Mad Science #6: Nazi Fusion Fraud

I can’t believe I’ve never come across this story.   An actual Nazi scientist, Ronald Richter, was working on an actual super-technology, lithium-hydrogen nuclear fusion, in an actual secret lair, the island of Huemul, surrounded by razor wire, machine guns, and patrol boats.  All of this in Argentina! And it used a spectacular technique, shock waves in plasma arcs, that would shake the whole building when they went off.  His work was fraudulent, but his ideas sparked (so to speak) research that continues to this day.  It also shows a lot of the standard elements of engineering fraud, ones that we see in the biggest recent one, Theranos.

Richter with his reactor instruments

I came upon this through another great chapter in Atomic Adventures by James Mahaffey, and it’s fully described (albeit in German) by Dr. Paul Hahn here: Das Richter- Experiment.

In 1948 the new dictator of Argentina, Juan Peron, asked a German refugee engineer, Kurt Tank, what he could do to Make Argentina Great.   Tank was a serious guy, a major aeronautical designer at the German company Fokker-Wolf.  He did the Fw 200 transatlantic passenger plane in 1936 and the Fw 190 fighter plane in 1941,  and had come to Argentina after the War to build a jet fighter. He said “Get Ronald Richter out of Europe”.

Richter was born in 1908, and got his physics doctorate from Prague University in 1935. He then kicked around for the next ten years doing miscellaneous tech jobs in Germany.   There were lots of openings in those days even for erratic figures like him, since the Nazis had removed all the Jewish scientists and engineers.  He didn’t do well, but all the while he had been working on the side on unstable plasma arcs. 

These are formed by two graphite electrodes when they’re put close together.  When a voltage is put across them, a spark will jump the gap and form a brilliant arc.  This was the first form of electric light, and was still used in bright sources like searchlights and movie projectors right up into the 1980s.  But if a little too much current is put through them, the arc expands and explodes with a deafening bang.  Richter thought that there might be enough energy in that explosion to actually get hydrogen atoms to fuse.  He claimed he had measured the gamma rays that would be emitted by such fusions.  Mark Oliphant had already demonstrated the fusion of deuterium and tritium in 1933 at Cambridge, so the theory was in place.

He was unemployed and broke after WW II, and so jumped at the chance to work in Argentina.  His talk of building miniature suns to generate unlimited power convinced Peron, and he was given a lab in the corner of Tank’s aircraft plant.  When one of his experiments exploded, he cried “Sabotage!” and flew into a rage.  He insisted on working somewhere more private, so Peron set him up on Huemul island on the border with Chile:

Prime supervillain lair real estate

There he specified the construction of huge concrete reactors:

And quite nice housing for himself and his family.   The reactor itself consisted of an arc setup driven by a huge bank of capacitors and transformers.  The arc electrodes were hollow, and he would squirt some hydrogen and lithium into the arc when it went off. 

He knew that an arc had nowhere near the temperature and pressure to really do fusion.  Arcs get up a few thousand degrees Centigrade, and fusion needs many millions.  He hoped, though, to exploit two things:

  1. Resonance induced by Larmor Precession, an effect used in MRI machines that can make nuclei bop around in strong magnetic fields.  Maybe this would let the hydrogen and lithium nuclei get close enough to one another.
  2. A fusion chain reaction, where the fusion of a few atoms would release enough energy to heat up the others to where they fused.

In  1951, he finally thought he saw evidence of fusion, or maybe Peron was pressing him for results after the huge amounts he had spent.  He and Peron gave a big press conference, announcing that backwards Argentina had achieved fusion, accomplishing what the world’s leading science countries could not.  The local press had no idea what to make of this, but the news excited and dismayed physicists in the US, UK and France.  Few believed it.  

Local physicists demanded a look at his equipment.   They found that his radiation detectors were behind the shielding, and so could not have picked up anything.  That’s a pretty basic mistake. The radio antennas needed to induce the Larmor effect were not even connected.   The fusion evidence that he claimed, a broadening in the spectral lines of the arc, could not be seen.

