Monthly Archives: February 2013

How is Chemical Engineering?

I’m sometimes asked about chemical engineering by high-schoolers with some science aptitude. Typically they are trying to decide between a major in chemistry or chemical engineering. They’ve typically figured out that chemical engineering must be some practical version of chemistry, but can’t quite figure out how that could be engineering. My key answer here is: unit operations.

If I were a chemist trying to make an interesting product, beer or whisky say, I might start with sugar, barley, water and yeast, plus perhaps some hops and tablets of nutrients and antimicrobial. After a few hours of work, I’d have 5 gallons of beer fermenting, and after a month I’d have beer that I could either drink or batch-distill into whisky. If I ran the cost numbers, I’d find that my supplies cost as much to make as buying the product in a store; the value of my time was thus zero and would not be any higher if I were to scale up production: I’m a chemist.

The key to making my time more valuable is unit operations. I need to scale up production and use less costly materials. Corn costs less than sugar but has to be enzyme processed into a form that can be fermented. Essentially, I have to cook a large batch of corn at the right temperatures (near boiling) and then add enzymes from the beer or from sprouted corn and then hold the temperature for an hour or more. Sounds simple, but requires good heat control, good heating, and good mixing, otherwise the enzymes will die or won’t work or the corn will burn and stick to the bottom of the pot. These are all unit operations; you’ll learn more about them in chemical engineering.

Reactor design is a classical unit operation. Do I react in large batches, or in a continuous fermentor. How do I hold on to the catalyst (enzymes); what is the contact time; these are the issues of reactor engineering, and while different catalysts and reactions have different properties and rates, the analysis is more-or-less the same.

Another issue is solid-liquid separation, in this case filtration of the dregs. When made in small batches, the bottoms of the beer barrel, the dregs, were let to settle and then washed down the sink. At larger scales, settling will take too long and will still leave a beer that is cloudy. Further, the dregs are too valuable to waste. At larger scales, you’ll want to filter the beer and will want to do something to the residue. Centrifugal filtration is typically used and the residue is typically dried and sold as animal feed. Centrifugal filtration is another unit operation.

Distillation is another classical unit operation. An important part here is avoiding hangover-producing higher alcohols and nasty tasting, “fusel oils.” There are tricks here that are more-or-less worth doing depending on the product you want. Typically, you start with a simple processes and equipment and keep tweaking them until the product and costs are want you want. At the end, typically, the process equipment looks more like a refinery than like a kitchen: chemical engineering equipment is fairly different from the small batch equipment that was used as the chemist.

The same approach to making things and scaling them up also applied in management situations, by the way, and many of my chemical engineering friends have become managers.

The martian sky: why is it yellow?

In a previous post, I detailed my calculations concerning the color of the sky and sun. Basically the sun gives off light mostly in the yellow to green range, with fairly little red or purple. A lot of the blue and green wavelengths scatter leaving the sun  looking yellow because yellow looks yellow and the red plus blue also looks yellow because of additive color.

If you look at the sky through a spectroscope, it’s pretty blue with some green. Sky blue involves a bit of an eye trick of additive color so that we see the scattered blue + green as sky blue and not aqua. At sundown, the sun becomes reddish and the majority of the sky becomes greenish-grey as more green and yellow light gets scattered. The sky near the sun is orange as the atmosphere is thick enough to scatter orange, while the blue and green scatters out.

Now, to talk about the color of the sky on Mars, both at noon and at sunset. Except for the effect of the red color of the dust on Mars I would expect the sky to be blue on Mars, just like on earth but a lighter shade of blue as the atmosphere is thinner. When you add some red from the dust, one would expect the sky to be grey. That is, I would expect to find a simple combination of a base of sky blue (blue plus green), plus some extra red-orange light scattered from the Martian dust. In additive colors, the combination of blue-green and red-orange is grey, so that’s the color I’d expect the Martian sky to be normally. Some photos of the Martian sky match this expectation; see below. My guess is this is on a day when there was not much dust in the air, though NASA provides no details here.

martian sky; looks grey

On some days (high dust days, I assume), the Martian sky is turns a shade of yellow-green. I’d guess that’s because the red-dust absorbs the blue and some of the green spectrum, but does not actually add red. We are thus involved with subtractive color and, in subtractive color orange plus blue-green = butterscotch, not grey or pink.

