Friday, March 12, 2010

Sometimes it's the Simplest Things.

I'll be the first to admit that sometimes fairly obvious things elude me. I appear to have this facade of intellegence when in fact, deep down, I often times have those typical blonde moments. Occasionally I will have a revelation. These come when I finally (at the ripe age of 30) realize something that is otherwise totally obvious to everyone else.

Take, for example, my sophomore year of college. I was driving around thinking about the Arctic Circle. (Don't ask. Just go with it.) Then, I started thinking about Antarctica. Then I realized Antarctica is just like the Arctic, only with Ant- in front of it. Then I realize "Ant-" is like Greek for "the opposite" of something. Then, like a bag of bricks, it hit me:. The Arctic is North, and the Ant-Arctic is directly opposite it. So, really, when they teach you opposites in fifth grade all the other kids caught this one. Me? 20 years old.

Yesterday at work I was training with my boss on an instrument I haven't operated yet. It's basically a big box with a very sensitive detector that operates under conditions where it generates an argon liquid plasma at about 10,000 degrees Kelvin (like, way hotter than Farenheit) and we aspirate a solution into it. The super-hot plasma blasts the electrons off the atoms and as the electrons relax back to their ground state they emit little pockets of energy called photons. We are able to detect some of these photon's energies in our visible light spectrum (red, orange, yellow, green, etc.) The detector "sees" these energies, what we call wave bands, and the photomultiplier tube multiplies the millivolt reading it detects that corresponds to that particular elements and can tell us how much vanadium or iron or molybdinum is in the sample we analyzed. This procedure is called emmision spectroscopy. Bare with me.....

So, we're analyzing an "unknown". One of these sludges an engineer brings in and says, "What the hell is this?" We do the analysis and see that our sample contains traces of the following metals: Iron, Nickle, Manganese and Molybdinum and Chromium. Bare with me....

My boss explains to me that the presence of Iron means something is corroding the steel pipes and clogging up the reactors. Then, in what I think is a leap of shear genius, he explains that based on the ratios of the remaining metal concentrations he can tell what kind of stainless steel is corroding, helping the engineers to pin point where the problem is.

Ok, a little background: Steel is not an element. It is made up of mostly iron, along with about 2% carbon. It is magnetic and rusts easily. Stainless steel, on the other hand, is mostly iron, a little carbon and at least 10% chromium. Sometimes other elements like vanadium, nickle, manganese and molybdinum are added to improve hardness or brittleness. Just from the little addition of chromium, steel is turned to stainless steel. It is not magnetic and will not rust. Crazy, huh?
So, I question my boss. "How does that work? How can just a little chromium keep it from rusting?" And his response was, "Well, it's just like the chrome bumper on your car - it doesn't rust because it's plated in chromium."

Jigga what? Forget the fact that I'm working with a nearly $90,000 instrument and we've just covered aspects of pysical chemistry few understand - my chrome bumper is plated with chromium? A metal I've been dealing with most of my post-highschool life? Analyzing on nearly a daily basis? Looking at on the periodic chart, having now idea what it looks like in real life? And its sitting right there before my eyes? Everyday? Get it? Chrome (like chrome bumpers, wheels, door handles, etc.) is really short for chromium, a trasition metal with a lustry finish that, when detected in our samples, indicates stainless steel degredation? How wacked is that?

...and I don't even want to know how many people already new this.....

1 comment: