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Nuclear Incident at Georgia Tech

Large scale nuclear accidents like those at Chernobyl and Fukushima are environmental disasters which grab the headlines. But lesser accidents do occur, just as in any industrial facility. I was involved in one such incident.

From the mid-sixties to the mid-nineties, Georgia Tech had a research reactor which served a multitude of research purposes. It also gave Nuclear Engineering students a hands-on experience with a working nuclear reactor.

The Frank H. Neely Nuclear Research Center, contained a 5-megawatt heavy-water (D2O) cooled reactor located on the Georgia Tech campus.

The Georgia Tech Nuclear Reactor and Research Center

In the late 60s, I was a graduate student in the Georgia Tech Department of Biology. I was working for a professor who had an interest in manganese and bacteria. One of his projects was using neutron activation of the manganese ions found in Atlanta’s drinking water supply, Lake Lanier. Elevated manganese levels in water is an indicator of pollution. 

After driving to Lake Lanier and launching a small boat, another graduate student and I would pump lake water from 100-feet down up into water sampling jugs on the boat. Our most important sampling site was just offshore a water treatment plant, the currently named Shoal Creek Filter Plant. That plant was less than two miles from the Buford Dam, so the water was reliably deep.

Buford Dam at Lake Lanier, https://saportareport.com/metro-atlantas-drought-far-dust-bowl-far-healthy/columnists/david/

One day, the 100-foot-long sampling line disconnected from its reel and disappeared overboard. Without thinking, I dived over the side of the boat with my glasses and billfold, and swam down after the disappearing line. The yellow-green light was getting dimmer every foot I descended.

I was probably twenty feet down when I caught a blurry sight of the barely visible line sinking rapidly through the water.

As I rose back to the boat with the line in my grasp, my crewmate gave me a look of “What the (expletive deleted) just happened?” He had been looking away when I dived overboard, severely rocking the boat. One second, I was there, and the next second I was gone, almost throwing him into the lake in the process.

That was not the last time he would be surprised, as you will read shortly.

Miraculously, I did not lose my glasses, but all my billfold photos were a total loss. But I had saved the research equipment! 

Back at the Frank H. Neely Nuclear Research Center, my crewmate and I would send aliquots of the water into the core of the reactor using an air-driven pneumatic system called a “rabbit.”  Once in the reactor core, the water sample was bombarded by a dense neutron flux, for a predetermined amount of time. 

The floor of the reactor containment building during our time there. The control room is mid-photo.

Georgia Tech reactor control room. We technicians could look but couldn’t touch.

Once the rabbit system pulled the sample out of the core, the sample was measured by Geiger counter to determine if it was safe to approach.

Neutron bombardment produced radioactive isotopes of manganese, converting Mn55 into Mn56. Mn56 has an ideal half-life of 2.6 hours and emits gamma rays at 846.8 keV. Manganese is easy to detect with gamma spectroscopy. 

Due to the low level of manganese in the fresh water samples, the Geiger counter never indicated the sample was “hot” after its trip to nuclear hell.

Neutron Activation and radioactive decay. Element X has a mass A and charge Z. Absorption of a neutron increases A by 1. Beta particles can have either a negative charge (like electrons) or a positive charge (positrons) so the result of beta decay can yield a net positive or negative charge.
 https://nmi3.eu/neutron-research/techniques-for-/chemical-analysis.html

We prepared the lake water samples in a clean room environment. That is also where we returned the newly radioactive sample, transferring it to a sample cell placed in the lead-lined spectrometer. Of course, we always wore full isotope protection (disposable gloves, gowns and masks.)

Modern day laboratory equipment for determination of γ-radiation spectrum with a scintillation counter. The output from the scintillation counter goes to a Multichannel Analyzer which processes and formats the data. By Manticorp – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17598452

After gamma ray measurements were taken, the radioactive samples were placed in lead-lined cavities for disposal by reactor staff. 

Our work progressed without incident until the professor asked us to activate a sample of saltwater. Neutron activation of Cl35, the natural form of chlorine, produces Cl36, with a half-life of 301,000 years. 

We noted that as the rabbit returned with its sample of saltwater from its trip into the reactor core, the sample was extremely hot (radioactive), due no doubt to the high concentration of chlorine in salt water. After letting it cool a bit (some chlorine isotopes decay quickly), we performed our usual sample transfer and measurements.

Cl36 is a weak gamma emitter, but we had a hot enough dose to pick it up on the gamma spectrometer. The primary decay mechanism for Cl36 is through low-energy beta particles. 

The radiation doses and half-lives had always been low and short for the manganese fresh water samples, and thus we were not in the habit of placing our hands and feet through a radiation detector prior to leaving the reactor research building. That dosimeter was intended for “hot” work. 

As usual, it was late in the day when we finished our work, and few people remained in the building. Before exiting the building after our seawater work, we passed by the usually ignored detector. 

But that day, I turned around and said, “Let’s check ourselves, just to be sure.” 

I was clean, as I had expected. But as my colleague put his hands and feet into the device, screeching alarms and flashing red lights stunned us. As we southerners say, it caused a commotion.

I had heard that nuclear danger alarm only once before, without knowing the cause of it. But now, we were the center of attention. The few people remaining in the building surrounded us within seconds, or so it seemed.  Apparently, running towards danger is for all kinds of first responders. 

After the staff carefully examined our discarded gloves, masks and garments, they discovered that one of the gloves had a small tear in the right-hand thumb. That small tear was all it took to contaminate my friend. 

It was late at night before we were cleared to leave, and then only with extensive washing of my colleague’s right hand. The radiation safety officer wrapped a thick layer of gauze around the offending thumb, and securely taped it. And then he got to work on a lot of paperwork. 

Unlike the Mn isotopes we normally worked with, the Cl36 isotope would not decay for many human lifetimes. So, scrubbing and dilution was the only solution. 

The thumb was heavily bandaged because the only risk was to the student’s new baby. Beta particles, essentially electrons, cannot penetrate deeply to vital organs, so Cl36 residue was not as much of a concern as would be gamma emitters. However, if the baby had sucked on the father’s thumb, the way teething babies do, the Cl36 isotope would have been ingested. And beta radiation occurring internally can be a health risk. 

https://weillcornellgucancer.org/2017/04/12/using-alpha-and-beta-radioisotopes-to-kill-cancer-cells/


And to think, we almost let my friend go straight home to take over baby duty. 

My fellow student was warned to keep his distance from his baby, and wash his hands thoroughly several times a day, rewrapping his thumb with fresh gauze after every wash. After a week of that repetitive washing routine, it would likely be safe for him to cuddle his baby girl once again, after one last Geiger Counter check. 

In the meantime, he was excused from diaper duty! 

This type of contamination incident may be more common than you think. Fortunately, it did not equate to a calamity. But it could have been a calamity for that little girl and her family had she ingested radioactive chlorine atoms.

Those dealing with radioactive materials, high pressure, dangerous chemicals, fires, and carrier flight decks, to name just a few hazards, know that personal disaster is only a misstep away. In spite of training, humans do make mistakes. But fortunately, this mistake was caught in the nick of time.

Radioisotope image credit: Foro Nuclear



The Blood of a Forest

A dead forest bleeds for years, its decomposition products flowing slowly into the soil, leached out by rains to turn tributaries as black as night. Those dark tributaries join forces, darkening streams heading inexorably to the sea. At last, the blood of the forest flows out into the surf zones, spreading a dark brown stain hundreds of yards wide, carried down shore by persistent currents.

I had been thinking about this topic for a couple of years, but was motivated to finally publish it after seeing a recent (February 10, 2021) article in Hakai Magazine, an ePub devoted to coastal environmental subjects. The title was The Environmental Threat You’ve Never Heard Of.” The lead sentence is, “It’s called Coastal Darkening, and scientists are just beginning to explore.

To quote from that article, “Coastal waters around the world are steadily growing darker. This darkening—a change in the color and clarity of the water—has the potential to cause huge problems for the ocean and its inhabitants.