Peron was humiliated, and cut him off at once.  He had to leave Huemul, and tried without success to find physics work elsewhere, applying to the US, France, and even Libya.   He died in penury in Buenos Aires in 1991.  The buildings in Huemul are still there but in ruins:

Ruins of Richter lab

credit Katia Moskvitch, click for nice article

So how does this compare with Elizabeth Holmes and her Theranos blood-testing company?  A few common elements:

  • A good pitch – They both offered something quite valuable: science glory for Argentina here, and easy tracking of health problems for Theranos.
  • A reputable validator – Hardly anyone can evaluate the quality of a proposal, so you have to rely on experts.  Here it was Kurt Tank, and there it was Channing Robertson, an engineering dean at Stanford who had taught Elizabeth Holmes when she was an undergraduate, and still backs her.
  • Deep secrecy – Richter made sure that his lab was far from anyone who knew anything about nuclear physics, and wouldn’t let anyone see his work. Holmes made everyone sign strict NDAs and threatened dissenters with major lawyers.  They were both right about this; exposure did them in.

But there were some positive outcomes here.  A physics institute, the Bariloche Atomic Centre was established at the nearby town of Bariloche using Richter’s equipment, and it has done good work on cosmic rays and nuclear waste management.  The initial report of Richter’s work prompted a lot of people to think seriously about fusion, and Lyman Spitzer of Princeton then came up with the stellarator scheme, a magnetic confinement plasma system that underlies most of current fusion work.

Of course, fusion still doesn’t work after almost 70 years of intense effort.  It seems ludicrous now that anyone thought it could be done on some remote island, but no one would have known that at the time.  The credulous Peron was convinced by the Nazi reputation for tech wizardry.   Maybe that’s the most important lesson for tech fraudsters – find ignorant but rich patrons.  Please don’t make use of this advice!

 

 

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GM Abandons Green Cars, And Blue Staters

I’ve been a pretty satisfied customer of the Chevy Volt for three years now.  It’s a plug-in hybrid, meaning that it will go for about 50 miles on battery power and then switch over to a gas engine.   It’s quiet, well-equipped, fairly spacious, and has good zoom.   50 miles lets me drive electric about 80% of the time.

My lease is almost over, and I’ll be getting an all-electric car next time.  Their battery range is well over 200 miles these days, so I don’t need the backup engine.  I pulled into a gas station yesterday and realized that this might well be the last time I ever fill up.  One more tank will take me through the end of this lease, and the next won’t use gas.  Good!  As I was thinking about this in the gas station, I noticed just how awful they smell.

But that next car will not be from GM.  They stopped building Volts last April.   Everyone told them to build a CUV, but instead they gave up on plug-ins altogether. They do have an all-electric, the Chevy Bolt, but it hasn’t been updated for three years.  The Tesla Model 3 costs about as much and is outselling it 13 to 1.  It has more electric range, more acceleration, more space, and looks sleeker:

The Bolt econobox vs the Tesla Car Of The Future

GM says that they’ll be coming out with more electric models soon, but they haven’t for a long time even as Tesla has been rolling over them.

Worse still, GM just sided with the Trump administration in trying to stop improving mileage standards.  Trump wants to freeze them, while Obama then and California now want them to improve by about 4% per year.   Ford, Honda, Volkswagen and BMW sided with California in maintaining the Obama increases, but GM decided to go with the least popular president in American history.   He’ll only be president for another year, and maybe not even that. Any Democrat is certain to reinstate the standards.  California is now actually saying that they will refuse to buy GM for state car fleets.

The Volt was their bid to get back into the good graces of blue states. When GM went under in 2009, it was a big reason why the Obama administration bailed them out. It was a sign that GM really could adapt to the future.  The whole world needs to get off gasoline cars, and the Volt was a strong first step.   They sold about 155K of them total, and another 50K Bolts.  But the Volt and Bolt together were only 2% of unit sales to Chevrolet, and their profit margins weren’t great either.  They’re now going to drive that bloated SUV/truck product line right into the guardrail.

I also wonder whether the Administration threatened them.   Trump has made open threats against GM in the past when they have closed plants in districts that voted for him.   Maybe he extorted them just as he extorted Ukraine.   He also apparently denied Amazon a $10B cloud computing contract at the Pentagon, just because Jeff Bezos’ Washington Post writes mean stories about him.  Extortion seems to be his standard operating procedure these days.

In any case, this GM customer won’t be buying again.  I really, really want mainline US companies to stay competitive for the sake of the country, but they’re just not keeping up.

