27 Feb. 2009
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A Balloon That Knows How to Apologize

There is a tragedy afoot.  Forgive the bizarre image, please.  I know tragedies don't have bipedal (or any pedal, for that matter) locomotion.  Perhaps it would be better to say "there is a tragedy afloat" which would be literally accurate if no less silly.

Why A Tragedy?

Helium, the lighter-than-air gas that imparts flotation to the plasticactus at right, is valuable, important, and scarce.  In particular, it is becoming more scarce, as it continues to be used to propel such gewgaws into the atmosphere, where the helium leaks out and eventually finds its way, unrecoverably, into outer space.  Unlike oil, a seemingly similarly precious substance, helium is an element.  There are substitutes for oil, both in its energy content and in its properties as a chemical feedstock.  Helium is mined; for many applications there is no substitute and none can be manufactured.

The United States is in the process of closing its helium reserve.  At the time President Clinton ordered the reserve closed, a lengthy process as you can see, this appeared in the New York Times:

A Floating Tragedy

A floating plasticactus

Of all the Federal programs that have ever come under attack, perhaps none has been more ridiculed or more reviled than the national helium reserve, here on the high plains of the Texas Panhandle. It is a collection of pipelines and pumps and vats and, most of all, a seemingly staggering amount of helium: 31 billion cubic feet, enough to supply current Federal needs for 100 years.

''Amazingly stupid, even by Government standards,'' P. J. O'Rourke, the conservative humorist, said of the program, which forces Federal agencies to buy helium at inflated prices from the reserve. ''The poster child of Government waste,'' said Christopher Cox, the California Congressman who led the fight to get rid of this veritable Fort Knox of helium.

But now that President Clinton has signed a bill that will get the Government out of the helium business and sell off the nation's helium reserve to private industry, which has long claimed that it can supply helium more cheaply to agencies like NASA, the issue is turning out to be more complicated. In a vivid demonstration that cutting the Federal budget is rarely as easy or as simple as it seems, some experts are even daring to say it: maybe the helium reserve wasn't such a dumb idea after all.

I say the reserve is a good idea, even if I'm not one of the "some experts."  If I had room for the helium, I'd hang onto it myself.  Helium will become more and more important as we grow reliant on superconductivity and other cryogenic physical processes.  And more and more expensive, too, which accounts for my seemingly altruistic notion of storing it.  How strongly do I feel about this?  Note in the article above that I am disagreeing with one of my heroes, P. J. O'Rourke, who is generally Right and often right, listing as he does in the Libertarian direction.  But not this one time.

Helium baloon apologizes; will use hydrogen next time or sleep on the floor.

Science is unsure whether balloons feel guilt.  I'd like to think that the one pictured above is telling us via this blog that it is sorry to be wasting this precious, irreplaceable natural resource. 

Follows-up to my suggestion of putting windmills on telephone poles

An email from Paul, who actually is an Electrical Engineering professor, albeit one who currently teaches math:

You overlooked one important criticism of wind power, which well might derail your proposal. Windmills are even more efficient at shredding birds than are Airbus A320 engines. PETA and the environmentalists won't stand for a proliferation of small wind turbines.

A potentially good criticism. I don't know of any research that points to the number of birds killed per kW, and how it scales with size, rotational velocity, quantity, and evolution. Certainly it would be a problem if half the birds are killed off. On the other claw, it may be a much smaller number, and it may turn out that there is a heritable avoidance mechanism that would solve the problem after a few generations.  Have your non-EE students work with your bio-innocents.

And Tom suggested that the windmills would have to be aligned with the prevailing winds and also with the power wires, else the wires would be sliced!  My thought was that the windmills would be on top of the poles, with the blades comfortably above the wires.  In fact, they might even swivel on their mountings for maximum exposure to the wind.

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