Saturday, July 25, 2015

Life’s a Beach

Picture a perfect white sand beach with warm ocean water.  Imagine a middle age lady hauling her beach bag and a comfortable folding beach chair.  She scours the beach for a perfect spot and finds what she thinks is the best location about twenty feet from a rocky jetty and thirty feet from the tide line.

She sets up her chair, lays out her beach towel, decants a glass a chardonnay into her plastic wine glass and sits in a slightly reclined position starting to sip her chilled glass of wine.  Enjoying the wine she thinks it is time for a cigarette.  She pulls out a Marlborough Light and lights up her cig.  Suddenly there is a kaboom and she is flung from her chair onto the rocky jetty 20 feet away.  She is injured and needs hospital treatment but survives.

Is this Tunisia and a terrorist act?  No this is Rhode Island and not a terrorist act.  This actually happened and happened by accident.  Many years before she sat on the beach the US Coast Guard had laid copper cables on the beach and had abandoned the cable.  Over the years the insulation on the cable wore away and the seawater corroded the copper.  A resulting chemical of the corrosion reaction is hydrogen.  The hydrogen got trapped in pockets under the beach surface.

The lady had perfect timing of lighting the cigarette and disturbing the beach sand to ignite a pocket of hydrogen that had sufficient energy to propel her like a human cannon ball into the rocky jetty.  Hydrogen has a very wide flammability range in air (4% to 75%) but needs a spark to ignite.

Here is the fox news article on her story

I wrote a textbook on hydrogen (Hydrogen – Hope or Hype?) and never ever conceived that an accident like this could happen.  As part of my work I investigated a fire in a semiconductor manufacturing facility where an incompetent contractor switched hydrogen for nitrogen and helped cause a billion dollars of insurance loss burning down the factory.  Simply put hydrogen goes kaboom pretty easily when there is a spark.

Just yesterday I read the US Department of Energy link below to use hydrogen to store the energy of intermittent wind generated electric power.

The technical aspects of this are very simple.  But the expense is enormous and it is actually not competitive with simply storing the electricity in a lithium ion battery.  The DOE idea is kind of like the Rube Greenberg idea that AC Transit wasted eighty seven million dollars on for their few fuel cell buses.  Here is my blog on that.

My advice to folks going to the beach is that you don’t smoke cigarettes, just enjoy the fresh air.  Also pick a spot high enough up the beach that remains dry during high tide thereby preventing the buildup of pockets of hydrogen via the corrosion of buried cables.  Also make sure that the Department Of Energy is not producing hydrogen from wind power anywhere close to your favorite beach.  Yeah life is a beach and because of entropy shift happens.  It is the buried shift that will get you.


  1. The Department of Energy is about 65 years behind times. I remember in the early 1950s Popular Mechanics had an issue about the up coming hydrogen economy. Fuel cells where around and we could run electric cars off them. Time showed this was impractical and now DOE is wasting more tax dollars on items proven impractical 50 years ago.

    James H. Rust, Professor

  2. The department of entropy is lead by an idiot. I saw him on CNN