Getting the pay out of pay dirt

This is an excerpt from a writing project I’m working on.

The impulse to find and extract gold and silver was one of the drivers of 19th century westward expansion in North America.  The discovery of gold in a California stream bed in 1849 and the subsequent discovery of gold and silver in other territories eastward to Pikes Peak and the Black Hills resulted in waves of migration of prospectors, merchants, investors, and swindlers from all directions, including Europe.

The staking of mineral claims in the American west by people who were engaged in the extraction of mineral wealth lead to an inevitable avalanche of settlers interested in tapping some of the wealth of the miners themselves. The open territory created a void that was filled by industrialists, merchants, government, and perhaps most importantly, the railroad. Miners needed supplies and their ore concentrates required transportation and beneficiation.

As claims were made on valuable mineral deposits, the outline of the geographical distribution of mineral value in a region eventually defined what came to be known as a district. The expansion of the railroad, sweetened by land grants, added permanence to the settlement of many regions around and en route to the mining districts.  The simple logistical requirement of frequent stops to fill the steam locomotive with water lead to the establishment of towns along the railway. This expanding transportation network, along with liberal access to land, lead to settlement by farmers and ranchers who then created a demand for goods exported from long distances by rail.

The history of man’s fascination with gold and other metals is well documented and there is no need to reiterate that saga in the present work. The mania for gold and silver in the west is legendary. Indeed, clues to the history of gold and silver mining in the American west are quite apparent even to the casual observer today. A drive to Cripple Creek or Central City in Colorado will take the motorist past a great many long abandoned mine dumps, prospect holes, adits, and antiquated mineshaft head works. These quiet features of the landscape mark the location of what was in times past a great and bustling industry.

Throughout the American west today there are many “tourist mines” and mining museums operated by individuals and organizations who recognize the importance of keeping this part of our cultural heritage alive. Through their efforts, visitors can view 19th century mining technology on site and experience the dark and eerily silent realm of the miner. Visitors can see for themselves the intense and sustained effort required in hard rock mining and the occupational hazards miners were exposed to.

The tourist mines and museums often focus on the activity of mining itself as well as the specialized equipment needed to blast the rock and muck it out of the mine. This is only natural. The gold and silver rushes left behind a large number of artifacts. These items are of general interest to all.

The technology that is often glossed over relates the matter of getting the pay out of the pay dirt. Indeed, this is a central challenge to gold and silver extraction. Once the streams have been depleted of placer gold and the vein or lode has been discovered somewhere up the mountainside, the business of extracting gold or silver from hard rock becomes technically much more challenging and capital intensive.

The panning and sluicing of placer or alluvial gold, while labor intensive, is conceptually easy to grasp. High density gold particles can be transported by suspension in a water slurry of the water is moving sufficiently fast. Gold particles will tend to settle at low points in a crevice or a gold pan where the stream velocity slows. A gold pan or the bend in a stream for that matter will have a flow gradient that will tend to collect the gold particles where the stream velocity slows.  A sluice or a Wilfley table are just devices designed to trip laminar fluid flow by inducing turbulence to encourage the denser gold particles to settle. Riffles or channels serve to concentrate the gold particles.

While gravity and clever tricks with fluid flow can be used to collect placer gold, isolating gold or silver from a hard rock ore body is quite a different challenge.  Gold and silver may exist in reduced form within the ore. They may also be found alloyed with one another or otherwise combined with other heavy elements. While gold tends to be inert even under oxygenated conditions near the surface, silver is subject to more facile oxidation and may be found in ionic form with several anionic species. Thus technology for the isolation of gold may not serve as an exact template for silver extraction and isolation.

Gold or silver may exist in the metallic form as bodies visible to the naked eye within the solid rock. Or they may be dispersed in microscopic elemental form throughout the ore body. Gold ore may be rich in elements that complicate its isolation even though the gold is in reduced form.  Silver ore is commonly found in ionic form and with numerous ionic base metals present.

Lode gold or lode silver, that is, gold and silver found dispersed in an ore body, were subject to considerable variation in mineral composition. As a result, differences in isolation techniques and process economics arose among the various operations.

In the 19th century a considerable body of chemical knowledge evolved as the gold and silver rushes progressed. This chemical knowledge was put into practice largely through the efforts of mining engineers.  It was not uncommon for the mining engineer to conceive of what today would be considered a process chemistry change, draw up plans, press the ownership for funding, and put the change into operation.

