Monthly Archives: December 2015

Cross of gold democrats

While it is dangerous to paint a large organization like the Democratic party with a single, broad brush, there are always patterns that appear, in this case in every presidential platform for a century. Beginning in the late 1800s when the Democratic party gave up on slavery, a stated goal of every Democratic platform has been to help the poor and downtrodden. Republicans claim to help too, but claim to target the worthy. For Democrats, by contrast, the common aim is to provide help without reference to individual worth or work — to help just because the individual needs it. All versions of this classic Democratic goal are achieved through forms of wealth redistribution: taking from the rich to give to the poor, Robin Hood style, at least temporarily. There is some inherent tension here: if the recipient can get free money without working, why would he work — a tension that some find insulting, but others accept as part of the comic nature of society. Many Americans accept that helping poor people is such a worthy goal that they knowingly accept the tension and cheating.

Mayor Quimba of Springfield (from the Simpsons). A classical Democrat, his motto: Corrupts in Extremus

Mayor Quimby of Springfield (from the Simpsons) is a classical Democrat, he has no morals beyond, ‘whatever the public wants’. Quimby is corrupt and an awful manager, but quite likable.

Extracting money from the rich always proves difficult: the rich generally object. The most direct way to extract money is taxation, but Democratic politicians, like Mayor Quimby, right try to shy from this to avoid being branded “tax and spend Democrats.” This year, Bernie Sanders has taken this line, proposing to raise the tax rate on the wealthy to 90% of income so he can do good for the poor and curb the power of rich Republicans. He has no problem with rich Democrats like Ms. Clinton, or perhaps he does, but doesn’t say so. In Britain, under Attlee, the tax rate was raised to 95%, a rate memorialized in The Beatles song “Taxman” (there one for you nineteen for me; 19/20 = 95%). Americans oscillate between accepting high tax rates and acknowledging that the worker and creative must be able to keep most of his/her earnings or he/she will stop working.

Every few years recipient Americans revolt against the way redistribution makes rich Democrats richer, and how high taxes seem to go with crony corruption. The motto of The Simpson’s Mayor Quimby is “corruptus in extremus”, a nod to the observation of how corruption in redistribution favors friends and family of those redistributing the wealth. Redistribution also tends to create poverty. This happened in England, for example. As Quimby says: “I propose that I use what’s left of the town treasury to move to a more prosperous town and run for mayor. And, er, once elected I’ll send for you.”

An alternative many Democrats favor is to print money or borrow it. This appears to be Ms Clinton’s approach, and was proposed famously in the “cross of gold” speech of William Jennings Brian in 1896.  In this speech, one of the finest in American history, Bryan (an unknown until then) proposed to monetize silver and other assets, allowing him to print money. He would spend the money on the poor by debasing the currency, that is by inflation. Bryan claimed that the rich were anyway sitting on unused money: a useless, dangerous pile that he’d inflate away. He also claimed that the poor are the ones who owe money, a burden that he would wipe out with inflation. Bryan’s final line is immortal: “you shall not press down on the people this crown of thorns, you shall not crucify the nation on a cross of gold.” The speech managed to combine God and greed and was an enormous success. Following the speech there was stunned silence, and then whoops and hollers. Bryan was carried around the convention for an hour before being chosen the Democratic candidate for president in 1896, 1900, and 1908. His speech has appeared, to a greater or lesser extent, in the platform of every Democratic candidate since with a greater or lesser reference to God depending on the conservatism of the speaker.

Donald Trump currently the front runner for GOP president reads to his grand-daughter Chloe from that Christmas classic, 'winners aren't lots.' photo by Donald Trump, jr (Chloe's Dad) aboard their car (?) plane (?).

Donald Trump currently the front-runner for GOP president reads to his grand-daughter, Chloe from ‘winners aren’t losers.’ photo by Donald Trump, jr., Chloe’s Dad. Trump seems to revel in the lovable, rich jerk persona as no Liberal or Democrat could.

Republicans have traditionally supported property rights and harder money: gold in the old days, a balanced budget today. They claim that low inflation is good for the rich and poor alike, and especially for the small businessman. Entrepreneurs are pictured as more virtuous than the idle, wastrel Democrats. Free money, the Republicans note, discourages work. Of course, distinguishing worthy from wastrel is easier said than done. Republicans are accused of being uncharitable, and of helping the idle rich once they get into office. Presidential candidate, Donald Trump claimed that until now he’d give big donations to candidates of the left and right so they would repay the favor with interest at a later date. No one knows if it will change when he gets in office, but so far he’s avoided the major rich donors. He’s doing well running as a lovable, rich, jerk who’d do things different.

