Saturday, July 17, 2010

SteamBoyz: Birth of a Bubble

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by kvb (the hubby)
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The Bulla Parvula was a compact little ship. But she was heavy. Her shell was ten centimeters thick of a wondrously strong and light metal that had been newly discovered and named titanium.

Jade’s particular friend and mentor, Dr. Constantine Lorentz, who had been the preeminent physicist at Oxford until his death had discovered it. It was actually a quite abundant resource everywhere in the Earth’s crust. It was just that the process of extracting it took a lot of electricity, and electricity was poorly understood.

An associate of Dr. Lorentz had discovered a deposit of titanium in Greenland one summer that was very rich. The two professors, with Jade van Oort as an assistant were rightfully convinced that this was the only deposit of its sort in existence and that they should examine it closely and not necessarily let on about its existence.

They explored the possibilities of extracting and alloying this titanium in various ways. This went on for awhile and after various laborious chemical and thermo-electrical processes were tried, they finally hit upon a process and a resultant alloy that seemed ideal for the application of this titanium.

Jade and the two professors were quite wrapped up in their work. The ship, the Godwit, they had retained had been sent out for supplies and returned with them. It was sent out again for more supplies when the Greenland winter descended on the three and they were stranded.

They made good use of their time and produced a great many eight stone titanium ingots. In the end, however, Professor Krantz, Dr. Lorentz’ associate, was destined to stay in Greenland in a shallow grave on account of pneumonia.

Eventually the Godwit returned and the crew wondered at the heavy ingots they were stowing in the ship's hold. Dr. Lorentz demonstrated to them that it was not precious because it was not nearly dense enough.

He did comparisons with gold and silver that a sailor with very little salt in his brainpan could understand. In the end, he said that this was a structural metal – it had no military value nor any intrinsic value. They were to transport it to England for further study. The crew seemed to accept this, though the first mate who was quite well educated was scribbling madly in a notebook.


Aboard the Godwit, Jade had become friends with that first mate who was so curious about the titanium and it turned out that he was very much an inventor himself. His name was Thomas MacDowney, the son of a certain Scottish Lord Ewan MacDowney.

Thomas and Jade had spent much time discussing the possibilities of using the titanium in a hull. Thomas was particularly interested in submersibles whereas Jade was interested in aeronautical applications.

They batted ideas around and Thomas was amazingly receptive to Jade’s ideas considering that she was a young woman, and women were generally not to be taken seriously. In fact, Jade was a very good judge of character, for she had surrounded herself with a whole constellation of men who had abandoned the long held notion of male intellectual superiority.

In Norwich, Thomas and Jade parted company. Thomas returned to his father’s manor to work out all the hoop stresses and framework for a submersible to be made of titanium. He took some titanium with him for testing and remained in frequent contact with Jade, updating her with his progress, and being updated in return.


By the time they returned to Oxford, England, having stored the thousands of ingots in a warehouse in Norwich, Dr. Lorentz’ interests had moved on to another material: sapphire.

Jade, as his assistant, necessarily adjusted her interests to dovetail with his, though the titanium remained very much on her mind.

Jade’s progress took a decidedly unexpected, and in her thinking, a not necessarily very useful turn. But the research into the synthesis of sapphire – actually growing sapphire crystals under conditions of extreme pressure and temperature – was quite interesting.

Jade wrote a paper with Dr. Lorentz on the subject and was awarded a doctor of philosophy as a result. Some older and more conservative professors were dismayed at the idea of conferring the honor of fellowship on a woman, but the honor was conferred, and rightfully so. At this point, Jade left Dr. Lorentz to labor in solitude on his sapphire and she set out Africa with her sister Jane.

Why they were going to Africa Jade could not quite ascertain. Jane had mysterious ways and Jade had learned early in her life that getting an explanation from her older sister was like getting blood from a stone. Going to Africa was simply a lark for Jade, a chance to spend some time with her inscrutable sister.


They traveled to central Africa, the Adamawa Emirate, a region that was coming under German control. Deep in the interior of that region they came to a small village near Lake Nios. That was where the strangest thing to ever happen to either Jane or Jade or any of the others in their party occurred.

A fireball fell to earth.

It fell into the lake, almost at the shore. The lake is a volcanic crater, so the lake shore was a thin layer of soil over cooled basaltic lava. The fireball smashed into the water perhaps ten meters from the shore where the village was situated, burrowed through the thin layer of soil and onto the basalt with a loud roar and a concussion which sent villagers, travelers and livestock sprawling.

The villagers were quite alarmed and swarmed up the hill and away from the lake. Jane and her party of travelers including Jade followed. The livestock stood dumbly in confusion, and this was their undoing, for the lake burped!

A great bubble of gas erupted from the center of the lake. Villagers and visitors alike all turned to watch this spectacle and were amazed to see the cattle all simply drop dead where they had stood.

Jade surmised immediately that the gas that the lake had burped up was poisonous. She cautioned all to stay at altitude above the lake for a time. A day passed and some villagers were anxious to return to their domiciles.

A cackle of hyena, however, was seen to venture down to the shore to feast on one of the cattle. As they approached, several of the lead females started to stumble and the others in the group hesitated. The lead female was soon dead and the rest of the cackle, some noticeably unsteady on their feet, retreated back up the hill opposite to where the humans were situated. Any notions of returning to the village were put aside at that point.

Jade had determined that she wanted to retrieve whatever was at the center of that fireball. It was obviously massive since it had caused such a concussion.

About a week after the event, a storm came through with fierce winds which cleared the carbon dioxide from the valley of the lake.

Jade decided that it must have been carbon dioxide that the lake burped out because the vegetation around the lake had positively thrived in the absence of animals and insects to eat it.

The villagers were happy to butcher and preserve their dead cattle, which were already remarkably well preserved having lain where they died in an almost pure carbon dioxide atmosphere.

The villagers looked up to Jade now since she obviously knew things they didn’t and had saved their skins by preventing them from going down to their village too early. They had some trepidation about going out on the lake in their skiffs, and even more about diving into the water, but Jade demonstrated that the water was safe when she dove in herself and swam down about three meters to the crater which was formed by the fireball.

What she saw puzzled her. It appeared to be a bell that was one meter in length and diameter. It was deeply embedded in the fractured lava rock, but completely intact.

She swam back to the surface and took a gulp of air and grabbed onto the skiff before her dress, which she had tied off between her legs, and her petticoat dragged her under again. The villagers were far more practical about the matter of diving and did not encumber themselves with too much in the way of clothes as they went down to look at this bell themselves. They had soon attached ropes and hooks to the bell and cheerfully dragged it out of the water and to the shore.

Jane was not at all convinced that any effort should be expended in retrieving the bell, dragging it for nearly two hundred kilometers to the delta near Limbe, then transported by sea to England. Jade had never been one to stand up to her sister before, but on this she was emphatic.

“It is almost perfectly bell shaped! It is completely undamaged by its fall from the heavens. Indeed, it shows not the least bit of spalling or sintering from what must have been a very hot ride through the heavens to here at our feet. Who knows how this came into existence. It could very well have been made by Martians!”


Three months later the bell was in Oxford in Dr. Lorentz’ laboratory. Dr. Lorentz was mildly bemused by the bell that fell from space, but was much preoccupied by seeming breakthroughs he was making in the field of sapphire synthesis. His breakthrough involved a giant precisely rotating potter’s wheel and a large, high-pressure accretion chamber. Jade fell into the role of helper once again and they started to produce large sapphire spheres and hemispheres with walls as thick as twenty-five centimeters.

Jade sent one of the smaller hemispheres to Scotland for Thomas to examine. A few weeks later she got a detailed letter from him describing a ship that he wanted to build.

“It will be 18 meters long and 8 meters in diameter. It will require all of the titanium which you have in storage in Norwich. It will also require semi-spherical windows with the following specifications: ...” Here, Thomas proceeded to enumerate the specifications for the forty-nine sapphire semi-spheres to be used as windows to the world from the pressure hull, all of differing sizes and convexities.

