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17 February 2005

Helium II: real cold weird nifty mystery goop

When I was around 11 or 12 an aunt, who had heard I had a scientific bent, sent me for my birthday a Time/Life big colorful hardback book entirely about Hot Leading Edge Science Stuph (circa 1959).

I do not mean to make fun of it; quite the contrary. It's not easy to communicate Deoxyribonucleic Acid or C.N. Yang's prediction that Parity could be violated to 12-year-olds, but these science editors, or perhaps one deranged author, were giving it a solid whack, they treated the reader with respect and dignity, and they got my undivided attention.

I believe the book was a gift from my Aunt Nathalie, who Came With the Comet, more about which later. This was a very interesting and intelligent woman who provided me with portals to very rare and interesting things on several occasions.

I just posted something about my Nephew Kwak. Now Kwak has this long-time school buddy who I got to meet one time over dinner. He was a grad stu at nearby Enormous State U. He had fallen bigtime into the lifelong need to find out New Stuph about Helium. This was only the second time I had ever been in a room with a Helium Expert before.

But I knew a whole bunch of Neat Stuph about Helium, particularly its extraordinary, bizarre, outre, weird-ass, counter-intuitive, counter-experience behavior at low temperatures. Time/Life covered that sucker real good with lots of amazing pictures. One of Helium's nifty tricks instantly seared into my brain forever.

(Okay, I'm going to have to draw an image now. I had one, but it doesn't seem to have survived the catastrophic transition from sick dying wheezing tubercular Old Computer to Dubious Questionable New Computer. Look above this post for the image.)

At a temperature just a smidge above Absolute Zero, helium takes a liquid form called Helium II. It doesn't seem to like being at two different heights, so it creeps UP the inside of its tube, and then OUT and DOWN the outside of the tube and flows down to join the stuff at the lower height, until the heights are the same.

Have you ever seen any other stuff do this? Milk? Vinegar? Molasses? Extra Virgin Olive Oil? Jolt Cola? I don't think so.

Also note that this highly screwy, animated activity takes place just below 2.17 degrees Kelvin. (Zero Kelvin, or Absolute Zero, is the temperature at which all molecular movement practically ceases.)

So now, many decades later, I am finally talking to this young Todd who knows his low-temperature Helium, and I ask him if I have remembered this wowsy thing correctly, and if it is Really True, and he says: You bet! He and his Helium pals down at the Lab do it du temp en temp when they want to see something Real Geeky which is a real crowd-pleaser (like when they're trying to impress a new date).

The problem is that they really don't have much of an understanding of why Helium II can do this weird trick. You got to be up to your doctoral eyeballs in quantum mechanics and Bose-Einstein Condensates to even ask, and even then you don't get very many satisfactory answers.

So I lean on Helium Boy really hard and manipulatively and he promises to invite me over to the Lab the next time they are going to put on this Helium II Carnival Trick. But the creep never does, and now he has left the university for a new high-class job in the administration of science. I am sure it is an important job, and he will be real good at it.

But I wanted to see the Helium II climb over the top of the tube.

Well, the heck with him. Someday I am going to see Helium II do its crazy thing, the same way I am going to see Anak Krakatau or Kick Em Jenny.


Now if YOU happen to have access to a bunch of Helium at frighteningly low temperatures, and you are willing to do this Neat Helium II Trick for me -- well, by gum by jimminy, invite me over to your Mad Science Lab, show me the Nifty Trick, and you've just earned yourself a Free Dinner! (You have to eat it with me and answer all my dumb questions about Helium.)

* * *

Oh -- like, who cares about low-temp liquid Helium? Well, one other Nifty Trick that low-temp Helium does is that it has No Electrical Resistance or Impedance -- no Ohms, no Mhos, it just lets them electrons flow through it without offering any hostile opposition whatsoever.

Now the way we move huge amounts of electric power from generating point (Niagara Falls generators, e.g.) to user point (New York City, e.g.) is through a network of huge, thick overhead copper wires and transformers. They got resistance, there's no getting around that. So inevitably, transmitting huge amounts of electric power results in losses -- the technical term is hysteresis loss -- of around 15 percent.

(I think I remembered that number right -- but CLICK ON COMMENTS!)

It just all goes wasted, dissipated away as heat. You can never run your toaster oven or flat-panel HD TV or your George Foreman Grill or your X-Box or sex toy off this wasted heat.

One way to recover the wasted power is to transmit power through an underground channel of liquid low-temp Helium. You shove 50 gazillion watts in at Niagara Falls, and you get 50 gazillion watts out again at the other end in New York City, loss-free.

Nobody ever talks about this when they're talking about how to provide lots of electricity without poisoning the atmosphere or building new Chernobyls. Recovering 15 percent of our previously wasted electric power is Not Chopped Liver.

Meanwhile, we're running short of Helium. Most of it comes from mines in Texas and Oklahoma, and there's just a finite amount of it down there.

Once we mine it and then use it to fill kiddie and Valentine's Day balloons and the Fuji Blimp, it leaks out into the atmosphere, and it floats up (only Hydrogen is lighter), and then floats out into space and is Lost Forever. Helium is NOT a renewable resource. It's an Inert/Noble gas, and that means it can't chemically bond with any other atom or molecule, so there's no way to store it chemically, like in Helium Fluoride or something like that. It's just always Free Helium, always trying to Escape Out Into Space.

So maybe you can start pushing the Save The Helium meme around, see where that gets us. Maybe we could fill all kiddie birthday and zoo balloons with cheap, renewable hydrogen instead. (If a kiddie birthday balloon catches fire, it won't hurt the kiddie -- it's not a Hindenburg kinda scenario. There'll be a big POP! and then some water vapor, because when hydrogen burns, it combines with oxygen and makes water.)

So write your Congressperson and Senators about your concerns about using liquid helium to transmit electric power, and about our dwindling Helium supplies.

At first, their Robot will reply: "Thank you for sharing your concerns about helium with me. I am always interested in my voters' concerns."

But after they get 300 Helium Complaints, they will still be just as dumb as rocks and clueless, but now they will be worried that they might not get re-elected over this crazy Helium thing. Congresspeople and Senators worry about not getting re-elected the way you and I worry about losing a foot or a testicle.


Blogger Newphew Kwak said...

Unky Munky, all mostly true so far as I know, except that the losses in transmission of electricity are far greater than the %15 you quote. As seen here ttp://, the losses are more in the range of over two-thirds. Oy!
- Nephew Kwak

Blogger Bob Merkin said...


First, without publishing his entire curriculum vitae, I need to point out that My Nephew Kwak KNOWS a LOT about this kind of stuff. Unlike me, he went to great universities for a long time, and actually studied hard. And this is the kind of stuff he studied.

that link is:

and it's the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. I have certain political issues with their maniacal psycho founder -- but these are Very Superbrainy People. If Lawrence Livermore geeks say the transmission power losses are more like 66% -- I suspect they're right.

Well -- wouldn't it be nice to transmit via liquid helium conduits and have ZERO loss of electricity.

Imagine how very fewer nukes we'd have to build over the next couple of decades. Imagine how many old-style high-sulfur coal plants we could finally retire.

Be the first to write your Member of Congress and your Senator, so their robot can thank you for your concern.


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