Wednesday, April 27, 2011

55 U$ per gallon?

Like we in Europe you in the States experience increasing petrol prices but have you ever heard about a gasoline price of 55 U$ per gallon? The story goes like this:

About two months ago the German Government decreed in an act of ecological force an increase of the percentage of ethanol in premium (super) gasoline from 5 to 10%. Immediately a big tug of war started between the Federal Government and those car loving Germans fearing for the well being of there Audi, BMW, and Mercedes engines. In addition some Green came up with calculations that alcohol made from corn is less ecological than burning fossil fuel and above all food prices would necessarily increase as fertile land is rather used to produce ethanol than cereals. Fact is that in Germany Super E10 (Eurosuper) presently is a dead article whereas, as far as I know, Americans don't give a hoot what they fill into their tanks as long as it keeps their robust engines running and isn't too expensive.

Note the price tags at the filling station. Diesel: 7.6 U$ per gallon,
Super E10: 8.4 U$ per gallon and Super (premium gas): 55.4 U$ per gallon.
To promote sales of the biosprit (Would this be called organic gasoline in the States?) oil companies urged the government to tax Super E10 less than the traditional Super but the Ministry of Finance turned out to be as pigheaded as the German driver. Now tanks at the filling stations are full of Super E10 whilst supplies of the classical Super are dwindling. Some pessimists even predicted a shortage of the favorite brew in spite gasoline prices always climb and as usual soared before the Easter holidays.

In fact, with the content of its reservoir approaching zero, fearing that the pumps might run dry and be damaged a filling station in Filderstadt near Stuttgart displayed a price of 9.99 Euros per liter for Super just to block drivers from filling up. However it happened that one guy refueled 3 and a girl 6 gallons winding up with bills of 100 and 200 Euros respectively. A gasoline price of 55 U$ per gallon is this worth an entry into the Guinness book?

I actually don't care. On those rare occasions when I use my car it is either to go to France or Switzerland where Super is not only readily available but even sold at a lower price than in Germany.

Note added in proof: In the meantime Exxon has re-embursed the two persons from Filderstadt.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Of High and of Low Beds

The other day I stepped into a furniture store. A salesperson (a man) walked up to me. Following the usual preliminaries he eyeballed me and firmly stated: You need a high bed. How did the guy know that my bed is only 45 cm (18”) high?

Although I get older each time between going to bed and waking up the following morning so far and until further notice I still managed to climb out of it.

Nevertheless, when visiting the States two month ago I savoured the high beds of at least 60 cm (24”). They reminded me of those at my grandparents' farm in Westphalia. When as a child I visited them and sat on the beds my legs were not long enough to touch the ground.

Admire the medieval student struggling with his high bed in the early days of Freiburg's university:

When looking at the picture I understand the expression to climb into bed because there is even a footstep. It seems that in the States they not only hung on to the tradition of high beds but to the traditions of the medieval university too.

In the early days of Freiburg’s university students (freshmen, no women) had to learn during two years (college years?) the seven free arts in the philosophical faculty. It was the Greek philosopher Boethius (480-524) who had divided the ancient knowledge into the subjects of grammar, rhetoric (elocution), dialectic, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music. The students graduated in philosophy obtaining a baccalaureus artium (bachelor). Only then they were allowed to take up the study of theology, law, medicine or continue with philosophy to finish those four faculties with a degree of magister (master).

In a manuscript from the second half of the XII century called Hortos deliciarium (Garden of pleasance) the seven arts are depicted as women where Lady Grammar claims: From me you can learn what are the words, syllibales and letters. Difficult stuff not only yesteryear such that the lady typically is shown with a birch in her right hand ready to punish her pupils (naked) where one of them feigns reading his grammar book. This photo I took in the front porch of Freiburg's Münster where statues of all seven arts are displayed.

Following a European directive but with lots of resistance universities in Germany are actually obliged go back to their roots in replacing the usual university degrees of diploma or state examination with bachelor and master degrees.

Coming back to the height of beds: How is it that contrary to the beds toilet seats in the States are so low, i.e., much lower than those in Europe. Kohler, was he a dwarf? Well, I agree this is another and completely different story.

Sunday, April 10, 2011


When I visited Brookhaven National Laboratory (BNL) on Long Island, NY late in 1983 the US government had just stopped the construction of a 200+200 GeV superconducting proton collider called ISABELLE (the Intersecting Storage Accelerator + "belle") after having already spent 200 Mio U$ on infrastructure and superconducting magnets. Frustrated my American colleagues had renamed the killed project Was-a-belle.

The most beautiful machine: A similar situation happed in Germany when in 1989 the State government of North-Rhein-Westfalia after having spent 2 Billion Euros stopped the operation of a pebble bed reactor (Kugelhaufenreaktor) what was then called the most beautiful machine. From today to tomorrow the high temperature reactor THTR 300 in Hamm-Uentrop had become a was-a-belle. The main reason for shutting down the is-a-belle machine had been the Chernobyl radioactive cloud that had passed over Europe in 1986.

What is it that makes the high temperature pebble bed reactor so beautiful? As any other reactor the THTR works on nuclear fission but the main material burned is Thorium-232 although 20% of Uranium-235 is needed to create a critical assembly sustaining the chain reaction. The moderator is graphite instead of light water and the coolant is helium gas. Elegantly the nuclear fuel is mixed with the neutron moderating graphite (carbon) formed into spheres of the size of a tennis ball. Such an assembly has a negative temperature coefficient i.e. as the temperature increases the fissionable material-carbon mixture eventually becomes uncritical i.e. the THTR had an inherent safety feature.

How does the THTR operate: When the THTR is running thermal neutrons breed Uranium-233 from Thorium-232 where the former is fissioned "on-line". Instead of uranium the THTR burns the on earth more abundant thorium with only a small amount of plutonium produced. The theoretical energy efficiency of boiling water reactors (like those in Fukushima) is 47%, the one for the helium cooled pebble bed reactor is 71%,  for the beautiful machine did not only generate electricity but also high temperature heat. This heat was intended to be used for the hydrogenation of the abundant coal on the Ruhr producing methane and other hydrocarbons.

During operation fresh carbon-thorium balls were fed into the reactor vessel from above while burned out spheres were taken out from the bottom and reprocessed. Although the THTR produces a small amount of plutonium the radioactive waste from the burning of thorium due to the shorter half-lives of the fission products  is less of a problem than the waste from light-water reactors.

The Rubbiatron: For those who are still worried about the small amount of plutonium produced Carlo Rubbia's energy amplifier may alley their concerns. In coupling a thorium assembly with a proton accelerator the nuclear fission is sustained by neutrons produced from spallation reactions. No Uranium-235 is needed and no plutonium is produced. Why is the machine called energy amplifier? One has to input a certain amount of energy to get the more energy producing chain reaction going. This also means: when the accelerator is switched off nuclear fission stops immediately. Such a proton accelerator could likewise be used to "incinerate" the nuclear waste produced.

When we discussed the Rubbiatron at CERN one technological issue seemed to be insurmountable. As an accelerators operates in a vacuum there must be a separation (a thin window) between the thorium assembly and the proton machine. Such a metallic membrane will be hit by enormous amounts of radiation and thus be damaged in a short time.

Epilogue: With all the present day nuclear hysteria in Germany the State government of North-Rhein-Westfalia suddenly claimed that 2000 of the 675 000 radioactive thorium-graphite balls used in the THTR had gone astray. However, this turned out to be a hoax!

Dr. Printz of the Jülich Research Laboratory proudly presents
one of the"missing" graphite-thorium balls (DPA)

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Anything Goes

Nothing is impossible: Der Spiegel on-line used this Toyota slogan: Nichts ist unmöglich as a title of an article referring to newly possible color combinations in German politics. Remember the color coding of our political parties?

Nothing is impossible? Rather the lyrics of an Ella Fitzgerald song come to my mind:

In olden days a glimpse of stocking
Was looked on as something shocking
Now heaven knows, anything goes.

With the Greens flying high in the sky (like Ol' Blue Eyes with his gal or chick) the other colors become pale or nearly vanish like the yellow colored Liberals. Following their crushing defeat in the latest State elections they choose as a first remedy a new party chairman, a doctor by profession, to cure them from anorexia.

At present all political parties in Germany would like to get a bit of the anti nuclear bonus the Green Party is profitting from. All in vain, if there were federal elections today the Christian Democrats (black) will remain the strongest party but they would be unable to form a government for the Liberals (yellow) would fall below 5% and thus no longer be presented in the Bundestag (parliament). And as the Greens will have more votes than the Social Democrats (red) Germany would very likely have a green chancellor provided the Reds accept the rôle of a junior coalition partner for the Greens like in the State of Baden-Württemberg.

That this may not happen and with the yellows falling out of parliament the blacks are looking for a "new" coalition junior partner and suddenly anything goes. For them the Greens have become honorable.

However, all this is just a snapshot for the tide will change once Fukushima doesn't make it to the front page anymore and the Green-Red coalition in Stuttgart is showing syptoms of wear and tear.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Cold Fusion

The recent electoral success of the Greens will accelerate the phasing out of nuclear power in Germany. The search for new energy sources is being intensified. Here I should admit: Freiburgs’s population is stuck between a rock and a hard place. So far the opposition against wind energy plants was great with one convincing argument that the rotating blades may kill bats during their night-flights. However, this is a trumped-up assertion, for the real reason is that nobody likes the technical asparagus on top of the Black Forest and certainly not in his/her own backyard.

The other day I read: Dane County's manure digester ready to provide electricity. This certainly works if only there are enough cows or pigs to deliver the raw material. What does not work is Cold Fusion a flaw that Dogbert has lately re-invented as an energy source:

TIME, cover of May 8, 1989
I still remember when in spring of ’89 Carlo Rubbia (later Nobel prize winner and my Director General) caught me in a hallway at CERN saying: Look what Fleischman and Pons do in the States and we all are sleeping here. I gulped and later provided him and other teams at CERN with neutron counters so that my Group could hardly fulfill its tasks in radiation protection at the Lab. Yes, even Cold Fusion, if it worked, will create radiation! 

To make a long story short: The CERN spokesman said that "essentially all" attempts in Western Europe to reproduce the results had failed (Wikipedia) what means in clear: Cold Fusion did not and I think will not work.