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Real Science

The Deputy Jim Moxley Memorial Rocket Club

Michael Rosenthal

(7/2016) I didnít decide to become a scientist until I studied chemistry during my senior year of high school. Though I had done well in all my previous science courses, I hadnít become captured by the magic until Mr. Gillespie made chemistry come alive to me. This story underlies the fact that interest in science often springs from a scientific experience, and I believe that such an interest can be developed through the proper mentorship quite early in a studentís life. We have seen previously in this column the wonderful scientific accomplishments attained by young women and men through our coverage of the Mother Seton School Science Fair. Here is another inspiring example.

The Deputy Jim Moxley Memorial Rocket Club, honoring the late Frederick County Deputy, was formed to give children in the Emmitsburg area an opportunity to build a model rocket with materials supplied by the Emmitsburg Deputies. Children attending design and build a model rocket which will be launched upon completion. This event is scheduled to take place on June 26 between 2 and 5 pm at the Emmitsburg Memorial Park Pavilion, and it is under the direction of Deputy Ben Whitehouse, Emmitsburg Resident Deputy, of the Frederick County Sheriffís Office.

Rockets, as well as jet engines, work much like a balloon filled with air. If you fill a balloon with air and hold the air inside, the inside air pressure will be higher than the surrounding atmospheric pressure. If you release the neck of the balloon, the internal force is now unbalanced, and a net thrusting force is exerted. The balloon will fly forward under the influence of the thrust, and the air coming out of the back of the balloon is equal and opposite to the thrust forward. I suspect most of us have seen this happen when we first played with balloons as children.

To build a rocket, one uses a propellant rather than just air under pressure. The propellant consists of a fuel, an organic material capable of oxidation and a material, the oxidizer, that ignites the fuel and furthers the rocketing process. Imagine the system with a space rocket, such as the one that carried astronauts to the Moon. The propellant usually weighs at least 20 times as much as the payload itself. Being an astronaut requires faith in the engineering aspect.

The laws of nature, always consistent, guarantee the chemical process. This discussion clearly points out the difference between scientists and engineers. Generally, scientists study how things work, utilizing laws of nature. Engineers apply the principles to a working system. I chose be a scientist rather than an engineer. Such an activity as The Rocket Club helps a young prospective science student choose which direction to take.

The Jim Moxley Memorial Rocket Club is designed for children from 8 to 12 years of age; parents are encouraged to attend and assist their children with the project, but their attendance is not mandatory. The project is being supervised by DFC Ben Whitehouse, Emmitsburg Resident Deputy, to whom I offer my appreciation for his willingness to support such a valuable initiative.

In our previous discussion of fracking, we spent some time talking about methane, and I described it as a "very dangerous chemical." Troublesome as it may be, methane is not properly classified as "very dangerous," though as we discuss here, it is not a good friend of the environment. Methane is not very toxic. Rather than poison you, it can displace oxygen from the lungs, and thus can be classified as an asphyxiant; it is therefore more a danger to miners than to day-to-day surface dwellers. Methane is, however, extremely flammable and can be explosive at high concentrations. Surface workers have little to fear, but coal miners in poorly ventilated mines have more to worry about. Once released into the atmosphere, methane gas quickly disperses; the worry is methane build-up in closed areas such as the mines. Methane is a carbon compound, CH4, and its oxidation results in carbon dioxide and water (can you write the balanced equation?).

Here, however, is a case where methane is anything but our friend. A huge methane leak occurred in Southern California at the Aliso Canyon natural gas storage facility. It has been described by scientists as "the largest methane leak in U.S. history." The facility leaked 97,100 metric tons of methane into the atmosphere! The leak began in October 2015 due to poor maintenance of an aging infrastructure of The Southern California Gas Co. Some people in the area did get sick from toxic and smelly contaminants in the methane, such as mercaptans, sulfur-containing chemicals, and some 11,000 people in the vicinity fled to motels and other housing.

The leak appears to have been contained, and as of February 2016, it was reported that people were returning to their homes. A major concern in this case was the greenhouse gas effect and its climate change impact. The conversion of methane to carbon dioxide over a period of time adds to the global warming concerns. In a May 2016 article, I read that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued its first-ever regulations to reduce methane emission in the oil and natural gas sector, addressing new, modified, and reconstructed drilling and production facilities, putting on hold new regulations for existing facilities while study continues. The new rules will impact emissions of a variety of volatile organic compounds, and it will also impact fracking operations. The plan is to capture the methane, rather than release it to the atmosphere. More frequent inspections for leaks will be mandated. Scientists and environmental groups are happy over this; the American Petroleum Institute is not happy.

Finally, hereís a story called to my attention by our son, Nick, a college professor of Native American history in Los Angeles, California. Nick and his family recently moved into a new house with solar panels. Being southern California, the panels generate far more electricity than his family needs. The LA Department of Water and Power (remember the film Chinatown?) charges them an $11 monthly fee to use their own power, putting the excess energy into an energy bank, available to the customer if needed at no charge, but taking formal ownership to disperse to others without paying customers for it, citing financial pressures of their own. Nick expresses concern that this policy will discourage people who are thinking of switching to solar power.

Finally, here is an update on the Flint, Michigan water crisis. Flint switched its water source and began adding chemicals to remove lead, but there is still the threat of lead contamination, it is reported. The fact that many residents have greatly reduced their use of tap water is hindering recovery because it is necessary for water to continuously move through the pipes to remedy the existing situation. Since the Flint crisis was first reported, many other communities have been identified as having lead contamination in their tap water supplies.

Michael is former chemistry professor at Mount. St. Marys

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