze of forest edges. Species that once had free range across a canopy now find themselves having to traverse new agricultural lands to get to the next patch of undisturbed forest. And when populations of people begin to live in these newly opened lands, a market in bush meat is created. The Amazon is ground zero to display the effects of roads and subsequent land disturbance. Take a quick trip on Google Earth to the Amazon, and note that wherever you see a road, you will also see the encroachment of cleared land and settlements.

We as humans do not always understand the impact of our actions. We do not know what will happen when insect A is eliminated from a portion of its normal range. What other species used insect A as a food source? What insects or plants did insect A help keep in control? Will we see a reduction in birds due to the lack of insect A? Humans, being emotional animals, are much more capable of generating sympathy for the large, photogenic animals that are endangered. But the smallest insect may have as much impact or more on the ecosystem as a large furry mammal.

We as a civilization do not yet seem concerned by the loss of species we are seeing. Even in countries where an effort has been made to reduce the loss of species, a change in the government can reverse decades of efforts almost overnight. In the US, there is no mistaking the intent of the Trump administration to roll back the provisions of the Endangered Species Act. There is a strong belief that laws and regulations limiting the ability of a property owner to develop property as they see fit, represent an unconstitutional taking of the owner’s property right. Since insects or birds or other animals cannot hire a lawyer to defend their right to life, it falls to environmental groups to challenge regulatory repeal. Still, the attitude of the administration towards science-based evidence remains clear. Science and scientists are viewed with disdain, and they are clearly leftist in their politics since they so often stand against the rights of those with property.

What can science do to deal with these problems? It would seem that an effort to develop new pesticides that do not have such systemic effects is required. These efforts are proceeding within the large agrichemical companies, but it takes years and sometimes decades before a novel chemical class is commercialized and finds its place in the marketplace. It appears that legislative action across the world may be needed to ban certain classes of chemicals shown to cause excessive harm. The role of scientists would seem to also include quantifying the loss of species, and doing research to show what happens when one thread of the web of life is pulled out.

Maybe the best use of scientists would be to increase their role in educating the public as to the risks we are running by conducting our current experiment of causing the extinction of so many species. In the Old Testament of the Christian Bible, humanity was given stewardship over the creatures of the Earth. If nothing else, we have been proven to be bad stewards.

 

 

Chemicals I Have Known (and Made) – Methyl Methacrylate

methyl methacrylate

This post describes the last of the large volume chemicals I made when I worked at the Memphis plant in the 1970’s and early 1980’s. It is methyl methacrylate, which is used in many of the plastics that are known as acrylics. You may know them through their trade names like Plexiglas®, or Lucite®. You encounter them on every airplane flight you take, since they are used in the windows that let you see the clouds and the ground.

The process to make methyl methacrylate is complex, and large in scale. Our plant made several hundred million pounds per year. Some of the product was used on the plant in an acrylic sheet plant, that made both clear and colored, often marbled colored sheet. There are five steps to make methyl methacrylate. First, acetone (good old nail polish remover) is reacted with hydrogen cyanide (discussed in my first post on chemicals) to make something called acetone cyanohydrin, or ACN. As with anything involving cyanide, the material is toxic and great care was taken to prevent release of the chemical. The next step takes the ACN and mixes it with extra-strong sulfuric acid called oleum. Oleum is basically 100% sulfuric acid (one of the strongest and worst acids to deal with), with extra sulfur trioxide gas dissolved in the acid. When it hits anything containing water, it instantly reacts with it and sucks the water out of what it hits. This oleum is tweaked by adding tiny amounts of water to make the mix right at 100% acid when it hits the ACN.

The reaction process is very energetic, and produces an intermediate chemical called methacrylamide (I know, too many unpronounceable names). This intermediate chemical in a sulfuric acid solution was then reacted with methanol, and the resulting chemical was separated out and purified. The sulfuric acid solution contained a bit of organics, including some polymer. It was allowed to settle in a large tank so that the polymer could float up to the top and be removed in what we called skim tubs. The sulfuric acid tails were then fed into a sulfuric acid manufacturing process, where extra sulfur was added to make up for process losses, and new extra-strong sulfuric acid was stored and fed back into the reactors.

As you may have realized, these chemicals were all very nasty, and either toxic or corrosive or very hot, and I used to walk around miles of piping and vessels carrying these fluids under pressure. Only the product methyl methacrylate, was relatively non-toxic and non-corrosive, but it was at the end of a long process to make it.

In the few years I worked on this process, there were two main tasks I had. First, I was working with our staff of PhD chemists to improve the yield of the process. One very intriguing possibility was replacing the water that we used to mix with the sulfuric acid with methanol. Lab data showed a significant yield increase by introducing methanol in the first step. Since the reaction of sulfuric acid with methanol releases water, it solves the problem of controlling the acid strength when it is mixed with the ACN. The main difference between methanol and water was that it took a lot more methanol than water to provide an equivalent amount of water content. For every gallon of water, it took almost 1.9 gallons of methanol to substitute. But everything looked good in the lab, so we began work on a full-scale plant test. We went through an extensive process hazards review process to try to see if there were new hazards introduced, but could not come up with a reason to halt the test.

So I was the engineer in charge for the plant test when we got ready to swap out our water feed with a new methanol feed. The way we injected water into the sulfuric acid was through a mixer, where the acid was twisted through fixed barriers in the pipe to ensure complete mixing. We closed the valve for the water, opened it for the methanol, and watched to see what would happen. Almost instantly we became aware that despite all of our planning, something was going very, very wrong. The water injection line now holding methanol started to jerk around severely, and one thing you never want in a chemical plant is to have piping moving back and forth. I gave the order to turn the methanol off, and turn the water back on, and the piping stopped shaking. We probably were on methanol for no longer than 10 minutes before I halted the test.

What we had overlooked was that when we substituted water for methanol, we were adding a larger volume of a liquid that boiled at a much lower temperature. Methanol boils at about 149ºF vs. 212°F for water. It also takes a lot less energy to boil methanol. And when we started swapping out the water for methanol, some of the sulfuric acid would go partway up into the methanol pipe and induce boiling where we had never had boiling before. That was what caused the piping to jerk about. Fortunately I stopped the test before anything broke, but that was one of the scariest experiences I ever had in that plant. We never did go back to that test, since it would have taken a significant redesign to come up with a mixing system that could handle the differences between the two fluids.

The second project I had during this time was one I had inherited. I mentioned the skim tubs where polymer floated above the spent sulfuric acid as it cooled. That polymer had been skimmed off, packaged into metal drums and sent out as hazardous waste. Now there was an old incinerator down at the bottom of the plant, that someone had the bright idea to re-commission as a hazardous waste incinerator, depending upon its ability to meet hazardous waste disposal regulations.

