The Time Change

It always takes me a few days to adjust to the changing of the clocks. I suspect few people like the change itself even if they like the result.

Daylight Savings Time is one of those arguments that will never be settled. Oh, we might come up with a political settlement, like “everyone will use DST year-round” or somesuch, but the issues will remain.

People living in the more northerly latitudes in our country experience a greater variation in day length. As you move south— toward the tropics—the difference between summer and winter starts to fade. Places like Hawai’i don’t change the clocks as they gain no benefit from it.

We spent a week one summer in Galway, Ireland. It’s at 58º North latitude, the same as Juneau, Alaska. The sky was still bright from sunlight at ten in the evening! They use Summer Time in Ireland and the United Kingdom. It makes sense. Those really early summer sunrises become lingering sunsets instead. People like having “extra” daylight later in the day rather than at the crack of dawn. It’s no surprise there’s a movement in Alaska to make DST permanent.

In Southern California, the population center of the most populous state, summer days last about 14 hours and winter days about 10 hours. (LA is at 34ºN). The time change is a convenience, not a necessity.

I live near the Oregon border (42ºN) and I dislike DST because summers here are hot. I want it to get dark in the evening SOONER not later! And I don’t mind early sunrises. It’s cool in the mornings and that’s when it’s good to be up and doing things. When I lived in the Bay Area (38ºN) the local astronomy society dubbed DST “darkness squandering time.” They hated waiting an extra hour in the summertime for the sky to darken.

There are movements in many states, including places as far apart as Maine and Florida, to make DST permanent. People, it seems, hate the change more than anything.

For most of us, one time scheme isn’t much better than the other. Standard Time isn’t any more natural than Daylight Time. Both are artificial contrivances for social utility. And even though I dislike the change it is a small thing, really. There are much bigger things to fuss over.

These days we all carry accurate clocks in our handheld computers otherwise known as cell phones. My phone is a Wal-Mart cheapie but it automatically updates the clock when I go from one time zone to the next. It seems the cell towers know what time it is! We ought to be able to have as many time zones and time rules as we want. More people these days work from home or have flexible hours. There’s no reason the school day and the work day have to be locked in on a 19th-century 8-to-5 factory model. Local areas should be able to call the time whatever o’clock they want it to be. Instead of a monolithic, government-mandated time, we can make up our own. Maybe sundials will make a comeback.

Terbium, #65

There’s a quarry near the village of Ytterby in Sweden that is the first source of the lanthanoid (rare-earth) elements Ytterbium (Yb, #70), Erbium (Er, #68) and Terbium (#65).

It’s also the place where Yttrium (Y, #39) was discovered. Yttrium is often lumped with the above three even if it doesn’t fit in the lanthanoid f-block scheme. Its upper neighbor in column 3, Scandium (Sc, #21), was first isolated from the same quarry, as were the other rare-earths Holmium (Ho, #67), Thulium (Tm, #69), and Gadolinium (Gd, #64).

Here’s a periodic table:

If you click on the image it will get bigger.

Note that the lanthanide series (lanthanoid is more correct but not typically used) “emerges” from column 3 where Sc and Y reside. Ideally the table would “stretch” to include the two lower rows (pink in the figure) on the left-hand side of the metals (yellow).

Terbium, like its neighbors, has only become important in the modern, high-tech world. The rare-earths are in big demand these days. Terbium compounds are fluorescent and are used in green phosphors. They are also used as dopants in solid state devices and are alloyed with iron and other materials to make electronic devices.

World terbium production is perhaps “a couple hundred tons” per year. Most of this comes from China. The U.S. has a few sources of Dysprosium (Dy, #66) and terbium is a by-product of that process. Here in California MP Materials operates the Mountain Pass Rare Earth Mine and Processing Facility in the Mojave Desert near the Nevada border.

Canadian company Ucore plans to develop a rare-earths mine and processing plant at Bokan Mountain on Prince of Wales Island in Alaska. Here’s the setting (the nearest city is Ketchikan):

There’s been a lot of squawking from Washington, D.C. about China controlling the market for key materials like rare-earths. If that geopolitical concern is truly important then we’ll have to find more domestic supplies. Digging big holes in faraway places is the only way to do that. At least right now. Perhaps we’ll be motivated by the environmental disruption from mining to set up proper recycling. After all, tech devices die and get replaced at an alarming rate. All that “e-waste” should be re-processed! Or we’ll find new ways to do things and won’t need stuff like terbium. Better yet we’ll use fewer things overall and measure our wealth by quality instead of quantity!

Thacker Pass

Construction has started on a new lithium mine in the United States. Lithium Americas says its property contains the largest lithium deposit in the country. Here’s the setting:

The nearest town of any real size is Winnemucca, Nevada, about 50 miles from the mine site. Otherwise Thacker Pass fits the description “the middle of nowhere.”

Here’s what it looks like:

Mines are big, messy things. This one will be an open pit a mile or two across and 400 feet deep. The lithium will be extracted from the ore by a process involving sulfuric acid. Tons of sulfur will be continuously trucked to the site to be burned and the waste gas used to make the acid. The reaction will also generate enough heat to power steam turbines that will supply electricity for the plant. The lithium compounds emerging from the facility will go mostly to battery makers. Electric vehicles need lots of batteries!

The “greening” of the economy is not a simple process. Demand for materials like lithium, cobalt, nickel, and especially copper is expected to surge. Things like wind turbines use a lot of steel and concrete, too. Reducing our reliance on fossil fuels will require not only massive capital outlays but enormous consumption of primary energy sources—which at this point are mostly fossil fuels!

There’s still a lot of opposition to the development at Thacker Pass. And there’s no doubt the mine will make a huge environmental impact. Here’s what interests me: it’s close by. I can keep an eye on it!

Polonium, #84

Maria Sklowdowska Curie was the daughter of schoolteachers. She and her husband Pierre studied the radioactivity of the uranium ore pitchblende and in the process discovered a new element. Madame Curie named the substance Polonium (from the Latin Polonia) after her homeland, a nation we call Poland. Such a country did not exist in 1898, having been carved up by conquerors. The Curies were awarded a Nobel Prize for their work on radium and polonium.

Marie and Pierre’s daughter Irene was also a Nobel-prize winner! She and her husband Fredric Joliot also studied radioactive isotopes. Both mother and daughter died of leukemia, most likely from too much exposure to radioactive materials.

Polonium was used as an initiator in two of the first atomic bombs. Both “The Gadget” (the one tested at Trinity) and “Fat Man” (the one dropped on Nagasaki) used a polonium-beryllium initiator. The device provided a neutron source that would start the chain reaction once the critical mass was achieved. The polonium for both bombs was isolated at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. My late father-in-law learned how to build nuclear power plants at Oak Ridge. He was a physicist at Corning, a lieutenant in the naval reserve, and a young father at the time (the mid-50s). Other companies like Union Carbide sent their scientists and engineers to the same school. It was part of the “peace dividend” of the Eisenhower administration—an attempt to turn more nuclear technology over to civilian uses.

Here’s what ORNL looks like now:

Banish the Snakes

Banish the Snakes is a new title from GMT Games. I used to play Avalon Hill wargames when I was younger. They were mostly historical simulations—like playing Wellington against Napoleon at Waterloo. These days I’m still interested in history but I’m drawn more toward those periods where we know a lot less about what went on.

Which brings me to Banish the Snakes. It’s a cooperative game for one to six players. So far I’ve only done the solitaire version but it works the same way because all players have the same goal. They aren’t competing for different ends. All players will either sink or swim together.

So, what’s the goal? The game simulates Ireland in the 5th century. Legend has it that St. Patrick sent the serpents away. The truth is that Ireland had no snakes after the glaciers retreated but it makes for a better story to give St. Pat credit!

Anyway a host of Christian missionaries descended on Ireland in the 5th century and before the calendar flipped to the 6th century the island’s residents were almost all converted to the new faith. The interesting thing about the change from pagan Ireland to Christian Ireland is that the transition was (apparently) smooth and (relatively) non-violent. It seems the Irish took readily to the new religion.

How did that happen? No one really knows. One idea is that the druids, who were not only priests but judges, physicians, bards, and advisers to the kings, in short the intelligentsia of Celtic societies, saw straight away the benefits of a written culture. They quickly adapted the Irish language to Latin characters and began a tradition of writing that outshone most of Europe for centuries.

Another idea is that the missionaries were Celts themselves, even if Romanized, and could speak the local dialects and not only understood the existing belief systems but were sympathetic to them. They didn’t preach for change so much as suggest improvements. The local theology was respected even if it was incomplete and thus Christian beliefs enlarged the native spirituality rather than replaced it.

Like I said, no one really knows. That’s what I find most appealing about Banish the Snakes. It’s a model of what could have happened. Players take on the role of saints and move about the provinces of 5th century Ireland converting the pagans. They have to encounter powerful druids and local chiefs and even a high king. So far I have found it difficult to meet the game’s victory conditions.

One side of the game board has a track for “paganism” in Britain. When the Romans told the British to fend for themselves in AD 411 the empire was already officially Christian. But the apparatus to maintain a Roman faith in a hostile colony would soon begin to crumble and the old ways re-emerged. In the game you turn over cards that advance paganism and once the entire region lapses back to the pre-Christian religion the game ends. Players have to hope they’ve converted enough of the Irish and established some churches and Christian leaders in all the provinces before that happens. If all the people “join the flock” before Britain goes pagan the game ends in victory for the players.

It’s hard. The model is tricky and seems to depend on a lot of things going right all at once. But I’ve only played a few solitaire games. It will be better with real players. The outcome—the conversion of the Irish—was not a sure thing. It could have failed. It could have taken longer. It happened a certain way but it was far from certain. Banish the Snakes, at least for this newbie, shows how tenuous the whole enterprise must have been.

I reckon a few of my friends would only play this game if they could take the side of the pagans. Pagans got a bad rap when I was a kid in Catholic school. It turns out that the Latin word paganus means “villager” which is just a cute way to say “hick.” Romans of the literate class looked down upon their rural brethren and called anyone who wasn’t a Roman barbarus which means “foreigner” but implies “uncivilized.”

Turns out the pagans were OK. They had a society, language, religion, culture, art, technology, roads, shipping, trade, in short all the stuff we call “civilization.” Conquerors, like the Romans, tend not to notice those things. Ireland was never a Roman province, and the Roman hold on Britain was not so clear-cut. It was more like a military occupation reliant on shifting alliances with local tribes and a healthy dose of mercenaries. Hey, that sounds familiar!

Banish the Snakes is a great way to learn about a time in history without reading a book or watching a TV show. It comes with very nice background materials on the major characters and events, both historic and legendary, and is beautifully illustrated. My only complaint is that you have to put stickers on the pieces which is a pain in the ass. Once that’s done it’s a not too hard to learn the basics of the game and get to playing.

Silver, #47

The Latin word argentum gives us the symbol—Ag—for the element silver. The modern country of Argentina was once the Viceroyalty of the Rio de la Plata. Plata is Spanish for silver. Argentina is Italian. Colonists from Italy make up a large part of the country’s citizenry.

Silver is one of those things everyone knows about. Most of us have seen, held, or possessed silver jewelry, cutlery, or coinage. Silver, like gold, is found in nature in its native state and is thus one of the metals known to ancient peoples. It is soft, shiny, and easily worked. Silver has a relatively low melting point (961 ºC or 1763 ºF) and is thus within the range of wood fires and charcoal furnaces.

Silver is a superb conductor of heat and electricity and makes an excellent reflective surface. It has a number of industrial applications and about 20,000 tonnes are produced annually, mostly as a by-product from gold, lead, and zinc mining. México is the world’s leading silver miner. The conquistadores established the first mint (in México City) in the New World. One of the prize pieces in our modest coin collection is a five-ounce, $10,000-peso silver bullion coin from Estados Unidos Mexicanos. Here’s the obverse:

And the reverse:

The currency was debased in 1993 and $10,000 pesos became $10 pesos so it’s not as valuable a coin as the denomination might suggest. It is a beautiful coin nonetheless and has a nice heft in the hand. The real thing is 65 mm (2.6 in.) across and 6.2 mm (1/4 inch) thick. Five troy ounces is about one-third of a conventional (avoirdupois) pound.

Silver doesn’t readily combine with oxygen but it is vulnerable to sulfur with which it forms a brown-black tarnish (Ag2S, silver sulfide).