Some of the causes behind ocean darkening are well understood… During heavy rains, for instance, organic matter—primarily from decaying plants and loose soil—can enter the ocean as a brown, light-blocking slurry. This process is well documented in rivers and lakes, but has largely been overlooked in coastal areas.”

In the coastal city of Panama City, Florida, entire patches of cypress forests were destroyed a few years ago, thus producing lots of decaying plant matter.

What can destroy a forest? The unstoppable force of a category 5 hurricane. In this instance, it was Hurricane Michael striking Panama City and the surrounding Florida Panhandle on October 10, 2018.

Ironically, although I had retired just days before, I attended an Office of Naval Research Workshop on diving, and had bragged to one of the attendees that Panama City was in a very lucky geographical location. We had not been hit by a hurricane since Hurricane Opal in 1995. And that was only a Category 4 hurricane.

Only a few days later, Panama City’s luck changed, horribly. Category 5 Hurricane Michael made a bee-line for Panama City, pushing a wave of water that swept away much of the community of Mexico Beach, just twelve miles east of the first landfall of Michael’s eye at Tyndall Air Force Base in Panama City.

12:30 PM Tyndall Air Force Base and its drone runway to the east is in the eye of the hurricane. Destruction to the home of the 1st Air Force was catastrophic.

The above radar imagery was captured on my iPad, using Foreflight aviation software while we safely sat in a hotel room in Birmingham, AL. The redder the color, the stronger the rainfall. Green represented low rainfall intensity near the eyewall.

12:45 PM. Callaway Bayou typically pours dark stains into St. Andrew’s Bay. The torrential downpours from passage of the red and yellow rain bands (color signifying rain intensity) would have forced even more tannins southward into the Bay. (It is unlikely that the satellite view and the radar view are synched together in time.)

After returning from our hurricane safe haven in Birmingham, AL to our damaged home on Panama City Beach, and as soon as the airspace opened up again, I surveyed some of the damage from the air. A month after the storm, areas along the Gulf Coast were closed to normal aircraft due to drones surveying the damage along Mexico Beach, and providing assistance to personnel looking for human remains. 

However, there were no restrictions to flying along the path of the hurricane, northeast of Panama City. So, on November 4th I launched in that direction and discovered that a huge swath of cypress trees had been flattened about 40 miles north of Mexico Beach. Since cypress trees love water, there were of course creeks running through the midst of them. The Florida Panhandle watershed runs inexorably south towards the Gulf of Mexico (GOM).

Fourmile Creek ran through the area I photographed. It is a tributary feeding the Chipola River. The Chipola in turn dumps into the Apalachicola River, the primary flow into Apalachicola Bay, home of the famous Apalachicola oysters.

A year or so later, as seen on Google Earth imagery of the affected area in Florida, some of the low-lying greenery began to return to the Fourmile Creek area. However, the skeletal remains of the flattened Cypress forest were still clearly evident.

My next flight was on December 18, 2018, after the coastal airspace had been opened back up to general aviation traffic. That was over two months after the hurricane hit shore.

Mexico Beach: December 18, 2018. Houses and buildings between Highway 98 and the beach had been swept off their foundations by the storm surge, and turned into kindling wood. The dark water Salt Creek on the lower left corner drained into the Gulf.
Another view of the decimated Mexico Beach. The normally crystal-clear water off the beach was dark, a residual from the hurricane.

On Sept 2, 2020, almost two years after the hurricane, I was flying from east to west along the coast, back towards Panama City. As I approached Mexico Beach, I saw a clearly defined dark area in the otherwise clear sea water. I snapped several photos as I got closer to the still struggling town. They are shown in sequence below, starting from furthest west, approaching town center.

On the beach, the El Governor Resort is on the right side of the photo.
Google Street View image reveals how high the storm surge rose at the El Governor. Image from Sept, 2019.
The worst of the staining came from a single source at the northern boundary of Mexico Beach.
Salt Creek was pouring its dark water directly into the Gulf of Mexico. Salt Creek drains an area of storm-flattened cypress only two miles north of the Mexico Beach shoreline.

The largest area of devastation of cypress forests surrounded Fourmile Creek which runs southeast before emptying into the Chipola River.

Due east of Panama City, the appropriately named Cypress Creek also empties into the Chipola River as the river feeds the Dead Lakes. In turn, the Chipola empties into the Apalachicola River southeast of Wewahitchka.

Nearer to Mexico Beach, there is yet another Cypress Creek which drains into both the Intracoastal Waterway at its northern end, and the GOM at its southern end. In the next aerial photo of Mexico Beach, Cypress Creek can be seen pouring its darkness into the ocean. Cypress Creek also drains a large swampy area of destroyed cypress trees.

The inset blowup of a dark squiggle in the sand, is an enlargement of the dark water outfall of Cypress Creek. (Curiously, Google Earth photos of the dark tannic water of Cypress Creek seems to show it emptying into both the Intracoastal Waterway to the north and the Gulf waters to the south.)

Remarkably, the greatest dark water offender on the September 2020 flyover was Salt Creek, with its outfall that lay two miles to the northwest of Cypress Creek.

Historical Perspective

Cypress trees have been in Florida for at least 6,500 years. During that time, their populations must have weathered tens of thousands of hurricanes. In spite of being knocked down due to being rooted in wet, soggy soil, and frequently rotting as a result, the overall population is well adapted to black water. Their blood, or rot if you will, produces more of the black water habitat that the cypress trees favor. Throughout the southeastern United States, Cypress forests (with isolated communities often called “domes”) remain ideal habitat for many species of fish, birds and mammals.

Tourists flock to the Gulf Coast’s so-called “Miracle Strip” of clean water and white sand that stretches from Pensacola Beach to Mexico Beach and slightly beyond. On a macro scale, the water and beaches are kept clear by the effects of the Loop Current, and its eddies, bringing clear Gulf water up towards the Gulf shores.

While the dark water periodically spilling into the normally clear Gulf of Mexico beaches may be repulsive to tourists, an experimental study described in the Haikai article notes that black water outfalls may favor certain zooplankton, providing a new food species for local fishes.

So, to this scientist at least, it may that in the Gulf of Mexico, periodic outpourings of dark water caused by heavy rains, tropical storms and hurricanes may be what is required to balance the estuary and marine ecosystem.

In other words, the concerns stated in the Haikai article may not apply to the west coast of Florida. Of course, to know for sure, further study is required.

In retrospect, when looking down upon flattened forests of trees, it seems nature is harsh. But nature works for the end game; survival of the environment. In Florida, the environment has survived hurricanes, and their effects on forests and water, for millennia.

Of greater concern to Florida might be the permanent destruction of the cypress forests by man, rather than hurricanes. Nature can recover from hurricanes, but cannot recover from man’s misguided intentions. After all, forests buffer the effects of hurricanes. Without them, Florida would lay flat and naked before every onslaught of a sometimes violent Nature.

Maintaining Your Respiratory Reserve

The following is a reprint from InDepth: Digital Scuba Diving Magazine by Global Underwater Explorers.

Published on September 6, 2019             By InDepth

by John Clarke

JJ on his JJ.” Photo by Andreas Hagberg.

Just like skeletal muscles, respiratory muscles have a limited ability to respond to respiratory loads. An excellent example of this is a person’s inability to breathe through an overly long snorkel (Figure 1.) Our respiratory muscles simply aren’t strong enough to overcome the pressure difference between water depth and the surface.

This doesn’t work. Her respiratory muscles are not strong enough.
Illustration by Cameron Cottrill.

The primary respiratory muscle is the diaphragm, (the brown organ lying below the lungs in Figure 2.) The diaphragm is designed for low-intensity work maintained 24/7 for the entirety of your life.

Like the heart muscle, its specialty is endurance. When called upon to maximally perform,  the diaphragm needs assistance.

That assistance is provided by the accessory respiratory muscles, primarily the intercostal muscles linking the ribs within the rib cage.

