Airships and doing H...

>> Saturday, March 06, 2010

First, context (sort of):

shawnp0wers @Stonekettle Also: Don't' soak up diesel spill with fertilizer.

Stonekettle @shawnp0wers Also, never fill your zeppelin with hydrogen #badidea

sotsogm @Stonekettle @shawnp0wers No, the bad idea is painting your zeppelin with rocket fuel. #badidea

Airships @sotsogm @shawnp0wers @Stonekettle Sorry 2 intrude, but here's real scoop on Hindenburg:

When I cracked wise about The Hindenburg being painted in rocket fuel, I didn't realize this was apparently a bone that pro- and anti- hydrogen fuel cell people had been picking over. In fairness to "Airship," too, I have to point out that his or her website and tweets are mostly devoted to, well, airships, although Airship does include some anti-hydrogen rhetoric on his or her site.

Let me say, first, that my glib, "painted with rocket fuel" crack is glib. It's funny to phrase it that way, though a little simplistic. Retired NASA engineer Addison Bain became interested in the Hindenburg disaster and conducted a bit of research, including acquisition of fabric samples from the Hindenburg's shell.**

ESD Journal summarizes Mr. Bain's conclusions thus:

The Hindenburg was covered with a cotton fabric that had been swabbed with a doping compound to protect and strengthen it. Unfortunately, the doping compound contained a cellulose acetate or nitrate (used in gunpowder). This compound was followed by a coating of aluminum powder (which is used in rocket fuel). Additionally, the structure was held together using wood spacers and ramie cord; the furnishings were make of silk and other fabrics; and the skeleton itself was duralumin coated with lacquer. Added together, all of these made the craft itself highly flammable. In DiChristina's article, Bain was quoted as saying that perhaps "... the moral of the story is, don't paint your airship with rocket fuel."

In support of Bain's theory that the fire was started by the fabric's flammability in a charged atmosphere were two letters that he discovered in a German archive. The letters were written in 1937 by Otto Beyerstock, an electrical engineer who had incinerated pieces of Hindenburg fabric during electrical tests conducted at the direction of the Zeppelin Company. Beyerstock ruled out the idea that hydrogen could have started the fire. He asserted that the same outcome would have occurred if a similar craft flew under the same atmospheric conditions but with noncombustible helium instead of hydrogen as the lifting fuel. As a matter of fact, Bain discovered that such a fire did occur in California in 1935 when a helium-filled airship with an acetate-aluminum skin burned near Point Sur.

It seems worth noting here that cellulose nitrate, one of the probable ingredients in the Hindenburg's fabric shell, is not only is a component of guncotton and smokeless powder, but was also the primary ingredient in early film, which was notoriously inflammable.

In any case, what I find fascinating and awesome about Mr. Bain's hypothesis has nothing to do with the safety of hydrogen or lack thereof; rather, it's that Mr. Bain's hypothesis neatly explains the primary mystery behind the Hindenburg tragedy: we all know that the airship exploded and burned, and we all know that hydrogen is highly inflammable, but what lit the hydrogen? It's never been clear that static discharge would reach the gasbags inside the airship, and while hydrogen tends to seep out of any container it's trapped in, once its free it tends to keep on heading out of the atmosphere instead of lingering around; an electrical spark could, on the other hand, readily ignite a fabric turned into something similar to guncotton and further treated with an additional aluminum-based accelerant. From there, the hydrogen certainly doesn't help anything any, but if the doping is a sufficient cause, the hydrogen is no longer a necessary one--the Hindenburg might've burned almost as readily if she'd been full of inert helium.

Granted, there's been some debate over how well the doping would've burned. And let us be clear that hydrogen, however and whenever it was ignited, burned like a bitch once it was lit. It may well be that the Hindenburg was damned to burn by multiple causes, from the lifting gas to the silk cables to the cellulose in the doping to the flammable reflective coat to the gas in the engines.

Hydrogen, anyway, is an atomic strumpet--that single proton will bind to almost anything that comes near it. When hydrogen binds with oxygen, another atomic slut, one of the products is heat--i.e. hydrogen oxidizes rapidly, it burns.

Then again, so do hydrocarbons, including gasoline. And the results of a hydrogen reaction--hydrogen and oxygen combine to form water--is a good bit cleaner than the byproducts of burning gasoline.

The great obstacle to hydrogen fuel cell technology as a replacement for fossil fuels is infrastructure--setting up hydrogen depots everywhere, or upgrading gas stations to serve this purpose. If I were to buy a hydrogen car, would I be able to drive it to Arkansas (assuming, for argument's sake, I had any reason to go to Arkansas)? But the fanciful claim that hydrogen fuel cell cars will create fleets of little Hindenburgs cruising around the highways and exploding everywhere doesn't seem all that reasonable an objection. I'm not in a position to really evaluate the relative safety of fuel cells, actually--it's possible they're not that relatively safe; but automobiles are already bombs on wheels, it's just that we've collectively chosen to mostly ignore the risks, which frankly aren't even that great (your car will not instantly explode if rear-ended like a car in a movie, unless you happen to be driving a Ford Pinto, in which case, okay, maybe).

But I don't have the knee-jerk reaction that some people seem to have. Here's the thing: gasoline, as we've considered, is dangerous and flammable. Batteries, which seem to be the most likely alternative to fuel cells, are dangerous and flammable. The best option if you want to avoid transportation that might explode is to walk, which I heartily approve of and that's why I live in a neighborhood where I can walk to bars and restaurants, but I think it's obvious that you can't actually walk everywhere, unless time isn't an object--I mean, maybe you have time to walk across the state or to perambulate your way into another time zone, but most of us don't. So if you're going to drive, the question isn't whether a hydrogen car is unsafe, it's whether an unsafe hydrogen car is more-or-less unsafe than an unsafe gasoline/diesel car or an unsafe electrical car or whatever else somebody may come up with. I suppose there might be completely safe alternatives--a sailcar or direct-solar car that doesn't use batteries, but the limitations on such vehicles seem self-evident at this point. Perhaps a car that uses electricity piped directly to it, like a model racetrack's vehicles--but that seems more viable for public transportation solutions, not to mention maybe you're replacing explosive risks with electrical ones.

The answer isn't to minimize the risks of hydrogen. But to suggest that hydrogen fuel cells are off the table by referring to an eighty-year old airship disaster--one that, for all its infamy, only killed 36 people--is to cater to fear and prejudice, rather than to make a rational evaluation of how such a technology might compare to other viable alternatives. And what also must be said is this: that of these alternatives, the one we are using now, the burning of fossil fuels, is simply not an environmentally, materially or politically sustainable option--these substances are poisoning the air, contributing to global warming, will eventually run out, can only be extended by engaging in behaviors that may damage or destroy ecosystems, and currently force the world to rely on suppliers in regimes that are at best ambivalent to all other states and are at worst unstable criminal enterprises.

Hydrogen may prove to be something that isn't ideal, but we could do worse.

(The "Ask me" series will resume again tomorrow, if you're wondering....)

*In all fairness to Airships, he or she subsequently tweeted that he or she wasn't opposed to hydrogen fuel cells. I'm not sure why Airships singles out hydrogen use advocates with some of the website language, then, but I do want to try to be fair.

**For those who don't know: the Hindenburg's construction consisted of a rigid framework of aluminum-alloy rings connected by beams of the same material, from which the Hindenburg's gas bags were suspended within. The framework was then covered in stretched fabric, comprising the zeppelin's outer shell, which was doped with a material that had to be (a) lightweight, (b) waterproof and (c) reflective (since absorption of light and/or heat could have undesirable effects on the volume and/or integrity of the gas bags within, see also).

The Hindenburg was designed to use helium as a lift gas, however the United States had a quasi-monopoly on helium production from the turn of the 20th Century through at least the middle of that century, and in the 1930s was not selling the gas to Nazis (actually, it's possible that was a general embargo on the gas, but whatever).


Janiece Saturday, March 6, 2010 at 11:14:00 AM EST  

Hydrogen, anyway, is an atomic strumpet--that single proton will bind to almost anything that comes near it. When hydrogen binds with oxygen, another atomic slut, one of the products is heat--i.e. hydrogen oxidizes rapidly, it burns.

Eric, you win the Internet today for anthropomorphizing the elements.

I never trusted those loose elements.

Nathan Saturday, March 6, 2010 at 6:10:00 PM EST  

Everything goes back to the discovery of fire. Everything!

And everything since then involves ways of creating, using and controlling fire. Whatever means you use to create power (including hydroelectric), fire is a goal somewhere down the line. (We still like cooking, whether in a gas or electric stove.)

When they discovered fire, the result was -- shit burning down.

When they invented steam engines and generators -- they exploded until perfected the metalurgy and valves required.

Nuclear power---generates steam which generates electricity.

Everything we want involves controlling shit that bursts into flames and/or explodes.

We won't have made a true quantum leap until neither the production of, or use of energy involves stuff that blows up. In the meantime, we just need better containers and valves. (and other shit to burn).

David Sunday, March 7, 2010 at 5:51:00 PM EST  

Mythbusters did a whole piece on the paint on the Hindenberg and what role it might have played - I think they decided that the paint (a mixture approximating thermite) didn't make all that much difference. It must be out there on YouTube somewhere.

Obamaforever Friday, November 26, 2010 at 8:41:00 PM EST  

Dear Eric;

Thank you for the intelligent comments concerning the Hindenburg disaster. You are one of the few people on the web who have a clear understanding to what happen to the Hindenburg.

If I have a correct reading of your comments, you are saying that hydrogen was ‘a’ cause and not ‘the’ cause. If this is true, you, I, and Dr. Bain are in agreement.

If you caught the mythbusters’ Hindenburg disaster show, you would have to agree with me that the show did a great disservice to the understanding of the Hindenburg disaster and to Dr. Bain. What they did to Dr. Bain was a ‘bait-and-switch’ job.

If you would like to talk to Dr. Bain I can give you his telephone number. It has been awhile since I have talked to him so he may not be amongst the living. He can tell you all the problems he has had with the mythbusters. Tell me how to get in touch with you so I can give you Dr. Bain’s phone number. I do not want to give his number on your blog.

One more thing, I have created a transcript of the mythbusters’ Hindenburg disaster show. If you like I can send you the transcript.

And just to be clear I am a Democrat, and a liberal (progressive).

Thank you.

Eric Friday, November 26, 2010 at 9:40:00 PM EST  

Thank you for your comments, Obamaforever. I didn't see the Mythbusters episode you mention, but it certainly sounds disappointing.

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