Martian sky color

I now present a photo of the Martian sky at sunset. This is something really peculiar that I would not have expected ahead of time, but think I can explain now that I see it. The sky looks yellow in general, like in the photo above, but blue around the sun. I could explain this picture by saying that the blue and green of the Martian sky is being scattered by the Martian air (CO2, mostly), just like our atmosphere scatters these colors on earth; the sky near the sun looks blue, not red-orange because the Martian atmosphere is thinner (at noon there is less air to scatter light, but at sun-down the atmosphere is the same thickness as ours, more or less). The red of the dust does not show up in the sky color near the sun since the red-color is back scattered near the sun, and not front scattered. The Martian sky is yellow elsewhere where there is some front scatter of the reddish light reflecting off of the dust. This sounds plausible to me; tell me what you think.

Martian sky at sunset

Martian sky at sunset

As an aside, while I have long understood there was an experimental difference between subtractive and additive color, I have never quite understood why this should be so. Why is it that subtractive color combinations are different, and uniformly different from additive color combinations. I’d have thought you’d get more-or-less the same color if you remove red from one part of a piece of paper and remove blue from another as if you add red, purple, and yellow. A mental model I have (perhaps wrong) is that subtractive color looks like it does because of the details of the spectral absorption of the particular pigment chemicals that are typically used. Based on this model, I expect to find someday some new red and green pigments where the combination looks yellow when mixed on a page. I’ve not found it yet, but that’s my expectation — perhaps you know of a really good explanation for why additive color is so different from subtractive color.

Some people have noticed that I’m wearing a rather dapper suit during the recent visit of the press to my lab. It’s important to dress sharp, I think, and that varies from situation to situation. Fashion is an obligation, not a privilege; you’ve got to be willing to suffer for it, for the greater good of all.

Do you think Lady Gaga finds her stuff comfortable?

Do you think Lady Gaga finds her stuff comfortable? She does it for the greater good. 

R.E. Buxbaum. You are your own sculpture; Be art.


Joke about antimatter and time travel

I’m sorry we don’t serve antimatter men here.

Antimatter man walks into a bar.

Is funny because … in quantum-physics there is no directionality in time. Thus an electron can change directions in time and then appears to the observer as a positron, an anti electron that has the same mass as a normal electron but the opposite charge and an opposite spin, etc. In physics, the reason electrons and positrons appear to annihilate is that it’s there was only one electron to begin with. That electron started going backwards in time so it disappeared in our forward-in-time time-frame.

The thing is, time is quite apparent on a macroscopic scales. It’s one of the most apparent aspects of macroscopic existence. Perhaps the clearest proof that time is flowing in one direction only is entropy. In normal life, you can drop a glass and watch it break whenever you like, but you can not drop shards and expect to get a complete glass. Similarly, you know you are moving forward in time if you can drop an ice cube into a hot cup of coffee and make it luke-warm. If you can reach into a cup of luke-warm coffee and extract an ice cube to make it hot, you’re moving backwards in time.

It’s also possible that gravity proves that time is moving forward. If an anti apple is just a normal apple that is moving backwards in time, then I should expect that, when I drop an anti-apple, I will find it floats upward. On the other hand, if mass is inherently a warpage of space-time, it should fall down. Perhaps when we understand gravity we will also understand how quantum physics meets the real world of entropy.

Heat conduction in insulating blankets, aerogels, space shuttle tiles, etc.

A lot about heat conduction in insulating blankets can be explained by the ordinary motion of gas molecules. That’s because the thermal conductivity of air (or any likely gas) is much lower than that of glass, alumina, or any likely solid material used for the structure of the blanket. At any temperature, the average kinetic energy of an air molecule is 1/2kT in any direction, or 3/2kT altogether; where k is Boltzman’s constant, and T is absolute temperature, °K. Since kinetic energy equals 1/2 mv2, you find that the average velocity in the x direction must be v = √kT/m = √RT/M. Here m is the mass of the gas molecule in kg, M is the molecular weight also in kg (0.029 kg/mol for air), R is the gas constant 8.29J/mol°C, and v is the molecular velocity in the x direction, in meters/sec. From this equation, you will find that v is quite large under normal circumstances, about 290 m/s (650 mph) for air molecules at ordinary temperatures of 22°C or 295 K. That is, air molecules travel in any fixed direction at roughly the speed of sound, Mach 1 (the average speed including all directions is about √3 as fast, or about 1130 mph).