The human diaphragm separating the lungs from the abdominal cavity. Graphic by John Clarke.

Unless you’re reading this while running on a treadmill, your body is probably idling. Your heart is beating rhythmically, your diaphragm is methodically contracting and relaxing. But, if some dire event were to happen, you would be primed for action. If you needed to react to an emergency, your heart and lungs would race at full speed.

The difference between idling and full-speed capability is called physiological reserve, which in turn is divided into its components; cardiac, muscular, and ventilatory reserve. As drivers, pilots, and boat captains will attest, it’s always good to have fuel reserves. Likewise, physiological reserve is good to have in abundance.

The Dive

The following is an imaginary tale of a young, blond-haired hipster drawn to the Red Sea for a deep dive. He chose to dive on the wall at Ras Mohammed on the Eastern Shore of the Sinai, which descends quickly down to a thousand feet and beyond. That was his target—1,000 feet.

The previous year he bought a rebreather so gas usage should not be a problem for his deep dive. He also sprang for the cost of helium-oxygen diluent. Trimix would have been cheaper, but he spared no expense. Nothing but the best. To that end, he used loose-fill, fine grain Sodalime in his CO2 scrubber canister.

These were his thoughts as he descended.

Free-falling at three hundred feet. Never been this deep before. The water’s getting cold, so the warm gas from the canister feels good.

800 feet. Wow, the gas is thicker now.

When he reached the bottom, he realized something wasn’t right. He sucked harder and harder, feeling his full face mask collapsing around his face with each inhalation. He was “sucking rubber,” feeling like he was running out of gas, but his diluent pressure gage still read 1800 psi.

Unconsciously, he compensated for the respiratory load by slowing his breathing—easing his discomfort. Concerned, he briefly switched to open circuit bailout gas, but that didn’t feel any better. In fact, it was worse, so he switched back to the bag.

Surprisingly, he couldn’t get off the bottom. In fact, he was slipping further downslope. He needed to drop weights, but they were integrated. He fumbled with his vest, trying to remember how to release the weights, but he couldn’t work it out.

He found the pony bottle to inflate his integrated BC, but after a second’s spit of air, it stopped filling. He would have to swim off the bottom. As he struggled to swim upwards in the darkness, and without bubbles to guide him, he wasn’t sure which way was up.

His heart was beating at its maximum rate, trying to force blood through his lungs, but he couldn’t force enough gas in and out of his lungs to clear his bloodstream of its increasingly toxic CO2 load. The build-up of CO2 in the arterial blood was clouding his thinking. The CO2 was making him want to breathe harder, but he couldn’t. The feeling of breathlessness—and impending doom—was overwhelming.

————

The accident investigation on the equipment was inconclusive. The dive computer had flooded, but that was irrelevant. Surface pre-dive checks were passed. The rebreather seemed to function normally when tested in a swimming pool. The investigators convinced a Navy laboratory to press the rebreather down to 1,000 feet, but nothing abnormal was found other than a slight elevation of controlled PO2.

The Analysis

An asthma attack can kill by narrowing the airways in the lung, making the person suffering the attack feel like they’re sucking air through a clogged straw.

A healthy diver doesn’t have airways that constrict, but gas density increases with depth, causing the same effect as a narrowed airway. It becomes increasingly difficult to breathe as depth increases. A previous InDepth blog post on gas density discusses this subject.

Normal human airways compared to airways during an asthma attack. Graphic courtesy of Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America.

If the strength of respiratory muscles is finite, just as it is for all muscles, then any load placed on those muscles will eat away a diver’s “respiratory reserve.” From the diaphragm’s perspective, the total loading it encounters is divided between that internal to the diver and that external to the diver. As gas density increases, internal loading increases. A rebreather is external to the body, so flow resistance through a rebreather adds to the total load placed on the respiratory muscles. If the internal resistance load increases a lot, as it does at great depth, there is very little reserve left for external resistance, like that of a rebreather.

In this fictional tale of a hapless diver, he needlessly added respiratory resistance by using fine-grain Sodalime in his scrubber canister. Compared to large grain Sodalime, such as Sofnolime 408, fine-grain absorbent adds scrubber duration, but it also increases breathing resistance. It thus cut into the diver’s ventilatory reserve.

This fictional diver exceeded his physiological reserves by,

  1. not understanding the effect of dense gas on the “work of breathing,”
  2. not understanding the limitation of his respiratory muscles, and
  3. by not realizing the “best” Sodalime for dive duration was not the best for breathing resistance.

He also didn’t realize that a rebreather scrubber might remove all CO2 from the expired gas passing through it, but it is ventilation (breathing) that eliminates the body’s CO2 from the diver’s bloodstream. Once CO2 intoxication begins, cognitive and muscular ability quickly decline to the point where self-rescue may be impossible.

Lessons from The U.S. Navy

Considering the seriousness of the topic, it is worthwhile to review the following figures prepared for the U.S. Navy.

First, we define peak-to-peak mouth pressure, a measure of the pressure exerted by a working diver breathing through the external resistance of a rebreather. Total respiratory resistance for a diver comes in two parts: internal and external. In the following figures, those resistances in the upper airways are symbolized by a small opening, and in the external breathing apparatus, by a long, narrow opening representing a UBA attached to the diver’s mouth.

High external resistance. In this case, the difference between mouth pressure and ambient water pressure is called ΔP1 Credit with modifcation: “Direct measurement of pressures involved in vocal exercises using semi-occluded vocal tracts”.
Low external resistance. The difference between mouth pressure and ambient water pressure is called ΔP2. Credit with modification: “Direct measurement of pressures involved in vocal exercises using semi-occluded vocal tracts”.
Mouth pressure waveforms ΔP1 and ΔP2 during breathing with high (P1) and low (P2) external resistance.

This author reviewed over 250 dives by Navy divers at the Naval Medical Research Institute and the Navy Experimental Diving Unit. These were working dives involving strenuous exercise at simulated depths down to 1500 feet seawater, using gas mixtures ranging from air to nitrox and heliox. Gas densities ranged from about 1 gram per liter (g/L) (air at the surface) to over 8 g/L. Each dive was composed of a team of divers, so each plotted data point had more than one man-dive result included. An “eventful” dive was one where a diver stopped work due to loss of consciousness, or respiratory distress (“dyspnea” in medical terminology.) They were marked as red in the following figure. Uneventful dives were marked in black.

Using a statistical technique called maximum likelihood, the data revealed a sloping line marking a boundary between eventful and uneventful dives.

Peak-to-peak mouth pressure and gas density conspire to increase a diver’s risk of an “event” during a dive.

The fact that the zero-incidence line sloped downward illustrates the fact that the higher the gas density, the greater the respiratory load imposed on a diver by both internal and external (UBA) resistance. The higher that load, the lower the diver’s tolerance to high respiratory pressures.

By measuring peak-to-peak mouth pressures, we are witnessing the effect of UBA flow resistance at high workloads. It does not reveal the flow resistance internal to the body. However, when gas density increases, internal resistance must also increase.

The interrupted lines in the figure illustrate lines of estimated equal probability of an event. The higher the peak-to- peak pressure for a given gas density, the higher the probability of an eventful dive.

Figure 7 suggests that at a gas density of over 8 grams per liter, practical work would be impossible. The only way to make it possible would be to reduce gas density by substituting helium for nitrogen, or substituting hydrogen for helium, and then doing as little work as possible to keep ΔP low.

For our fictional 1,000 foot diver, the gas density would have been between 6 and 7 grams per L. Using a rebreather, there would be virtually no physiological reserve at the bottom. Moderate work against the high breathing resistance at depth would be very likely to result in an “eventful” dive.

Image Citation for medical graphics: Robieux C, Galant C, Lagier A, Legou T, Giovanni A. Direct measurement of pressures involved in vocal exercises using semi-occluded vocal tracts. Logoped Phoniatr Vocol. 2015 Oct;40(3):106-12. doi: 10.3109/14015439.2014.902496. Epub 2014 May 21. PMID: 24850270.

