February 23, 2013

In 1961 I was an entering freshman at the University of Tennessee.   One of the lucky ones, I knew exactly the course of study I wished to pursue—mechanical engineering.   It’s interesting how a kid matures relative to personal and long-held interest.   Early in life, I started by working on my Western Flyer wagon, then my bike, then my dad’s lawnmower, then cars.  Sprinkle in several random assemblies of Heathkit crystal radios, “U”-control model airplanes and home entertainment centers and you have an adolescent involved with the process of discovery.  I actually enjoy knowing how things work and finding ways to make them better and more efficient, thereby hoping to extend their useful life.  NOW, with that said, I have made a considerable number of “rookie mistakes”.   Reading the instructions first has not always been my “strong suit” but then again, I have always thought these mistakes were learning experiences and not real failures.

OK, back to 1961.  I was absolutely intimidated my first few days with education on the university level.  If hyperventilation represented the lottery, I would be a winner many times over.  A product of the public school system in east Tennessee, I really felt unprepared for the four years that lay ahead.   Was I good enough for study as rigorous a discipline as engineering?  The dropout rate was considerably higher than non-technical liberal arts and the engineering professors made sure we knew that.  Oh by the way, during the very first days of class, I discovered the ME department required all graduating students to have a minor in mathematics.  Thirty-three hours of math, which greatly added to the already building pressures.

One of the first classes I attended was physics for non-physics majors.  This class was required for all engineers and students working towards B.S. degrees, regardless of discipline.  The day comes—third floor, room 308, Ferris Hall.  There were approximately fifteen students in the classroom.  The teacher came in, looked the class over without taking role, and then started his lecture.  There was no book, which I remember thinking was very odd, but that’s the way it was.  We were cautioned to listen intently, take good notes and definitely review those notes after every class session.   After about fifteen minutes, I was absolutely lost—absolutely!  My heart sank.  The question was answered–I was not ready for prime time. I struggled through the hour then approached the teacher.  I indicated I was totally lost, very confused and definitely surprised by the differences between high school physics and physics on the university level.

TEACHER:  “May I ask your name?

STUDENT:  “Robert Jackson”

TEACHER:  “I don’t have you as signing up for this class.  What course number do you think you are in?”

STUDENT:   “Physics 201”.

With this reply, he burst out laughing.

TEACHER:  “Mr. Jackson this is a graduate level physics class dealing with particle behavior on the sub-atomic level, not physics 201.”

I was greatly relieved, very embarrassed, but managed to laugh as loudly as he did.  I had the right floor; even the correct room number but regrettably wrong building.   The point being, in life we all make rookie mistakes—at any age.  How we react to those mistakes says a great deal about us.   You can laugh it off, slink home in disgust without telling a soul or learn from the experience.  I would suggest the more adult reaction would be learning from the experience.    This event occurred over fifty years ago and I can still see the professor’s expression when I told him the course number.  That gentleman became as close a friend as a student could have and on several occasions our study team would meet with him to discuss fascinating engineers and scientist he had met during his student and teaching years.     Each time we met in the halls of that university we both had cause to smile and remember.  Let’s hear it for rookie mistakes.

In writing this blog, I have used the following sources: 1.), 2.) and 3.) www.propublica.

We have heard a great deal about the pros and cons of hydraulic fracturing or fracking over the past few months. The purpose of this posting is not to debate those good and bad points but to merely deliver my understanding of the process.  You decide.

OK, just what is hydraulic fracturing?  By definition:   Hydraulic fracturing is a process used in nine out of 10 natural gas wells in the United States, where millions of gallons of water, sand and chemicals are pumped underground to break apart the rock and release the gas.  Once the rock is fractured, natural gas, or more appropriately methane, is released, piped upward, captured in containment vessels and transported to stations where it is generally compressed; i.e. CNG or compressed natural gas.

Natural gas is an efficient energy source and the cleanest-burning fossil fuel producing lower levels of greenhouse gas emissions relative to the heavier hydrocarbon fuels such as coal and oil.  Its heating value is approximately 1200 Btu/Ft.³ which makes it a viable candidate for many combustion processes. Natural gas resources developed from shale rock have resulted in lower-priced natural gas for U.S. consumers, making it less expensive for Americans to heat their homes and generate electricity.

Although the energy industry has long known about huge gas resources trapped in shale rock formations in the United States, it is over the past decade that energy companies have combined two established technologies—hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling—to successfully unlock this resource.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) estimates the United States possesses more than 2,500 trillion cubic feet of technically recoverable natural gas resources, of which 33 percent is held in shale rock formations. Natural gas from shale has grown to 25 percent of U.S. gas production in just a decade and will be 50 percent by 2035, according to the EIA. Developing this resource can help enhance energy security and strengthen economies.

