Sirocco Winds over the Adriatic Sea

More than just a bunch of hot air

Our article about the Chinook winds discussed an unusual meteorological phenomenon, but one thing it didn’t touch on was the peculiarity of a wind having a name in the first place. That strikes me as odd, like a temperature or a humidity level or a barometric pressure having a name. I mean, I get it: we give hurricanes and certain other storms names, and that serves a useful purpose, but just calling the movement of air in a certain way at a certain time by a proper noun seems weird.

Be that as it may, we were able to find quite a few other examples of winds that have names. Here’s a representative sampling—by no means a complete list:

  • Bora: A cold, north-eastern katabatic wind that blows along the east coast of the the Adriatic Sea (including Greece, Russia, and Turkey).
  • Brickfielder: A hot and dry summer wind in Southern Australia.
  • Cape Doctor: A dry south-easterly wind that blows over part of Western Cape Province in South Africa, so named because of its apparent effect of clearing away pollution.
  • Chinook: A warm winter wind in the western United States and Canada.
  • Fremantle Doctor: A cool summer sea breeze on the coast of Western Australia.
  • Halny: A strong, warm föhn wind storm in the Carpathian mountains of Poland and Slovakia.
  • Khamsin: A hot, sandy wind in Egypt.
  • Mistral: A cold, forceful wind that blows in southern France and into the Mediterranean Sea.
  • Santa Ana: A hot, dry wind, usually in autumn, in southern California and northern Mexico.
  • Sirocco: A powerful wind that blows from the Sahara through North Africa and Southern Europe.

Source: Interesting Thing of the Day

ATK Space Systems' Solar Sail during testing at the Plumbrook Test Facility in Sandusky, OH

The next big thing in space travel

If you wanted to cross the ocean by ship, you’d probably choose an engine-driven vessel over a sail-driven vessel. The engine will get you where you’re going faster; it enables the ship to be much larger than it could be if it were driven by a sail; and it requires much less manual intervention to keep it going. Besides, you won’t be at the mercy of unpredictable winds. In oceangoing vessels, the technological progression from sails to internal-combustion engines solved a great many problems while creating only a few new ones, such as the need to obtain and store significant quantities of fuel and the pollution that results from burning that fuel. Of course, since the planet is conveniently spherical, you’re always a finite distance from the nearest port where you can fill up. If, on the other hand, you wanted to circumnavigate the globe without stopping for fuel, sails would be the way to go. The trip would take longer and the ship would be smaller, but you’d never have to worry about running out of gas.

This is the very thinking behind an ostensibly retro design for spacecraft: by ditching the fuel and engines you can enable much longer journeys, albeit with some trade-offs. Outfit your ship with a giant sheet of lightweight and highly reflective material, and you’ve got a solar sail, a propulsion system that can take you to the distant reaches of the galaxy without any fuel—pushing you along with the gentle power of light from the sun.

What Goes Around

Solar sails are by no means a new idea. In fact, German astronomer Johannes Kepler floated the idea by Galileo in 1610. Kepler imagined “heavenly breezes,” though, and had no concept of the scientific principles that would actually come into play. In 1871, James Clerk Maxwell, a Scottish physicist, predicted that electromagnetic radiation (including light) should exert a small amount of pressure when an object absorbs or reflects it; Russian physicist Peter Lebedev first demonstrated the effect in a laboratory in 1900.

A little more than 20 years later, another Russian physicist named Fridrikh Tsander proposed using this radiation pressure to push a spacecraft along using a large but very thin mirror. In the early 1970s, NASA funded research into solar sails, and for a while proposed that they be used to propel a probe that would rendezvous with Halley’s Comet in 1986 (though the necessary technology turned out to be unavailable at the time). Today, NASA and numerous other groups are actively developing solar sail designs, and several spacecraft powered by solar sails have already been deployed.

Light Pressure

The whole idea of light exerting pressure seems counterintuitive. I’ve personally stood in front of some very bright spotlights without so much as a wobble. And I know from my rudimentary understanding of physics that photons, the particles that make up light, have no mass. Nevertheless, under the right circumstances, light can indeed provide a push. The math, frankly, is beyond me, but according to scientists who seem to know what they’re talking about and can back it up with impressive-looking equations, photons do indeed exert a gentle pressure on objects they hit—and the pressure is roughly twice as great if the object reflects the light than if it absorbs the light, so solar sails would effectively be giant mirrors. But the key word here is gentle. I’ve read various analogies for the strength of the sun’s push, but one I particularly liked, on a NASA webpage, said that if you had a mirror the size of a football field, the pressure of the sun’s light would be about the same as the weight of a first-class letter.

In space, a small amount of pressure goes much further, because other factors such as gravity, air friction, and wind don’t get in the way. Even so, if a solar sail is going to push a spacecraft of any significant mass, it must be enormous. And therein lies a problem: with greater size comes greater mass—not so much from the sail itself but from the support structure that’s needed to keep it rigid and connect it to craft’s payload. The greater the mass to be pushed, the greater the size of the sail that’s needed, and so on. Thus, in solar sail design, thinner and lighter materials are almost always better. Sail thickness is measured in micrometres (µm)—millionths of a meter—with some being as thin as 2 µm. (By comparison, the average human hair is about 80 µm thick.) This brings up a second problem: fragility. You’ve got to fold or roll up a huge sheet of material that’s a zillionth of an inch thick, get it into space, and then unfurl it perfectly—without ripping or mutilating it, and without creating a support structure so massive that it’ll cancel out the sail’s low mass. One promising material is a type of porous carbon fiber that’s much thicker than the polymer films most researchers have used, and yet lighter in weight because of its unusual structure; it’s also highly rigid, durable, and heat-resistant.

Still More Uses for the Force

Proposed solar sail designs have used a wide variety of shapes, from simple squares to disks to pinwheels. As with wind sails, you can change the angle of a solar sail in order to steer the craft; designs that incorporate numerous smaller sails provide greater directional control. But one thing you will not see is a solar sail shaped like a parachute—since light travels in straight lines, that would make for a highly inefficient design. Interestingly, that’s exactly the shape of a certain fictional solar sail—the one used by Count Dooku’s spaceship in Star Wars: Episode II—Attack of the Clones.

Besides having an inappropriately shaped sail, that ship somehow managed to zip across the galaxy at a startling speed as soon as the sail unfurled. Real solar sails, because they generate so little force, accelerate quite slowly. On the other hand—and this is what makes them an intriguing option for long-term missions—the velocity continues to increase over time, there being no friction to counteract it. The result is that over a period of months or years, a craft powered by a solar sail could reach speeds far in excess of any rocket-powered design. However, as the craft gets farther and farther away from the sun, the radiation pressure also decreases, so it’s not as though the rate of acceleration can continue to increase indefinitely. Even so, a vehicle with a very lightweight solar sail could reach the orbit of Pluto in about 7 years. (The Pioneer 10 probe, launched in 1972, took 11 years to reach that point.)

Sail On

After many years of ground-based and suborbital testing, as well as a few noteworthy failures, an interplanetary solar sail spacecraft (Japan’s IKAROS probe) was first successfully deployed in 2010. NASA launched the NanoSail-D2 later in 2010. And The Planetary Society launched and successfully tested a small solar sail-powered spacecraft called LightSail 1 in 2015; LightSail 2 is scheduled to launch in June, 2019. Numerous other solar sail projects are in various stages of planning.

Among the future missions envisioned for spacecraft propelled by solar sails are probes sent to explore the inner planets, monitoring stations near the sun, and deep-space exploration. Some proposals even use a giant laser here on Earth, instead of the sun, to push the craft along. Manned missions, however, are a much more distant possibility; a spaceship big enough to hold passengers would require an unfathomably gargantuan sail, and the slow acceleration would be rather inconvenient considering human lifespans. But if we ever encounter a ship sent a long time ago from a galaxy far, far away, it may very well have been carried along by a solar sail.

Note: This is an updated version of an article that originally appeared on Interesting Thing of the Day on June 19, 2006.

Source: Interesting Thing of the Day

Take Control of Your Digital Legacy cover

How do you want to be remembered by future generations? You can make a will to handle your physical possessions, but what about your digital life—photos, videos, email, documents, and the like? What about all your passwords, social media accounts, backups, and every other aspect of your digital life? Over the years, I got so many questions about this sort of thing that I decided to write a book about it—Take Control of Your Digital Legacy—and it has turned out to be one of my post popular titles.

If you’re not at the stage of life where you can think about this for yourself, consider that you may have to do so for your parents or other relatives. It’s not all about posterity either, since following my advice will also help loved ones access your key accounts and important info if you’re incapacitated, which can happen at any time—or even if you just decide to go on a long vacation.

This book, like all Take Control titles, comes as an ebook, and you can download any combination of formats—PDF, EPUB, and/or Kindle’s Mobipocket format—so you can read it on pretty much any computer, smartphone, tablet, or ebook reader. The cover price is $15, but as an Interesting Thing of the Day reader, you can buy it for 30% off, or just $10.50.

Source: Interesting Thing of the Day

An open cardboard box

Old marketing gimmicks never die

Hark back with me to the Dark Years (or the Good Old Days, depending on your point of view)—the time before any object a person desired could be delivered to one’s door within days (if not hours), with no more effort than a few taps on a smartphone screen. I’m old enough to remember a time before—indeed, before the internet itself—when discovering, locating, and procuring a variety of any particular type of merchandise actually presented a challenge. Way back in the days when we had to wait for checks to clear and then allow 6–8 weeks for delivery, the notion that a previously unknown specimen of one of our favorite things would arrive automagically on our doorstep once a month was quite compelling.

I had experienced, and then long forgotten about, thing-of-the-month clubs when, in the early 2000s, my Christmas gift from my mother was a subscription to the Fruit of the Month Club. Once each month, Airborne Express arrived at our door with a box of fresh fruit. The selection changed each month. In December, for example, it was Mandarin oranges; in April it was kiwi and pineapple. The fruit was always of good quality, and the shipments were just infrequent enough that I was always slightly surprised when each package arrived. Although the shipments were fairly small, they were always a welcome treat that didn’t require a trip to the market—and the subscription was something I never would have thought to purchase for myself.

They Deliver for Me

Before my fruit started arriving, I had heard of the Book-of-the-Month Club but had only a vague notion that other kinds of things were available on a monthly subscription plan. Now, however, I seem to find ___-of-the-month clubs every time I turn around. In most cases, the general idea is the same: for a fixed fee, you get a six- or twelve-month subscription, with a different selection of your chosen product arriving each month. This can be an easy way to experience new tastes and broaden your horizons a bit. (You can also, of course, have Amazon or another retailer automatically send you refills of exactly the same staple items on the schedule of your choice, but that’s different from having someone select a different item in a given category for a monthly surprise.)

What other sorts of ___-of-the-month clubs are there? A quick web search turned up hundreds, ranging from the delightful to the bizarre. Things you can receive by monthly subscription include: candles, chocolate, coffee, cookies, craft beer, fruit, gourmet cheese, hot sauce, jam, leggings, oysters, pasta, pastries, pickles, potato chips, socks, tea, trout flies, wine…well, I could go on, but you get the idea. I haven’t seen armchair-of-the-month or vaccine-of-the-month clubs, but with very few exceptions, it appears one can now receive a curated monthly example of virtually any item needed for survival or leisure by subscription.

Reader’s Dozen

And then, of course, there are books, the item-of-the-month that started it all. The original Book-of-the-Month Club was founded in 1926, designed as a way to get new books into the hands of people living in rural areas without easy access to bookstores or libraries. A panel of judges selected a new volume each month, sent at a respectable discount to subscribers. The following year, The Literary Guild—another variation on the same theme—started business. Many decades later, after a series of mergers and acquisitions, both clubs still exist. If you enjoy reading the types of books the book-of-the-month club offers, it can be a convenient way to stay on top of the latest bestsellers and keep your library well-stocked at a reasonable price. As for me, I already accumulate books far faster than I can read them, so I’m more likely to subscribe to consumable products.

Notwithstanding the fact that I write a ___-of-the-day column, I find the notion of monthly subscription clubs strangely appealing—in an endearingly retro sort of way. Since it’s easy to purchase almost anything instantly online these days, this type of subscription program is a bit of an anachronism. My suspicion is that clubs like these continue to thrive not so much for the convenience they provide but because people like novelty…and they like getting packages. If you can justify a subscription by convincing yourself that you’re saving money, all the better—but when you get right down to it, there’s just nothing like opening a box of goodies.

Note: This is an updated version of an article that originally appeared on Interesting Thing of the Day on May 11, 2003, and again in a slightly revised form on October 24, 2004.