John Clarke, also known as John R. Clarke, Ph.D., is a Navy diving researcher in physiology and physical science. Clarke was an early graduate of the Navy’s Scientist in the Sea Program. During his forty-year government career, he conducted physiological research on numerous experimental saturation dives. Two dives were to a pressure equivalent to 1500 fsw.

For twenty- eight years he was the Scientific Director of the Navy Experimental Diving Unit.

Clarke has authored a technothriller-science fiction series called the Jason Parker Trilogy. All three volumes, Middle Waters, Triangle, and Atmosphere, feature saturation diving from depths of 100 feet to 2,500 feet. The deepest dives involve hydreliox, a mixture of helium, hydrogen and oxygen. UFOs, aliens, and an uncaring cosmos lay the framework for political and human intrigue both on and off-planet.

Although now retired, Clarke has worked for NEDU as a Scientist Emeritus. He now runs a consulting company, Clarke Life Support Consulting, LLC. He helps various companies, when he isn’t writing about diving, aviation, and space. His websites are www.johnclarkeonline.com and www.jasonparkertrilogy.com. His thriller series is available at Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

Related Blog Posts – Further Reading for Rebreather Divers

Hydrogen Diving: The Good, The Bad, the Ugly

In the preceding blog post, I reminded the reader that the Earth’s supply of helium is limited. It is not a renewable resource.

Being a diving professional, I am not concerned about the consequence of a helium shortage on party balloons. But I am thinking about the potential consequences on diving.

So, knowing that hydrogen has both good and bad traits, it would be prudent to begin thinking about whether or not there is a way to safely substitute hydrogen for helium in technical, scientific, commercial and military diving.

Perhaps the word “bad” is too much of an understatement. Perhaps “horrible” would be a better descriptor for something like the Hindenburg disaster.

With that sobering reminder of what can happen, we now cautiously move on to the science.

First, we begin with the explosion hazard of hydrogen in binary mixtures of hydrogen and oxygen.

For diving in the 10 to 20 bar range, 326 to 653 fsw range, the upper explosion limit is 94.2 molar percent. So that means that if a binary gas mixture contains 96% hydrogen and 4% oxygen, it should not explode when ignited.

Those underlined words are important. An explosive mixture of hydrogen and oxygen will not explode without an ignition source. Proof of that is exhibited in many college introductory chemistry lectures, and documented in the following YouTube video.

Arne Zetterström

As a forecast of our potential future, during World War II, Sweden was deprived of a ready source of helium coming from the U.S. and elsewhere. So, the clever and industrious Arne Zetterström conducted a series of experimental deep, hard hat dives from 1943 to 1945 using a mixture of 96% hydrogen and 4% oxygen on dives ranging from 12 to 17 bar.

Once at depth, Zetterström switched from a non-hydrox gas mixture to the “hydrox” gas mixture. His initial test dive was to 111 msw (362 fsw, 12 bar), progressing through six dives to a maximum depth of 160 msw (522 fsw, 17 bar).

That dive series was successful. Unfortunately, on the last dive on 7 August 1945, Zetterström died tragically when his dive tenders mistakenly pulled him directly to the surface from the bottom depth of 522 fsw. He died from fulminant decompression sickness.

From the above table we see that modern measurements confirm that Zetterström chose his gas mixes wisely. At a 96 mol% of hydrogen, he was above the upper explosion limit. If there had been an unexpected ignition event, his breathing gas mixture would not have exploded.

I have confirmed the oxygen partial pressure for Zetterström’s dives using PTC Mathcad Express 3.1 and will share the process.

First, I show pressure conversions familiar to Navy divers and diving scientists, but not known to most others.

For Zetterström’s 111 msw (362 fsw) dive, the partial pressure of oxygen (PO2) would have been 0.478 atm, at the top end of the target range (0.4 to 0.48) for U.S. Navy chamber oxygen atmosphere during saturation diving. A PO2 of 0.48 is believed to be the highest PO2 tolerated for extended periods. Saturation dives sometimes last over a month.

For Zetterström’s 6th and last dive, to 160 msw (522 fsw), the oxygen partial pressure was 0.7 ata, about half of what it normally is in modern electronic rebreathers with fixed PO2.

A far more detailed story of the Zetterström Hydrox dive series can be found in this book.

Arne Zetterström Memorial Dive

In 2012, the Swedish Historical Diving Society and the Royal Institute of Technology (KTH) Diving Club, Stockholm, conducted an Arne Zetterström Memorial dive to a relatively shallow depth of 40 msw or 131 fsw. The original 96% – 4% ratio of hydrogen and oxygen was maintained, resulting in a gas mixture with a PO2 of 0.20 atm.

As reported in the KTH Dive Club’s Dykloggen (dive log) report of July 2012, the team lead was Ola Lindh, Project Leader and Diver. Åke Larsson, another diver, contributed the following information about that dive.

The Hydrox divers used open circuit scuba, with back mounted air, and for decompression, bottles of hydrox and oxygen.

The Swedish divers did not go deeper than 131 feet because they were just above the mud at that depth in a quarry. Plus, they did not yet have details of Zetterström’s decompression plan for deeper diving.

Today, they do possess the wartime hydrogen decompression plan, so deeper hydrogen dives may be forthcoming.

Three gas mixtures – hydrogen, and air (nitrogen and oxygen)

When you mix an inert gas like nitrogen (or perhaps helium?) with hydrogen and oxygen mixtures, that greatly reduces the explosion hazard. But as this video shows, sooner or later the ratios might change enough to become explosive.

Naval Medical Research Institute

I spent 12 years working as a diving biomedical researcher at the Naval Medical Research Institute (NMRI) in Bethesda, MD.

Main entrance to the Albert R. Behnke Diving Medicine Research Center, at NMRI.

My laboratory was in the Behnke Diving Medicine Research Center building, but the hyperbaric hydrogen facility was situated a safe distance behind the main building. In the unlikely event of an explosion, the main Behnke facility and its hyperbaric chamber complex would be preserved.  

The hyperbaric hydrogen facility was used to test the effects of high-pressure hydrogen and biochemical decompression on pigs, rather than risk human divers. And all of that was done safely, thanks to the professionalism of Navy divers and scientists.

Dr. Susan Kayar checking on the hydrogen diving pigs.

Kayar, a member of the Women Divers Hall of Fame, used at 230 msw (751 fsw) a gas mixture of 88% hydrogen, 2% oxygen, balance helium with a slight amount of nitrogen. That 88% hydrogen mixture put the gas mixture well above the 71.3% upper explosion limit for three gas components at 24 bar pressure. The resulting PO2 was 0.5 ata.

Compagnie Maritime d’Expertises (COMEX)

COMEX and their human-rated hyperbaric chambers are located in Marseilles, France.

When it came to manned hydrogen diving, the effect of hydrogen narcosis forced COMEX to operate below the upper explosion limit during its long series of experimental hydrogen dives.

In 1985, COMEX’s Hydra V was the first manned hydrogen dive to 450 msw. Hydrogen fraction was 54%, helium fraction was 45%, and oxygen fraction 1%. PO2 was a nominal 0.45 atm, the same partial pressure used by the U.S. Navy for saturation dives.

In 1988 during Hydra VIII, the first open water hydrogen dive, the depth was 534 msw, or 1752 fsw. Hydrogen fraction was 49%, helium fraction was 50%, and oxygen fraction 1%. The resulting oxygen partial pressure was 0.54 atmospheres.

The following video documents the record-breaking Hydra VIII dive.

The 534 msw Hydra VIII depth record was broken by Hydra X, a 701 msw, 2300 fsw chamber dive. The gas mixture was the same as in Hydra VIII, hydrogen fraction 49%, helium 50%, and oxygen percentage 1%. Due to the increase in depth, PO2 rose to 0.7 atm, an oxygen partial pressure frequently used in older U.S. Navy rebreathers.

The head of the Diving Medicine Department at NMRI, CAPT Ed Flynn, M.D. (glasses and grey hair sitting on the right side of the console), was performing physiological studies on both Hydra VI and VIII. In essence he was the Patron Saint of the NMRI Hydrogen Research Facility.

Shallow Hydrogen Diving

What have the previous studies taught us? Well, for one thing, the Swedes showed in their Arne Zetterström Memorial dive that you can get away with oxygen concentrations close to normoxia, PO2~0.21 ata. The disadvantage of normal atmospheric partial pressures of oxygen, compared to higher pressures, is related to decompression time. There is a decompression advantage when breathing oxygen pressures of 1.3 to 1.45 ata. Virtually all modern electronic rebreathers use those oxygen pressures for that reason. But as the KTH Dive Club showed, hydrogen decompression can be safely handled at relatively shallow depths.

For recreational divers, there is an economic advantage for reducing helium usage by substituting nitrogen. We don’t yet know what the economic and safety comparison would be when using helium diluted hydrogen versus pure hydrogen.

Hydrogen, helium, and oxygen were the standard gases used by COMEX. But they were likely chosen to lessen hydrogen toxicity. Hydrogen toxicity would not be a problem at shallow depth. And in fact, the KTH Dive Club reported no toxicity problems.

Retrospection

As proud as I have been of the record-breaking COMEX hydrogen research program, and of the highly imaginative U.S. Navy hydrogen research program, it has not been lost on me that the first deep human hydrogen dives were conducted by an undoubtedly low-cost program led by a single Swedish Naval Officer, Arne Zetterström.

Now, I find it remarkable that the people testing hydrogen diving at relatively shallow depths, would also be Swedish. Unlike the COMEX and NMRI projects described above, I suspect the KTH Dive club was not sponsored by multimillion dollar programs.

You have to admire the Swedish chutzpah.

Disclaimer: The author is no longer employed by the Navy or Department of Defense. All opinions are my own, and not those of any government agency. This document is posted purely for historical and educational interest. At risk of violent death, under no circumstances should the reader be tempted to explore the production, storage, or use of hydrogen without thorough and certified safety training.

What Will Divers Do When the Helium is Gone?

Helium is a low density, non-narcotic gas often added to the breathing gas mixture of divers who have to dive deep. Nitrogen, the primary component of air is both dense, making it hard to breathe when diving deep, and narcotic at depths below one hundred feet. That is why nitrogen leads to the so-called “rapture of the deep.” Narcotic divers make bad decisions.

If it weren’t for helium, some of the deepest and most sensitive diving for national security would never have happened. So, it’s really important. Commercial saturation diving in the oil fields of the North Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico is wholly dependent on the easy to breathe and non-narcotic properties of helium.

Both civilian and government science divers, technical divers, and underwater cave explorers have been able to extend their diving range and safety because of helium in their breathing gas.

Helium graphic from the cover of a 2016 report on helium supply shortages by the American Physical Society, the American Chemical Society, and the Materials Research Society. — Image credit – Ashley Mumford

For those not familiar with the second lightest gas in the periodic table, I’ve included a Fast Fact from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) at the end of this post.

There are two drawbacks to helium. A source of breathable helium is sometimes hard to locate, and the gas is expensive. Because of that expense and growing scarcity, it is forecast to become increasingly difficult to find, especially in remote locations.

From a Science Direct article, “Ongoing ascent to the helium production plateau – Insights from System Dynamics” in Resources Policy, Vol. 35, Issue 2, June 2010, pgs 77-89.

The primary source of helium, a non-renewable resource, is from gas wells. As shown in the BLM summary at the bottom of this post, the demand for helium is high in scientific, medical, military, and commercial applications.

Cryomodules for an x-ray light source LCLS-II are under construction at Fermilab in Illinois. The cryomodules will house superconducting cavities that are cooled with liquid helium. Credit: Reidar Hahn.

Not on the list, and the least likely to be considered during allocation of an increasingly scarce resource, is civilian diving, and perhaps even military diving.

The above graphical projection made in 2010 does not consider the damping effect of current government policies which make drilling oil and gas wells, and fossil fuels in general, undesirable. While Qatar and Russia have significant helium reserves, helium transported from distant countries will come with a much higher price tag than forecast in 2010. Unfortunately, no one has so far calculated the net cost of reducing the recovery of gas from the ground, and the recovery of the helium contained in that natural gas.

Why might the next century bring a lowering of helium prices as predicted in the graph above? As I’ve explained in Atmosphere, Book 3 of the Jason Parker Trilogy, fusion reactors should hopefully be common place by then, and helium is a byproduct of those fusion reactions. Of course, the above graph reflects a great deal of uncertainty about the next century, even without the uncertainty introduced by government policies. But our immediate concern is this century, not the next.

One approach to helium conservation is by using rebreathers to conserve gas rather than exhaust it into the water column, as is done in open circuit diving like that pictured in the first underwater photo with two Navy divers. In rebreathers, the only helium wasted is that used to keep breathing bags inflated on descent. Unfortunately, that gas is “burped-off” as gas expands on ascent. But the amount of inert gas wasted during rebreather operations is still far less than in open-circuit diving.

A Navy EX-19 rebreather being tested in Morrison Springs, FL. Navy photo by Bernie Campoli.

Another option for holding down helium cost, is to use helium in “Trimix”, a mixture of oxygen, nitrogen and helium. Such mixes become popular for use at depths of 200 feet sea water (fsw) and deeper. It minimizes the cost of helium while simultaneously reducing the effect of nitrogen narcosis.

A common trimix is called 21/35, which has 21 percent oxygen, 35 percent helium and 44 percent nitrogen. Another common mixture is 18/45, with 18 percent oxygen and 45 percent helium. Those helium percentages are considerably reduced from that found in a typical military heliox mixture containing no nitrogen.

But even then, using helium for recreational deep diving may become far too expensive for any but the richest recreational divers. Already, it’s reported that scientific and medical instruments like superconducting magnets and MRI machines have been affected by helium shortages.

Here are some relevant links from Science Direct and the American Institute of Physics.

When it comes to the DoD prioritization of military saturation diving missions compared to other military options, the availability and cost of helium will inevitability factor into the high-level decision tree.

So, is there an alternative to helium use in diving? Well, yes and no. I’ve written in both this blog and in my novels about the use of hydrogen in diving, as has a biomedical researcher friend of mine, Susan Kayar, Ph.D. in her novel, Operation Second Starfish.

Hydrogen is even lighter than helium, but at great depth it is narcotic. One strange thing about hydrogen narcosis is that at great depth it can result in psychotic manifestations in some individuals. Also, at shallow depth, hydrogen can form an explosive mixture with oxygen, an issue I’ll discuss in my next post. So, it has to be used with great care and attention to details.

Interestingly, the math says that at 200 fsw, the depth where trimix is typically used, hydrogen can be safely substituted for helium. However, only experimentation can prove if that prediction is valid or not. But as helium gets scarcer and more expensive, using hydrogen in place of helium is something worth considering.

[DO NOT CONDUCT YOUR OWN EXPERIMENTS WITH HYDROGEN. THERE IS ALWAYS A CHANCE OF INJURY OR DEATH WITH HYDROGEN. THINK OF THE HINDENBURG!]

Below are links to other hydrogen and forward-looking diving posts in this blog.

Helium Fast Facts

Fact Sheet—BLM New Mexico Amarillo Field Office

Helium: Questions and Answers

What is helium?

Helium is an odorless, colorless, and tasteless gas. Helium, more than 99.9 percent pure, is also used in liquid form at -452 degrees Fahrenheit.

Where does helium come from?

Helium occurs with other gasses in pockets beneath the Earth’s surface. The most economical source of helium is natural gas, all of which contains some helium. Natural gas in the States of Texas, Kansas, Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming is richer in helium than what has been recovered from other States.

How is helium produced?

