Monthly Archives: January 2016

How to help Flint and avoid lead here.

As most folks know, Flint has a lead-poisoning problem that seems to have begun in April, 2014 when the city switched its water supply from Detroit-supplied, Lake Huron water to their own plant pulling water from the Flint River. Here are some thoughts on how to help the affected population, and how to avoid a repeat in Oakland county, where I’m running for water commissioner. First observation, it is not enough to make sure that source water does not contain lead. The people who decided on the switch had found that the Flint river water had no significant lead or other obvious toxins. A key problem, it seems: the river water did not contain anticorrosion phosphates, and none, it seems, were added by the Flint water folks. After the switch, citizens started seeing disgusting, brown water come from their taps, and citizens with lead pipes or solder were poisoned with ppb-levels of lead.

Flint water, Sept 2015, before switching back to Lake Huron.

Flint water after 5 hours of flushing, Sept 2015, before switching back to Lake Huron.

The city switched back to Detroit-supplied, Lake Huron water in October, 2015, and they started adding triple doses of phosphates to the water in December. As a result, Flint tap-water is now back within EPA standards, but it’s still likely unsafe, see here for more details.

There has been a fair amount of finger-pointing. At Detroit for raising the price of water so Flint had to switch, at workers for ignoring the early signs of lead, at other employees for not adding the additive, and at “the system” for not caring, or providing Flint with decent infrastructure. I suspect that a lot of the problem is ignorance in the water commission. We elect our water commissioners, and folks seem to pick them the same way we pick presidents: for a nice smile, a great handshake, and an ability to remember names. That, anyway, seems to be the way that Oakland got its current water commissioner. When you pick your commissioner that way, it’s no surprise that he (or she) isn’t particularly sensitive to corrosion, an invisible chemical phenomenon that few people understand.

Flint river water contains corrosive chloride. Contributing to the corrosion problem, I’m going to guess that Flint River water also contains an industrial chelating chemical used in plating, EDTA in 10s of ppb concentrations. EDTA isn’t poisonous at these concentrations, but it’s the most commonly used antidote for lead poisoning and commonly used in industry. At these concentrations, EDTA extracts lead and other metals from people and I’m going to guess that this same chemical, or something very similar, contributed to the process that extracted lead and iron oxide from the pipes. With EDTA in the water, no amount of phosphate would avoid or solve the lead poisoning problem.

Detroit ex-mayor Kwame Kilpatrick has claimed that both Flint water and Detroit water were known to be poisoned even a decade before the switch. I find these claims believable given the high levels of lead in kids blood even before the switch. Also, I note that there are areas of Detroit where the blood-lead levels are higher than Flint. Flint did not test at the taps in a scientifically acceptable way during the first days of the poisoning, and neither, I suspect, do many of our MI cities today. My first suggestion therefore is to test correctly, both at the pipes and at the taps; lead pipes are most-often found in the last few feet before the tap. In particular, we should test at all schools and other places where the state has direct authorization to fix the problem. A MI senate bill has been proposed to this effect, but I’m not sure where it stands in the MI house. It seems there are movements to add lots of ‘riders’ and that’s usually a bad sign.

Another thought is that citizens should be encouraged to test their private taps and helped to fix them. The state can’t come in and test or rip out your private pipes, even if they suspect lead, but the private owner has that authorization. The state could condemn a private property where they believe the water is bad, but I doubt they could evict the residents. It’s a democratic republic, as I understand; you have the right to be deadly stupid. But I’ll take my own suggestion to encourage you: If you think your water has lead, take a sample and call (517) 335-8184. Do it.

Another suggestion, perhaps the easiest and most important, is to provide an antidote. The main antidotes for lead are chelating compounds, and we’re already providing bottles of imported water. Why not provide some of the water with compounds that help extract lead from people. And here I have an interesting thought. Assuming I am right that Flint River water had enough EDTA to cause/ worsen the problem, the cheapest/ best antidote might be Flint River water. You’d want to draw the water with plastic pipes and chlorinate it to rid it of bugs, but if there is EDTA it will help the poisoned. EDTA is a known lead-poisoning antidote. Another antidote is Succinct acid, something sold by REB Research, my company. There are other antidotes too, but wouldn’t it be cool if Flint river water worked?

Robert E. Buxbaum, January 19-31, 2016. I hope this helps. We’d have to check Flint River water for levels of EDTA, but I suspect we’d find it at 50 ppb, or so, a biologically significant concentration. If you think Oakland should have an engineer in charge of the water, elect Buxbaum for water commissioner.

Abraham ROFLed; Sarah LOLed.

Something is lost, and something else gained when the Bible is translated into modern terms. Some grandeur is lost, some weight, but what is gained is a sense of intimacy, a personal relationship to the events and people.

Consider, for example, Abraham’s reaction when God reveals that he will have a son (Gen. 17:17). The King James translation is “Abraham fell facedown; he laughed and said to himself, “Will a son be born to a man a hundred years old? Will Sarah bear a child at the age of ninety?” There’s grandeur, but the event is distant from me.

Similarly, The Living Torah, “Then Abraham bowed down to the ground, but he laughed to himself in disbelief. ‘How could I become a father at the age of 100?’ he thought. ‘And how can Sarah have a baby when she is ninety years old?'”

I don’t find this translation relatable either. To me, it would be better to say that Abraham did the first ROTFL (Roll on the floor laughing): “Abraham ROFLed, how grand to have a son at 100 years…” It brings up a pleasant image: of Abraham as a man of red face and good humor, a hearty companion, and a good host. Someone you’d want to visit, not a stick-in-the-mud who you visit because he owns the last hotel on the road to Sodom.

Not totally the way I see it: Sarah looks stunned, but at least this captures a jolly Abraham.

Not totally the way I see it: Sarah looks stunned, but at least this captures a jolly Abraham.

And the same with Abraham’s wife, Sarah. Her home is full of dusty tourist guests, and she feeds them steak. Do you see a silent martyr, or a jolly sort who genuinely likes guests. This is important because we are to learn from these stories, Too often the doctors of the religion seem to want martyrs, but my read of Genesis is that sh’s jolly.. Sarah listens to the tales of her guests, and when one says she will have a child at 90, she LOLs (laughs out loud, Gen. 18:12) “So Sarah laughed to herself as she thought, ‘I’m old and my husband is too, will I have fun!” If God wants something weird Sarah is up for it. To her, it sounds like fun. And after that, “Will I nurse a child?!.”

I note that these are the paradigms of humanity, individuals that God loved, and spoke to at length. So lets do the same, be open to the positive, weird future, wherever God takes us. Let’s behave as God himself does. For, as we find Psalms (2:4), “He, who sits in the heavens, laughs; He mocks those who plan against HIm.” Now, ask the doctors of your religion, why are you so serious, when “He, who sits in the heavens, laughs”

Robert E. Buxbaum, January 12, 2016. This is my third essay on religion, all of them, I guess on the lighter side. In the first, I note that science and religion are opposites, In the follow-up, that secular philosophy and religion are uncomfortable competitors, and now that God likes the jolly (you probably prefer the jolly, too.)

The Hindenburg: mainly the skin burnt

The 1937 Hindenburg disaster is often mentioned as proof that hydrogen is too flammable and dangerous for commercial use. Well hydrogen is flammable, and while the Hindenburg was full of hydrogen when it started burning, but a look at a color photograph of the fire ( below), or at the B+W  Newsreel film of the fire, suggests that it is not the hydrogen burning, but the skin of the zeppelin and the fuel. Note the red color of the majority flame, and note the black smoke. Hydrogen fires are typically invisible or very light blue, and hydrogen fires produce no smoke.

Closeup of the Hindenburg burning. It is the skin that burns, not the gaseous hydrogen

Closeup of the Hindenburg burning. It is the skin and gasoline that burns, not the gaseous hydrogen.

The Hindenburg was not a simple hydrogen balloon either. It was a 15 story tall airship with state-rooms, a dining room and an observation deck. It carried 95 or so passengers and crew. There was plenty of stuff to burn besides hydrogen. Nor could you say that a simple spark had set things off. The Hindenburg crossed the ocean often: every 2 1/2 days. Lightning strikes were common, as were “Saint Elmo’s fire,” and static electricity discharges. And passengers smoked onboard. Holes and leaks in the skin were also common, both on the Hindenburg and on earlier airships. The hydrogen-filled, Graf Zeppelin logged over 1 million flight miles and over 500 trips with no fires. And it’s not like helium-filled zeppelins and blimps are much safer. The photo below shows the fire and crash of a helium-filled Goodyear blimp, “Spirit of Safety”, June, 2011. Hydrogen has such a very high thermal conductivity that it is nearly as hard to light as helium. I recently made this video where I insert a lit cigar into a balloon filled with hydrogen. There is no fire, but the cigar goes out.  In technical terms, hydrogen is said to have a low upper combustion limit.

Helium-filled goodyear blimp catches fire and burns to destruction.

Helium-filled goodyear blimp “spirit of safety” catches fire and burns before crashing. It’s not the helium burning.

The particular problem with the Hindenburg seems to have been its paint, skin and fuel, the same problems as caused the fire aboard the “Spirit of Safety.” The skin of the Hindenburg was cotton, coated with a resin-dope paint that contained particles of aluminum and iron-oxide to help conduct static electricity. This combination is very flammable, essentially rocket fuel, and the German paint company went on to make rocket fuel of a similar composition for the V2 rockets. And the fuel was flammable too: gasoline. The pictures of the Hindenburg disaster suggest (to me) that it is the paint and the underlying cotton skin that burned, or perhaps the fuel. A similar cause seems to have beset the “Spirit of Safety.” For the Hindenburg’s replacement, The Graf II, the paint composition was changed to replace the aluminum powder with graphite – bronze, a far less flammable mixture, and more electrically conductive. Sorry to say, there was no reasonably alternative to gasoline. To this day, much of sport ballooning is done with hydrogen; statistically it appears no more dangerous than hot air ballooning.

It is possible that the start of the fire was a splash of gasoline when the Hindenburg made a bumpy contact with the ground. Another possibility is sabotage, the cause in a popular movie (see here), or perhaps an electric spark. According to Aviation Week, gasoline spoiled on a hot surface was the cause of the “Spirit of Safety fire,” and the Hindenburg disaster looks suspiciously similar. If that’s the case, of course, the lesson of the Hindenburg disaster is reversed. For safety, use hydrogen, and avoid gasoline.

Dr. Robert E. Buxbaum, January 8, 2016. My company, REB Research, makes hydrogen generators, and other hydrogen equipment. If you need hydrogen for weather balloons, or sport ballooning, or for fuel cells, give us a call.

Advanced windmills + 20 years = field of junk

Everything wears out. This can be a comforting or a depressing thought, but it’s a truth. No old mistake, however egregious, lasts forever, and no bold advance avoids decay. At best, last year’s advance will pay for itself with interest, will wear out gracefully, and will be recalled fondly by aficionados after it’s replaced by something better. Water wheels, and early steamships are examples of this type of bold advance. Unfortunately, it is often the case that last years innovation turns out to be no advance at all: a technological dead end that never pays for itself, and becomes a dangerous, rotting eyesore or worse, a laughing-stock blot or a blot on the ecology. Our first two generations of advanced windmill farms seem to match this description; perhaps the next generation will be better, but here are some thoughts on lessons learned from the existing fields of rotting windmills.

The ancient design windmills of Don Quixote’s Spain (1300?) were boons. Farmers used them to grind grain or cut wood, and to to pump drinking water. Holland used similar early windmills to drain their land. So several American presidents came to believe advanced design windmills would be similar boons if used for continuous electric power generation. It didn’t work, and many of the problems could have been seen at the start. While the farmer didn’t care when his water was pumped, or when his wood is cut. When you’re generating electricity, there is a need to match the power demand exactly. Whenever the customer turns on the switch, electricity is expected to flow at the appropriate amount of Wattage; at other times any power generated is a waste or a nuisance. But electric generator-windmills do not produce power on demand, they produce power when the wind blows. The mismatch of wind and electric demand has bedeviled windmill reliability and economic return. It will likely continue to do so until we find a good way to store electric power cheaply. Until then windmills will not be able to produce electricity at competitive prices to compete with cheap coal and nuclear power.

There is also the problem of repair. The old windmills of Holland still turn a century later because they were relatively robust, and relatively easy to maintain. The modern windmills of the US stand much taller and move much faster. They are often hit, and damaged by lightning strikes, and their fast-turning gears tend to wear out fast, Once damaged, modern windmills are not readily fix, They are made of advanced fiberglass materials spun on special molds. Worse yet, they are constructed in mountainous, remote locations. Such blades can not be replaces by amateurs, and even the gears are not readily accessed to repair. More than half of the great power-windmills built in the last 35 years have worn out and are unlikely to ever get repair. Driving past, you see fields of them sitting idle; the ones still turning look like they will wear out soon. The companies that made and installed these behemoth are mostly out of the business, so there is no-one there to take them down even if there were an economic incentive to do so. Even where a company is found to fix the old windmills, no one would as there is not sufficient economic return — the electricity is worth less than the repair.

Komoa Wind Farm in Kona, Hawaii June 2010; Friends of Grand Ronde Valley.

Komoa Wind Farm in Kona, Hawaii, June 2010; A field of modern design wind-turbines already ruined by wear, wind, and lightning. — Friends of Grand Ronde Valley.

A single rusting windmill would be bad enough, but modern wind turbines were put up as wind farms with nominal power production targeted to match the output of small coal-fired generators. These wind farms require a lot of area,  covering many square miles along some of the most beautiful mountain ranges and ridges — places chosen because the wind was strong

Putting up these massive farms of windmills lead to a situation where the government had pay for construction of the project, and often where the government provided the land. This, generous spending gives the taxpayer the risk, and often a political gain — generally to a contributor. But there is very little political gain in paying for the repair or removal of the windmills. And since the electricity value is less than the repair cost, the owners (friends of the politician) generally leave the broken hulks to sit and rot. Politicians don’t like to pay to fix their past mistakes as it undermines their next boondoggle, suggesting it will someday rust apart without ever paying for itself.

So what can be done. I wish I could suggest less arrogance and political corruption, but I see no way to achieve that, as the poet wrote about Ozymandias (Ramses II) and his disastrous building projects, the leader inevitably believes: “I am Ozymandias, king of kings; look on my works ye mighty and despair.” So I’ll propose some other, less ambitious ideas. For one, smaller demonstration projects closer to the customer. First see if a single windmill pays for itself, and only then build a second. Also, electricity storage is absolutely key. I think it is worthwhile to store excess wind power as hydrogen (hydrogen storage is far cheaper than batteries), and the thermodynamics are not bad

Robert E. Buxbaum, January 3, 2016. These comments are not entirely altruistic. I own a company that makes hydrogen generators and hydrogen purifiers. If the government were to take my suggestions I would benefit.