The distance a molecule will go before hitting another one is a function of the cross-sectional areas of the molecules and their densities in space. Dividing the volume of a mol of gas, 0.0224 m3/mol at “normal conditions” by the number of molecules in the mol (6.02 x10^23) gives an effective volume per molecule at this normal condition: .0224 m3/6.0210^23 = 3.72 x10^-26 m3/molecule at normal temperatures and pressures. Dividing this volume by the molecular cross-section area for collisions (about 1.6 x 10^-19 m2 for air based on an effective diameter of 4.5 Angstroms) gives a free-motion distance of about 0.23×10^-6 m or 0.23µ for air molecules at standard conditions. This distance is small, to be sure, but it is 1000 times the molecular diameter, more or less, and as a result air behaves nearly as an “ideal gas”, one composed of point masses under normal conditions (and most conditions you run into). The distance the molecule travels to or from a given surface will be smaller, 1/√3 of this on average, or about 1.35×10^-7m. This distance will be important when we come to estimate heat transfer rates at the end of this post.


Molecular motion of an air molecule (oxygen or nitrogen) as part of heat transfer process; this shows how some of the dimensions work.

Molecular motion of an air molecule (oxygen or nitrogen) as part of heat transfer process; this shows how some of the dimensions work.

The number of molecules hitting per square meter per second is most easily calculated from the transfer of momentum. The pressure at the surface equals the rate of change of momentum of the molecules bouncing off. At atmospheric pressure 103,000 Pa = 103,000 Newtons/m2, the number of molecules bouncing off per second is half this pressure divided by the mass of each molecule times the velocity in the surface direction. The contact rate is thus found to be (1/2) x 103,000 Pa x 6.02^23 molecule/mol /(290 m/s. x .029 kg/mol) = 36,900 x 10^23 molecules/m2sec.

The thermal conductivity is merely this number times the heat capacity transfer per molecule times the distance of the transfer. I will now calculate the heat capacity per molecule from statistical mechanics because I’m used to doing things this way; other people might look up the heat capacity per mol and divide by 6.02 x10^23: For any gas, the heat capacity that derives from kinetic energy is k/2 per molecule in each direction, as mentioned above. Combining the three directions, that’s 3k/2. Air molecules look like dumbbells, though, so they have two rotations that contribute another k/2 of heat capacity each, and they have a vibration that contributes k. We begin with an approximate value for k = 2 cal/mol of molecules per °C; it’s actually 1.987 but I round up to include some electronic effects. Based on this, we calculate the heat capacity of air to be 7 cal/mol°C at constant volume or 1.16 x10^-23 cal/molecule°C. The amount of energy that can transfer to the hot (or cold) wall is this heat capacity times the temperature difference that molecules carry between the wall and their first collision with other gases. The temperature difference carried by air molecules at standard conditions is only 1.35 x10-7 times the temperature difference per meter because the molecules only go that far before colliding with another molecule (remember, I said this number would be important). The thermal conductivity for stagnant air per meter is thus calculated by multiplying the number of molecules times that hit per m2 per second, the distance the molecule travels in meters, and the effective heat capacity per molecule. This would be 36,900 x 10^23  molecules/m2sec x 1.35 x10-7m x 1.16 x10^-23 cal/molecule°C = 0.00578 cal/ms°C or .0241 W/m°C. This value is (pretty exactly) the thermal conductivity of dry air that you find by experiment.

I did all that math, though I already knew the thermal conductivity of air from experiment for a few reasons: to show off the sort of stuff you can do with simple statistical mechanics; to build up skills in case I ever need to know the thermal conductivity of deuterium or iodine gas, or mixtures; and finally, to be able to understand the effects of pressure, temperature and (mainly insulator) geometry — something I might need to design a piece of equipment with, for example, lower thermal heat losses. I find, from my calculation that we should not expect much change in thermal conductivity with gas pressure at near normal conditions; to first order, changes in pressure will change the distance the molecule travels to exactly the same extent that it changes the number of molecules that hit the surface per second. At very low pressures or very small distances, lower pressures will translate to lower conductivity, but for normal-ish pressures and geometries, changes in gas pressure should not affect thermal conductivity — and does not.

I’d predict that temperature would have a larger effect on thermal conductivity, but still not an order-of magnitude large effect. Increasing the temperature increases the distance between collisions in proportion to the absolute temperature, but decreases the number of collisions by the square-root of T since the molecules move faster at high temperature. As a result, increasing T has a √T positive effect on thermal conductivity.

Because neither temperature nor pressure has much effect, you might expect that the thermal conductivity of all air-filed insulating blankets at all normal-ish conditions is more-or-less that of standing air (air without circulation). That is what you find, for the most part; the same 0.024 W/m°C thermal conductivity with standing air, with high-tech, NASA fiber blankets on the space shuttle and with the cheapest styrofoam cups. Wool felt has a thermal conductivity of 0.042 W/m°C, about twice that of air, a not-surprising result given that wool felt is about 1/2 wool and 1/2 air.

Now we can start to understand the most recent class of insulating blankets, those with very fine fibers, or thin layers of fiber (or aluminum or gold). When these are separated by less than 0.2µ you finally decrease the thermal conductivity at room temperature below that for air. These layers decrease the distance traveled between gas collisions, but still leave the same number of collisions with the hot or cold wall; as a result, the smaller the gap below .2µ the lower the thermal conductivity. This happens in aerogels and some space blankets that have very small silica fibers, less than .1µ apart (<100 nm). Aerogels can have much lower thermal conductivities than 0.024 W/m°C, even when filled with air at standard conditions.

In outer space you get lower thermal conductivity without high-tech aerogels because the free path is very long. At these pressures virtually every molecule hits a fiber before it hits another molecule; for even a rough blanket with distant fibers, the fibers bleak up the path of the molecules significantly. Thus, the fibers of the space shuttle (about 10 µ apart) provide far lower thermal conductivity in outer space than on earth. You can get the same benefit in the lab if you put a high vacuum of say 10^-7 atm between glass walls that are 9 mm apart. Without the walls, the air molecules could travel 1.3 µ/10^-7 = 13m before colliding with each other. Since the walls of a typical Dewar are about 0.009 m apart (9 mm) the heat conduction of the Dewar is thus 1/150 (0.7%) as high as for a normal air layer 9mm thick; there is no thermal conductivity of Dewar flasks and vacuum bottles as such, since the amount of heat conducted is independent of gap-distance. Pretty spiffy. I use this knowledge to help with the thermal insulation of some of our hydrogen generators and hydrogen purifiers.

There is another effect that I should mention: black body heat transfer. In many cases black body radiation dominates: it is the reason the tiles are white (or black) and not clear; it is the reason Dewar flasks are mirrored (a mirrored surface provides less black body heat transfer). This post is already too long to do black body radiation justice here, but treat it in more detail in another post.

RE. Buxbaum

Joke re: SI pressure

Einstein, Newton, and the two Pascal brothers are playing hide and seek. Einstein has his eyes covered and is counting. The two Pascal bothers run and hide but Isaac Newton does not. He draws a square around him in the dust and stands waiting. When Einstein finishes counting he says, “I see you Sir Isaac standing there.” “No you don’t.” says Newton. “You see two Pascals: there’s one Newton in half a square meter area.

Robert Buxbaum is now on the board of a new charity

I’m now on the board of directors for two non-profits (lucky me), plus for my own hydrogen company, REB Research. My first charity seat is for The Jewish Heritage Foundation; it’s really one rabbi who takes donations to make tapes about topics he finds interesting. He then gives away or sells the tapes. We meet once a year to go over the finances and decide what his salary ought to be — basically we rubber stamp.

The second board seat, one I’ve been elected/appointed to just this week, is with a group call “The First Covenant Foundation” they’re semi-religious, trying to get people to behave decently. The first covenant is the one with Noah — God won’t destroy the earth but we have to behave sort-of OK. It’s certainly worthwhile to get people to keep to this minimal standard: no murder, no bestiality, don’t eat the limbs off of living creatures… Then again, if God has trouble keeping folks to this standard, I’m not sure how effective the 1st covenant will be. So far they’ve done nothing illegal or immoral that I’ve seen, so that’s good. Unlike with my first my board position, my contract with first covenant includes a sanity clause. They’re more inclusive that way; as expected, the Jewish heritage group didn’t believe in any sanity clause.

As for REB Research, our aims are simpler: to make and sell good hydrogen-related products, to make money, to pay our workers and creditors, and to develop our workers through training associated with the making and selling of good hydrogen products. Simple enough. My board meets 3 or 4 times a year over pizza; the salary of board members is the pizza. So far we haven’t done anything illegal either, that I know of — and we’re even making money.