Twenty-first century chemists may recognize much of the nomenclature from this period as well as the intended inorganic transformations. However, the older literature is filled with obsolete nomenclature or that which is confined to the mining industry.  What should be apparent to the observant reader is the level of sophistication possessed by 19th century metallurgists and engineers in what chemists today might refer to as the “workup”.  That is, the series of isolation steps used to remove undesired components to afford a reasonably clean metal product. Mining engineers refer to this as beneficiation or as extractive metallurgy. Beneficiation of lode gold and lode silver involved chemical transformation in batch or continuous processing.

The story of the development of extractive metallurgy is in part the story of redox chemistry on complex compositions like rock. In the mid 16th century Europe, key individuals like Biringuccio, Agricola, and Ercker began to capture mining and extractive metallurgical technology in print. Vannoccio Biringuccio (1480-1539) published his De la pirotechnia in 1540, detailing economical methods of metallurgy and assaying. In 1556, the work of Georg Bauer (“Agricola”, 1494-1555) was published posthumously. His De re metallica is regarded as a classic of metallurgy. Agricola’s book describes the practical issues related to mining, smelting, and assay work and is illustrated with remarkable woodcuts.

By the year 1520, do-it-yourself books like Ein nützlich Bergbüchlein and Probierbüchlein were beginning to appear in Europe describing basic mining and metallurgy techniques.[1] By this time methods of cupellation and the separation of gold and silver were committed to print.

Cupellation is an assay technique wherein crucibles made of bone ash were used to fire prepared gold ore samples with an oxidizer, affording base metal oxides which then separated from the gold and absorbed into the crucible to afford an isolated button of gold.


[1] Aaron J. Ihde, The Development of Modern Chemistry, 1964, pp 22-24; Dover Reprint 1984, QD11.I44, ISBN 0-486-64235-6.


Company gets public spanking from CSB

The US Chemical Safety Board (CSB) has publically expressed dismay and disappointment in a letter to Tesoro Corporation in San Antonio, TX. It is in regard the apparent unwillingness of the company to allow CSB investigators to come on site and continue with the investigation of an industrial accident or, if you prefer, incident. Apparently two workers were splashed with sulfuric acid and had to be choppered out for treatment.

From what I gather from the CSB letter, Tesoro doesn’t believe that the incident rises to the level of seriousness to justify a CSB investigation. That is my own interpretation.

At first blush it would seem that Tesoro has a point. While it is something that OSHA would cover, does it really necessitate attention by the CSB? By itself it seems questionable. But when you consider that Tesoro had an 7-fatality explosion and fire at its Anacortes refinery in April of 2010, perhaps the scrutiny seems less unreasonable.

The refinery explosion was determined to result from high temperature hydrogen attack within a 40 year old shell and tube heat exchanger. Catastrophic structural failure on startup after a scheduled tube cleaning resulted in an explosion and fire with immediate and delayed fatalities.

It seems to me that the failure of a high temperature heat exchanger after 40 years of service handling hydrogen and naphtha has more to do management policy on equipment service life than anything else. This speaks to prudent administrative and engineering controls on plant safety. A shell and tube heat exchanger has no moving parts to fail. It just sits motionless doing it’s function. There are no failing parts to replace other than leaky tubes and valves. Perhaps no one considered that the inherent nature of the gas and thermal cycling was deleterious to the integrity of the metal shell? Perhaps there was no enthusiasm to define official hours of operating life. Plant managers are always under pressure to minimize operating costs. This is especially true of plants producing high volume low margin commodities.

But here is the rub. Everything has a failure rate. This is especially critical for equipment under high temperature and pressure. The first layer of administrative control is for management to make allowances for materials in extreme environments. Anacortes is not the only recent incident where component failure has occurred in equipment performing under demanding conditions. Before the engineers can make equipment specifications for this, management has to conform to the notion that some parts of a plant should have better definition on service life. They should demand it of their design people and support engineering when the time comes to replace a component.

If the CSB believes that a company has weak administrative controls that influence plant safety, then I think they should investigate.


The King in Yellow

Being a devotee of the HBO series True Detective I became intrigued with the purported allusions to the 1895 book of short stories The King in Yellow by Richard W. Chambers. I received my copy from Amazon yesterday and read the first three stories.

I have never ventured into the horror genre so this is refreshing. Chambers was reportedly influenced by Ambrose Bierce. His prose is considerably less dense than Bierce’s- closer to a 20th century cadence and vocabulary. H.P. Lovecraft took notice of Chambers as well. Lovecraft and Bierce are next on my reading list.

As with the story line of True Detective, The King in Yellow (or Yellow King) is not really centered on the fictional play of the same name. Rather, it is a kind of story telling device that motivates and launches characters along the arc of another story. It’s an interesting device.


Solvay and AREVA Make Deal to Develop Thorium Technology

I have been an advocate of thorium based nuclear power for a long time. There are certain advantages that thorium based nuclear technology has over uranium and plutonium systems that make it appealing, as long as the nuclear genie is out of the bottle anyway. Others have written about this and there is no point in my wasting bandwidth on it here.  Fort St. Vrain Generating Station, one of the very few HTGR Thorium plants ever operated in the US sat a half hour from here from 1979 to 1989. As prototypical operations go, the plant had a history of upsets and unforeseen complications and was decommissioned after a decade of sub-commercial output. Eventually the plant was converted to a natural gas turbine plant and runs to this day in that capacity.

So it was of interest to learn that the venerable European company Solvay has teamed up with AREVA to develop thorium technology. Uranium and rare earth processing, as well as other minerals produce side streams enriched in thorium.  According to the link, both players have been accumulating inventories of thorium.  Hmmm. What could they be up to…?


The Adenocarcinoma Chronicles.

2/23/14

Five months past treatment for throat cancer I will set aside The Squamous Chronicles and instead post The Adenocarcinoma Chronicles. Having won the advanced prostate cancer lottery as well, my current adventures involve treatment below the beltline.  Here are my impressions of the experience to date.

Physicians, or more specifically in this context, oncologists, are ethically constrained to apply agreed upon treatments for the indications presented by the patient. I have gotten no “off-label” kind of advice up to now. In my case, my PSA was 39 and the biopsy readings from the pathologist were assigned Gleason 9. Well, sonofabitch. That was a fine kettle of fish. Looks like my watchful waiting was long in the waiting and too light in the watchfulness.

The standard treatment regimen in my case is hormone ablation and radiation. For hormone ablation I have had Degarelix and Lupron. For radiation I have begun IMRT (Intensity Modulated Radiation Therapy) with a dose of 76 Gy to the targeted tissue mass. I asked about scatter dose to the testes just because of the obvious proximity. The Rad Onc looked it up and said it was 1 Gy. I then pointed out that I’ve had a goodly bit of radiation in the last year and was there anyone who keeps a running total on the cumulative dose? As expected, the answer was “no” followed quickly by the standard rationale that the disease was far more dangerous than the radiation. I’d say the same thing I suppose.

Things that my docs are reluctant to offer are opinions on how this whole disease plays out. There seem to be several elements to this reticence. First, predicting the future is difficult, especially with a stochastic phenomenon like cancer radiotherapy. Second, there are good reasons for the doc to not focus on gloomy topics like life expectancy, especially if the survival stats are not the best. Most people at some point spontaneously think of cancer as a death sentence. At present I view it as a chronic condition that will play out stepwise in terms of a convergent treatment and remission series that eventually ends with refractory and widespread disease. Seems pretty obvious. It is the time-scale that I am uncertain of.

I am writing about this because my treatment regimen seems relatively ordinary to this point given the status of the condition. Perhaps there are some fellows who have yet to climb on this train who are uncertain of where it goes. This is my journey and I’ll pass along my notes.

Update 3/13/14

Now 14 treatments into radiation. With the help of medical textbooks ordered from Amazon, I have slowly been learning more about the disease and the treatment. During my weekly consult with the Rad-Onc I asked the question- “What was the T number from the pathologists notes?” He replied it was T3c N1.  The N1 means there is a node involved so it’s Stage 4 cancer. No one actually came out and said this to me so I had to ask. It is one thing to suspect it and another to hear it. Hard to say if this knowledge is in some way empowering.


Gaussling’s 15th Epistle to the Bohemians. Thoughts of a Secularist Liberal Scientist.

If you knew me personally, you’d know that as a reductionist my profile can be reduced to that of a liberal atheist scientist with marginally good manners. I broke the shackles of magical thinking in high school after reading a few books by Bertrand Russell and Carl Sagan. Though I have not been the same since, I have come to sympathize a bit with Quakers and their predilection for peace.

My religious upbringing was quite ordinary for a young Iowegian lad in the 1960’s. Confirmation in the Lutheran Church (Missouri Synod) in 8th grade followed by a short stint as a reluctant acolyte. The church seemed firmly footed in bedrock as an institution and adept at indoctrinating the young. In catechism studies I tried to understand the authoritarian system that is outlined by Martin Luther and the strange collection of narratives that make up the King James Bible.