Silver is alloyed with other metals because it is too soft. Sterling silver is 92.5% silver and 7.5% copper. Electrum is a naturally-occurring mixture of gold and silver and was used in the earliest coin systems. Investment-grade silver, like the coin above, is 0.999 fine or containing only 1% impurities.

One troy ounce of silver is about 31.1 grams (our customary or avoirdupois ounce is about 28.3 grams) and its spot price these days is about 22 bucks.

Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea

The song was born in 1931, the same year as my mother. It’s another gem in the enormous output of Harold Arlen (the lyrics are from Ted Koehler). Here’s Count Basie (vocal by Helen Humes):

The song pops into my head whenever I read about deep-sea mining. Norway, a country that has extracted billions of barrels of oil from its continental shelf, is interested in the other mineral wealth to be found there. And our northern neighbor Canada, no stranger to extractive industries, is also pursuing underwater mining.

It may all be too expensive to take seriously but it is an actual technological possibility. We aren’t talking about sending people to Mars or some other silliness. This is do-able stuff. They can send machines down to the seafloor to pick up polymetallic nodules which are rich in manganese, copper, cobalt, nickel, and the lanthanides (rare earths). The nodules are brought to the surface and processed for their ores.

Most of the world is reacting in horror at such a possibility. There are number of countries and organizations that have spoken out against deep-sea mining. The environmental consequences, even under the strictest guidance, could be spectacular. So little is known about the oceans covering most of our planet. Disturbing habitats that we know almost nothing about would certainly be reckless especially considering our track record as a civilization. We have a knack for wiping things out.

If this kind of mining is confined to exploratory forays, and a few well-funded scientific outfits can get some real information from the work being done, then let’s go forward. But we’ve a long way to go before we can take the leap into deep-sea mining to meet the demands of EV manufacturers.

That means we’ll have to have more surface mines. And that we’ll also have to be much better about recycling and re-using our resources. We need some kind of incentive in our free market system that “closes the loop” on extractive practices and gets rid of the notion of “waste”.

Even if deep-sea mining is potentially orders of magnitude more productive than existing terrestrial practices it remains a deal with the devil. Far better for us to improve on what we already do. Innovation is sexy and gets the eye of VC-types but it doesn’t always provide the right solution.

Lutetium, #71

Lutetium is more abundant than silver. Only two isotopes are known. One is the stable Lu-175 and the other is the radioactive Lu-176 which comprises about 2.5% of natural lutetium. The fact that Lu is #71 tells us it has 71 protons and thus (175-71) 104 neutrons. The radioactive Lu-176 has one extra neutron which must be the source of its instability.

The half-life of Lu-176 is about 38 billion years. A long half-life means a slow decay. Which means the stuff just isn’t that radioactive. Isotopes with short half-lives are more potent, that is, they put out particles at a faster rate. Lu-176 is used with its daughter product hafnium (#72) to date meteorites.

There’s a synthetic Lu-177 that is used in radiation therapy for brain tumors.

Lutetium is grouped with the lanthanoids (the rare earths) but it is also a d-block or transition metal. Its position on the long form of the periodic table shows it to be in column 3:

Here’s a link to the source. Click on the image to enlarge it.

You usually see the short form of the periodic table which clips out the two rows of lanthanoids and actinoids (the mauve ones in the image) and sticks them down below. This is so the table can fit on an 8-1/2 by 11-inch notebook sheet!

Lutetium is difficult to separate from other similar metals. It is produced commercially only as a by-product as there are no known lutetium-dominant minerals. Like the rest of the lanthanoids it has no known biological role.

60 million tonnes

I’m working on a Windows 7 machine that I bought from Dell in 2010. Yes, my computer is more than a decade old. Google keeps reminding me that I need to upgrade or I will “lose” some features or something, I’m not really sure what I’m supposed to fear. Google’s parent company, Alphabet, just laid off 12,000 people, so I don’t think they really give a shit about my computing experience. What they give a shit about is harvesting my data, and I suppose I have to upgrade to their latest software versions or they won’t be able to do that nearly as well.

The endless obsolescence/upgrade cycle for the tech industry is nothing new. General Motors figured out back in the 1920s that they needed to make stylistic changes to their cars every year or people wouldn’t buy new ones. They would just hold on to their old cars. But that was bad for business. So the “model year” concept was born. Now we expect to see a new version of every car every year. I have a Honda CR-V that I bought new in 2019. The 2020 model features an entirely new engine, not to mention cosmetic changes like bumper styling.