One of the advantages of working for a world-wide company was that we had a wealth of technical expertise. There was a whole cadre of folks at the Engineering Services Division, or ESD, who had PhD credentials. They concocted the idea of putting the polymer into 30 gallon cardboard drums with plastic liners, and then burning them in the incinerator. But since this was an operation that needed to operate automatically without human intervention, they had created a Rube Goldberg contraption to make it work. They designed a conveyor system where drums would be placed on rollers. When the time came for a new drum to be inserted into the incinerator, alarm bells would go off, warning lights would flash, the knife valve they had installed on the top of the incinerator would open up, and the next drum in line would advance up the conveyor’s slope till it teetered at the end, and then would plummet headfirst through the top of the incinerator. Imagine an automated system to throw virgins into the maw of a volcano, and that’s what this thing looked like.

Well, I oversaw the construction work to install the conveyor and all of the equipment. We got ready to test the system, but there was one really little itsy-bitsy problem we encountered. See, during the time between when the scope was prepared for this incineration process and the design was installed, there had been another change made to the chemistry of the process, in order to improve yield. This chemistry change converted the polymer from being hard chunks that didn’t hold much acid, into a soupy mix that held a lot of the spent sulfuric acid. We had problems with drums leaking since the plastic liner was not intended to hold hot sulfuric acid, but worse than that, when the drums were consumed in the incinerator, a plume of sulfur dioxide came out of the stack and came down all over the place on the plant.

During the process of trying to get this incinerator to work, I had been transferred from Memphis to our Belle plant in West Virginia. The last thing I did at Memphis was to try to conduct a trial to see if this setup would meet the environmental requirements. We were successful in incinerating a liquid stream from our Lucite® sheet plant, but the attempts to incinerate the polymer drums was an abject failure.

Both of these efforts showed me how small and subtle things could cause a huge unforeseen problem. It was the effect of unintended consequences that got us in both cases. Once I went to Belle, I was working in a sister plant of the Memphis methyl methacrylate plant, only it was a plant that used water instead of methanol in order to create an organic acid. But the statistics I was exposed to in Memphis, proved crucial to me in the next phase of my career where I used statistical techniques to extend my working career well beyond many of my peers who weren’t as adept at math as I was.

 

 

 

 

 

A Day At The Beach

ocean flood

This is the fourth in a series of seven articles aimed at describing some of the threats that humanity faces in the coming years. It is the issue of global sea rise. There are many who dispute whether carbon dioxide and methane emissions from human civilization are the primary cause of global warming. But regardless of the source of the warming climate, it is becoming more and more clear that sea level is rising in response. That will have an incredible impact upon the population of the world, since there has always been a great desire to live at or very near to the sea shore. And the level of the sea has seldom been constant over geological time, since glaciers have expanded and contracted many times over the past million years, causing the sea level to vary hundreds of feet during these oscillations.

What is different this time, is that our current civilization was developed with the current sea levels. So all of the infrastructure associated with the great cities of the world, it is mainly at sea level. And for many of the people who live in poor countries, like Bangladesh, they exist on river estuaries which are extremely susceptible to sea level rise. So whether the current rise in sea levels is due to anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, or whether it is merely a continuation of the cycle of ice sheet expansions and contractions that preceded our species, it becomes necessary to develop a plan for dealing with ongoing sea level rise.

The best option would be to have a controlling thermostat knob on our climate that we could use to compensate for either natural effects on the climate, or for those that humanity has caused. At present, we do not have that. If the scientists who are convinced that human emissions of greenhouse gases are responsible for increasing the temperature, then one knob would be raising and lowering the CO2 concentration of the atmosphere. As seen by the political response to this in the US, there is extremely heavy opposition to this technique from those who are invested in the status quo of the energy industries. It also will require huge investment in both research and in physical facilities to enable renewable energy resources to supplant fossil fuel sources. There is no doubt that we do need to invest in both the research and the facilities, along with redesigning of the electrical grid to be more resilient and to accept the intermittent nature of renewable energy sources.

One option for a zero carbon energy source that is not being discussed is nuclear energy. No, not the energy created from the fission of U235 atoms used in every nuclear power plant in the world at present. Instead, what is needed is to develop reactors that use the thorium power cycle. At one time, nuclear energy research considered thorium as a viable source of electric power. There is one small problem with the thorium cycle, though. It is not capable of generating plutonium as a byproduct. Back when the nuclear power industry was being developed, there was a desire to have plutonium production so that spent uranium fuel rods could be processed to remove the plutonium for weapons production. The vast majority of the research for nuclear energy used enriched uranium U235 as the source for power generation, and thus research for thorium went by the wayside.

But the U235 power cycle also produces other long-lived radioactive isotopes that keep reactor rods fatally radioactive for hundreds of thousands of years. Thus humanity is tasked with trying to isolate wastes from power generation inside of geologically stable environments for many millennia longer than humanity has had a civilization. This is scarcely a realistic model to build a sustainable civilization upon. And U235 reactors are inherently unstable. Complex neutron absorption systems have to be maintained in order to keep the reaction at the sweet spot. Too much absorption, and the nuclear fire goes out and no electricity is generated. Just right, and you can remove the excess heat with water that flashes to steam and eventually turns electric generators. Too little neutron absorption, and the system is capable of melting down into a puddle of zirconium and uranium, that will eventually break through all known containment systems. At the same time, gases generated from the reaction will likely ignite, releasing a cloud of radioactive elements out of the containment system.

Thorium, on the other hand, is an inherently stable reaction system. The active isotope of thorium (Th232) is 99.98% of all thorium in nature. When it absorbs a neutron, it eventually reacts through subsequent beta particle decay into U233. This isotope of uranium is capable of sustaining nuclear fission, but unlike its cousin U235, it does not create longer-lived radioactive isotopes as byproducts. Instead, the fission products it produces are all lighter than the starting materials, and their radioactive half lives are mainly less than a hundred years. Thus it is conceivable that waste products could be maintained in an isolation facility for a reasonable period of time and then would not be a hazard to future generations in future millenia.

The thorium cycle has another advantage. It is impossible to get a runaway reaction using thorium. Since the proposed design for a thorium reactor involves a molten salt reactor, any loss of containment would result in a salt-thorium mixture solidifying on the ground, incapable of performing further fission. All of these advantages over the existing U235 nuclear cycle says that thorium fission should be investigated thoroughly and promptly brought to commercialization. Again, another problem (reducing CO2 generation while providing stable electrical power generation) that could be solved by the investment of the government into scientific research, and opportunities for employment of nuclear engineers and metallurgical engineers and mechanical engineers. Oh, and by the way, the main ores of thorium also contain rare earth metals and phosphates. Both of these are highly desirable materials. Also, thorium is four times more abundant in Earth’s crust as is uranium.