 

 

 

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A Heinlein Meme Started the Space Race

… according to the excellent Washington Post podcast Moonrise.  It’s an account of what led up to the Apollo 11 moon landing, starting with Robert Goddard, John W. Campbell, Sergei Korolev, and Wernher von Braun in the 1920s and 30s, and leading up to July 1969.  It’s hosted by the journalist Lillian Cunningham, who says up front that she’s not an SF or space person, but was startled to find out just how weird and dark the origins of the program were.

The Space Review: Heinlein’s ghost (part 2)

Virginia and Bob Heinlein on the set of “Destination Moon”, 1950

In 1947 Heinlein wrote the first of his YA novels, Rocket Ship Galileo, wherein a scientist and a couple of teens build a rocket in their neighborhood. They power it with a thorium reactor, fly off to the moon, and tangle with Nazis at a secret base there. You know, as one does. The novel then got reworked into the script for a big Hollywood movie, Destination Moon, with Heinlein as a contributor. It was a great success, and contained the pitch:

We are not the only ones who know that the moon can be reached. We are not the only ones who are planning to go there. The race is on, and we better win it, because there is absolutely no way to stop an attack from outer space. The first country that can use the moon for the launching of missiles will control the Earth. That, gentlemen, is the most important military fact of this century.

This was in 1950, way before anyone had a hope of even getting into orbit.  Heinlein was the best SF writer of the period, and he was saying what most fans believed.  All through the 1950s they hammered home the idea that the nation that controls space will control the world.

But someone who didn’t believe it was Dwight D. Eisenhower.   When the first request for an orbital rocket program came to his desk in 1955, he was reluctant.   Orbital rockets had almost no military value.   Missiles do, sure, but they only had to go a few thousand miles, and not get up to the five miles per second needed for orbit.   This stuff was crazily expensive and unreliable.   He knew how the V-2 had been a disaster for the Nazis, so much so that it may have shortened the war.

What convinced him was the prospect of spy satellites.  Cameras that could not be shot down and could see the whole of an enemy’s country were a great idea. If the principle of unrestricted overflights by satellites could be established by having civilian, scientific satellites, then all the better. The committee behind the International Geophysical Year wanted to do an orbital mission, so the US could slip their spy satellite work in as part of their program.

But then came Sputnik in 1957. The US knew that the Soviets were also planning an orbital launch, but had no idea that it would be that soon or that big.  Eisenhower systematically downplayed its importance, but Lyndon B Johnson, who was then the Majority Leader of the Senate, saw a political opportunity. He convened hearings in Congress, and speaker after speaker repeated Heinlein’s theme – we were behind and they were going to overwhelm us from this new high ground.   Johnson concluded the hearings with a big speech:

Control of space means control of the world. From space, the masters of infinity would have the power to control the Earth’s weather, to cause drought and flood, to change the tides and raise the levels of the sea, to divert the Gulf stream and change temperate climates to frigid.

This is ridiculous, and should have been known to be ridiculous at the time.  “Masters of infinity” indeed; that’s an SF story title.  Yet there was the huge and intimidating LBJ saying this to all the country. He was saying it partly to just attack Republicans, but he also believed it. He had been primed for it by a systematic campaign by SF writers like Heinlein and polemicists like Campbell and von Braun.

That kicked off the vast and unproductive Space Race.  Kennedy also saw the political advantages of the Missile Gap, and the propaganda value of a moon landing. When he was killed, it had to be finished as part of his legacy. A few landings were done, but then its PR value was exhausted, and no one ever bothered to go back.

In the end, Eisenhower was proven right. There has been military value in space reconnaissance, but that’s it. There has never been any military, commercial, or scientific value to having people in space. It really has been amazingly expensive.   NASA has more than twice the budget of the actual US science agency, the NSF, ~$20B vs ~$8B, and has spent ~$1.3T total in current dollars.

Yet he was wrong as well – space matters as a symbol. That’s why SF fans latched on to it early, and why people of genius like Goddard, von Braun, and  Korolev spent their lives on it.   It really was inspiring to both Soviets and Americans, and to the two dozen other countries that now do their own launches. Heinlein may have thought that space was important for military control, but its actual importance was in control of the imagination.