Inflation is a dangerous mistress, the middle class generally doesn’t like the way it wipes out debts and savings, while supporting a class of rich wastrels, drunks and the chronically unemployed. Many of the poor and middle class save, while the rich tend to build up debts. The rich have better credit ratings than the poor, and thus borrow more. They are also better positioned to increase their borrowing if they think inflation is coming. The money they borrow is invested in hard assets: land, homes, and businesses. When inflation slows, they can sell these assets. And if they pick wrong, the government bails them out!. William Jennings Bryan lost all three of his runs at the presidency, twice to McKinley and once to William H. Taft, who stood for doing nothing.

William Jennings Bryan: for inflation and silver; against alcohol. Lost twice to McKinley and gold.

William Jennings Bryan: for inflation and silver; against alcohol. Lost twice to McKinley and gold.

I think the American people want a balance in all things. They want a balance between helping everyone, and helping only the deserving; between high taxes to help folks, and allowing folks to keep their wealth. They don’t quite know where to draw the line, and will even help the wastrels, even those who refuse to work, because they don’t want them starving in the street. They also seem to accept rich folks getting richer, especially when a big project is needed — a ship or a bridge, for example. We elect an alternating mix of Democrats and Republicans; conservatives, and liberals to avoid false paradoxes, achieve some liberty, and establish one of the richest states known.

As for me, you might as well know, I’m a liberal Republican. I favor low income taxes, but some welfare; taxing imports (tariffs), and low inflation –“bread currency,” I like Peter Cooper, and the Greenback Party, 1876. Cooper claimed that the dollar should always have the same value “for the same reason that the foot should always have 12 inches and the pound 16 ounces.” I also think enforcing morality is a job for preachers, not politicians. For 160 years students of Peter Cooper’s union were getting a free college education and I’m one of those engineering students, see my biography of Peter Cooper.

Robert E. Buxbaum, December 30, 2015. See my view of Scrooge’s economic education in the Christmas Carol.

Highest temperature superconductor so far: H2S

The new champion of high-temperature superconductivity is a fairly common gas, hydrogen sulphide, H2S. By compressing it to 150 GPa, 1.5 million atm., a team lead by Alexander Drozdov and M. Eremets of the Max Planck Institute coaxed superconductivity from H2S at temperatures as high as 203.5°K (-70°C). This is, by far, the warmest temperature of any superconductor discovered to-date, and it’s main significance is to open the door for finding superconductivity in other, related hydrogen compounds — ideally at warmer temperatures and/or less-difficult pressures. Among the interesting compounds that will certainly get more attention: PH3, BH3, Methyl mercaptan, and even water, either alone or in combination with H2S.

Relationship between H2S pressure and critical temperature for superconductivity.

Relation between pressure and critical temperature for superconductivity, Tc, in H2S (filled squares) and D2S (open red). The magenta point was measured by magnetic susceptibility (Nature)

H2S superconductivity appears to follow the standard, Bardeen–Cooper–Schrieffer theory (B-C-S). According to this theory superconductivity derives from the formation of pairs of opposite-spinning electrons (Cooper pairs) particularly in light, stiff, semiconductor materials. The light, positively charged lattice quickly moves inward to follow the motion of the electrons, see figure below. This synchronicity of motion is posited to create an effective bond between the electrons, enough to counter the natural repulsion, and allows the the pairs to condense to a low-energy quantum state where they behave as if they were very large and very spread out. In this large, spread out state, they slide through the lattice without interacting with the atoms or the few local vibrations and unpaired electrons found at low temperatures. From this theory, we would expect to find the highest temperature superconductivity in the lightest lattice, materials like ice, boron hydride, magnesium hydride, or H2S, and we expect to find higher temperature behavior in the hydrogen version, H2O, or H2S than in the heavier, deuterium analogs, D2O or D2S. Experiments with H2S and D2S (shown at right) confirm this expectation suggesting that H2S superconductivity is of the B-C-S type. Sorry to say, water has not shown any comparable superconductivity in experiments to date.