This was a detour from the immediate problem we are intending to address, which is sea level rise. What is needed is a way to do triage for the developed world in trying to determine what infrastructure is indefensible given a certain amount of sea rise, and what infrastructure can be salvaged if we begin to take action now. For example, London installed a barrier on the Thames back in the 1980’s that serves to protect London from abnormally high tides. Would such a barrier be feasible for the Hudson to protect the NY – NJ region from ongoing sea rise? What will the implications of ongoing sea rise be for cities such as Miami, where the tourist infrastructure is at risk. As much as those who believe in karma wish for Mar-A-Lago to suffer inundation, the entire southeastern coast of Florida is at risk. And areas like Newport News and Charleston South Carolina are already going through periods of rainless flooding caused by peak tides. This will only get worse over the next few decades. What is needed to enable these highly-populated metropolitan areas to still be functional? What if it is determined that it is not feasible? How do we deal with the displaced populations?

The issues of displaced populations becomes even more dire when you consider the underdeveloped nations most at risk from rising seas. In these areas, it would be necessary to develop lower-tech means to mitigate the risk. One partial solution is to reestablish mangrove barriers as initial surge suppressors. Mangroves have the ability to capture soil in the roots, thus allowing the ground level to rise as the water level rises. But it will be necessary to develop ways to prevent salt water intrusion, and it will be extremely beneficial if the techniques used to counteract sea level rise use the local farmers and laborers as the contractors to do the work to save their own land. That way, they receive a benefit in building and maintaining these facilities, presumably receiving an income, and they then have an incentive to make sure they work, since their farming livelihood depends upon the new systems functioning properly.

The issues concerning sea level rise are longer-term in their impact and solutions. But in order to effectively deal with them, we must plan now based on what we know will happen. Otherwise we will be caught off guard, like in 2018 when the warmer and less dense waters of the Gulf of Mexico caused the extremely rapid intensification of Hurricane Michael. For one of the consequences of global sea level rise is due to the decrease of density at higher temperatures. Seawater takes up about 1% more volume at 30ºC than it does at 20°C. And the higher water temperatures from a warming climate not only act directly on the water level, they also provide more fuel for the storms that feed upon their heat. We may have been caught off-guard by a hurricane much stronger than expected, but we should not be caught off-guard by physical effects we can predict decades in advance.

 

 

The Rise of Willful Ignorance

skeletons

This is the third in a series of posts that discuss in more detail what I perceive to be threats to humanity today. It expands upon the discussion started in my original post that covered seven different risks. It concerns the rise of willful ignorance. This is a disease that may yet cause the extinction of the human race. We can see the effects when the government of a nation consists of individuals who are proud to admit that they are disregarding all scientific evidence, since after all, the scientists have their political agendas that just may show that the preferred action to avoid tragedy will cost a favored political ally some money. And we can’t have that. The recent superb book, The Fifth Risk by Michael Lewis, shows what risks are increased if an administration takes over the reins of power of our complex government without any interest in the functions of the government agencies they now administer. Not only do they not have interest, they exhibit no curiosity as to what might happen if the risks they are supposedly managing actually bear fruit. They actively campaign to reverse the work undertaken during previous administrations aimed at reducing risk, like when they proposed spending 20% less on global nuclear materials security in a recent budget proposal.

We as a civilization have created an extremely complex network of interdependencies. We have managed to limit risk to our population through the process of regulations, and through the transparency of government actions. Unfortunately, the mindset of many currently serving in government is that all regulation is wrong, and we must hide the truth from the citizens of our nation so that the increased risk we are taking does not become evident to our citizenry.

Part of what has led to this attitude came from those in the nation who reject all claims of knowledge by experts. Just because someone has dedicated their life to the pursuit of knowledge, whether within a government agency, or at a university, why should we believe that they know more about a subject that we do? We don’t need no steenkin’ math or science, do we? If we can’t learn all we need to know with a 5-minute perusal of the internet, then the subject has been made too complex and anyone’s opinion is just as good as anyone else’s. Thus we have government spokespeople coming out in support of alternate facts. We have conspiracy theories for beliefs that are easily disproven by an examination of the facts, but of course, those facts were reported by the main street media and they are biased and since they are saying that these are facts, we must believe the opposite.

This type of belief system is self-reinforcing. Psychologically, it is very comforting to enshroud yourself in a mantle of community, where all believe the same thing and are able to reinforce that belief through daily interactions. It is known as an echo chamber. The internet has played a huge role in allowing these communities to develop, and those who belong to these communities are nigh unto impossible to convince that their beliefs are wrong. This is what convinces individuals to drive hundreds of miles to a pizza restaurant in Washington and fire a gun in order to bring down the evil child sex trafficking ring known to exist in the basement of a building without a basement. It is why many believe there is an active military operation to spread aluminum salts and other mind-altering substances behind jet aircraft, leading to the chemtrails many swear are meant to numb the brains of honest Americans. It is what convinces many to believe that human emissions of greenhouse gases could never be responsible for any kind of adverse effect.

 

Of all of the risks that humanity faces, this may be the most intractable. Other problems may yield to research, or to spending money, or to creating a better climate for administering programs. But this one goes to the heart of humanity. That is, the belief that my knowledge is good, and since it is good, if you oppose it, you are evil. The psychological reassurance you get when an entire community of like believers reinforces you for being a part of the group who is truly in the know. The only known antidote to this sort of willful ignorance is to increase the scientific and mathematical literacy of the population as a whole, so that the folly of the beliefs of the former group becomes evident. However, it is hard to teach this type of literacy when we as a society continue to struggle to teach a basic standard of literacy. Look at communication means such as Twitter. By trying to limit public discourse to a maximum of (now) 280 characters, they contribute to the belief that all discussion can be simplified to fit within that type of strait-jacket. No one needs to understand anything at more than a superficial level, since the entire world is doing just fine using Twitter to conduct our national political discourse. One quote of H. L. Mencken comes to mind from nearly a century ago. He said, “As democracy is perfected, the office of President represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. On some great and glorious day, the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.” Would he be happy to know that at last, his prophesy had been fulfilled?

 

 

The Bugs We Fear

virus-1812092__340

Back in May, I wrote a post detailing some of what I perceive to be threats facing humanity. This is the second of what will be seven posts providing more details on each of these threats. This one concerns infectious diseases.