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Space Is Not That Big

So we just had the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11, and there’s renewed interest in doing another landing on the Moon.  That got me thinking about space as the final frontier. How much is there out there really?  I added up the area of the all the places in space that we could ever reasonably land on, and found that there’s just not that much of it.  There’s actually less area in the solar system than there is on Earth itself.  Here are all the habitable places in the system drawn to scale:

Click to embiggen

The units are in the area of the USA, just to pick something people might be familiar with. One USA (including Alaska) is about 10 million km2.  All of the Earth is only 52 times the area of the US.  The other bodies are in order of distance: the Moon is 1/15 the area of the Earth and Mars about 1/3.  Then there’s tiny little Ceres at 0.3 USAs, then the big moons of the gas giants, and finally Pluto and all the oddly named iceballs that have been discovered in the last 20 years. The total is 48 USAs spread over 23 bodies.

What’s not here?  The gas giants Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune are out because they may not even have surfaces.  People talk vaguely of floating cities in their atmospheres, but there’s nothing to build them out of, and there are winds of over 1000 km/hour.  Forget Venus because even robots last only a few minutes under 90 atmospheres of CO2 and sulfuric acid, and temperatures of 480 C.   Mercury and the inner moons of Jupiter and Saturn are out because their radiation levels would kill you in a day.  On Jupiter’s moon Io the radiation would kill you in minutes, except that you would already be dissolved in molten sulfur.   Titan is shown, but is actually a marginal case, since its dense, cold atmosphere of nitrogen and methane is probably lethal, and certainly dark and dismal.  There are lots of tiny asteroids, but collectively they don’t add up to much.  There are lots of planets around other stars, but no one knows how to send even a probe to the closest one, Proxima Centauri b, much less send a probe that can stop, much less send a ship with people.

Calling any of these places habitable is already generous, of course.  Every square foot of the Earth is more habitable than any square foot outside of it.  The bottom of the Marianas Trench still has water, organics, proper gravity, radiation shielding and a biome, and that’s missing from everywhere else.

But note that there’s one other body on the picture above – Planet X.  No one has seen it, but there appears to be something that’s perturbing the other bodies way beyond Neptune.  It’s thought to be 5 to 10 times the mass of the Earth, and may be a fifth gas giant that was ejected from the solar system early in its formation.  It would be 20 times as far out as Neptune with an orbit tens of thousands of years long.  If it really had a surface, and if its density was such that the gravity was 1 G, then it would be a bit over twice the diameter of the Earth, and at least 5 times its area.

That would be something worth settling!   Light it with fusion-powered stars in orbit, sail its liquid nitrogen seas in boats with vacuum-insulated hulls, and seed its continents with warm-blooded Dyson trees,   Spread out under its dark star-lit skies like the first Elves in Middle Earth before the Sun arose.  It’s space colonization’s greatest hope!  Let’s put Duck Dodgers right on it:

Duck Dodgers claiming Planet X

From Duck Dodgers in the 24 1/2 th Century, Chuck Jones, 1953

 

 

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MIT On Climate Change

Every year MIT has a Technology Day on its alumni reunion weekend where faculty discuss what they’re working on.   These are consistently interesting, and I’ve written about them before: The Oceans Are Dissolved Information and Print Your House and The Engineering of Biology at MIT.

This year the topic was climate change.   There were five speakers in total: two analysts (Valerie Karplus and Janelle Knox-Hayes), one researcher  (Noelle Eckley-Selin), one policy maker (John Holdren, co-chair of Obama’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology) and one inventor (Don Sadoway).    The moderator was Maria Zuber, an astronomer who manages Lincoln Labs and MIT’s own Climate Initiative.

First half: Valerie Karplus, Janelle Knox-Hayes, moderator Maria Zuber

Second half: John Holdren, Noelle Eckley-Selin, Don Sadoway,  moderator Maria Zuber

You can watch the whole session here:  Tech Day 2019 Live Webcast: MIT on Climate Change.    Sorry about the Facebook link, but that’s where it’s posted.  Let me say something brief about each, but then concentrate on Sadoway, who was much the most fun.  Here are the panelists:

Valerie Karplus (the 30:20 mark in the video): China now emits 1/3 of the world’s CO2, largely because they had a huge burst in coal usage in the last 15 years.  Only 50% is for power, though. Yes, they have also built more renewable capacity than anyone else, but coal is very much a government policy.   Their wind turbines are actually idle 10-15% of the time because the coal operators have to meet quotas.  It is literally killing them – there are something like a million deaths a year in China due to smog.

Janelle Knox-Hayes (52:00): Has been looking at who is actually adopting carbon pricing and whether it has had any effect.   Her slides, sadly, were unread-ably detailed in that large auditorium.

Noelle Eckley-Selin (2:04:40): Had a nice way of expressing what’s happening to the planet: “Those of you here for your 50th reunion are from class of 325 ppm CO2, as measured by the Keeling Curve on Mauna Loa.   The 30th reunion is the class of 353 ppm, the 20th is 387 ppm and the newly graduated are at 410.”  Her angle on increasing action w.r.t. climate is to note that emissions have directly horrible health effects.   Coal and diesel emit a lot of tiny particulates, ones less then 2.5 um across (1/10000 of an inch), which which cause lung cancer and heart disease.   Burning coal also emits mercury, so much that it can be seen rising in the 20th century in the geological record.  These kill millions.  Rising temperatures make this worse, as it accelerates chemical reactions in smog.  Oddly enough, the reduction of sulfur in ship fuel may have increased warming by reducing cloud cover, since clouds condense on the sulfur particles.   Heat stroke is now a major issue in India and the Persian Gulf in the summer time.

John Holdren (2:24:50): Actually teaches at that liberal arts school up the river, but is an MIT alum.  He has been in the halls of power for decades and so was much the best speaker.   He noted that climate change makes extreme events worse, even lightning storms.  Wildfires burn four times the area that they did just ten years ago.   Hurricanes used to be cooled down when their waves brought cold water to the surface, but now even the deeper water is warm, so the hurricanes last longer.  Sea level rise has accelerated from 1 mm/year in the 1900s to 5 mm/year today.

He actually had recommendations.   We’ve got to put a price on carbon immediately, and raise it to $100 per tonne by 2030.  The US ought to be spending five times what it currently does on research and mitigation.  As academics, our main contribution is to teach the next generation of leaders – Eckley-Selin was actually a student of his.   He found that for faculty at Harvard’s Kennedy School, 50% of their personal CO2 emission came from travel.   Do more video-conferencing!   He recommended that people tithe 10% of their time to climate issues.

Don Sadoway (1:48:10)  – Talked about two of his startups, Ambri (molten metal batteries) and Boston Metal (making steel with electrolysis instead of coke).   He noted that electricity equals modernity, which this EE readily agrees with, but that means we use enormous amounts of it and need it all the time.   We need batteries that store gigawatt-hours, and complex Li-ion ones are never going to get there for reasonable cost.   It’s got to use dead simple chemistry with dead cheap materials – “If you want to make something dirt-cheap, make it out of dirt, and local dirt at that.”  Don’t replace a dependence on foreign oil with one on foreign neodymium.   He’s thinking of something enormous, like a modern aluminum smelter.   He showed a hall of smelter cells a hundred feet wide and a mile long.   It sucked 500,000 A at 4V, which would be the entire output of a large nuclear reactor.  That’s the scale we need.

He’s a senior professor, but teaches the intro to solid-state chemistry course 3.091.  His lectures were put up on Open CourseWare, and Bill Gates happened to watch them.   His assistant then wrote to Sadoway asking if he could spare 90 minutes to meet with Gates.  He ignored it.  He figured that one of his students had hacked his account.  The assistant wrote again, wondering if he had seen the earlier email.  He then decided it was real, agreed to meet, and they had a good discussion about distance learning.  At the end Gates asked him what he was working on.   He sketched his idea for a battery made of liquid metals, and Gates said “That’s interesting.  If you decide to spin that out let me know and I’ll put some money into it.”   So Ambri got Round A funding from Bill Gates because Sadoway taught intro chemistry!  Keeping the attention of undergraduates is good training for keeping the attention of VCs.

He originally called his startup Liquid Metal Batteries, but that was clunky.   He learned that the network giant Cisco was named after San Francisco, so he pulled the middle out of Cambridge to get Ambri.   That was in 2010, and they’ve had a lot of trouble since then.  They got close to release in 2015, but found that their seals failed at high temperatures and they nearly went under.   They have a different chemistry now and hope to release their first product next year in 2020.

Sadoway himself is on to something new – steel-making.  This involves reducing iron ore, Fe2O3, into pure iron.  In the normal process the ore is heated up with coke, processed coal, to pull away the oxygen with carbon to produce CO2.   Steel-making actually accounts for 9% of world emissions!   That’s over 3 billion tonnes a year.   His approach is to use electrolysis instead.   Heat up the ore to liquefy it and then break off the oxygen with huge currents.

The key is getting an anode that doesn’t melt away and is cheap.   There’s a good discussion of the whole scheme at Technology Review:  A New Way To Make Steel Could Cut 5% of Emissions At a Stroke.  Boston Metals started in 2013 with with DOE and NSF money, and now have demos and just got Round A funding.

So Sadoway is taking the traditional technical route to solving a problem – find a better, cheaper way to do it.    That seems much more satisfying than the analysis and advocacy of the other speakers.   Trying to persuade corrupt Trumpists and those whose regions and livelihoods depend on fossil fuels is a way to ruin your blood pressure and waste your career.  Crush them in the marketplace, say I.

Maria Zuber: But what about MIT itself?  In 2015 they set up a A Plan For Action on Climate Change –  Summary  Details, which Zuber is running.  Most of it is organizational – trying to coordinate the efforts across the vast range of activities that happen at the Institute.   That’s fine, but they were also pressured to reduce MIT’s own emissions.  With great reluctance they  committed to a 32% reduction from 2014 emissions by 2030.  32% is weak.   Obama wanted the whole US to reduce by 30% by then, and the entire planet actually needs to do at least that much.   MIT has already gotten 20% of that by funding a solar farm in North Carolina, and will get another 10% by upgrading the co-generation plant that supplies most of the campus power and heat. In 4 years they’re almost at their 15-year goal.

Worse still, they officially refused to divest from fossil fuel companies, and actually committed to working with them.  The fossileers have not acted in good faith.  They’ve funded smear campaigns and outright lies against anything that threatened their revenue.  Including them in your plans could well be giving them inside info to use against you.  That may sound paranoid, but as we’ve recently seen, kompromat has become a standard tactic.

Overall, though, it was encouraging to see good efforts coming out of my alma mater.   That’s what these Technology Days are supposed to do!   Remind alums of their bright college days, and tell them that things are still going well.   Well, not going well in terms of climate change, but at least they’re on the job.

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Is “The Biggest Little Farm” For Real?

This new documentary is so wholesome and uplifting that it immediately raised suspicions in my skeptical heart.  It describes the odyssey of a young couple in Los Angeles who started their own organic farm, Apricot Lane, on 200 acres of desolate land about 50 miles west of LA.  After eight years it has become an oasis of greenery and wildlife among the barren hills, but while watching it you really have to wonder – who paid for all this?

The couple, John and Molly Chester, had been living in Santa Monica doing very LA-ish jobs.  He had been a cameraman and director on various TV shows, and she was a private chef for one-percenters.  She had come out with a cookbook, Back to Butter,  and really believed that the quality of food depended directly on how it was raised.  While filming a bit about a woman who had 200 dogs in her house, John rescued one of them, a soulful black Lab named Todd.  Unfortunately, Todd barked incessantly when they weren’t there, causing them to be evicted from their apartment.

But it was time for a change anyway.  He had grown up in farm country and she wanted better food.  They found this property up in the barren hills west of the city.  It had been a horse farm, and then raised lemons and avocados, but the killer drought of the late 2000s had done it in.  Everything on it was dead except for a few eucalyptus trees, and the soil had turned to clods and dust.

The first step was raising money, but I’ll talk about that in a bit.   They bought it in 2011 and hired a consultant, Alan York, to get the property laid out.   He constantly stressed the value of biodiversity.  They wanted to have three kinds of fruit trees, but he insisted on 75.  They added a pond for ducks and wild birds, pastures for chickens, sheep and cows, and a “vermi-composting” shed, which means processing manure with worms.  They landscaped the hills into contour lines for the orchards, and planted ground cover everywhere to aerate the soil and hold rain.   An artesian well supplied irrigation water.

Everything then went wrong.  The drought continued.  Duck poop turned their pond into green slime.  The trees were attacked by snails and aphids, and their roots were damaged by gophers.  Starlings took little bites out of each piece of fruit, ruining them.  Coyotes ate their free-range chickens.  The cattle were overwhelmed by flies.   Yet the Chesters were dead set against using pesticides or herbicides, and didn’t even want to shoot the coyotes.

But the inspiring part about the story is that they solved all these problems through ecological means instead of mechanical ones.  Too many snails?  The ducks love them.  Keep the ducks penned into one part of the orchard until they clean out the snails, then move them to the next.  That spreads their droppings around too.  Too many aphids?  Add ladybugs.   Coyote problems?   Guard the chickens with dogs and let the coyotes eat the gophers.  Chickens also love to peck at fly larvae, so have them keep the fields clean for the cattle.  Add birdhouses to attract barn owls to keep down rodents and starlings.