Dr. Lorentz was quite surprised to have an order for his sapphire. But Thomas had real money to spend and Dr. Lorentz was always in a state of being impecunious, so the sapphire semi-spheres were made exactly to specification and the titanium was shipped. Dr. Lorentz and Jade were both very intrigued by what Thomas was putting together in the Highlands.


Jade, meanwhile, had begun testing her bell as time permitted. The heat transfer abilities of the bell she ascertained quickly enough. She pondered for many days the question of how the bell had come to be the shape that it was. She surmised that her bell had begun its career through the heavens as a rugby ball shaped solid piece of material which was rotating about its axis of least moment of inertia just like a well thrown rugby ball.

“What material is this?”

It was not even remotely like anything that she had ever encountered amongst the tens of thousands of samples that were resident in the vast collection of Dr. Lorentz and his colleagues at Oxford.

Jade extrapolated her genesis theory for the bell further by surmising that the bell had tremendous angular velocity -- like the gyroscopes that were coming into use for the stabilization of ships, compasses and naval guns – as it began its decent through the atmosphere of the earth.

Spalling and sintering had indeed occurred contrary to what she had said to Jane in Africa. This spalling and sintering had resulted in material flaking off the rear end until there was a concave volume much like the inside of a bell. It had also resulted in the bell essentially polishing itself in its decent. The tremendous heat of going through the atmosphere had tempered the material and its plunge into lake Nios had quenched it and introduced the microchannels on the concave part of the bell which were the only seeming defects in the material that was otherwise, in Jade’s mind, utterly perfect.


Dr. Lorentz had, in his lab, some large flasks full of heavy water. A few years ago, one of his students, a certain Eva McGregor – Dr. Lorentz had always been quite forward thinking and chose his assistants and students based on merit and ability and not on gender or genealogy – had developed what she called a differential distillation cascade that had produced the heavy water.

Jade inverted the bell one night and put the heavy water into the bell. Nothing occurred. She submerged the bell completely and heated up the water. Nothing happened at first until the small nucleate boiling steam bubbles started to rise into the concave part of the bell at which point there was a steam explosion and jade had to retreat for fear of being scalded.

But the implications were profound. The excess heat which had caused the steam explosion had been produced within the bell and not by the coal furnace she was using to heat the water within her contraption. She had boiled heavy water before and it had not produced excess heat. Somehow the bell caused it to produce excess heat!

Jade made a diamond drill and drilled a hole into top of her bell. This was a laborious process which took several days and resulted in her having to rehabilitate the drill a dozen times. Even after this she had drilled only a small hole partially through the bell. She then attached a pressure fitting to her hole and attempted to pump heavy water into the rock. The injection pump the used could produce a couple of thousand atmospheres of pressure, but the bell remained dry. However, when she checked underneath, the concave part of the bell was moist.

Her experiments continued in this manner for a couple of years. During this time, Dr. Lorentz had slowly started to fall into a sort of dementia. By the time he died, Jade had worked out just what was happening in her bell and how best to configure it as a boiler with pure heavy water as a fuel.


Dr. Constatine Lorentz was an old man when he died. He was predeceased by most of his colleagues there at the materials lab at Oxford, and the cavernous lab was coveted by other departments. Many of Dr. Lorentz’s past students and assistants came to his funeral and paid their respects. Professor Eva McGregor was there. Thomas MacDowney also came at Jade's invitation.

Late one night, after the funeral, the Bulla Parvula was born. The three of them were talking casually about their various projects. Thomas described his submersible and Jade her reactor boiler. Prof Eva, who had become a consummate tinkerer and inventor of gadgets and gizmos, listened to Thomas and Jade for a while, then she started asking questions:

“Why not make it fly too?”

“What do you breathe under water?”

“Where do you get your heavy water from?”

Both Thomas and Prof Eva were from wealthy Scottish families who lived in the Highlands. They were actually related as distant cousins. Eva said that she had a massive stone house with a wing which would serve as a lab and a manufactory for the Bulla.

All the materials, samples and apparatus at the lab were crated and loaded onto drays with the understanding that it was still the property of Oxford and was being lent, long term, to the lab at Castle McGregor under the auspices of McGregor-MacDowney-van Oort.