When a gas pocket containing economically recoverable amounts of helium is found, a well is drilled to release the gas. It travels by pipeline to a processing plant where the helium is separated from the other gasses. One method of separation is a cryogenic process, which uses cold temperature differences to split the components. Another process, membrane filtration, uses molecular size difference to split components.

What is helium used for?

Today, helium plays a prominent role in medical imaging (magnetic resonance imaging), fiber optics/semiconductor manufacturing, laser welding, leak detection, superconductivity development, aerospace, defense, and energy programs.

Is helium renewable (does it naturally replenish itself after humans use it)?

No, helium is a non-renewable resource. That is why the Federal Government stored 44 billion cubic feet of helium in a natural gas reservoir at Cliffside, just outside of Amarillo, Texas. Helium was injected into porous rock 3,000 feet below the Earth’s surface during the 1960s. This rock holds gas like a sponge holds water. Two layers of calcium anhydrite cover the rock, acting as a lid. The sides are surrounded by water.

The Sinking of the Montrose

“If it had been a snake, it would’ve bit me.”

That phrase is common in the Southern United States, often shouted in surprise when you’re vainly looking for something, and eventually discover it right in front of you.

Well, here’s an example of when the snake did bite, figuratively, and ended up sinking a ship.

The Ship

In 1962, the one-year-old, 5,000 ton displacement, 444-foot-long British freighter, the M/V Montrose, entered the Great Lakes after its fifth transatlantic voyage from its homeport of London, England. 

On June 30, 1962, it was docked at the Detroit Harbor Terminal taking on 200 tons of aluminum. Once the ship was fully loaded, a Canadian Great Lakes pilot boarded the ship at night to guide the vessel through the Detroit River, north towards Lake St. Clair and the other Great Lakes.

The River

The Detroit River connects Lake Erie at its southern end and runs generally northeast approximately 28 miles to Lake St. Clair at the north. It is bordered by Canada’s Ontario Province on the eastern side and Michigan in the United States on the opposite bank. The river’s strong current runs to the south towards Lake Erie.

The Collision

Now, imagine the chagrin of the Canadian pilot as he guided the vessel across the downside shipping lane to reach the upside lane on the Canadian side of the river. That course took it directly into the path of a heavily loaded barge on the American side, heading down the Detroit River. The resulting collision ripped a 48-foot long and as much as 24-feet wide gash in the ship’s port side bow.

The freighter immediately started flooding at the bow, soon raising the rudder and propellers out of the water. With no way to control the sinking ship, the crew and ship drifted in the strong Detroit River current, before running aground beneath the Ambassador Bridge connecting Detroit with the Canadian city of Windsor, Ontario.

The Montrose as it was foundering. Water was pouring in through a large gash in the bow’s port side.

This expensive mistake occurred in July, 1962, and I was there to record the aftermath, as were thousands of other onlookers. The links to other photos and videos are found below.

A fuzzy photo I took as a Bob-Lo excursion boat was moving past the starboard hull of the Montrose. The port side settled on the river bottom 35-feet down.

Sharper photos were taken by various civilians and published in the following link.

https://www.detroityes.com/mb/showthread.php?12005-1962-Ship-capsized-in-Detroit-River-under-Ambassador-also-gas-storage-tanks

A better photo of the starboard hull taken from a Bob-Lo boat approaching close to the wreck.
Photo taken from the opposite shore. About a third of the ship’s deck and superstructure is visible.

I imagine that salvage or other commercial divers were required to inspect the hull and attach lifting cables at the appropriate points. Typically, they might have wanted to weld patching plates over the huge gash in the hull. But the ship lay on its damaged side, so no patches could be applied until the ship was righted.

View of the stern of the wreck from the Ambassador Bridge connecting the U.S. and Canada.

I wish I had those divers’ stories, but so far, I haven’t found any. Salvage divers tend not to talk about their arduous, risky, and sometimes horrifying work. Fortunately, this time there were no casualties. Every crew member on both vessels was rescued, having suffered minimal injuries.

The salvage plan involved righting and raising the vessel using large floating cranes on barges. Frankly, I cannot imagine the load on those lifting cables. But as you can see in following photo, there were many cables attached to the bow preventing the ship from drifting further down current. They likely helped stabilize the craft once the bow was partially above water.

The ship after the bow had been partially raised.

No doubt a great deal of engineering calculations (and maybe educated guesses?) went into determining the number and placement of those cables. Salvage engineering is a torturous task, with calculations at that time being done by hand or using a slip stick (slide rule).

Below is a National Museum of American History slide rule identical to my personal Pickett slide rule, Model N1010-ES Trig. A similar slide rule accompanied the Apollo astronauts to the moon.

Digital calculators and computers were not readily available in 1962.

The following link is from the Lake Shore Guardian, and contains ample details of the accident. It is an interesting account. http://www.lakeshoreguardian.com/site/news/1037/MV-Montrose#.YDgVd-hKiUk

Analysis

So, how could highly experienced and qualified seamen drive their ship at full speed directly into the path of a well-lighted barge, as was reported by the ensuing investigation?

The Lakeshore Guardian report does not give it a name, but I will: “cognitive blindness.” Cognitive blindness in trained and alert individuals often occurs when people are distracted. In this case, that distraction was another freighter pulling into the same berth the Montrose was attempting to vacate. The Montrose pilot made all ahead full to keep a safe separation from the ship coming in close behind it.

In their distracted state, they did not see the navigation lights from the oncoming barge, did not hear the barge’s warning whistles and horn blasts, and never responded with their own emergency signal until the last second. By then, it was too late to slow their ship, or dodge the barge.

Cognitive blindness caused by distraction has caused old and experienced automobile drivers to pull directly in front of oncoming vehicles. One such fatal accident occurred at an intersection my wife and I frequently traverse. The driver was physically capable of seeing the oncoming traffic, but in that and similar cases, their brain must not have recognized the danger.

In the link below, the U.S. radio program NPR interviewed Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simmons about their book, named after the psychologist’s invisible gorilla test. 

https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=129934804

The two psychologists had subjects watch a basketball game. Subjects were instructed to keep track of the number of ball passes between players. However, that objective was a distraction. The researchers really wanted to know if their research subjects noticed a man in a gorilla suit walking across the court. Remarkably, more than 50% of the test subjects never saw the gorilla.

A distraction while watching a video may be harmless, but a distraction while piloting a 5,000 ton vessel can, and was, disastrous. Luckily, no lives were lost, that time.

Among the multitude of other writings about the potential effect of distractions, is a new book on human factors.

While the work of Gareth Lock is focused on diving, the psychological factors it discusses apply across all disciplines, including seamanship. Chapter 7, Situational Awareness, has an interesting and relevant sub title: “Just because it’s there, it doesn’t mean you’ve recognized its significance.”

In summary, the deleterious effect of cognitive blindness can be found in all disciplines, including combat, aviation, diving, driving, space and seafaring.

As they say in combat, “The enemy you don’t see is the one that will kill you.”

The highlighted image at the top of this post is from the Walter P. Reuther Library at Wayne State University. http://reuther.wayne.edu/node/4331

“Capt. Ralph Eyre-Walker stands on the side of his wrecked British freighter, ‘The Montrose’. The freighter collided with a cement barge and sank in the Detroit River just downstream of the Ambassador Bridge, Detroit, Michigan.”

Photographer’s (Tony Spina) note: “I rode out with the captain the next day so he could get some of his belongings and captured this shot.”

Canoeing the Little Nianqua River in the Ozarks

“Nianqua” means “many springs” in the Osage language. It’s those little springs that make canoeing down the Little Nianqua river a favorite pastime for adventurers. The Little Nianqua is a tributary of the Nianqua River which empties into the Mississisppi.

In between freshman and sophomore year in college (September of 1966), a high school friend from the Presbyterian Church near our home in Kansas City, KS, suggested we take a canoe trip in the Ozarks about 150 miles southeast of Kansas City.