Natural gas from shale rock is providing the United States with reliable, affordable, cleaner and responsibly produced energy. Developing these natural gas resources can help enhance the country’s energy security, strengthen local and state economies, and fuel job growth. In 2010, the development of the Marcellus Shale, in Pennsylvania, alone generated $11.2 billion in the regional equivalent of gross domestic product, contributed $1.1 billion in state and local tax revenues, and supported nearly 140,000 jobs. The predicted growth of the resource likely means we also can expect to see correlating economic and energy security benefits over the coming years.

Before drilling a well, our geologists and engineers complete a full analysis of the geology using proprietary and public data. They assess results from other wells drilled in the vicinity, including water wells, producing oil and gas wells and non-producing wells (dry wells). A plan is developed for drilling and completing the well that must be approved by state regulators. The company proactively engages key stakeholders, including communities, officials, government agencies and regulators, as plans are being developed.

Many of the steps described are common to all oil and gas well planning and operation efforts, regardless of well design or the formation being targeted for development.  In describing how this process is brought about, we will use the following pictorial as a reference:


  • Once a target formation has been identified and appropriate land leases acquired, environmental and regulatory reviews are conducted to assess related environmental impacts. Social and local issues are addressed, and stakeholder engagement commences. The permitting process then begins as prescribed by federal, state and local regulatory requirements.
  • Before drilling begins engineers, geoscientists and environmental employees work with regulatory staffs to collect and analyze information on the geology and surface conditions of the potential drill site. Drilling, surface use and water management plans are developed to maximize natural gas production while protecting the environment and minimizing the well’s overall footprint.
  • Following the construction of a well pad, a large hole is drilled to a shallow depth. A relatively short length (typically 40 to 120 feet) of large-diameter steel pipe (conductor casing) is set to stabilize the ground at the top of the well.
  • Drilling continues to a pre-determined depth below the base of usable water. This depth is specified by state or federal regulators for the purpose of protecting potential usable groundwater resources and is based on local geology. While drilling this section, drilling mud – a mixture of fresh water and clay – is pumped into the hole to cool the drill bit, remove any cuttings and create a boundary between the well and surrounding rock.
  • The drill pipe and drill bit are removed, and a steel casing is inserted. Cement is pumped through the casing, filling the annular space between the outside of the casing and the well bore. This creates a sealed container that extends from the surface to below the base of freshwater zones. The blowout preventer is then installed at the surface.
  • Following a series of tests, drilling resumes until it reaches the kick-off point – when a specialized motor is added to the drilling assembly that allows the curved and horizontal sections of the well to be drilled. The kick-off point is typically thousands of feet below any freshwater zones.
  • Once the target depth is reached (based on the length of the horizontal section required), the drilling assembly is removed, and the steel casing is inserted through the entire length of the well. More cement is pumped through the casing, creating another cement-reinforced layer of protection.
  • Next, a specified length of horizontal casing is perforated to provide a way for natural gas to enter the production casing.
  • A fluid consisting of water, sand and a small amount of chemicals – some of which can be found in common household and food products – is then injected through the perforations to stimulate gas recovery. The fluid penetrates the shale and creates cracks, or fractures, in the rock. The sand or ceramic particles, called proppant, are carried by the fluid and deposited in the narrow fractures, creating a pathway for gas to reach the well.  This step is called hydraulic fracturing.
  • A plug is set inside the casing to isolate the stimulated section of the well. The entire perforate-inject-plug cycle is then repeated at regular intervals along the horizontal section of the well. Finally, the plugs are drilled out, allowing the gas and fluids to flow into the well bore and then up to the surface inside the casing or tubing.
  • The gas/fluid mixture is separated at the surface, and the fracturing fluid (also known as  flowback water) is captured in steel tanks or lined pits. The fracturing fluids are then disposed of via government-approved methods.
  • The entire well construction process generally takes only two to three months, compared to the 20- to 30-year productive life of a typical well.

I certainly hope this brief write-up is helpful to you in understanding the process.  I will make every effort to continue following this technology and report as needed.  Any comments will be greatly appreciated.

Information for this posting, in part, is derived from the following source:  EE&T (Energy Efficiency & Technology), July/August 2012 issue.