There were abstractions that didn’t make sense then and are still a mystery to me today. The concept of the Holy Trinity always seemed suspiciously anthropomorphic. Then there is the crucifixion as a kind of “ghostly sorting mechanism” for salvation. It stands out against the backdrop of natural phenomena like physics and biology- mechanistic systems which seem to suffice for everything else. Finally, there is God’s seemingly endless requirement for worship and admiration which has always struck me as a vanity unnecessary for a supreme being. The whole scheme reeks of iron-age anthropology.

I remember the day it happened. I was praying for something or other. Trying to have a little spiritual time with the Big Guy. It finally dawned on me that I was talking to myself and in doing so, wishing for some particular outcome to happen. All those years. Praying and wishing were indistinguishable. I’ll admit, I was never one to volunteer a lot of praise to God. Heaping praise on a deity seemed patronizing and wholly unnecessary. Surely if God could elicit wrath, then he’d certainly pick up on being flattered.

Well, in the end, so what? Another tedious atheist commits apostasy. Like most people in US culture, my moral basis was built on what has been described as Judeo-Christian morals or ethics. It’s hard to avoid. But just as the earth does not rest on a foundation, I am not limited to sensibilities derived only by the sons of Abraham in a far earlier age. My culture and my brain tell me that theft, murder, and the other spiritual crimes (sins) are bad for the common good. That respect for others has a pleasurable and sensible aspect that threats of eternal damnation do not improve on.

The reductionist in me can’t resist the following assertion. Deistic religion reduces to cosmology. In the end, a religion offers a theory of the universe. It is a kind of physics that defines relationships between the prime mover and his (?) bipedal subjects imbued with mystical sensitivities. It claims to define the outcome of the disposition of a soul, whatever that may be.  I don’t even believe in the existence of the mind, much less a soul.  As a form of physics, religion lacks means by which theories can be tested. Quantitation of a spiritual element is an idea that has yet to see practice. It seems to lack predictive capability to estimate an outcome that can be validated. It is definitely not a science. It is not about matter or energy. It is about how to conduct ones life against a backdrop of divine authority and within a box of behaviors.

But our brains seem to be constructed in a manner such that religious/spiritual notions are nearly irresistible. Billions of people have claimed to feel its draw and testify to its merits. The projection of anthropomorphic imagery in myth is common in diverse cultures.  The Abrahamic religions congealed from cultures that were apparently unaware of the concept of zero. Where heaven is death with a plus sign, hell is death with a negative sign. To an atheist death is just zero. It has no sign or magnitude. It is unconsciousness and devoid of the awareness of pain or pleasure. Zero sensory processing. It is neither exaltation nor agony. Just zero. Entropy prevails. Such an outlook is hardly appealing enough to gather followers. It is grim and without hope of graduation to eternal bliss.  The take home lesson is to live in the moment, not the future.

Who am I to argue with millennia of religious thought? I don’t know. All I can say is that even as a cancer patient, I remain refractory to the pull of religious and mystical thinking. So it was and so it is.

Post script.

Divinity students! Relax. I’m no threat to your faith. My conclusions on this life of ours offers no ceremony and precious little fellowship. I can say that I’ve had an eye-full of the clockwork of this universe. Adherence to evangelical doctrines could not have provided the amazing insights. And for that I have no regrets.


American Idiopath

I recently developed a condition where I have ear pain and partial facial paralysis. Ear aches I can deal with, but when my face quits working, I go to the doc. So, that’s what happened. The ENT said that it resembled Bells palsy and the cause was idiopathic.

I can just imagine an attending physician and a resident in medical school taking future idiopathic specialists on their rounds. The doc walks in and greets a patient with an ear ache and a face that doesn’t work. “Yessir” he says with resignation, “another case of idiopathic syndrome. We just don’t know what the hell happened.” The resident turns to the med students and says gravely, “Look at this patient closely. Try not to confuse the distant stare and slack jaw with idiopathic disease. Even though this patient is from Iowa, we are convinced that there is an idiopathic condition overprinted on his presentation.”

The attending physician stands there thoughtfully for a moment, raises a bristled eyebrow and glances at his watch. “Let’s go people. The idiopathology wing is full of patients with mysterious conditions.” With that they shuffle off down the hall.

Update

A round of acyclovir and prednisone cleared up the apparent Bells palsy. I am symmetric again and can pucker up to whistle a tune.


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