The portion of the Little Nianqua normally canoed is about 35 miles, and with time out for climbing the over-looming bluffs, visiting Osage sites and generally goofing around, we would have to spend the night sleeping on a sandbar, propping the canoe over us for protection. It sounded like great fun.

A photo of me canoeing while Richard Thorn photographed from a sand bar.

Here was the goofing around part. I made an emergency outrigger out of a barrel and some limbs.

It sort of worked.  At least it didn’t sink.

Improvised overnight accommodations.
Richard on the lookout for girls. He didn’t find any.

Those bluffs were pretty high, but of course we felt compelled to climb them.

Below is a view of our sandbar encampment from the bluff.

Apparently, Richard was not aware that the spirit of the departed Osage do not like to be disturbed. Otherwise, he would not have perched on an Osage burial mound.

Richard tempting fate.

Spirits Revenge

Shortly after we returned home, Richard and I borrowed my family’s 55 Buick Special and went to a drive in. I was almost 21 years old, so I felt inspired to procure a gallon of Ripple wine. I have no idea what the movie was about, but Ripple actually tasted better than its reputation.

Unfortunately, the spirits of the Osage decided at that moment to seek their revenge. Richard spilled half of the gallon of Ripple, inside the Buick.

Our feeble attempt to soak up the wine and clean the interior was of no avail. No matter what we did, the car stank of cheap wine.

As luck would have it, we both had to head back to college almost immediately. As soon as I was back in Georgia, my parents  traded in their one and only car. Somehow, I doubt they got much for it.

I lost touch with Richard Thorn when my parents sold the house in Prairie Village, threw out my child-hood toys (for spite maybe?), hopped into their station wagon with that fresh, new car smell, and headed to a warmer clime, southeast Texas.

Strangely enough, they never said anything to me about that Ripple event. But I guess, compared to my flying off with the keys to the Buick when I flew back to Atlanta the previous January, without enough gas in the car for Dad to make it home, and having poor Dad walk to a gas station, in a snowstorm, well, the Ripple event simply paled in comparison.

However, that “no-keys event”, they did tell me about.

I guess the lesson is, respect the spirits of the dead, or you will pay in ways you cannot imagine.

Perhaps you have read about the Osage in my novels. The Osage ancestral lands were located in Missouri around the Ozarks and over to the Mississippi River. Reportedly, French fur traders found the Osage women to be quite attractive. So much so that supposedly, many of the traders married Osage women.

A young Osage mother and child.

In spite of that intermarriage, when land-hungry settlers moved from Tennessee to Arkansas and Missouri, the government relocated the Osage to Oklahoma, right next to the relocated Cherokees. In fact, to this day, Pawhuska, Oklahoma, a town I’ve visited and written about, is the current home of the Osage Nation.

About the only Osage thing the white man did not replace, was the name of their river in Missouri, the Nianqua.

In summary, if you’re so inclined, have fun canoeing the Little Niangua. But do be careful where you tread.

Autohemotherapy Saved My Brother

In 1940, my older brother, Albert, was born prematurely, with a severe case of ichthyosis (skin with scales like fish.)

Due to Albert’s prematurity, at birth his entire body fit in the palm of my father’s hand. Albert had no suckling reflex, and so the pediatrician said there was nothing that could be done to save him. The newborn was doomed.

Based on the above information, I would place the baby’s fetal development at roughly 2/3rds of the way through the second trimester, perhaps at 22 weeks, close to a pound in weight and at most eight inches from the top of his head to his rump. He would have been below the now standard 24 week “age of survivability.” Survival at that stage of prematurity was unlikely.

Dr. Albert S.J. Clarke, an orthopedic surgeon, was my Dad. The infant at risk was Dad’s first child, named after him (Albert Sidney Johnston Clarke III.) Being a physician, Dad was not going to give up on his son without a fight.

Due to Albert’s small size, and the condition of his skin, they were unable to start an I.V., which is the standard of care in today’s medical world. So, as my Mother explained it, as a last resort, Dad withdrew his own blood and injected it into the gluteal muscles of the baby. That blood carried nutrition and sustenance to Albert; e.g., water, minerals, protein, sugar.

That was not as crazy as it seems, since Autohemotherapy was used in the early 20th century to treat dermatological cases, starting in 1913. The following abstract is an example of a 1928 article after the method gained some medical acceptance.

Quoting from the abstract, “Autohemotherapy, first used in dermatologic conditions by Ravaut (1913), closely followed by Spiethoff (1913), consists in the withdrawal of blood … and its injection into the patient’s gluteal muscles, preferably.”

By the 1940’s, Dr. Clarke was no doubt aware of the questionable therapeutic efficacy of the old method, but as a means of delivering fluid and nutrition to an infant otherwise shut-off from the world, there was nothing to lose. Their blood types matched, so in theory, a blood injection would not hurt.

Although the Rh factor was just discovered that year (1940), Albert’s odds of survival were likely assured by the fact that most people are Rh positive.

At the beginning of the 20th century, there was virtually no standard of care for premature infants. Julius H. Hess (1876–1955) published the first book on the subject of medical care for the premature infant in 1922.

In that book, Hess described tube feeding, or gavage, as in the illustration below. However, in the following years, infants often died from aspiration pneumonia induced by early feeding after birth, and early-applied gavage fell out of favor.

A year after my father successfully salvaged my brother, Hess amended his guidance in his 1941 text, writing “Small premature babies (those weighing under 1200 g) were not fed for 24–48 h …. During this time the premature baby receives physiologic salt solution, subcutaneously in the thighs, one to three times daily.”

Obviously, physiological saline solution avoids the risk of incompatible blood reactions, but in the case of that baby and his father-physician, God had blessed them with fully compatible blood types.

I don’t know if Hess had been made aware of my Dad’s lifesaving treatment conducted a year before Hess made his latest recommendation, but that is certainly possible.

I never discussed with Dad the details of his saving intervention, but from what I’ve read about babies with ichthyosis, my brother’s survival and thriving until age 73 is a bit of a miracle. His pediatricians gave him zero chance of surviving his first days. They didn’t know just how determined my Father could be.

Due to my brother’s genetic skin disease, he shed skin in large flakes; his bed sheets were always covered in them. He had to be lathered in Vaseline to keep his brittle skin from cracking too deeply, and bleeding. He also had very poor tolerance to heat because he had few if any functioning sweat glands.

In spite of his disability, Albert was one of the nation’s first Respiratory Therapists. He trained other Respiratory Therapists in west coast colleges, and ran several Respiratory Therapy Departments in hospitals across the country.

With unlimited medical research libraries at his disposal, he discovered on his own that a drug used for treating psoriasis helped him control his own skin condition. As a result, his quality of life in his last decades greatly improved. He fulfilled a dream of remarrying, all made possible by a determined physician willing to take a chance when the “experts” had given up hope.

Dr. A.S.J. Clarke, M.D. in his later years.

Today, thanks to advances in the medical management of premature infants, autohemotherapy is medically unnecessary. In fact, many doubters question its efficacy. However, I have the physical scars from growing up with a rambunctious big brother to prove that, in at least one case, it was a lifesaver.

Where is Pham-lỷ-Täi?

The word “pen pals” was recently in the news.

In the 1960s, students were taught U.S and World History. Long before the days of personal computers and the Internet, we high school students were encouraged to expand our perspective by becoming pen pals with other students around the world.

Of course, back then, the phrase “pen pal” literally meant using a pen to write, preferably in cursive or some reasonable facsimile.

Perhaps it was through the Weekly Reader that I first exchanged mail and photos with a gorgeous blond girl from Denmark. But by far the most memorable, and longest lasting pen pal relationship, was with a student from Saigon (later renamed Ho Chi Minh City.)

Pham-lỷ-Täi was a Vietnamese school boy with precisely written English. He told me that he and his family were Catholic. They lived in Saigon where his father worked for the South Vietnamese government, if I remember correctly.

As we wrote, we exchanged bits of national culture. He sent me a tall doll of a Vietnamese woman in long silk dress and hat (the Asian conical Nón lá). But as the years progressed, our written conversation turned more serious, towards the growing signs of war.