Source: Interesting Thing of the Day

Waste at a landfill

Modern-day alchemy

Well, I’ve got some good news and some bad news. The good news is that there may be an elegant solution on the horizon to the gigantic problem of garbage—and not just the kind that gets dumped in landfills, but hard-to-recycle plastics, too, along with agricultural wastes, used tires, and just about everything else. More good news: we might get to reduce dependence on foreign oil and pay less for gasoline in the process. The bad news? More cheap oil to burn means more carbon dioxide going into the atmosphere, perpetuating the already dire problem of global warming.

The technology that makes it possible to do this is called the thermal depolymerization process, or TDP for short. It was developed for commercial use a couple of decades ago by a company called Changing World Technologies (now owned by Canadian firm Ridgeline Energy Services), and its first full-scale plant operated for a number of years in Carthage, Missouri. Now various other firms are taking the same technology in other directions. In any case, the idea behind TDP is not new—in fact, it’s millions of years old. Take organic matter, subject it to heat and pressure, and eventually you get oil. Of course in nature, “eventually” is usually an inconvenient number of millennia; TDP shortens that time to hours, if you can believe that.

A Well-Oiled Machine

TDP is a surprisingly straightforward five-step process. First, raw materials are fed into an industrial-grade grinder where they’re chopped up into extremely small bits and mixed with water. The mixture is then subjected to heat and pressure, breaking molecular bonds and reducing the material to simpler components in as little as 15 minutes. The next step is reducing the pressure dramatically to drive off the water; in the process, some useful minerals such as calcium and magnesium settle out as valuable byproducts. The remaining slurry is sent into a second reactor, which uses even higher temperatures to produce a hydrocarbon mixture. Finally, a distillation step divides the hydrocarbons into vaporous gas (a mixture of methane, propane, and butane), liquid oil (similar to a mixture of gasoline and motor oil), and powdered carbon.

All that to say: garbage in, (black) gold out. The process itself produces no waste materials, unless you count water, which can be recycled in the system. The gas can be used to produce heat for the machine itself; oil can be sent to refineries to be made into a variety of useful products; carbon can be turned into everything from water filters to toner cartridges; and the remaining minerals can be used as fertilizer.

Virtually any organic material can be fed into a TDP apparatus. By making adjustments to the combinations of temperature, pressure, and cooking times, various input products (referred to as feedstock) can produce a wide range of output products; the proportions of, say, gas to oil to carbon will depend on the composition of the feedstock. The first fully operational TDP system was used to recycle the waste at a turkey processing plant. All the turkey parts that weren’t used as meat—skin, bones, feathers, and so on—were fed into the machine, thus solving a serious waste problem (up to 200 tons per day) while creating commercially valuable products. But TDP can also process discarded computers, tires (even steel-belted radials), plastic bottles, agricultural waste, municipal garbage…you name it.

Almost nothing is too messy or too scary for TDP to handle. It can make clean, safe materials out of sewage, medical wastes, dioxins, and other biohazardous materials. Even anthrax, for crying out loud. Apparently the only kind of material this system can’t handle is nuclear waste—I guess you can’t have everything.

Pouring Oil on Troubled Water

Thermal depolymerization is still finding its footing for commercial use, though similar processes have been known for many years. The problem was that they were always too expensive to operate; it cost more for the fuel to decompose the garbage than the resulting materials were worth. The inventors of TDP claim that it is highly energy-efficient—better than 85% in most cases. If that is true, if it continues to be true on a large scale, and if demand is sufficiently high, then TDP may eventually be able to produce oil more cheaply than drilling, and get rid of garbage as a convenient side-effect—or vice-versa, if you prefer.

As fantastic as TDP sounds, the process does have its critics. Some engineers have expressed skepticism that the energy efficiency could be even close to what proponents claim. Even supposing that it were, the oil needs of the United States are currently so massive that if all the agricultural waste in the country were processed into oil, it would still be just a drop in the bucket (so to speak). In other words, so the argument goes, the process holds more promise as a method of recycling and waste reduction than it does as a source of fuel.

The more optimistic viewpoint is that if TDP comes into widespread use, we won’t run out of oil as long as we have garbage. But that also means there will be less incentive to reduce oil consumption or seek out cleaner alternative power sources. Ah, but I suppose every silver lining must have its cloud.

Note: This is an updated version of an article that originally appeared on Interesting Thing of the Day on August 3, 2003, and again in a slightly revised form on June 4, 2004.

Source: Interesting Thing of the Day