We have found high temperature superconductivity in few of materials that we would expect from B-C-S theory, and yet-higher temperature is seen in many unexpected materials. While hydride materials generally do become superconducting, they mostly do so only at low temperatures. The highest temperature semiconductor B-C-S semiconductor discovered until now was magnesium boride, Tc = 27 K. More bothersome, the most-used superconductor, Nb-Sn, and the world record holder until now, copper-oxide ceramics, Tc = 133 K at ambient pressure; 164 K at 35 GPa (350,000 atm) were not B-C-S. There is no version of B-C-S theory to explain why these materials behave as well as they do, or why pressure effects Tc in them. Pressure effects Tc in B-C-S materials by raising the energy of small-scale vibrations that would be necessary to break the pairs. Why should pressure effect copper ceramics? No one knows.

The standard theory of superconductivity relies on Cooper pairs of electrons held together by lattice elasticity.  The lighter and stiffer the lattice, the higher temperature the superconductivity.

The standard theory of superconductivity relies on Cooper pairs of electrons held together by lattice elasticity. The lighter and stiffer the lattice, the higher temperature the superconductivity.

The assumption is that high-pressure H2S acts as a sort of metallic hydrogen. From B-C-S theory, metallic hydrogen was predicted to be a room-temperature superconductor because the material would likely to be a semi-metal, and thus a semiconductor at all temperatures. Hydrogen’s low atomic weight would mean that there would be no significant localized vibrations even at room temperature, suggesting room temperature superconductivity. Sorry to say, we have yet to reach the astronomical pressures necessary to make metallic hydrogen, so we don’t know if this prediction is true. But now it seems H2S behaves nearly the same without requiring the extremely high pressures. It is thought that high temperature H2S superconductivity occurs because H2S somewhat decomposes to H3S and S, and that the H3S provides a metallic-hydrogen-like operative lattice. The sulfur, it’s thought, just goes along for the ride. If this is the explanation, we might hope to find the same behaviors in water or phosphine, PH3, perhaps when mixed with H2S.

One last issue, I guess, is what is this high temperature superconductivity good for. As far as H2S superconductivity goes, the simple answer is that it’s probably good for nothing. The pressures are too high. In general though, high temperature superconductors like NbSn are important. They have been valuable for making high strength magnets, and for prosaic applications like long distance power transmission. The big magnets are used for submarine hunting, nuclear fusion, and (potentially) for levitation trains. See my essay on Fusion here, it’s what I did my PhD on — in chemical engineering, and levitation trains, potentially, will revolutionize transport.

Robert Buxbaum, December 24, 2015. My company, REB Research, does a lot with hydrogen. Not that we make superconductors, but we make hydrogen generators and purifiers, and I try to keep up with the relevant hydrogen research.

State bird suggestion: the turkey

state bird stamps; robin cardinal

three US states use the (american) robin as their state bird, and 7 more use the (northern) cardinal. None use the turkey

As things now stand, three states of the union, including Michigan have the robin as their state bird. Another seven have the cardinal. Not that they have different species of robin or cardinal, they use the same species: the American robin, and the Northern cardinal respectively.

A thought I’ve had is that Michigan should change to have a unique bird symbol, and I propose the turkey, in particular the eastern wild turkey shown below. The robin is found in every state of the union except for Hawaii, and is found in several countries, it’s associated with Robin Hood, and with Batman’s side-kick. By contrast, the eastern wild turkey could be a unique state symbol. It’s basically found in no other country besides the US, and found in only a few US states including Michigan.

Eastern Wild Turkey. A majestic bird, and brave Maximum height: 4 foot.

Eastern Wild Turkey. A majestic bird, and brave. Maximum height: 4 foot.

The eastern wild turkey is a far more impressive bird than the cardinal or robin. Full grown, it stands 4 foot tall. Benjamin Franklin claimed to have preferred the turkey (likely the eastern wild turkey) to the eagle as the national bird of the US. In this wonderful letter to his daughter, Sarah, he says that it is a noble bird, useful and the source of sustenance. He also claims it is unafraid to attack a British regimen, claims that also appears in this song, “the egg” in the play/movie 1776. The turkey most definitely provided food for the Indians, for the early European settlers, and still provides for Michigan hunters to this day. Further, turkey feathers are the preferred choice for quill pens. They are used for scribes writing holy works, like copies of the Torah, and it is likely they were used for the declaration of Independence. The same history and associations can not be claimed for the robins or the cardinal. Those birds are basically attractive, and nothing else.