Starting in the 1940’s, modern medicine discovered the magic bullet of antibiotics. Antibiotics have prolonged the lives of hundreds of millions of people by enabling bacterial diseases to be stopped before they created sepsis inside of humans, and caused massive organ failure. The practice of medicine soon became the story of the prescription of antibiotics, and the eventual over-prescription of the same. Once the knowledge of the power of antibiotics became known, the customer (i.e., the patients) were insistent on being prescribed antibiotics even when they suffered from a viral infection, like a cold. All of society believed that antibiotics were able to put the suffering of the past from bacterial infection out of the memory of humanity.

Except. Except that human greed and the needs of commerce got in the way. Except that human behavior caused the effectiveness of antibiotics to be compromised. Now, barely 77 years after the first widespread use of an antibiotic to treat diseases, the news is full of stories about bacteria that are resistant to all but the most powerful antibiotics, and even some strains of bacteria have developed resistance to all forms of antibiotics. How did we get here? It started when agricultural researchers discovered that by applying low-dosages of antibiotics to animal feed, weight gain for the animals was increased and disease incidence was reduced. Since agriculture in the US relies upon high animal density in farms and feed lots, and since anything helping the profit margins of farmers was viewed as a God-send, commercial animal feeds began to incorporate antibiotics as a key additive. Unfortunately, this served as an ideal breeding ground for bacteria to show the powers of evolution. Ever wonder why all antibacterial commercial products claim that their product kills 99.99% of bacteria? It’s because there are always a few bacteria that have a mutation that enables them to survive the onslaught of the chemicals aimed at killing them. It may not be a concern for a kitchen countertop to have some bacteria that survive bleach or other similar kitchen cleaner. But it is totally different when a strain of bacteria survives a dosage of antibiotics inside of a farm animal. That strain now faces less competition since many other bacteria were inhibited by the antibiotics in the feed. Soon, the resistant strain is circulating among farm animals, and slowly the antibiotic in the feeds lose their effectiveness as the population of resistant bacteria increases in the environment. Since they began to incorporate antibiotics, animal feeds have used most of the types of antibiotics, which means that effectiveness of many antibiotics have been lowered over time. Market demand is now pushing agricultural firms to proclaim that their animals are antibiotic-free, but only time will tell if that movement will grow fast enough to keep antibiotics at least partially useful.

Human behavior also plays a role. As noted earlier, patients often demand a prescription for an antibiotic even when their infection is viral. This dosage of unneeded antibiotics increases the chance of developing a resistant strain directly inside of a human. Add to this the tendency for some folks to stop taking a medicine once they feel better, and you end up with the worst case for developing antibiotic resistance. By not taking the full course of antibiotics, it is more likely that some of the bacteria will survive, and then their traits will be passed on to subsequent generations of bacteria. One way or another, the bacteria will outwit us as we currently use antibiotics.

But bacterial infections are only a part of the disease story. Viruses cause many more diseases, and there are several factors in our modern world that enhance the possibility of a viral infection causing huge problems in our society. First, viruses are mobile. They can hitch a ride upon any animal infected with the virus. Whether that is a chicken carrying the latest variant of bird flu, or whether it is an international traveler that had unknowingly been exposed to the latest version of Ebola or Marburg disease from Africa, viruses can travel amazingly fast in our modern, interconnected world. Then there is this little issue about climate change. Regardless of the source of a warmer climate, one result is that mosquitoes that are intolerant of cold, are now expanding their ranges into temperate climates. Thus malaria is expanding its range. Other viral diseases that once were known only in Africa are now showing up in Sardinia, a handy stopping place on the way to infect southern Europe.

Yet another factor is affecting viral disease transmission. Through extensive research, humanity has managed to control the immune system to enable it to react to viral invaders that can cause diseases. Thus, humanity has wiped out the dread disease smallpox as a scourge. Only remote pockets of polio remain, which means this crippler of people is nearly extinct. Who remembers iron lungs where the sufferers of polio were kept, enabling them to breath until they regained at least a semblance of muscle strength? The use of vaccines has greatly limited tetanus, and diphtheria, and whooping cough. The old childhood diseases of measles, mumps, and chickenpox are no longer rites of passage for children. All have been vanquished through the use of vaccines.

Except. Except that a growing percentage of the population no longer believes that the benefits of vaccination exceed the perceived costs. Especially with the growth of the internet, there are groups convinced that vaccines are causing the growth of conditions such as autism. And therefore they are opting out of mandatory vaccination protocols. Either opting out, or spacing vaccinations out over a longer period than recommended, all in a belief that they are protecting their children from a fate worse than the disease that the vaccine is intended to prevent. What this is doing is increasing the percentage of the population who does not have immunity to the disease, and as a result, diseases that had been nearly eliminated are making a comeback. In 2017 there was an outbreak of measles, mainly within the Somali immigrant population around Minneapolis. According to the CDC, the rate of measles vaccination of Somali children was only 54% in this area. This enabled measles imported from a visit from Africa to spread throughout the community, until 65 cases were recorded. Of those, 20 required hospitalization. I remember my own case of measles, back in 1961. I contracted it right after my tonsillectomy, another rite of passage that is no longer nearly universally prescribed. It was not fun, but I did not suffer any of the permanent effects that could have resulted.

How should we deal with infectious diseases in the future? Certainly there is a need for more pharmaceutical research in antibiotics. If we can stay ahead of the resistance curve, we may still be able to keep the tragedy of blood poisoning from killing thousands and thousands each year. Unfortunately, pharmaceutical companies are not investing heavily into antibiotic research. The perceived market is deemed too small to justify the vast expenditures required for drug development. This is an area where government-directed research is required since the lack of private company research does not appear to be amenable to a market-based solution. The current trend towards reducing antibiotic supplementation in animal feed needs to become universal. This may be a problem though, in other countries where a simple and cheap way to control animal disease and increase animal yield is not viewed as an existential threat.

Finally, for viral diseases, there may not be good ways to deal with them. The warming of the climate will result in the spread of many diseases beyond their current tropical ranges. Unless we can put the climate warming genie back into the bottle, we may have to deal with the effects. Vaccine development is required, and investment in additional vaccine capacity for diseases such as yellow fever. But the hardest problem to deal with may be the human resistance to acknowledge that science has the answer for disease prevention. It may never be possible in this fractured society to convince a large enough percentage of the population of the benefits of a vaccine. There will always be self-sustaining groups who convince themselves that they know more than all of the scientists in the world. After all, the scientists are the elites who have failed us, right?

 

Celestial Billiards

meteorite-1060886_960_720

Earlier this year I wrote about some of the risks facing humanity. I’ve begun to expound on those risks with additional information. Here is the first risk in the list, Celestial Billiards.

