When you think of the periodic table, some elements just have a vibe to them that’s completely unscientific, but nonetheless undeniable. Precious metals like gold and silver are obvious examples, associated as they always have been with the wealth of kings. Copper and iron are sturdy working-class metals, each worthy of having entire ages of human industry named after them, with silicon now forming the backbone of our current Information Age. Carbon builds up the chemistry of life itself and fuels almost all human endeavors, and none of us would get very far without oxygen.
But what about sulfur? Nobody seems to think much about poor sulfur, and when they do it tends to be derogatory. Sulfur puts the stink in rotten eggs, threatens us when it spews from the mouths of volcanoes, and can become a deadly threat when used to make gunpowder. Sulfur seems like something more associated with the noxious processes and bleak factories of the early Industrial Revolution, not a component of our modern, high-technology world.
And yet despite its malodorous and low-tech reputation, there are actually few industrial processes that don’t depend on massive amounts of sulfur in some way. Sulfur is a critical ingredient in processes that form the foundation of almost all industry, so its production is usually a matter of national and economic security, which is odd considering that nearly all the sulfur we use is recovered from the waste of other industrial processes.
With a seemingly endless list of shortages of basic items trotted across newsfeeds on a daily basis, you’d be pardoned for not noticing any one shortage in particular. But in among the shortages of everything from eggs to fertilizers to sriracha sauce has been a growing realization that we may actually be running out of something so fundamental that it could have repercussions that will be felt across all aspects of our technological society: helium.
The degree to which helium is central to almost every aspect of daily life is hard to overstate. Helium’s unique properties, like the fact that it remains liquid at just a few degrees above absolute zero, contribute to its use in countless industrial processes. From leak detection and welding to silicon wafer production and cooling the superconducting magnets that make magnetic resonance imaging possible, helium has become entrenched in technology in a way that belies its relative scarcity.
But where does helium come from? As we’ll see, the second lightest element on the periodic table is not easy to come by, and considerable effort goes into extracting and purifying it enough for industrial use. While great strides are being made toward improved methods of extraction and the discovery of new deposits, for all practical purposes helium is a non-renewable resource for which there are no substitutes. So it pays to know a thing or two about how we get our hands on it.
At over 1230 km (764 mi) in length, $10 billion in cost, and over a decade in the making, the Nord Stream 2 pipeline was slated to connect the gas fields of Russia to Western Europe through Germany. But with the sanctions against Russia and the politics of the pipeline suffering a major meltdown, this incredible feat of engineering currently sits unused. What does it take to lay so much underwater pipe, and what challenges are faced? [Grady] over at Practical Engineering lays out out nicely for us in the video below the break.
As with any undersea pipeline or cable, a survey had to be done. Instead of just avoiding great chasms, underwater volcanos, or herds of sharks with lasers, planners had to contend with culturally important shipwrecks, territorial waters, and unexploded ordnance dating from the second world war. Disposing of this ordinance in a responsible way meant employing curtains of bubbles around the explosion to limit the propagation of the explosion through the water- definitely a neat hack!
Speeding up the job meant laying several sections of pipe at once, and then tying them together after they were laid. The sheer amount of engineering, manpower and money involved are nothing short of staggering. Of course [Grady] makes it sound simple, and even shares his take on some of the geopolitical issues involved, such as Germany refusing to certify the line for use after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. So far, the $10 billion pipeline is unused, and even Shell has walked away from its $5 billion investment.
Be sure to watch the whole video for even more fascinating details about the Nord Stream 2’s amazing engineering and construction. Check out a Robot Eel concept for the maintenance of underwater pipelines too.
The basic idea here is that you feed natural gas (though propane should also work) directly into the engine’s intake by way of a hose attached to the air filter box. While cranking the engine, a valve on the gas line is used to manually adjust the air–fuel mixture until it fires up. It’s an extremely simple hack that, in a pinch, you can pull off with the parts on hand. But as you might expect, that simplicity comes at a cost.
There are a few big problems with this approach, but certainly the major one is that there’s nothing to cut off the flow of gas when the engine stops running. So if the generator stalls or you just forget to close the valve after you shut it down, there’s the potential for a very dangerous situation. Additionally, the manual gas valve will be at odds with a generator that automatically throttles up and down based on load. Though to be fair, there are certainly generators out there that simply run the engine flat-out the whole time.
About an hour’s drive from where this is being written there is a car plant, and as you drive past its entrance you may notice an unobtrusive sign and an extra lane with the cryptic road marking “H2”. The factory is the Honda plant at Swindon, it produces some of Europe’s supply of Civics, and the lane on the road leads to one of the UK or indeed the world’s very few public hydrogen filling stations. Honda are one of a select group of manufacturers who have placed a bet on a future for environmentally sustainable motoring that lies with hydrogen fuel cell technologies.
The trouble for Honda and the others is that if you have seen a Honda Clarity FCV or indeed any hydrogen powered car on the road anywhere in the world then you are among a relatively small group of people. Without a comprehensive network of hydrogen filling stations such as the one in Swindon there is little incentive to buy a hydrogen car, and of course without the cars on the road there is little incentive for the fuel companies to invest in hydrogen generating infrastructure such as the ITM Power electrolysis units that seem to drive so many of the existing installations. By comparison an electric car is a much safer bet; while the charging point network doesn’t rival the gasoline filling station network there are enough to service the electric motorist and a slow charge can be found from most domestic supplies. Continue reading “The Hydrogen Economy May Be Coming Through Your Cooker”→
[EssentialCraftsman] is relatively new to YouTube, but he’s already put out some impressive videos. We really enjoyed an episode dedicated to a fixture in his shop, his large custom blacksmith’s forge.
The forge is a custom cast vault of refractory that sits on a platter of fire bricks suspended on a heavy-duty rotating frame. Two forced air natural gas burner provide the heat. The frame is plasma CNC cut steel welded together.
A lot of technical challenges had to be solved. How does one hold a couple hundred pound piece of refractory in such a way that it can be lifted, especially when any steel parts exposed to the heat of the forge would become plastic and fail? When the forge turns off, how do you keep the hot air in the forge from rising into the blowers and melting them? There were many more.
We were really impressed by the polished final appearance of the forge, and the cleverness of its design. Everything is well thought out, and you can even increase the height of the forge by propping it up on more fire bricks. We hope [EssentialCraftsman] will continue to produce such high quality videos. We also enjoyed his episode on Anvils as well as a weirdly informative tirade on which shape of stake (round or square) to use when laying out concrete jobs. Videos after the break.
Water takes a lot of energy to heat up. If you’d like evidence of this, simply jump into a 50° F swimming pool on Memorial Day. Despite the difficulty of heating water, that simple act accounts for a lot of industrial processes. From cooking a steak to running a nuclear reactor, there isn’t much that doesn’t involve heating water.
[Tom Murphy], Physics prof at UCSD decided to test out exactly how efficiently he could boil water. Armed with a gas stove, electric kettle, microwave, and a neat laser pointer/photodiode setup on his gas meter to measure consumption, he calculated exactly how much energy he was using to make a cup of tea.
The final numbers from [Tom]’s experiment revealed that a gas stove – using a pot with and without a lid on large and small burners – was about 20% efficient. A gas-powered hot water heater was much better at 55% efficiency, but the microwave and electric kettle had a miserable efficiencies of around 15 and 25%, respectively. There is a reason for the terrible inefficiency of using electricity to heat water; if only the power from the wall is considered, the electric kettle put 80% of energy consumed directly into the water. Because the electricity has to come from somewhere, usually a fossil-fueled power plant that operates at around 30% efficiency, the electric kettle method of turning dinosaurs into hot water is only about 25% efficient.
The take-home from this is there’s a lot of power being wasted every time you run a bath, make some coffee, or wash the dishes. We would all do better by decreasing how much energy we use, much like [Tom]’s efforts in using 5 times less power than his neighbor. Awesome job, [Tom].