The drays wended their way north and eventually found their way to Castle McGregor. Thomas’ submersible pressure hull with its numerous sapphire viewing ports was also brought over from his considerably smaller Ardshare Manor on a large skid drawn by all the mules and mule skinners who were to be had in the district.

McGregor-MacDowney-van Oort, meanwhile worked out details and committed plans to detailed drawings and manuals. They revised and redrew and experimented and were happy. The sapphire sphere reactor with the Lorentzitite bell – having been named in honor of the late Dr. Constatine Lorentz – and all necessary piping was manufactured and tested.

The reactor worked beautifully and won Jade the admiration of both Thomas and Prof Eva as well as establishing her, by far the youngest of the three, as the project leader. The reactor sphere was installed in the lower engineering level of Thomas’s pressure hull.

Prof Eva developed an extensive apparatus to capture and process the helium byproduct of the reactor. She also developed high capacity apparatus including pumps to utilize the helium in the silk dirigible as well as the trim tanks and silk locker. Tanks were installed inside the pressure hull to hold everything from heavy water, potable water, black and gray water and other liquids to air, helium, carbon dioxide and other gasses. The lowest part of the pressure hull became the home of the condenser which could be configured to use either air or water for cooling.

Communication voice tubes were installed. The topmost level became home to the bridge in the very front. Aft of the bridge and starboard was a chart room while to port was a mess room which also served for recreation, meetings and as a sitting room. Just aft and inboard of the mess room was the galley and pantry. Outboard of the galley to port was a berthing area with two stacks of three bunks with coffin lockers under each.

This berthing was three meters long and two and a half wide. The captain’s stateroom was a small berthing space outboard to starboard of the galley and was accessed through the chart room. There was also a head with a shower between the chartroom and the mess room.

It had become apparent to Jade by now that she was going to be the engineer, so she established her own berthing forward on the second deck. She also provided herself with her own head. Her berthing was quite Spartan, consisting of a platform on top of the tool storage cabinet. Nor was it enclosed since she wanted to be able to hear any changes in the rumblings and whining of the machinery.


Jane, at this point, had become quite interested in the Bulla as a tool for The Society. She also provided the answers to two particularly vexing technical issues through her association with a Naturalist who had ventured deep into the Amazon rainforests of Brazil.

McGregor-MacDowney-van Oort had been wondering how to buoy the Bulla as an airship. The materials which were available to make the dirigible out of were quite heavy not completely impervious to helium. The use of hydrogen was out of the question due to its extreme volatility.

They were currently looking at a dirigible which was five hundred meters long and two hundred in diameter. When stowed for submerged operations, this dirigible would require a sack as big as the Bulla herself to hold it and would have to be towed behind or above. Jane’s Naturalist friend, Professor Sylvia Southerland, also of The Society, solved this in two ways.

First, she had discovered a silk worm who produced the finest, strongest, lightest most exquisite silk.

Secondly, she discovered the helix puniceus who ate the leaves of a certain lupine. From these two species came the famous and much sought after aeronautical silk.

All of a sudden McGregor-MacDowney-van Oort were looking at a dirigible which was a fifth of the size of the original and could be stowed within the pressure hull of the Bulla just above the main deck where the bridge and berthing was in the silk locker.

The other problem which vexed McGregor-MacDowney-van Oort was what to do when the air ran out while submerged.

Professor Southerland provided a quantity of deep saltwater zooplankton which solved this problem. The cabin air was dumped through cylinders containing trillions of these zooplankton and they consumed the carbon dioxide and expelled oxygen. But instead of using the sun for an energy source, they required hot water with a lot of ammonia in it.


Ten years after Jade had met Thomas and returned to Norwich with that Greenland titanium, the Bulla Parvula went out for her first shake down cruise. The cruise went rather well with just a few problems identified and fixed.

After a couple of additional shake down cruises, she was officially christened Bulla Parvula by The Society with Jade as the engineer and Jane as the captain. Thomas and Prof Eva continued their collaborations at Castle McGregor, occasionally coming on board for a cruise.


~-~-~-~-~ guest ~-~-~-~-~
by kvb (the hubby)
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* Bulla Parvula affectionately called the Tiny Bubble by Captain Jane

* image source fireball

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