Dwarf joke

I tripped over a dwarf the other day; I know — bad news. The fellow gets all huffy with me, and seems to think I was looking down on him (So weird, if I’d been looking down on him, I’d never have tripped!).

At any rate he says, “I’m not happy.” “That’s OK.” I say, “So which one are you?” And he gets all upset. These dwarves are all the same, they’re so small. 

For parents of a young scientist: math

It is not uncommon for parents to ask my advice or help with their child; someone they consider to be a young scientist, or at least a potential young scientist. My main advice is math.

Most often the tyke is 5 to 8 years old and has an interest in weather, chemistry, or how things work. That’s a good age, about the age that the science bug struck me, and it’s a good age to begin to introduce the power of math. Math isn’t the total answer, by the way; if your child is interested in weather, for example, you’ll need to get books on weather, and you’ll want to buy a weather-science kit at your local smart-toy store (look for one with a small wet-bulb and dry bulb thermometer setup so that you’ll be able to discuss humidity  in some modest way: wet bulb temperatures are lower than dry bulb with a difference that is higher the lower the humidity; it’s zero at 100%). But math makes the key difference between the interest blooming into science or having it wilt or worse. Math is the language of science, and without it there is no way that your child will understand the better books, no way that he or she will be able to talk to others who are interested, and the interest can bloom into a phobia (that’s what happens when your child has something to express, but can’t speak about it in any real way).

Math takes science out of the range of religion and mythology, too. If you’re stuck to the use of words, you think that the explanations in science books resemble the stories of the Greek gods. You either accept them or you don’t. With math you see that they are testable, and that the  versions in the book are generally simplified approximations to some more complex description. You also get to see that there the descriptions are testable, and that are many, different looking descriptions that will fit the same phenomena. Some will be mathematically identical, and others will be quite different, but all are testable as the Greek myths are not.

What math to teach depends on your child’s level and interests. If the child is young, have him or her count in twos or fives, or tens, etc. Have him or her learn to spot patterns, like that the every other number that is divisible by 5 ends in zero, or that the sum of digits for every number that’s divisible by three is itself divisible by three. If the child is a little older, show him or her geometry, or prime numbers, or squares and cubes. Ask your child to figure out the sum of all the numbers from 1 to 100, or to estimate the square-root of some numbers. Ask why the area of a circle is πr2 while the circumference is 2πr: why do both contain the same, odd factor, π = 3.1415926535… All these games and ideas will give your child a language to use discussing science.

If your child is old enough to read, I’d definitely suggest you buy a few books with nice pictures and practical examples. I’d grown up with the Giant Golden book of Mathematics by Irving Adler, but I’ve seen and been impressed with several other nice books, and with the entire Golden Book series. Make regular trips to the library, and point your child to an appropriate section, but don’t force the child to take science books. Forcing your child will kill any natural interest he or she has. Besides, having other interests is a sign of normality; even the biggest scientist will sometimes want to read something else (sports, music, art, etc.) Many scientists drew (da Vinci, Feynman) or played the violin (Einstein). Let your child grow at his or her own pace and direction. (I liked the theater, including opera, and liked philosophy).

Now, back to the science kits and toys. Get a few basic ones, and let your child play: these are toys, not work. I liked chemistry, and a chemistry set was perhaps the best toy I ever got. Another set I liked was an Erector set (Gilbert). Get good sets that they pick out, but don’t be disappointed if they don’t do all the experiments, or any of them. They may not be interested in this group; just move on. I was not interested in microscopy, fish, or animals, for example. And don’t be bothered if interests change. It’s common to start out interested in dinosaurs and then to change to an interest in other things. Don’t push an old interest, or even an active new interest: enough parental pushing will kill any interest, and that’s sad. As Solomon the wise said, the fire is more often extinguished by too much fuel than by too little. But you do need to help with math, though; without that, no real progress will be possible.

Oh, one more thing, don’t be disappointed if your child isn’t interested in science; most kids aren’t interested in science as such, but rather in something science-like, like the internet, or economics, or games, or how things work. These areas are all great too, and there is a lot more room for your child to find a good job or a scholarship based on their expertise in theses areas. Any math he or she learns is certain to help with all of these pursuits, and with whatever other science-like direction he or she takes.   — Good luck. Robert Buxbaum (Economics isn’t science, not because of the lack of math, but because it’s not reproducible: you can’t re-run the great depression without FDR’s stimulus, or without WWII)