It is no secret that rare earth metals have become indispensable for the emerging clean-energy economy.  For example, the magnets in many state-of-the-art wind turbines and electric vehicles use rare earth praseodyminum, neodyminum, and dysprosium.  The real problem –many of these materials come from parts of the world that have political tensions with the United States.   The topic of avoiding rare earth supply shortages is now uppermost in the minds of many manufacturers and the Department of Energy.   If we look at where rare earth materials are used, we find the following:

  • Chemical catalysts—22%
  • Metallurgical applications and alloys—21%
  • Petroleum refining catalysts—14%
  •  Automotive catalytic converters—13%
  • Glass polishing and ceramics—9%
  • Phosphors for computer monitors, lighting , television—8%
  •   Permanent magnets—7%
  • Electronics—3%
  • Other—3%

The rare earth metals are called the Lanthanides.   There are seventeen (17) receiving this classification.  These are as follows:


















The Periodic Table for these elements may be seen as follows:

Periodic Table of Elements

There are several materials actually on the endangered or critical list: Neodymium, dysprosium, ytterbium and terbium.  Considerable work is being done to store existing and available supplies for future use.


These elements are very difficult to separate because of their chemical make up.  Monazite and bastnasite are the two main mineral sources of rare earth metals, with bastnasite mining in California now resurging as a major U.S. resource base.


Mining and processing are anything but simple:  ore is crushed, ground, classified, and concentrated by flotation.  It then undergoes an acid (HCI) digestion to produce several rare earth chlorides; this slurry is then filtered to produce hydroxide cakes, which are then chlorinated to convert the hydroxides to chlorides.  Final filtration and evaporation yields the solid rare earth chloride products.  These chlorides then undergo further processing to produce individual metal compounds ready for use.


One idea relative to usage is trying to discover ways to recycle the materials, thus extending usage.   Unfortunately, precious little is taking place at the moment with regard to recycling although some research is underway to investigate how to recycle scrap found in discarded electronics and retired wind turbines.   Amount the organizations exploring recycling is the Center for Resource Recovery and Recycling (CR 3), started by the National Science Foundation.  This group is  involved with researching how to develop new technologies for maximizing the recovery and recycling of metals used in manufactured products and structures, including separation, processing, and recycling.  There seemingly are no real efforts being expended to investigate alternate materials to the Lanthanide group.  This, in my opinion is very regrettable.


I will definitely keep you posted relative to any developments regarding discovery, recycling and substitution of these materials.




February 4, 2013

Sources for this posting were taken from information derived from research by a team of scientists working to perfect an atomic clock.  The Georgia Institute of Technology, The University of Nevada and   The University of New South Wales, Australia provided the team. 

I work with a few individuals, very few thank goodness, who don’t know what month it is much less what time of day it is.   Don’t get me wrong, these people are really great to work with but their routine never seems to change from one day to another; i.e., to work by 0700 hrs, lunch at 1130, punch out at 1530 hrs, home by 1800, dinner and then TV until bedtime.  That’s their life and apparently the life they have chosen, even when given alternatives.  There are others who follow a different and much more exciting path.

Researchers at The Georgia Institute of Technology, The University of Nevada and The University of New South Wales in Australia have been working on a remarkable project to develop a “time-piece” unparalled in human history.  You certainly can’t wear it on your wrist and it is bigger than a bread box—a nuclear clock.

The ability to record time is an integral part of scientific investigation.  We use descriptive information to characterize an object and define its existence and state of matter.  Physical descriptors such as length, width, height, weight, mass, density, specific gravity, caloric value are just a few of the many characteristics commonly given for existing objects.   Any movement of an object must, by necessity, involve a time element.  Velocity, acceleration, the use of GPS, accurate tracking of objects, astronomical investigations are significantly dependent upon accurate timekeeping.  For this reason, scientists have always worked toward developing better clocks.  The more precise the timekeeping, the more precise the answer(s) to any scientific endeavor.

A clock accurate to within a tenth of a second over 14 billion years – the age of the universe – is the goal of research being reported this week by scientists from three different institutions. To be published in the journal Physical Review Letters, the research provides the blueprint for a nuclear clock that would get its extreme accuracy from the nucleus of a single thorium ion.



This RF ion trap holds individual thorium atoms while they are laser-cooled to near absolute zero temperature.

Such a clock could be useful for certain forms of secure communication – and perhaps of greater interest – for studying the fundamental theories of physics. A nuclear clock could be as much as one-hundred times more accurate than current atomic clocks, which now serve as the basis for the global positioning system (GPS) and a broad range of important measurements.

“If you give people a better clock, they will use it,” said Alex Kuzmich, a professor in the School of Physics at the Georgia Institute of Technology and one of the paper’s co-authors. “For most applications, the atomic clocks we have are precise enough. But there are other applications where having a better clock would provide a real advantage.”

Beyond the Georgia Tech physicists, scientists in the School of Physics at the University of New South Wales in Australia and at the Department of Physics at the University of Nevada also contributed to the study. The research has been supported by the Office of Naval Research, the National Science Foundation and the Gordon Godfrey fellowship.

Early clocks used a swinging pendulum to provide the oscillations needed to track time. In modern clocks, quartz crystals provide high-frequency oscillations that act like a tuning fork, replacing the old-fashioned pendulum. Atomic clocks derive their accuracy from laser-induced oscillations of electrons in atoms. However, these electrons can be affected by magnetic and electrical fields, allowing atomic clocks to drift ever so slightly – about four seconds in the lifetime of the universe.

Ultra-High Vacuum Chamber


This image shows an ultra-high vacuum chamber housing an RF ion trap where single thorium atoms are suspended and laser-cooled to near absolute zero temperature.

Because neutrons are much heavier than electrons and densely packed in the atomic nucleus, they are less susceptible to these perturbations than the electrons. A nuclear clock should therefore be less affected by environmental factors than its atomic cousin.

“In our paper, we show that by using lasers to orient the electrons in a very specific way, we can use the neutron of an atomic nucleus as the clock pendulum,” said Corey Campbell, a research scientist in the Kuzmich laboratory and the paper’s first author.  “Because the neutron is held so tightly to the nucleus, its oscillation rate is almost completely unaffected by any external perturbations.”

To create the oscillations, the researchers plan to use a laser operating at petahertz frequencies — 10 (15) oscillations per second — to boost the nucleus of a thorium 229 ion into a higher energy state. Tuning a laser to create these higher energy states would allow scientists to set its frequency very precisely, and that frequency would be used to keep time instead of the tick of a clock or the swing of a pendulum.

The nuclear clock ion will need to be maintained at a very low temperature – tens of microkelvins – to keep it still. To produce and maintain such temperatures, physicists normally use laser cooling. But for this system, that would pose a problem because laser light is also used to create the timekeeping oscillations.

Linear Chain


Shown is a linear chain of 29 laser-cooled Th3+ atoms suspended in vacuum by an RF ion trap. The atoms are near absolute zero temperature and repel each other via Coulomb repulsion because of their like charges.

To solve that problem, the researchers include a single thorium 232 ion with the thorium 229 ion that will be used for time-keeping. The heavier ion is affected by a different wavelength than the thorium 229. The researchers then cooled the heavier ion, which also lowered the temperature of the clock ion without affecting the oscillations.   “The cooling ion acts as a refrigerator, keeping the clock ion very still,” said Alexander Radnaev, a graduate research assistant in the Kuzmich lab. “This is necessary to interrogate this clock ion for very long and to make a very accurate clock that will provide the next level of performance.”  Calculations suggest that a nuclear clock could be accurate to 10 (-19), compared to 10 (-17) for the best atomic clock.



Research scientist Corey Campbell and graduate research assistant Alex Radnaev make adjustments to optimize the overlap of laser beams used to cool trapped atoms. The work is part of a Georgia Tech research project aimed at developing an ultra-precise nuclear clock.

Because they operate in slightly different ways, atomic clocks and nuclear clocks could one day be used together to examine differences in physical constants. “Some laws of physics may not be constant in time,” Kuzmich said. “Developing better clocks is a good way to study this.”  Though the research team believes it has now demonstrated the potential to make a nuclear clock – which was first proposed in 2003 – it will still be a while before they can produce a working one.  The major challenge ahead is that the exact frequency of the ultraviolet laser emissions needed to excite the thorium nucleus hasn’t yet been determined, despite the efforts of many different research groups.  “People have been looking for this for 30 years,” Campbell said. “It’s worse than looking for a needle in a haystack. It’s more like looking for a needle in a million haystacks.”      But Kuzmich believes that that problem will be solved, allowing physicists to move to the next-generation of phenomenally accurate timekeepers.   “Our research shows that building a nuclear clock in this way is both worthwhile and feasible,” Kuzmich said. “We now have the tools and plans needed to move forward in realizing this system.”

I think this is a marvelous research program and one which will yield great dividends in years to come.  I, for one, certainly intend to follow their progress and one day hope to “lay hands” upon a physical specimen.

I certainly welcome your comments.

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