When the drought finally broke in the mid-2010s, their ground cover saved them.  Everyone else’s soil got washed downhill in the torrential rains, but theirs absorbed it, and just helped to deepen the grass’s roots.   That helps maintain the underground water table as well.  The roots are also good for carbon sequestration, but even they couldn’t avoid the oncoming climate catastrophe and had to evacuate during one wildfire season.

These days the farm is thriving.   It appears to employ about 15 people, and has a crowd of volunteers through WWOOF, World-Wide Opportunites for Organic Farming, who get room and board in return for labor.  They sell through farmstands (people stand in line to get their eggs) and LA restaurants.   They tried to open their own restaurant and market in the nearby town of Moorpark, but gave it up after too many delays and costly requirements.  They also have tours of the property, and since this is the 21st century, have an online gift shop.  John Chester has been drawing on his film skills for the entire process, releasing short films along the way, and now this major documentary.

So how did all this get funded?   They’re cagey about that in the movie, saying only that they found venture money.    There’s nothing about their investors on any of their sites, but I found the actual owners with a bit of web sleuthing.   I won’t give their names because they don’t matter, but they were real venture capitalists in the early 2010s.  They don’t seem to be involved in it any more, though, and have shifted their attention to high-frequency trading and bitcoins.

Well, that’s sketchy.  More sketchy, though, is the philosophy behind the Chesters’ farming style – biodynamics.   That word also did not come up in the movie.   It’s based on the theories of the German mystic and philosopher Rudolf Steiner from the 1920s.   It does stress ecological management practices, but also proposes sympathetic magic techniques, like burying ashes in a cow’s horn, and planting according to astrological calendars.   The farm is actually certified by Demeter International, an organization that makes sure that strict biodynamic standards are being obeyed.    There are a few other such farms in California, but the bulk of them appear to be in Germany.

So this farm is California all over: a New Age ideology crossed with Whole Earth Catalog redemptive environmentalism, underpinned by modern finance, and spending a good fraction of its energy on publicity.

And that’s OK!  Publicity is crucial to everything these days.   The money put into this looks to be in the $10M range, but that’s negligible by VC standards.  Better this than yet another phone app.    I don’t mind New Age-ism if it’s used to inform your worldview instead of to control empirical decisions, and I was an avid reader of the Catalog back in its 70s heyday.  The Chesters seem to have hit on something that is economically and more importantly, environmentally sustainable.  They are not Masters of Nature, but gardeners within it.  Their life looks like a lot of work and heartache, but greatly rewarding.

 

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Mad Science #5: Fluorine-Based Rocket Fuels

One of the purest examples of maniacal engineering is the field of liquid rocket fuels.   These chemicals have to contain as much energy as possible, and so are  dangerous by definition.  A fun and opinionated version of their development has just been re-issued by Rutgers University Press:

Ignition!

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You know those hazardous material signs, the NFPS diamonds, that rate toxicity, flammability and explosiveness on a scale of 1 to 4?

NFPA 704 4-4-4-W

This is the sign for diborane (B2H6), and says it is maximally dangerous on every parameter.  The slashed W means it also reacts badly with water.  It turns out that it’s a fine rocket propellant!  That’s the sort of stuff these guys liked to work with.    If you see a building with such a sign on it, and it’s on fire, run.

Clark was the head of the Naval Air Rocket Test Station (NARTS) in New Jersey in the 1950s and 60s, and did a lot of the key propellant work himself.  He was also a friend and mentor to Isaac Asimov, and Asimov wrote an introduction for this book when it first came out in 1972.   Clark was also a serious SF fan going back to the 1930s.  He restored interest in Robert E. Howard’s Conan series by constructing a map and timeline of Conan’s adventures.

NARTS was trying to build rockets for the Navy.   They can’t use the obvious propellants, liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen (H2-LOX).   Those are fine for big space launches (that’s what was in the big orange tank on the Shuttle), but take a long time to load into a rocket and can’t be stored on a ship because they boil away.  So the Navy wanted fuels that would:

  • Be liquid down to fairly cold temperatures, like -54C (-65F) so they wouldn’t freeze  in the Arctic.
  • Have lots of oomph, as measured by exhaust velocity, to maximize payload.
  • Be nice and dense so the tanks wouldn’t have to be too big.  Liquid hydrogen is 8X less dense than water, and that’s why the Shuttle tank was so huge.
  • Be storeable in the rocket itself, i.e. not eat through the tanks.
  • Be hypergolic, that is, the two propellants should ignite on contact.  That saves having complex ignition hardware.

By the later 1950s they had settled on a combination that is used to this day: UDMH (Unsymmetrical dimethylhydrazine, H2NN(CH3)2 , which is hydrazine (N2H4) with two methyl groups (CH3) tacked on) and RFNA (Red Fuming Nitric Acid, mostly nitric acid (HNO3) with a little dinitrogen tetraoxide (N2O4) for flavor).   If your job involves working regularly with something called Red Fuming Acid, you may want to consider a position in accounting.   Clark would test the mettle of interviewees at his lab by having someone drop a piece of a rubber glove into a beaker of RFNA:

The rubber would swell and squirm a moment, and then a magnificent rocket-like jet of flame would rise from the flask with appropriate hissing noises.  I could usually tell from the candidate’s demeanor whether he had the sort of nervous system desirable in a propellant chemist.

Both of these chemicals are nasty.   UDMH is a 4-3-1, highly carcinogenic and flammable.  RFNA dissolves everything – Clark got a permanent burn on his arm from one drop of it – and also breaks down into pure oxygen.  It took a lot of experimentation to discover that adding a little hydrofluoric acid (HF) will coat a steel or aluminum tank with a protective layer of fluoride and keep the RFNA from eating through it.

But they are liquid at room temperature and down to -54C, and do have good density (1.27, about four times that of H2-O2).  Unfortunately, they also have 3/4 the performance of H2-O2.  So their thoughts turned to an even stronger oxidizer, fluorine.

The easiest fluorine compound to handle is chlorine trifluoride (ClF3).  All those fluorine atoms love to strip electrons off of stuff.   When burned with hydrazine it gets about 6% more performance than UDMH + RFNA, and it’s 20% denser.  That’s nice, except that as Clark notes:

It is, of course, extremely toxic, but that’s the least of its problems.  It is hypergolic with every known fuel, and so rapidly hypergolic that no ignition delay has ever been measured.  It is also hypergolic with such things as cloth, wood, and test engineers, not to mention asbestos, sand, and water – with which it reacts explosively.

So naturally they experimented with it extensively.  They tried all sorts of fuels for it, and did get some success with mono-methyl-hydrazine (MMH) with various additives.   Better still was chlorine pentafluoride (ClF5), which has even more fluorine by weight.  It gets 13% more performance and is about the same density but needs to be kept cold and under pressure.   Even better still was dinitrogen tetrafluorine (N2F4), which is 21% better than UDMH-RFNA and still pretty dense.

They’re all highly toxic and flammable.  They also emit hydrofluoric acid (HF) after combustion.  With H2-LOX you get pretty clouds of condensing steam, and with these you get one of the most corrosive acids known.  It goes straight through your skin and damages your nerves and breaks down your bones.  So not only can you be killed by touching these fuels, and set your ship on fire when it’s spilled, but its HF exhaust destroys everything it touches.

So yes, the entire project was both dangerous and ridiculous.   Fortunately no one ever used it!    These days everyone uses pretty standard fuels like ethanol, methane, and kerosene, almost always with liquid oxygen.

Clark would not be surprised.   By 1972 he believed that his field was exhausted, that all the reasonable combinations had been tried, and he was pretty much right.   The only novel fuel I’ve seen recently is Propylene-LOX, which has more performance than kerosene and better density than methane, but is only a minor improvement.

Clark hoped that someone would find a way to make the ultimate fuel, mono-atomic hydrogen (bare hydrogen atoms), which would have more than twice the performance of H2-LOX when it reverted to H2. It would make single-stage-to-orbit rockets easy.  The SF author and editor John Campbell actually used this idea in his early novel The Black Star Passes (1930), and Clark knew Campbell through his SF connections.  People have reported making metallic hydrogen under gigantic pressure inside diamond anvils, but the results are still controversial and it almost certainly can’t be held in tanks.

So this crazy corner of engineering research is probably over.   The EPA is doubtless happy that it doesn’t have another Superfund site to worry about!

 

 

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