In 1964 as I was nearing graduation from Shawnee Mission East High School, in Prairie Village, Kansas, there were thousands of U.S. advisers in South Vietnam. The August 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incident had not yet happened, so while Pham-lỷ-Täi was uneasy, outright hostilities had not yet broken out.

However, about the time I left home for college in September, the letter chain was broken, and fighting began in earnest.

As history revealed, the war did not end well for either American and allied troops (Australia, New Zealand, and other forces), or the people of South Vietnam. Democracy was crushed. For well-educated Christians in government service, the consequences were more dire.

Communists seek out the best educated and most pious people, and kill them. That is what communist revolutions invariably do. Indeed, it is a sobering exercise to research the numbers of national citizens killed by Mao, Stalin, and Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge. There were literally millions of citizens killed in each communist revolution.

I was in Army training in 1975 with a Cambodian officer at the beginning of the genocide of the Cambodian people by the Communist Khmer Rouge. Our class of American Officers urged the young man to stay in the country, fearing he would be killed if he returned home. But sadly, out of duty to his nation and to his family, he refused to stay in the U.S.

There is no doubt that his skull is one of the many skulls found in Pol Pot’s killing fields.

Pham ly Tai’s fate was less certain. Did he take up arms to lead the defense of his country? Did he perish in combat? Did he perhaps escape by boat, like my family physician, Dzung Nguyen, did as a child?

Was his family perhaps given diplomatic escort out of Saigon on the last American helicopters out?

I don’t know. If anyone does know, I would greatly appreciate hearing, one way or the other.

However, my fear is that like my Cambodian officer friend, duty kept Pham-lỷ-Täi home to face the onslaught.

For a long time, I had forgotten about my old pen pal. However, many decades later I was on a Taiwanese airline, Eva Air, headed to Taipei and eventually, Bangkok. This particular Eva Air flight had an odd Hello Kitty theme, inside and out. It catered to children. Strangely, I found myself surrounded by youngsters from Vietnam returning from Los Angeles and Disney World during their summer break.

In the seat next to me was a young lady from Ho Chi Minh City, and across the aisle were her female classmates. She no doubt noticed I was an American male of an age which could have placed me in Vietnam during the war. Apparently, that worried her. So, as the flight leveled off at altitude, my seatmate broke the ice by asking in her best English only one sentence.

“Are you mad?”

Seeing real concern in her eyes, and sensing a memory of things she might have heard about the war, I answered, “No, I am not mad.”

There were many more things I could have asked, such as, “Are you mad?” But her English was faltering, and my Vietnamese was non-existent. What I was thinking at that point was far too complex to speak simply. So, my answer, “No, I am not mad,” was the only way I could answer her curious question.

For sure, I could not be mad at a child who was not even alive during the Vietnam war. She and her friends had nothing to do with what happened to her countrymen, and ours.

From a different perspective, I wondered how my friends who were in combat in Vietnam would have answered. But I suspect, being good men and women all, they would not have held a grudge for half a lifetime. War is hell, but only the Communist leaders directed the killing of those who opposed them, for political purposes. The children are innocent.

I thought about telling that girl, maybe fifteen years of age, how I used to have a friend in Saigon, a boy about her age. If Pham-lỷ-Täi lived, perhaps he would have a granddaughter about her age. I wished, insanely I suppose, that the girl in the seat beside me was one of his granddaughters. If so, then I would know he survived.

But, for some reason, I did not ask her.

It’s strange the things you think about when crossing large oceans.

Once in Taipei, I was pleasantly surprised to see my former seatmate with her school friends looking my way, all smiles and giggles. They seemed to be pleased to meet an American of my generation who was not mad at them.

Of course I was not mad at a child. I never could be.

But I did remember a Vietnamese boy I knew a long time ago. He seemed to be a natural leader, a potential politician with strong ethics, a young man who would face death to save his country from communism.

So, I still wonder, what happened to my pen pal, Pham-lỷ-Täi?

In February of 2021, I came across the movie, Ride the Thunder- A Vietnam War Story of Victory and Betrayal. To my taste, the acting is a bit melodramatic, but I do believe I have a better understanding of what might have happened to my friend. If he and his family had not been killed outright by the Communists, he might had suffered a fate worse than death, Communist reeducation camps. The movie and book has been praised for telling the brutal truth. And apparently, the most compelling truth is revealed by  Major Le La Binh, a South Vietnamese officer who after the war was held in those “reeducation camps.”

Sadly, that newly revealed ending of the Vietnam war does not bode well for my friend, Pham-lỷ-Täi.

The Basic Chemistry of Nitrogen Dioxide

“The U.S. President was on the phone with the President of China when a video from the International Space Station came in from the NASA feed to the Emergency Operations Center. A huge burnt-orange cloud was covering the entire southern Pacific, extending all the way up to Hawaii and down to New Zealand. This was no ordinary nuclear explosion.”

The recent deadly explosion in Beirut, and the science fiction thriller, Atmosphere, book 3 of the Jason Parker Trilogy, both involve a toxic, brownish-orange gas, nitrogen dioxide. Of course, one involvement is fictional, and the other, sadly, is not.

From the first chapter of Atmosphere, we find a description of the effects of a gamma ray burst hitting the Earth. “Rampaging winds began spreading toxic nitrogen dioxide clouds around the planet, and within days, the earth was fully affected.”

Considering the violence with which nitrogen dioxide is associated, the way it is created is relatively simple. Some chemists will no doubt claim that the following discussion is too simplistic, but I’ll let them fill in the blanks, if they so choose. As advertised, this is just the basics.

Given enough energy, and localized temperatures on the order of 3000°C, nitrogen molecules (two atoms of nitrogen, N2) combine with oxygen molecules (two atoms of oxygen, O2) to form a chemically unstable gas, nitric oxide, NO.

In chemical terms, N2 + O2 → 2NO

If the searing NO gas is cooled rapidly in the presence of oxygen molecules, the toxic, brownish-orange gas, nitrogen dioxide, is formed.

2NO + O2 → 2NO2.  (This is really nasty stuff!)

It’s been known since at least 1911 that the temperature of an electrical arc (6000° – 8000°C) is enough to cause N2 and O2 to form NO. If the hot gaseous NO is then rapidly cooled, NO2 results.

In the science fiction novel, NO2 was created high in the atmosphere by a cosmic burst of high energy gamma rays (GRB) colliding with nitrogen molecules in the presence of oxygen. Lightning also creates nitrogen dioxide, although in relatively small quantities. But if you increase the energy and the quantity of nitrogen and oxygen, “a huge burnt-orange cloud” would be formed.  

According to current estimates, that is exactly what happened in Beirut.

Apparently, an industrial fire caused the thermal decomposition of large quantities of ammonium nitrate, which energetically broke down to form massive quantities of nitrogen gas, oxygen and water.

2NH4NO3 → 2N2 + 4H2O + O2.

The resulting high temperature N2 and O2 instantly combined to form the toxic burnt orange cloud of nitrogen dioxide, as seen in the above photo.

The exact mechanism of NO2 formation likely differs among the progenitor sources (GRB, lightning, explosion), but the basics should be the same.

What happened to the poisonous cloud of NO2 after it formed? Unlike what would happen in the upper atmosphere during a GRB, near the surface there is enough moisture for the NO2 to quickly combine with water to form nitric acid.

3 NO2 + H2O → 2 HNO3 + NO

Nitric acid rain would not be pleasant, but would not be as bad as nitrogen dioxide.

So, imagine if you will, a cosmic event (a GRB) far more violent than any man-made explosion. Imagine the entire atmosphere turning into a cloud like that in the photo above. Arguably, that is what would happen after a devastating GRB from within our galaxy.

Actually, that toxic nitrogen dioxide cloud would be the least of the planet’s troubles. It would be a very bad day on Earth.

The good news is that such an event would be very unlikely.

But then again, this is 2020.