One risk we face that is certainly out of our control involves our environment. Not the environment on Earth, but the environment in the universe. There are many, many forces out there in the universe, and they care not in the least that they may affect life forms on our planet should they interact with it. There are many objects flying around in our solar system that can (and eventually will) intersect with our planet. If they are large enough, they can wreak havoc upon a city, or a nation, or upon the entire earth. Modeling of the impact of the Yucatan body that brought the end to the dinosaurs shows that the entire atmosphere of the earth was aflame from the impact and subsequent reentry of the material thrown out across the globe. Only the creatures burrowed into the ground, or shielded by water had much of a chance of surviving the immediate impact. Today, we use many telescopes to identify and track objects found in our solar system. Still, it seems that every few months we learn of an object that could cause significant harm to the earth passing between us and the moon. One valuable use of a proposed Space Force would be to combine this detection team with a proactive defense capability, one that would be able to divert an oncoming object away from impact with earth.

The odds of an ecosystem destroying impact is very low. But our solar system has another kind of risk to throw at us, and this risk is probably orders of magnitude more likely than an asteroid’s impact. That is, we could have a solar flare that would wreak havoc upon our electric grid, causing large portions of the world to instantly regress back to stone-age conditions. Our sun is huge, and we still don’t understand the physics of how large-scale eruptions can throw off millions of tons of charged particles from the sun’s surface into space. If the eruption is large enough, and if it is aimed at Earth, it will hit us. We would have a mere two to three days warning. Would we be able to power down our electrical grid before it hit, causing catastrophic damage to our wiring and transformer base? Is there a way to shield these huge transformers so that they would survive? For it is a known fact from physics that if wires are present when electrically charged particles flow past, voltage will be induced in the wires. And transformers are nothing but masses of wire windings, aimed at either stepping up or stepping down voltages. The last major solar storm that reached the Earth happened in 1859. At that time, only telegraph wires were strung across the countryside to give us an idea of what will happen with a much more wired world. In the 1859 flare, telegraph operators reported receiving electrical shocks from the induced voltages. Telegraph wires sparked and caused fires. And all of this happened with single wires carrying low-voltage electricity.

Were we to have such an event today, the damage would be catastrophic. Overloaded wires will cause transformers to blow. Not just the local ones on the poles that step voltage down to household level, but the huge ones that work with the high voltages used to transfer electricity across the country. These transformers are huge, there are insufficient spares available to restore service should it be required across a large swath of any country, and the available manpower to fix the grid is lacking. Look how long it took to restore service to Puerto Rico after a massive failure of their grid. It would be much worse with a massive solar flare. Thus here is another area where we need to invest manpower in preventive activity, and much of that manpower must be well-versed in electrical engineering and physics. More than just manpower though, we must also invest in spare parts, and stage these transformers in locations where they can be moved to where they are needed. Given the economic model for utilities where state regulators must approve any rate increases due to the investment of a utility, it will take a real awakening of the world to this risk factor to convince those in power to grant rate increases for a danger that may come tomorrow, but may not show for 100 years. Those who pay electrical bills will not understand prudent risk avoidance when it raises their electrical bills unless there is a huge effort made to teach the public about this risk.

 

 

Chemicals I Have Known (and Made) – Acrylonitrile

acrylonitrile-500x500

 

The last chemical I wrote about, hydrogen peroxide, I described as a cute, cuddly chemical. The next chemical I was involved with was anything but cuddly. Acrylonitrile, or Acrylo as we called it, is an organic chemical that is used to make acrylic plastics and fibers. By itself, it has toxicity as it will release cyanide within the body. But the process to make the chemical is also very nasty, and especially so where we made it in Memphis. A little background first, though.

I received a promotion and gained the title of Production Supervisor in the Acrylo process. This was a big enough process that it had two production supervisors. I was placed in charge of planning the annual shutdown, which required intense logistical planning. I served as a backup to the real process supervisor. He was a Memphis native who had come up from the hourly wage roll to his exempt role position. He actually was a classmate of Elvis Presley when they were both in junior high school, but he did not have any good stories about their shared time. So I had the advantage of being able to learn about supervision while only occasionally really taking charge.

chemical plant

The Acrylo process is a huge process, more like an oil refinery than a standard chemical plant. It had six huge reactors where the chemicals propylene, ammonia, and oxygen (from air) are mixed with a catalyst in fluidized bed reactors. These reactors were about 12′ in diameter, and some 40′ tall. The reaction itself creates significant heat, so the reactors are full of tubes containing water which turn into steam that helps to drive the later separation processes. Once the chemicals have reacted, the off-gases are sent into an absorbing tower. This tower was over 100′ tall, and about 15′ in diameter. After the gases are absorbed in water, it is necessary to separate out the other reaction products. The primary one is hydrogen cyanide, which I wrote about earlier. There were two distillation towers used to separate and purify the hydrogen cyanide, which was then sent by pipeline to the other part of the plant that produced cyanide as its primary product. I remember that one of the pumps that transferred the cyanide developed a leaky seal, and since it was several months before the scheduled shutdown, the solution was to barricade off a section of the process with good old yellow and black warning rope, guaranteed to be a barrier against all chemicals. NOT! In fact, even beyond the tape, you could taste the cyanide, and this is how I became sensitive to cyanide and was able to easily pass the sniff test during my annual physical at the plant. It does not smell like bitter almonds, rather, it is an unpleasant sensation that grabs at the back of the throat.

Once the cyanide was removed, the crude acrylonitrile had to be separated out of the ammonia-laden water. There were a total of five distillation towers, each with a different purpose, until finally the refined acrylonitrile was pure enough to go into the storage tanks. One of the distillation towers actually concentrated another byproduct, acetonitrile, which is used as a solvent. Eventually though, the ammonia-laden water was neutralized with sulfuric acid, and had to be disposed of. Now every other commercial acrylo plant in the US was in a location where the waste stream could be injected into the earth in a deep well. In Memphis with its extensive aquifer system near the Mississippi River, this was not a viable option. So when the plant was built in the 1960’s, and energy was extremely cheap, the solution implemented was to incinerate this stream. We had three huge stacks that could be used to “thermally oxidize” the solution, and release nitrogen, water, and sulfur dioxide to the atmosphere. We were the 2nd largest sulfur dioxide emitter in western Tennessee. Only the Tennessee Valley Authority’s coal-fired power plant was a larger source. As you can imagine, when the dual energy shocks of the 1970’s came, burning a water waste stream put a larger and larger burden on profitability. So much so that when our plant suffered a major freezing incident one winter, that proved to be the final straw that led to the plant’s closure and eventual dismantlement. Chemical plants really, really do not like cold, freezing weather. And seeing 12″ diameter burst water pipes start to leak when they finally thaw is not something I ever want to witness again.

But before the process was closed, there were some really wild times I had. One in particular involved a one ton cylinder of sulfur dioxide. Now pure sulfur dioxide was used as a polymerization inhibitor in the vapor space in the columns where cyanide was purified. So we had tubing running from the cylinder up to the tops of the distillation towers. Even though sulfur dioxide boiled at 14ºF, it took a little extra push to ensure that enough gas flowed up to where it was needed. So we had a simple plywood enclosure where we kept the cylinder, and we had steam coils underneath the cylinder. Such a complex system couldn’t ever go wrong, could it? Well, it did go wrong, and the fusible plug in the cylinder that kept it from over-pressurizing, that plug melted and began to release the content of the cylinder to the atmosphere. That was one of the days where the other Process Supervisor wasn’t there, and I was in charge. I had to direct the evacuation of the adjacent laboratory and technical building, but what saved us was one operator who was able to get onto a forklift with breathing air, and pulled the cylinder out, where it could be sealed by hammering a wooden plug into the hole where the fusible plug had been. We prevented releasing the entire cylinder contents, which could have affected a large area, including US 51 highway which ran parallel to the plant.

To this day I don’t remember what we did to get another cylinder in and fix the tubing that had torn away when the cylinder was pulled out, but I do remember that we didn’t create a huge environmental incident.

When we finally did get into our planned shutdown, the biggest job was the replacement of our 100+’ tall absorbing tower. We got cranes in that were able to lift the entire tower – the big crane to lift from the top, a smaller crane to guide the bottom section. Then the process was reversed so that the new column was installed. We did this on a weekend when most of the lab people and other technical engineers weren’t around. My job? To run the video camera that captured the move. Somewhere there was a VHS tape that documents the replacement of this absorbing tower, which was used for about one year before the entire process was shut down.

Propylene is the main reactant to make acrylo. It has properties very similar to its chemical cousin, propane. So you know those long cylindrical tanks that hold propane? We had four big tanks that held the propylene. One thing that most folks don’t know about chemical piping is that there is almost always a little bit of leakage that comes out of valves and flanges. And for whatever reason, propylene attracts wasps. So going up on the storage tanks was a bit of an adventure. It was necessary to keep watch in order to knock down wasp nests before they got too big.

One other similarity to a refinery was that the residual gases from all of the columns was released through a flare stack. This stack was 175′ tall at its tip, and one of the tasks for the shutdown was to inspect the flare. I, being a novice supervisor, didn’t always think about my decisions. We had an intern who had his own pilot’s license, and was clearly unafraid of heights. So he asked, and I gave permission, for him to do the inspection on his own, and trusted him to do it safely. If he had an accident, my career would have been over at that time. But he completed the inspection, and came down safely. It was only years later after I gained more experience that I realized what a risk I took with his life and with my own career in my company.

The equipment for this process was huge. We used air as an ingredient. So it was a 2500 horsepower air compressor that fed the reactors. That was one impressive motor that ran that compressor.

Of all of the chemical processes I worked with, this one was by far the “dirtiest”. We emitted tons per day of sulfur dioxide. We sometimes had cyanide leakage. We had another wastewater stream that did go to the sewer system, that we had to monitor for compounds that had the nitrile (or cyanide) functional group – the CN on the end of the molecule. Before I worked in the process, they had tried to see if they could use the ammonium sulfate waste stream as a fertilizer for soils that needed acidification. They had a section of ground near the plant set up to receive the waste, and monitored the soil to see how it worked. Spoiler alert – it didn’t work.

One thing that I appreciated in my time in this process was that we had a Superintendent who believed that his supervisors should know what we were expecting workers to do. So all of us had to put on self-breathing air packs (like scuba tanks), put on chemical-proof suits, and disassemble and reassemble a flange with its bolts. It did show me how exhausting working in that type of environment was. When I took off the suit, I was drenched in sweat. But in my mind, I thank my old supervisor’s supervisor for giving me a taste of what it really is like to work in such an environment.

In the Memphis plant where I worked, there were four large chemical processes. I’ve shared the stories of three of them. One more to go.

 

Want to Take a Dip in the Lake on Mars?

mars-25461__340

Humanity needs a frontier in order to provide meaning to our existence. It is in the pursuit of the frontier that we have an opportunity to exhibit our best character traits, and provide a relief valve for our churlish nature. Up until the 20th century, we had frontiers on most continents. Exploration in the Amazon rain forest, conquering the outback in Australia, “civilizing” the American west by taking it from its original inhabitants, all of these helped to fuel the imaginations of the time. Once the frontiers closed though, it has not been possible to dream of adventures in exploration that would open new vistas to humanity.

Until recently, that is. Beginning with government efforts in the US and the Soviet Union enabling space exploration, we now are in a world where many nations are launching their own satellites, and conducting virtual space exploration to other bodies in the solar system. Private industry is playing a larger role, as the value in providing access to near-earth orbit becomes profitable. Even now, we have begun to dream of new adventures in revisiting the moon, and placing human footprints on other celestial spheres.

That is why the recent discovery of a lake of liquid water sealed under the south polar ice cap of Mars is so important. The story of the discovery may be found in the August 3 issue of Science Magazine. The Italian research team describes the results from the European Space Agency (ESA) Mars Express probe, where radar pulses were sent down into the Martian surface, and the return pulses were analyzed. The pulses show both the surface features, and the features below the south polar ice cap. They show a clear signal of a very strong return of the radar beam from below the ice cap in certain places. By comparison to radar images taken from subsurface lakes in Greenland and Antarctica, they can state with confidence that the bright reflections represent a free water surface found below the ice. That water is undoubtedly extremely salty, since even under a kilometer and a half of ice, the freezing point of water needs substantial salt content in order to keep the water as liquid at the temperature of Mars. Still, the discovery of water, on a planet that long ago lost its atmosphere due to the decay of its magnetic field, gives hope that in the future humanity may actually be able to survive the hostile landscape of another planet.

mars ice cap

Mars Northern polar ice cap

The discovery shows how human probes continue to make significant discoveries at Mars. Right now there are eight probes (from the US, the ESA, and India) either circling Mars, or rolling over the surface of the planet. It is no longer extraordinary to see 360° panorama views of the surface of Mars, showing the approach of a lander to the distant mountain that will be explored next. In my own lifetime, I’ve seen the entire cycle of space exploration. One of my earliest memories was hearing over the radio the announcement of Sputnik’s successful launch as my family drove back from vacation. I was an inveterate space junkie during the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs. I remember the early moon probes, and watching the pictures return from a moon growing ominously closer, until the picture went dark upon impact. Now, the discoveries from Saturn, and Jupiter, and Pluto, and even from asteroids and comets keep coming as we expand our exploration horizons.

But for humanity to really create a new frontier, it will be necessary for humans to venture back beyond our own planet, and onto suitable surfaces elsewhere in the solar system. There are very few locations where we could exist, even for a short while. One would not want to land on the Jovian volcanic moon of Io, which continually sends plumes of material up from its surface in response to the intense tidal energy released from rotation around Jupiter. Europa would be a candidate, but the crevasses in the icy surface covering it’s moon-girdling ocean would be risky for someone to navigate. The outer gas planets themselves offer no solid surface at all – just an atmosphere that keeps growing thicker and thicker until it turns into a sticky liquid. Really, we have only the moon and Mars as candidates for humanity to set up any sort of outpost.

So I am firmly in favor of continuing human exploration of space, even though the additional scientific payback from human observation may not be justified financially. No, it is because we as a species wish to continue to explore, to see what lies beyond the next ridge, to satisfy the itch that comes from too much stability and comfort, that is why we must keep extending humanity’s reach. Otherwise we will become jaded, and will gain a mindset that says we can only win if others lose. Western civilization has shown for the better part of a millennium that the payoff for exploration activities always exceeds the input costs, even when the act of exploration creates martyrs along the way. It certainly has a better record of payoff than various economic theories implemented over the past 38 years can show.

There’s yet another reason for humanity to return to space. The exploration of space has become internationalized over the years, and those who staff the International Space Station have come from an increasing number of countries around the world. All who see the Earth from space come away with a firm belief that we are fortunate to live on such a hospitable planet, and that you cannot see borders from space*. We on Earth need to regain the perspective that we had back in December 1968, when the first Apollo flight to circle the moon broadcast that magical image of the moon, accompanied from the words of Genesis .  For those of us who remember that moment, we will never forget it. If you truly wish to make America great again, then we should reach once more for the stars.

 

* You can actually see the borders of North Korea at night, when the line of demarcation shows the difference between North Korea’s neighbors and their surplus of electric lights, compared to the darkness inhabiting the hermit kingdom.

 

 

Where the Wild Threats Are

meteorite-1060886_960_720

What are the real problems facing society? I’m not talking about the issues that take the most space on cable news channels, or in the remaining newsprint options available, or on internet boards. No, I’m talking about the issues that face humanity across the globe, issues that threaten our well-being and the health of the planet that we share as a species. This post is a discussion of what I consider to be the 7 most critical problems that we face, with a little explanation as to why they are so critical. They are posted in inverse order. That is, the least important is presented first, and the most important is last.

7. Celestial billiards. With increased sensitivity, we are now learning how many objects out there in space may have Earth’s name engraved on them. It seems that almost monthly we hear about an object of substantial size that will pass, or has passed within a few 10’s of thousands of miles of Earth. Efforts are being made to catalog all objects that may be an existential threat to life on Earth, and we will likely see an attempt made on some object in the future to alter its orbit, just to prove that the capability works before we need it. But space is huge, and we are small, but just large enough to serve as a target in the ongoing game of celestial billiards.

6. Infectious Diseases. This problem has two main causes. First is antibiotic resistance. Having been given the magic bullets of antibiotics in the 1940’s, we applied them everywhere. Go to the doctor for a viral cold? Ask the doctor for an antibiotic. Learn that antibiotics lead to faster meat animal growth? Apply low dosages of antibiotic to animal feeds, ensuring the maximum exposure to antibiotics in the environment. And now, 80 years later, resistance to antibiotics is emerging everywhere, and it is doubtful that new antibiotics can be developed at a fast enough rate to compensate for the loss of effectiveness of standard antibiotics. We may later look upon the brief period of antibiotic effectiveness as the golden age of human longevity. Add to this the possibility of viral diseases such as Ebola becoming global pandemics due to the increased interconnectedness of our society, and we face potential crises of infectious diseases in the future that are intractable.

5. The Rise of Willful Ignorance. This is different than denial of scientific truths, although many who are willfully ignorant also deny findings from science. This is a recent phenomenon, and it manifests itself by deriding subject matter experts as “elitists” who are out of touch with the human experience. Its adherents find solace in anecdotal evidence, and evidence shared second and third hand via the internet. It includes those who decry fake news while sharing the latest conspiracy-laced rumor without a shred of physical evidence. Why? Because those shadowy figures who control the mass media are trying to foist their elitist world view down the throats of the normal hard-working silent majority, and thus we cannot trust anything that they say. Those who follow this practice will ignore all real evidence against their beliefs, up to the point where their ignorance costs them their lives.

4. Sea level rise. Regardless of the source of the warming, it is abundantly clear that ice is melting, especially in the arctic, the surface ocean waters are also warming and expanding, and that will result in sea level rise. Since so much of humanity’s population is settled on or adjacent to the ocean shore, ongoing sea level rise will cause massive human displacements in the underdeveloped world, and will cause unimaginable damage to infrastructure in developed nations. The local communities on the front lines of the struggle are trying to deal with the issues, but unless and until we recognize that sea level rise is inexorable, and that we need to deal with it both on a national and trans-national level, then we will incur excessive costs due to our intransigence at denying that there is indeed a problem. And the refugees that are flooded out of their subsistence farms in Bangladesh and other countries will dwarf the number of refugees that came from the Syria conflict.

3. Tribalism and Denialism. These two items are strongly linked, since there is evidence that the political movements most identified with tribalism and nationalism and isolationism, are also the political movements most engaged in the denial of demonstrated scientific principles. Tribalism is troubling since it assumes that all of our problems are the result of “others” encroaching on our borders, or serving as a fifth column within our borders. It denies that there are problems that are trans-national in nature, that can only be addressed effectively by multi-lateral efforts. Thus any effort to reduce the growth of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is ridiculed, since all true tribal believers know that CO2 is a fertilizer for plants, and besides, 400 parts per million is too small to affect the thermodynamics of the atmosphere, and besides, whatever we do in our country will be overwhelmed by the developing countries increasing their emissions, and besides, who are we to think that we are as powerful as God. You can go through any series of logical sequences for any of the problems that are fostered by tribalism and denialism, but the bottom line is that a tribal world sees others as a threat, and focuses non-productive energy on preventing incursions from others, while excluding any problem that is truly global in nature from being worked on.

