Category Archives: Technology

Comments on the cable TV series “Gold Rush”

I’m a fan of Gold Rush on the Discovery Channel and have been since the beginning. Aside from the producers constant over-dramatization and spreading the content a little too thin over the time block, I’d have to say that my main criticism would be with the miners themselves.

What I would throw on the table is the observation that there is a troublesome lack of analytical data supporting the miner’s choices of where to dig a cut. The few episodes where core samples have been taken, useful data was obtained and decisions made therefrom. But the holes were paid for grudgingly and the range covered too miserly. A sufficiently capitalized operation would be sure to survey the ore body and make the decision to bring in the heavy equipment on the basis of data.

Obviously they have been chronically short of capital for their operations. Fortunately for them, over the last 2 seasons they have been able to upgrade their wash plants, trommels, and earth moving equipment. Must be the TV connection.

But I suppose it is the very lack of capitalization that forms the dramatic basis of the show. Without scarcity there would be no drama. Without the conflicting personalities and dubious decision making there would be only a documentary on gold mining.

I have to imagine that the recent collapse in gold prices will get folded into the dramatic context in the next season.

I truly wish Parker Schnabel, the Hoffman crew, and the Dakota boys the best of luck in their efforts. What the viewers can’t see are the 10,000 details and problems that remain on the editing room floor.


Wherein Th’ Gaussling Elaborates on PET scans

Any questions?


Why not encourage Iran and other states to develop thorium-based nuclear power?

It is a crying shame that we (the rest of the world) did not think to encourage Iran and other states to develop thorium-based nuclear power many years ago. The thorium fuel cycle provides nuclear-powered steam generation, but is largely absent the use of fissile isotopes in the cycle which may be used for nuclear proliferation.  Thorium-232 is more abundant that uranium-(235 + 238) isotopes and does not require isotopic separation as uranium does.

The great exploration boom in progress with rare earth elements would facilitate thorium supply. Thorium and uranium are commonly found in rare earth ores and, to the dismay of extractive metallurgists since the Manhattan Project, these elements tend follow along in rare earth extraction process. The isolation of thorium was developed long ago.  Point is, since so many rare earth element extraction process streams are either in operation or are pending, now is the time to accumulate thorium.

At present however, thorium is a troublesome and undesired radioactive metal whose isolation and disposal can be quite problematic. The best process schemes partition thorium away from the value stream as early in the process as possible and channel it into the raffinate stream for treatment and disposal in the evaporation pond.

The specific activity of natural thorium is 2.2 x 10^-7 curies per gram (an alpha emitter). The specific activity of natural uranium is 7.1 x 10^-7 curies per gram.  Alpha emitters pose special hazards in their handling. Dusts are a serious problem and workers must be protected especially from inhalation or ingestion. While alpha’s are not difficult to shield from, their low penetration through ordinary materials or even air makes them a bit more challenging to detect and quantitate relative to beta’s and gamma’s. In spite of the mild radioactivity of thorium, managing the occupational health of workers is known technology in practice in the nuclear industry.

Regrettably, most of the world’s nuclear power infrastructure is geared to uranium and plutonium streams. Thorium, the red-headed stepchild of the actinides, is thoughtlessly discharged to the evaporation ponds or to the rad waste repository- wherever that is- to accumulate fruitlessly. If we’re digging the stuff up anyway, why not put it to use? It is a shame and a waste to squander it.


Wireless Wierdness

I just can’t get over the absolute wierdness of being in a crowd, say at the airport, where a large fraction of people are jabbering into a phone plastered to their ear or they are standing, walking, sitting, or pacing with heads bowed down, pecking and stroking their mobile communication device. It is a kind of enchantment. A portal to other coordinates in the continuum. It allows us to receive or deliver stress all the damned time. Nobody is safe from the possibility of belligerent assholes reaching out for you while waiting at a stoplight or well-meaning associates braindumping all over your eardrum as you search aisle 5 at the supermarket for a can of chickpeas.

Driving yesterday, I took defensive measures as a dipshit in a red Ford Expedition overshot a turn while closing in on me. The distracted driver chose to complete a task on the handheld device before putting the oversized killing machine back between her yellow and white lines. I know this because the driver plastered the phone to her ear as she looked up when I passed by.

It has been 2 months now since I powered down my Facebook account. Facebook is a colossal time suck. It is a kind of gravitational well that can pull wandering bodies into orbit and lock them into some perverse synchrony for purposes unknown. Facebook is a kind of electronic teat that nurses us and keeps us from having to face our dark thoughts in quiet moments.  It is also a perfect venue for those who just have to broadcast their thoughts in every waking moment.

As a Facebooker, I was pretty boring. I don’t have photos of grandchildren or garden flowers to post. I’m a serial science nerd and nobody wants to hear about that. Okay, that’s fine. I soon realized that Facebook was only providing delayed and fragmented social awkwardness that I could be having face to face in real time and without having to pay for electricity. So I pulled the plug.


Fear and Loathing with Frac Fluids

There is considerable handwringing over hydraulic fracturing fluids and their potential effects on “the environment”. I use quotes in ironic fashion because I see very little parsing of the issue into relevant components. The chemical insult to the environment is highly dependent on both the substances and the extent of dispersion. But I state the obvious.

There are surface effects at the drill site and there are subsurface effects. A spill on the surface is going to be relatively small due to the limited size of the available tankage on site. I drive by these sites almost daily and can see with my own eyes the scale of the project. A surface spill of materials will be limited in scope.

The subsurface effects are complex, however, and the magnitude of consequences will depend on both the extent of the fluid penetration into aquifers and the nature of the materials in the fluid. Much criticism has been dealt, rightfully I think, over the secrecy claims on the composition of these fluids. The default reply from drillers has rested on trade secrecy. To be sure, the matter of government forcing a company to reveal its art is a serious matter. But the distribution of chemical substances into the environment requires some oversight. Especially when substances are injected into locations where they cannt be readily remediated. The remediation of an aquifer is a serious undertaking which may or may not be effective.

If you want to see what is potentially in frac fluids, go to Google Patents and search “hydraulic fracturing fluid”. A great many patents will be found. This will give the length and breadth of the compositions patented. Of this large list only a few are used in current practice. The potential carrier fluids vary from water to LPG (!). Water is a common component, but brine is said to be preferred. Additives include hydrochloric acid and surfactants. The MSDS documents may be a good source of info. Consider that a substantial threat to ground water may be that it is rendered non-potable rather than outright  toxic.


Agilent MP AES. The New AA.

Agilent is excited about their new 4100 MP-AES system. The initials stand for Microwave Plasma Atomic Emission Spectrometer. The instrument uses the magnetic component of the microwave energy to produce a nitrogen plasma at ca 5000 K, through which the sample is drawn. The monochrometer looks down the axis of the plasma torch. The detector is constructed to suppress blooming.

Pretty cool instrument. The setup includes a nitrogen supply which separates the nitrogen directly from air, so there is no large argon dewar to lug to remote locations like mine sites.

The MP-AES is designed to compete in the AA market. The detection limits are comparable for many elements. The kicker is that there no need for combustion gases or element specific lamps since it is a plasma emission method.

The question I have is this- is there any market left in the replacement of AA? The instrument sells for $53 k, so the pricing is very competitive with or better than ICP. I think that argon based ICP is going to feel the heat of this nitrogen plasma torch.

The bad news for chemists is that you don’t need a chemistry degree to run it. To set up methods, maybe, but the software is designed for operation by non-degreed techs.


Devon Energy Sells Stakes to SINOPEC in Shale Gas Plays

Devon Energy has raised $900 million in cash from Sinopec Group for a stake in Devon shale gas plays. These gas projects include the Utica, Niobrara, and Tuscaloosa formations. 

What is interesting is not so much that China has bought its way into the extraction of a resource that the USA has in some abundance. What is more troubling is that China has bought its way up the learning curve in horizontal drilling and fracturing. 

According to the article in Bloomburg Businessweek-

China National Petroleum Corp., Sinopec Group and Cnooc Ltd. are seeking to gain technology through partnerships in order to develop China’s shale reserves, estimated to be larger than those in the U.S.

“In these joint ventures, the partner does typically get some education on drilling,” Scott Hanold, a Minneapolis-based analyst for RBC Capital Markets, said today in an interview.

So, the business wizards at Devon in OKC have arranged to sell their drilling magic to the Sinopec for a short term gain on drilling activity. Way to go folks. Gas in the ground is money in the bank. These geniuses have arranged to suck non-renewable energy out of the ground as fast as possible.  Once again US technology (IP, which is national treasure) is piped across the Pacific to people who will eventually use it to beat us in the market.  Score another triumph for our business leaders!!

The market is like a stomach. It has no brain. It only knows that it wants MORE.    Th’ Gaussling.

 It’s a banner day for American Business.


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