Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Arctic Flux

There was this high pitched scream coming from the motorcycle.  And not the kind of exciting, sporty lets-go-real-fast kind of sound you want.  It was more the sound of internal spinning objects vaporizing each other.  Then the motor stopped.

Even after looking at the insides of a lot of engines, I'm still amazed that internal combustion works at all.  When it does, success depends on the perfect cooperation of lots of metal.  Distances between pieces are described by numbers like 0.002 millimeters.  It's really hot in there.  Important objects have to skate past each other easily, hundreds of times per second.  If not, the whole thing seizes up, a useless crackling wad of inanimate foil.

Oil is supposed to ride inside all those thrashing cracks.  That screaming sound was a no-oil sound.  Instantly, graphic images of metallic mutilation flooded my brain.  Everything sucks.  Blue and bashed cam lobes, blackened rockers, toasted valves.  After two days of pampering this little monster, it was throwing a royal tantrum.  A lot of work had seemingly just evaporated.  Nameless units of traffic are bitching at me.  I coast to a halt beside some stupid grass in a dumb parking lot near some asscake building selling some godawful furniture.

Sympathy creeps into the acrid burn, I touch the motor where it is hurt.  Singe the crap out of my fingers.  Nope, still hate this thing.  I'm broke, unemployed, and standing by a strip mall in the desert.  I'm going to have to wait here and figure out what to do.  If only these sprinklers would turn on and spew recycled sewage all over me.

What does this have to do with the Arctic?  The answer is flux.  It's flow, or change.  To a metallurgist, flux is a catalyst that makes some given process easier.  Flux; stuff that transfers heat, or insulates from oxygen, or lowers a melting point.  It can be anything - tree sap for soldering, limestone for melting iron, cryolite for getting aluminum.

Metallurgists made this shimmering hot engine possible.  They melted aluminum into the shape that holds all these hard gnashing gears and searing parts.  Aluminum is in most rocks, some more than others.  It's everywhere.  It's the most abundant metal on the face of the Earth.  It's pretty much invisible, it almost never occurs by itself.  There are no aluminum nuggets.  Until about 100 years ago, it was more precious than gold.  I wish this motor was made of gold.

The only good way to get aluminum from a rock was invented by an unemployed nerd named Charles Martin Hall in his mom's woodshed in 1888.  He was obsessed with the idea of producing a cheap metal.  Before the woodshed, he did his experiments in the kitchen.  After that, aluminum went from priceless to wrapping your baked potato.  I wish I had a baked potato.

Young Mr. Hall submerged a couple of electrodes into a really hot wad of rocks.  There's no way he could have gotten a useful melt without the flux.  Cryolite was the flux, this one weird mineral let him electrocute the mush until he got a couple of convincing, shiny droplets.  From there, he helped establish the Aluminum Company of America, and now we fly around in airplanes and climb stepladders you can pick up with one hand.

In Annals of the Former World, John McPhee said of Geologists, "They see the unbelievable swiftness with which one evolving species on earth has learned to reach into the dirt of some tropical island and fling 747s into the sky."  Cryolite and electricity make that possible.  Aluminum might be everywhere, but Cryolite occurs almost exclusively at the bottom of Greenland near the busted town of Ivigtut.  After the mine was empty, they went back to the tailing piles and used those.  When that was gone, they hauled away the pier.   There isn't any left.

ALCOA built the first hydroelectric dams to power aluminum smelters - dams that were later bought by TVA.  Using all this juice, they turned out Tennessee tin roofs, siding, and mag wheels.  Lakes backed up, turbines turned, extra electrons flew into the valleys and hollers.  They lit up bug zappers and did peoples' laundry.  Electricity we got.

The Arctic is getting warmer.  Ice is melting.  Water is flowing.  Ground that used to have an ice cap is now fair game.  Greenland is in flux, it is melting into the sea.  ALCOA would like a new aluminum smelter.  This one will be in Greenland.  A Fiord will be plugged, the water suspended to electrify a huge aluminum churn.  It won't be built by Depression-era laborers, but by 2,500 imported Chinese workers, shipped to the Arctic for one purpose.  Tin foil.

Carabiners, beer cans, bicycles, bottlecaps, boats, airplanes, macbooks, baseball bats, and the 1979 Honda CB 650 crankcase, pan, top end castings oil passages.  Ok, thinking time over.  All I can do now is tip the whole bike over and hope enough oil runs down onto those dry cam lobes to turn them and get home.  Hoping nothing has siezed, I get back on the bike, crank it up and baby her miraculously down the back streets.  The other bike is made of aluminum, too.  I'll ride it today instead.

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