2. Human-induced extinctions. Ever since humanity learned how to craft weapons and hunt creatures larger than ourselves, we have served as agents of extinction. During the last two centuries, the pace of extinctions has grown exponentially, so that now the rate of extinction is estimated at 10 to 100 times the natural rate of species extinction. Whether it is through habitat elimination, or overfishing, or introduction of non-native species, or through unintended effects of herbicides and pesticides, all of these conditions are removing species from the Earth. We do not know what effects there will be by changing the composition of the web of life. But the fact that we appear to be such poor stewards of the Earth that we believe we are the only species that matters, is one for concern.

1. The number of people on Earth x the resource consumption per person. In higher math, it is often the cross-product that is the variable of interest. Here we have a cross-product that represents the amount of resources that we are extracting from the Earth at a given time. Both factors are increasing, and we are finding physical limits on what we can do to address this problem. This problem exacerbates other critical problems, such as anthropomorphic global warming, plastic pollution overwhelming the oceans, creation of dysfunctional mega-cities, and increasing the risk of the collapse of natural systems.

This represents my own list of concerns that can develop into existential crises for life on Earth. As such it is an extremely arbitrary list, and others should work to develop their own lists. Some of the things I excluded from the list include the rise of Artificial Intelligence, and its effect on employment. Also, I excluded scientific terrorism, like developing a super virus and unleashing it on the world. Even basic terrorism failed to make the list. Nuclear engagement is not on the list, although many of the problems I describe could have a nuclear engagement as a likely outcome if they are taken to extremes. Later posts may tackle some of these concerns and discuss potential solutions for them.

 

Chemicals I Have Made – Hydrogen Peroxide

hydrogen peroxide

It’s such a cute, cuddly chemical. Found in its brown plastic container in medicine cabinets across the world, it is poured on cuts and scrapes where it foams up in bubbles. Safe enough to be used as a mouth rinse. Good old 3% hydrogen peroxide! But let me assure you, what is safe at 3% strength, is not safe at 35% concentration. Or at 70% strength. Hydrogen peroxide, or H202 , is a chemical that must be given a great deal of respect. In my career, I worked in a process that made H202 for several years, and I’ve seen examples of its power.

When tank cars were loaded with H202, the hoses would still contain some of the liquid in the lines. There was an attitude that since this was not an organic material, and since the decomposition products were water and oxygen, it was not worthwhile to ensure that the last drops were purged out of the line. So a metal box was filled with steel scraps, metal shavings, and other pieces of metal with a high surface area. This box was used to decompose the peroxide before it ran into our cypress-lined trench system. On one occasion, significantly more peroxide ran down into the box than was intended, and not all of the peroxide decomposed before it entered the tar-covered cypress trench. Decomposition continued, and the heat released along with the enriched oxygen environment inside the trench, actually caused the trench to begin smoldering. The fire alarm was sounded, and the investigation showed that the fire was essentially caused – by water. That is the power inherent in industrial strength H202.

Before I worked at the plant, they had a specialized still that concentrated peroxide to 90% purity. That strength was used as a rocket fuel, and as a propellant for torpedoes. I never heard of any stories about accidents with that grade, but it would take very little in order to release the energy found in that strong of a chemical. After I left the Memphis Plant, I heard about something that happened to a tank car outside of the plant. Tank cars for peroxide were made of about 1/2″ thick aluminum. One night, a tank car essentially exploded, opening up the top like a pop can. The thought is that someone playing with a rifle, shot the tank car. There is a little organic material that sits atop commercial grade H202, which reacted to form organic peroxides. The energy from a rifle shot caused the organic peroxide to detonate, which triggered the release of the oxygen from the decomposing peroxide. I saw the car on a trip back to the plant. It clearly showed that there is a lot of energy available with 70% H202. I have searched diligently on the internet but I can find no on-line evidence of this incident.  One can only imagine what would have happened if this incident occurred after 9/11.

The process for making H202 is complex. An organic solution called working solution is the key to creating the H202 molecule, which then recycles to begin the process again. The working solution first enters the hydrogenators, where hydrogen gas contacts a catalyst of palladium chloride coated out as palladium metal on alumina particles. The palladium chloride comes in a solution form in 5 gallon pails, costing multiple thousands of dollars per pail. After the catalyst is filtered out, the working solution goes into the oxidizers, where air is blown through the solution. Hydrogen grabs onto the oxygen, and forms H202, which then is extracted with water, and concentrated in distillation stills. The working solution then returns and is ready to run through the loop once more.

That is a highly simplified version of the process. In practice, there is art involved. The active chemicals in the working solution can degrade over time. Therefore it is necessary to divert a side stream of working solution to flow through alumina, where the impurities that form in the hydrogenation step absorb onto the alumina. The whole process with the catalyst and the hydrogenation step is labor intensive, and it is always necessary to withdraw a portion of the catalyst and replace with fresh catalyst. To prevent that expense, and to achieve higher yield, the plant I worked at had invested in what is called a fixed bed hydrogenation system. This had shown impressive results in lab-scale testing, and in pilot plant testing, where 5-gallon sized vessels were used to prove the effectiveness before you built a 1000-gallon facility for commercial production. The new commercial facility was commissioned, and put in service.

But problems developed very rapidly. Even though the pilot plant testing did not show it, the commercial scale facility developed some hot spots inside the hydrogenator. This caused the active compound in the working solution to degrade much more rapidly than inside of the fluid bed hydrogenators. Since the investment in the working solution was several million dollars, it became imperative to find some way to reverse the damage. Lab work was expedited, and a solution was identified. They needed some engineer to manage the project and get the equipment ordered, installed, and functioning. I was plucked from the cyanide unit(see  Chemicals I have made – Hydrogen Cyanide ) and put in charge of the project.

It was a true baptism into project management. I got to travel to see the vessel that we were buying in the fabrication shop, up in the extreme northwest corner of New Jersey. There you were more likely to see a black bear than to see a Joisey girl. But the best part of the project was that I got to install and program a Programmable Logic Controller (PLC). Now this was back in 1980, and these were brand new toys  tools that used all of the advances in semi-conductors that were available. You could replace a whole rack of single-function logic switches, with a single unit that could do nearly unlimited functions. I had a lot of fun learning the ladder logic that went with this, and getting the system to work as intended. We started up our treatment unit – and it didn’t solve the problem. The working solution was still getting degraded, even when the fixed bed unit was operated at only a fraction of its intended production rate. The equipment I installed was abandoned, and the large fixed bed unit was shut down and eventually dismantled. But I had learned valuable skills and had managed a significant project by myself.

The manufacture of H202 is not different by chemical manufacturers. At the time I worked to make H202, all manufacturers used the process I described. Eventually, the unit I worked at was sold to another company in exchange for one of the other companies processes. I left H202 when I got a promotion to be a process supervisor for the manufacture of acrylonitrile. But that’s another story for another time.