Not that attractive is bad, nor is it bd to have a state bird associated with Batman’s side-kick, or with a Saint Louis baseball team, but I don’t think either is particularly appropriate for Michigan. Not that there are no disadvantages to the name turkey: (1) it might suggest a slow individual or project, and (2) Wild Turkey is the name of a Tennessee bourbon whiskey. Neither of these are quite a bad as being a sidekick to the bat, or to the batman, and I think both are addressed by specifying that the state bird is the eastern wild turkey, and not just some random variety. What say ye, citizens of Michigan? Let’s do it before someone else takes the turkey.

Robert Buxbaum, December 16, 2015.

The french engineering

There is something wonderful about French Engineering. It is good, but different from US or German engineering. The French don’t seem to copy others, and very few others seem to copy them. Nonetheless French engineering managed to build an atom bomb, is a core of the Airbus consortium, and both builds and runs the fastest passenger trains on earth, the TGF, record speed 357 mph on the line between Paris and Luxembourg.

JULY 14, 2015 Students of the Ecole Polytechnique (the most prestigious engineering school in France march in the Paris Bastille Day military parade. commemorating the storming of the Bastille in 1789.  (Photo by Thierry Chesnot/Getty Images).

JULY 14, 2015 Female engineering students of the Ecole Polytechnique, march in the Paris Bastille Day military parade. (Photo by Thierry Chesnot/Getty Images).

France was almost the only country to sell Israel weapons for the first 20 years of its existence, and as odd as the weapons they sold were, they worked. The Mirage jet was noted for short-range and maneuverability; in 1967, they handily defeated Egypt and Syria’s much larger force of Russian Migs. More recently, Argentina used French Exocet missiles to sink 3 British warships in the Argentine war, and last week, Turkey used a french missile to down a Su24, the new main Russian fighter-bomber. not bad for a country whose main engineering school marches in Napoleonic garb.

The classic of French Engineering, of course is the Eiffel Tower. It is generally unappreciated that this is not the only Eiffel structure designed this way. Eiffel designed railroad bridges, aqueducts. Here’s an Eiffel railroad bridge.

Eiffel railroad bridge, still in use

Eiffel railroad bridge, still in use. American, German, or British bridges of the era look nothing like this.

To get a sense of the engineering artistry of the Eifflel tower, consider that when the tower was built, in 1871, self-financed by Eiffel, it was more than twice as tall as the next-tallest building on earth. ff one weighed the air in a cylinder the height of the tower with a circle about its base, the air would weigh more than the steel of the tower. But here are some other random observations, while first level of the tower houses a restaurant, a normal American space-use choice,the second level housed, when the tower opened the print shop and offices of the International Herald Tribune; not a normal tenant. And, on the third level, near the very top, you will find Mr Eiffel’s apartment. The builder lived there; he owned the place. It’s still there today, but now there are now only mannequins in residence. It’s weird, but genius, like so much that is French engineering.

Eiffel's apartment atop the tower, now occupied by mannequins of Eiffel and Edison, a one-time guest.

Eiffel’s apartment atop the tower, now occupied by mannequins of Eiffel and Edison, a one-time guest.

Returning to the French airplane, The french were the first to make mono-planes. But having succeeded there, they made a decent-enough plane-like automobile, the 1932 Helicon car. It’s a three-man car with a propeller out front and rear-wheel steering. At first, you’d think this is a slow, unmanageable, deathtrap, like Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion,.  But you’d be wrong, the Helicon (apparently) is both speedy and safe it moves at 100 mph or more once it gets going, still passed French safety standards in 2000, and gets taken out for (semi-normal) jaunts. Don’t stand in front of the propeller (there’s a bicycle version too).

1932 Helicon; seats 3, rear staring, propeller-driven. Normal-ish. Photo by Yalon.

1932 Helicon car; 100 mph, seats 3, propeller-driven. Photo by Yalon.

The Helicon never quite took off, as it were, but an odd design motorcycle did quite well, at least in France, the Solex, front wheel motorcycle.Unlike US motorcycles, it’s just a bicycle with an engine above the front wheels. The engine runs “backwards” and drives the front wheel via a friction-cam. The only clutch action involves engaging the cam. Simple, elegant, and unlikely to be duplicated elsewhere.

A French Solex motorcycles, and an e-Solex. The e-Solex uses a battery.

A Solex motorcycle and an e-Solex, the battery-powered version. A Citroen and a Peugeot sport are in the background. Popular in France.

The reason I’m writing about French Engineering is perhaps because of the recent attacks. Or perhaps because of aesthetic. It’s important to have an engineering aesthetic — an idea you’re after — and to have pride in one’s craft too. The French stand out in how much they have of both. Some months ago I wrote about a more American engineering aesthetic, It’s a good article, but interestingly, I now note that some main examples I used were semi-French: the gunpowder factory of E. I. Dupont, the main productions facility of a Frenchman’s company in the US.

Robert Buxbaum, December 13, 2015. Some months ago, I wrote about a favorite car engine, finally being used on the Fiat 500 and Alfa Romeo. Fast, energy-efficient, light, maneuverable, and (I suspect) unreliable; the engine embodies a particularly Italian engineering aesthetic.

Chemical engineers and boilers, ‘I do anything’

One of the problems I run into trying to hire chemical engineers is that their background is so varied that they imagine they can do anything. Combine this with a willingness to try to do anything, and the job interview can go like this.

Me: You have a great resume. I suppose you know that our company is a leader in hydrogen engineering (in my case). Tell me, what do you see yourself doing at our company?

Engineer: I don’t know. I do anything and everything.

Me: That covers a lot of ground. Is there something that you do particularly well, or that you would particularly like to do here?

Engineer.: Anything, really.

Me: Do you see yourself making coffee?

Engineer: I could do that, but was thinking of something with more … responsibility.

Me: OK. Could you design and build a 5 kW, gas-fired boiler?

Engineer: Himm. How much coffee did you say you guys drink?

Current version of our H2 generators (simplified) and the combustion-heated modification I'm working on.

Current version of our H2 generators (simplified) and the combustion-heated modification I’m working on.

Not quite where I was going with that. The relevance of this joke is that I’m finally getting around to redesigning our hydrogen generators so that they are heated by waste-gas combustion instead of electricity. That was the plan originally, and it appears in almost all of my patents. But electricity is so easy to deal with and control that all REB generators have been heated this way, even the largest.

The current and revised processes are shown in the figure at right. Our general process is to make ultra pure hydrogen from methanol and water in one step by the following reaction:

CH3OH + H2O –> CO2  + 3 H2.

done in a membrane reactor (see advantages). My current thought is to make the first combustion heated hydrogen generator have an output about 2/3 as large as our largest. That is, to produce 100 scfh, or 50 slpm, or 6 kg of H2/ day. This could be advantageous for people trying to fuel fork lifts or a hybrid, fuel cell car; a car could easily carry 12 kg of hydrogen, allowing it to go an extra 300 miles.

The generator with this output will need a methanol-water feed rate of about 2/3 gal per hour (about 80¢/worth pre hour), and will need a heat rate of 2.5 to 3 kW. A key design issue is that I have to be sure not to extract too much energy value from the feed because, if there’s not enough energy in the waste gas, the fire could go out. That is, nearly pure CO2 doesn’t burn. Alternately, if there is too much flow to the flame or too much energy content, there might be over-heating. In order to avoid the flame going out, I have a pilot flame that turns off the flow if it goes out. I also plan to provide 30% or so of the reactor heat about 800 W, by burning non-wast gas, natural gas in this iteration. My plan is to use this flow to provide most of the temperature control, but to provide secondary control by (and safety) by venting some of the off-gas if the reactor gets hotter than a set limit. Early experiments suggest it should work.

The business side of this is still unknown. Perhaps this would provide military power or cabins in the woods. Perhaps ship-board auxiliary power or balloons, or hydrogen fueling stations, or perhaps it will be used for chemical applicationsWith luck, it’ll sell to someone who needs hydrogen.

Robert E. Buxbaum. December 4, 2015. By the way, hydrogen isn’t as flammable as you might think.

Air swimmer at REB Research

Birds got to swim and fish got to fly. Gonna love that hydrogen till the day I die. Here’s a movie of our hydrogen-filled air swimmer, a fish-blimp at REB Research. My hope is that this thing will help us sell hydrogen generators — perhaps to folks who fly military balloons, or those who fly hydrogen balloons for sport. On the other hand, the swimmer is a lot of fun to play with — and I got to show it off to a first grade class!

Aside from balloon fliers, military and otherwise, the sort of customers I’d hoped to attract were those building fueling stations for fuel cell cars or drone airplanes, and those running multiple gas chromatographs or adding hydrogen to car or diesel engine. Even small amounts of hydrogen added to a standard engine will reduce pollution significantly, add raise mileage too: a plus for a company like VW.

Dr. Robert E. Buxbaum, December 2, 2015. I should mention that hydrogen balloons are no where near as unsafe as people think. Here’s a movie I made of lighting a hydrogen filled balloon with a cigar.