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June 14. First Bourbon whiskey

On this day, June 14 1789, whiskey was distilled for the first time from maize (corn) by Rev Elijah Craig . He named his product “Bourbon whiskey” as a reference to his home in Bourbon County, Kentucky. Until the innovation of the Rev Craig, US whiskey was made mostly from rye, usually with some malted barley added as an enzymatic modifier for the rye starch. George Washington, the first US president, made whiskey from rye this way, becoming the largest distiller in the US in the late 1700s. He used very little malt.

For reasons that are not at all clear, consumption of Bourbon whiskey has far surpassed that of rye whiskey in the US. Here, Senator Mitch McConnell tells congress about the spirit of Kentucky, Bourbon whiskey. And here is his speech set to music along with other news of the day, and a comment by President Obama saying he’d enjoy having a drink with Senator McConnell. What would that drink be? I’ll guess a mint julep, the classic Kentucky concoction, typically made with Bourbon, sugar, and spearmint.

On the topic, I should mention that the favorite drink of Lyndon B. Johnson, was Bourbon and branch water. And that Theodore Roosevelt served mint juleps at The White house (if you played tennis with him) using his own, White-house grown mint, but that Theodore Roosevelt made his mint juleps with rye, not Bourbon. June 14th is also flag day (though only celebrated in Pennsylvania), and the day of the mutiny on the HMS Bounty, and the day of the Marijuana act, 1937. Hawaii joined the union this day, and Paris fell in WWII.

GWKuhn outflow point. During a storm this outflow is filled to the roof.

GWKuhn outflow point. During a storm this outflow is filled to the roof.

Robert Buxbaum, June 14, 2016. This is also the day I got to see the George W. Kuhn sewage retention facility. A few days ago, I walked into the outflow pipe, some 60 feet wide by 22 feet tall. –> see picture. Among the things I was looking for were convenient connection points i could use to separate the storm from the sanitary sewage flow through the facility. Some months ago, I suggested that Michigan might change its state bird to the wild turkey.

Stories of Jewish charity

Before Passover this year, an individual went to the rabbi of our town for a private meeting to tell him about the problems facing various people. He said, there was one particularly pathetic case where a family could lose their house. They had borrowed $5000 from a particularly nasty lender who would throw them out in the cold if they didn’t pay up soon.

Our rabbi was touched, and said he would do what he could to raise the sum. He would even contribute $100 of his own. As the fellow left, he had just one question, ‘How do you come to know this is going on? Are you a relative, or particularly close friend?” “No,” said the guest, “I’m the lender.”


Another story of Jewish charity: a neighbor of ours takes incredible care of her husband, She spends quite a lot, regularly to get his nails done professionally. She says it’s worth it to know that his coffin is secure.

Finally, I must admit that I’d wanted to marry my ex-wife, who I had divorced previously — sort of an act of kindness. But she would have none of it. My ex said I was only marrying her for my money.

Robert E. Buxbaum. October 23, 2015

A day of thanksgiving during the civil war

At the height of the civil war, Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a day of thanksgiving for the last Thursday of November, 1863. It’s the first time Thanksgiving was proclaimed for the date we now keep every year. The war was not going well. The Union defeat at Chickamauga, Sept. 19-20 1863, left 35,000 dead, the bloodiest two days in US history. Most citizens would have called for a day of fasting and prayer, but in Lincoln’s view, things were good, and there was a need for joy and thanksgiving:

“to thank the Almighty God” …for.. “the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies… “for peace that…. “has been preserved with all nations.” [That] “harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict….  “a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens”…. and for … “the care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife.”  (see the whole proclamation here.)

A Civil War Thanksgiving. It's fellowship that makes peace possible.

A Civil War Thanksgiving. It’s fellowship that makes peace possible.

His was an interesting view, as important then as now. There is a need to remember that the good we have is more than the bad, and that there is a source of the good. As of today (2015) the economy is good in Michigan and the US. We are at peace with our neighbors and have civil obedience in our streets; we have food on our tables and clothes on our backs. We have cleaner air and cleaner water than in decades, blue skies, and plentiful rain. The ozone hole has shrunk, and global warming seems to have stopped. We have so much food that hardly anyone in our country suffers starvation, but only the hunger for finer, fancy things. We have roads without bandits, lighting at the flip of a switch, water at the turn of a tap, indoor heat, and (for most) indoor cooling in the summer. We have telephone communication, and radio, and television, and music at our fingertips. We have libraries with books, and free childhood education. We have a voice in our government, and information from the far ends of the earth. All these call for joy and thanksgiving.

And we can even find a cause for thanks in the things we don’t have: space travel and the diseases we can’t cure, for example. The things we don’t have provide a reason to wake up in the morning, and a motivation to do great things. We live in a country where we can change things, and it’s nice to know there are things worth changing. For ideas that lack expression, we can provide it. For diseases, we can still search for a cure. For those who lack happiness and friendship, we can help provide both (a joyful celebration is a good occasion to do so). For those who lack a job, we can help. And to those who feel a lack of meaning in life, perhaps the best answer is a celebration to explore the source of all blessings. Let us reach out to “all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers.” A lesson Scrooge learned from the ghosts is that joy and generous celebration are self-sustaining and attractive. Let joy and good fellowship extend to all. God Bless us each and every one.

Robert Buxbaum, Detroit, November 18, 2015, The anniversary of Lincoln’s Gettysburg address is tomorrow, Nov. 19th (it wasn’t well received). As for Black Friday shopping, lets not get up from the table of thanks to jostle each other for some useless trinket.

Lets make a Northwest Passage

The Northwest passage opened briefly last year, and the two years before allowing some minimal shipping between the Atlantic and the Pacific by way of the Arctic ocean, but was closed in 2013 because there was too much ice. I’ve a business / commercial thought though: we could make a semi-permanent northwest passage if we dredged a canal across the Bootha peninsula at Taloyoak, Nunavut (Canada).Map of Northern Canada showing cities and the Perry Channel, the current Northwest passage. A canal north of the Bootha Peninsula would seem worthwhile.

Map of Northern Canada showing cities and the Perry Channel, the current Northwest passage. A canal north or south of the Bootha Peninsula would seem worthwhile.



As things currently stand, ships must sail 500 miles north of Taloyoak, and traverse the Parry Channel. Shown below is a picture of ice levels in August 2012 and 2013. The proposed channels could have been kept open even in 2013 providing a route for valuable shipping commerce. As a cheaper alternative, one could maintain the Hudson Bay trading channel at Fort Ross, between the Bootha Peninsula and Somerset Island. This is about 250 miles north of Taloyoak, but still 250 miles south of the current route.

Arctic Ice August 2012-2013; both Taloyoak and Igloolik appear open this year.

The NW passage was open by way of the Perry Channel north of Somerset Island and Baffin Island in 2012, but not 2013. The proposed channels could have been kept open even this year.

Dr. Robert E. Buxbaum, October 2013. Here are some random thoughts on Canadian crime, the true north, and the Canadian pastime (Ice fishing).

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)

Hydrogen Cylinders versus Hydrogen Generators for Gas Chromatography

Hydrogen is an excellent cover gas for furnace brazing and electronic manufacture; it’s used as a carrier gas for gas chromatography or as a flame-detector gas, and it’s a generally interesting gas for chemical formation and alternate energy. If you are working in one of these fields you’ve got two maing options for sources of hydrogen: hydrogen cylinders and hydrogen generators with the maid difference being cost. Cylinder hydrogen is the more-commonly used for small demand applications, often aided by palladium membrane hydrogen purifiers if purity is an issue. Hydrogen generators are more generally used for larger -demand applications because they provide added safety, conveinience, and long-term savings. Having nothing better to do this evening, I thought I’d go through the benefits and drawbacks of each as applies to gas chromatography.

Point of use Cylinder Hydrogen Is Simple and Allows Easy Monitoring and Control. The smallest laboratories, those with one or two gas chromatographs, generally use a single hydrogen cylinder for each GC. This is called “point of use.” Each cylinder is typically belted to a wall and often fed into some type of hydrogen purifier (a getter or membrane). From there it supplies carrier and/or fuel gas to its application. When a cylinder is empty, the application is stopped, and the purifier is often stopped too (not necessary with membranes). A new cylinder switched in and, after a short break in period, the process is restarted. The biggest advantage here is simplicity; another advantage is the ease of pressure control and monitoring. Pressure is controlled by a regulator located right at the gas chromatograph. You can always check it and adjust it as needed. A main disadvantage is that the process has to stop whenever a cylinder needs switching.

Multi-cylinder Systems Provide Fewer interruptions in Gas Supply. Larger laboratories with multiple GCs tend to use multiple hydrogen cylinders with complex switchover systems, or hydrogen generators. When multiple cylinders are used, they are typically racked together and connected to a manifold and a purifier. Tanks are emptied in series so that there is no disruption. When each take empties, the hydrogen tank is switched automatically or manually to maintain the flow and pressure. One problem with this is that the pressure does not typically stay constant as the cylinders switch since each has its own regulator and all will be set slightly differently. As the hydrogen cylinders have separate regulators, there can be pressure changes during cylinder switches; and, as the packs are located further from the GC there is a tendency for the pressure to vary as the flow varies.

Another issue with cylinder packs is that purity can suffer as there is more room for leaks and degassing in the line. This can be solved by point-of-use purifiers installed in the hydrogen lines just prior to the GC or other application.

A final issue with cylinder packs is safety: with so many cylinders, there is a lot of potential for really disastrous leaks and fires: one leak can empty many cylinders and there is no likely room that is big enough to disperse that hydrogen quickly enough. The potential is made greater since the cylinder packs are often located at a distance from where the experiments (and people) are. Maintenence becomes an issue too since the manifolds and automatic switches become complicated quickly. The hydrogen is under great pressure, and even if fires are avoided, a pressure release can be deadly. Manifolds are complex enough that they generally require a trained technician to trouble-shoot any problems; it can also take an expert to handle multiple cylinder changes to minimize contamination and pressure variation.

A main advantage of hydrogen generators is that it avoids cylinder changes; it’s also somewhat safer and saves money for larger users. Changing cylinders can be difficult and time consuming as mentioned above; hydrogen bottles must be monitored to check that gas does not run out, and you’ve got to make sure that cylinders don’t fall (especially on you), and that leaks don’t arise, and that explosive hydrogen does not escape. Much of this is alleviated with a hydrogen generator. One can have a very large tank of water or methanol — far larger than any reasonably safe gas tank, so running out is less of a problem. In some systems, the water can come from municipal pipes so there is almost no chance of running out.

Safety is provided by limiting the output of the generator to the amount the room will vent. Thus, a room with 100 ft3 of air circulation can host a hydrogen generator of up to 4.5 scfh output (about 2 slpm) with no fear of reaching explosive limits. Further, unlike cylinders, most hydrogen generators can be fitted with alarm features to alert the user to operating problems, and most have automatic shut down capabilities that trigger if the unit malfunctions. All of these factors contribute greatly to the overall safety of in the lab.

Another advantage is that methanol and water are a lot cheaper than hydrogen and there is no switchover system, cylinder rental, and less manpower need (cylinder rental cost is often greater than the cost of gas). The first cost of the generator is typically on the order of $10,000, similar to the cost of a manifold switchover system and a hydrogen purifier.

The Source Options for High purity hydrogen generators are electrolysis and methanol reformer generators. These are virtually the only continuous use hydrogen generators. They are both available in outputs from 150 ccm to 50 slpm, i.e. enough to supply single or multiple GC’s (also used for modest-sized braze furnaces, IC tool production, and laboratory-scale fuel cell testing). All hydrogen generators provide continuous hydrogen outputs as feed water or methanol is provided upstream of the hydrogen output, and they all offer safety advantages. They all take less space than the cylinders and avoid the leaks and impurity spikes that arise when cylinders are switched.

In Electrolytic Hydrogen generators Purified water, either purchased separately, or purified on-site is mixed with an electrolyte, generally KOH, and converted to hydrogen and oxygen by the electrolytic reaction H2O –> H2 + ½ O2.  As the hydrogen produced is generally “wet”, containing water vapor, the hydrogen is then purified by use of a desiccant, or by passage through a metal membrane purifier. Desiccants are cheaper, but the gas is at best 99.9% pure, good enough to feed FIDs, but not good enough to be used as a carrier gas, or for chemical production. Over time desiccants wear out; they require constant monitoring and changing as they become filled with water vapor. Often electrolytic hydrogen generators also require the addition of a caustic electrolyte solution as caustic can leak out, or leave by corrosion mechanisms.

In Reformer-based hydrogen generators a methanol-water mix is pumped to about 300 psi and heated to about 350 °C. It is then sent over a catalyst where it is converted to a hydrogen-containing gas-mix by the reaction CH3OH + H2O –> 3H2 + CO2. Pure hydrogen is extracted from the gas mix by passing it through a membrane, either within the reactor (a membrane reactor), or by use of a membrane purifier external to the reactor.

Both systems provide continuous gas supply of high purity gas. The need to change and store cylinders is eliminated, saving time and cost. One adds water or methanol-water as needed, and hydrogen is produced as long as there is electricity in the lab. Eliminating cylinder changeouts reduces downtime and minimizes the potential for air contamination.

Consistent gas purity is enhanced further because hydrogen generators often contain metal membranes. Hydrogen is delivered at  99.9999% purity, and remains constant over time. This consistent purity provides reliability for the GC system. Electrolysis systems with only a desiccant to remove water vapor from the hydrogen should be used only where high hydrogen purity less important than high hydrogen pressure. Even with a fresh cartridge, desiccant-purified gas never exceeds 99.9% and this purity decreases with time as the desiccant wears out; if purity is an issue add a membrane purifier, or use a methanol reformer.

Single cylinders are quite compact; where many cylinders would be needed space saving favors use of a generator. The relatively small size of hydrogen generators allows them to be conveniently located on the lab bench; they consume a lot of valuable lab and storage space than multiple cylinders. Related to space savings is zoning. Once you have many cylinders, you begin to run into zoning issues regarding how close your laboratory can be to bus stops, churches, and children. Zoning can limit distances to 500 feet, or 1/10 mile.

Short term cost savings favor cylinders; long term and large outputs favor generators. Hydrogen in cylinders is fairly expensive, the more so when cylinder rental is included. In Detroit, where we are, hydrogen costs about $70 each cylinder low low-purity gas, or $200 for high purity gas. Each cylinder contains 135 scf of gas. If you use 1/10 cylinder per day, you will find you’re spending about $7,300 per year on hydrogen gas, with another $1000 spent on cylinder rental and delivery. This is about the cost of a comparable hydrogen generator plus the water or methanol and electricity run it. If you use significantly less hydrogen you save money with cylinders, if you use more there is significant savings with a generator.

Most hydrogen generators have delivery pressure limitations compared to cylinders. Cylinders have no problem supplying hydrogen at 200 psi or greater pressures. By contrast, generators are limited to only the 60-150 psig range only. This pressure limitation is not likely to be a problem, even for GCs that need higher pressure gas or when the generator must be located far from the  instruments, but you have to be aware of the issue when buying the generator. Electrolysis systems that use caustic provide the highest pressures, but they tend to be the most expensive, and least safe as the operate hot and caustic can drip out. Fuel cell generators and reformers provide lower pressure gas (90 psi maximum, typically), but they are safer. In general generators should be located close to the instruments to minimize supply line pressure drop. If necessary it can pay to use cylinders and generators or several generators to provide a range of delivery pressures and a shorter distance between the hydrogen generator and the application.

Click here for the prices of REB Research hydrogen generators. By comparison, I’ve attached prices for electrolysis-based hydrogen generators here (it’s 2007 data; please check the company yourself for current prices). Finally, the price of membrane purifiers is listed here.

Maintenance required for optimal performance. Often electrolytic hydrogen generators require the addition of a caustic electrolyte solution; desiccant purified gas will require the monitoring and changing of desiccant cartridges to remove residual moisture from the hydrogen. Palladium membrane purifiers systems, and reformer systems need replacement thermocouples and heaters every few years. Understanding the required operating and maintenance procedures is an important part of making an informed decision.


Cylinder hydrogen supplies are the simplest sources for labs but present a safety, cost, and handling concerns, particularly associated with cylinder change-outs. Generators tend to be more up-front expensive than cylinders but offer safety benefits as well as benefits of continuous supply and consistent purity. They are particularly attractive alternative for larger labs where large hydrogen supply can present larger safety risks, and larger operating costs.

True (magnetic) north

Much of my wife’s family is Canadian, so I keep an uncommon interest in Canada — for an American. This is to say, I think about it once a month or so, more often during hockey season. So here is a semi-interesting factoid:

The magnetic north pole, the “true north” has been moving northwest for some time, but the rate has increased over the last few decades as the picture shows. It has now left the northern Canadian islands, so Canada is no longer “The true north, strong and free.” (It seems to be strong and free). True north  is now moving northwest, toward Siberia. true magnetic north heading to Russia