But at least an “orphan” automobile is still functional. The fact that my Toyota pickup is 35 years old does not prevent it from being highway-ready. But try doing something useful with a 35-year old computer!

It is estimated that global electronic waste is on the order of 60 million metric tons annually. (A metric ton or “tonne” is 1000 kg or about 2200 pounds.) E-waste has been described as “the fastest growing waste stream in the world.”

So, how much is 60 million tonnes?

For questions like this I turn to Wolfram Alpha. Here’s what it spit out:

First of all, 60 million tonnes is 132,300,000,000 pounds! That’s 132.3 BILLION pounds. Yikes. There are seven billion people on the planet. 132.2 divided by seven is about 19. So that’s 19 pounds of e-waste created each year for EACH PERSON ON THE PLANET.

You can see the other comparisons. I like the “mass of terrestrial wild animals.” This of course excludes fish and sea creatures as well as livestock and pets. E-waste is about 6 E 10 kg per year and the animals are estimated to weigh 7 E 10 kg. That’s 86% (6/7 ≈ 0.86) of the mass of our world’s land critters. That seems like a hell of a lot to me.

The “estimated wet biomass of all humans alive” is a bit creepy but I suppose we can imagine all seven billion of us standing on a really big scale. The dial reads 385 Mt (mega-tonnes) or 385 million tonnes. Our e-waste is then (60/385) about 16% or 1/6 of that. We throw away, by weight, the equivalent of more than ONE BILLION PEOPLE every year!

People are biodegradable. And they are a renewable resource.

Neither can be said for e-waste. What are we going to do with the growing piles of desktops, laptops, gaming consoles, toaster ovens, TVs, cell phones, keyboards, monitors, microwaves, DVD players, fax machines, copiers, and such? Throw in big appliances like refrigerators and ranges, plus medical and industrial equipment, and add in schools, the military, prisons, and other large institutions like government agencies and you get a sense of the enormous scale of the problem. Everyone is upgrading and that means a whole bunch of stuff is getting thrown out.

E-waste is polluting. That’s a problem, especially since our poorest citizens typically live closest to waste disposal sites. Environmental poisons do not impact rich and poor alike. But what’s worse is this notion of waste. These devices should be manufactured so that they can be returned to the resource stream. There was too much energy, effort, and knowledge that went into creating these things. That’s getting thrown away along with the gold, copper, and other metals. We refine the silicon for chip-making to an astonishing degree of purity and simply dump it in the garbage after we are finished with it. And that means we have to tear up another beach somewhere to get the raw material, high-silica sand, to make new chips. It’s insanity.

Capitalism—or the free market, if you prefer—is supposed to be the best system for innovation and creativity. And that’s true. There are hundreds (probably thousands) of different kinds of television remotes, for example. But there is no incentive for our smart young engineers and business people to create a fully re-usable or recyclable remote. Imagine if THAT was the ethic behind new product development. Make something that can be part of a “closed-loop” such that there is little or no waste. That the concept of “waste” is what becomes obsolete instead of the things we make.

Zirconium, #40

The metallic element Zirconium is twice as abundant in the earth’s crust as either copper or zinc. It it ten times more abundant than lead. Zirconium is not found in nature in its native state. It is always bound up in compounds, the most common of which is zircon, a neo-silicate, ZrSiO4.

Zircon is hard and dense and can be cut and polished as a semi-precious gemstone. It is also used directly in many commercial applications such as refractories, metal molds, and laboratory crucibles. About 60 million tonnes are mined annually. Of that quantity about one million tonnes of pure zirconium metal is extracted.

Zirconium metal is resistant to corrosion and thus used as an alloying agent. Pure zirconium is used as cladding for nuclear reactor fuels.

Cubic zirconia is the synthetic oxide form (ZrO2) of zirconium. It is used as a substitute for diamonds. The natural form of zirconia is too rare and thus it has to be made in the lab.

Zirconium is not a biologically active metal and humans consume a few milligrams of it every day in their food and water.

Here’s a zircon specimen from Crystal Classics Fine Minerals: