THERMODYNAMIC FAREWELL -------------------- John Pazmino NYSkies Astronomy Inc www.nyskies.org firstname.lastname@example.org 2003 October 6
[This article predates the NYSkies website and had leftover typos cleaned up]
This is one of the more emotional episodes in my weird life. On Friday, the 3rd of October 2003, I was called to duty to offer farewell to one of the world's most obscure, yet most potent, engineering laboratories. Right here on little old Manhattan. The fabled Heat Transfer Research Facility, HTRF, of Columbia University closed its doors, walking into the history books of the once-promised land of atomic energy. By yearend 2003, the place will be occupied by other departments of the University. I can not in this account give a history of the lab, but it was established in 1951 to do thermodynamic tests for the electric power industry. Starting up at the birth of the Atomic Age, it soon became the one place for the atomic energy industry to prove out their novel and mysterious projects. The lab was not, as sometimes mistakenly described, a 'nuclear' or 'atomic' lab. The largest amount of radioactive material it ever had on premises was a onetime loan in the 1970s of about 900 liters of heavy water. One particular barrel was misplaced, causing all sorts of fear and terror in the news media. It was found safe and sound; a janitor moved it to a far corner so he could sweep the floor. The greatest personal hazard at the lab was from the normal factory-type of accident: tool cuts and punctures, trips and falls, items falling from high shelfs, that sort of thing. In fact, at the reception, one guest did trip on a door step at the restroom and banged his head on a protruding doorstop! He was swiftly taken by Columbia ambulance to nearby St Luke's Hospital for treatment. A lesser, but important, hazard is chemical spill. For this the lab had jumpin showers, as well as fire-smothering blankets. HTRF duplicated the temperature and pressure of a power plant, so their components could be thermodynamicly tested in a realistic way. An example of such tests is the conduction and circulation of heat from various arrays of atomic fuel rods. The results show what geometry of rods in the reactor core can generate the best turbine steam and last longest before replacement, . One would think that HTRF was just one of many in the world, yet it truly ended up being the only one! Yes, there are other labs for thermodynamic testing, but in a simpler looser fashion. HTRF developed techniques and analyses superior to any place else's. It alone earned the former AEC and then NRC certification seal for its operations. With the facility closing, the planet litterally has no other proper place for these operations! The impedance this event will press against the world's atomic energy program is any one's guess. Such work requires immense quantities of electricity and water. The lab had its own generators, of about 15 megawatts each; was plugged in, by giant 'alligator clips', to the Con Edison street mains; and drank from a colonial creek still running under it. Steam was made in heat exchangers, then slaked with creek water for release into the municipal sewers. The guts of the place resemble the mad scientist's workshop, a perfect setting for some alien or monster movie. Every where were pipes, machines, pumps, wires, cables, raceways, ladders, catwalks, cages and fences, heavy doors, tools, gauges, and meters. Office furniture was an olio of different desks, chairs, tables, benches, cabinets, shelfs. At the reception, it was a bit comical to rap with the guests sitting at the tables on chairs of all mixed heights and styles! From the opposite side, the people looked like a gaggle of giants and midgets, until they got up to walk away! I myself had no formal relations with this place; I was never employed by it. What made our paths cross was a longtime engineering colleague, who also is among the lifers at the lab. We met in about 1970 and remained buddies ever since. My visits to the lab were social or to look over some interesting experiment. From time to time he asked me for specialized expertise, which I was proud to offer. We also share common interest in power engineering, science, New York history, metacivics, and goofy ideas. (Let's run a tourist ride thru the City water system! We'll let customers lay in a rowing shell and float thru the underground aqueduct from the Catskills to Manhattan. We can give the rider a couple boxed meals to eat on the way down; the ride should take about a full day.) The majority of the attendees was from the industry involved with building or designing power plants. Being a former utility engineer, the conversations flowed easily and quickly. There was much discussion about the recent Great Lakes blackout, Chernobyl and Three Mile Island, Manhattan's 'secret' nuclear reactor (can't talk about that, like, you do understand?), helioelectric orbiting power satellites, deregulation of the utility industry, to name a few.. The room for the farewell was the assembly hall for the rods, pipes, valves, what ever for the experiments. The harnessing tables were cleaned off and laid down with tablecloths. Bottles of assorted wine were plunked down along their centerlines. The lab provided a catered Italian dinner, very hearty and filling! I was fixing to go to the Amateur Astronomers Association postlecture dinner later that very evening, also with Italian food. I went, having skipped the very lecture, but ended up not eating any thing. I was still stuffed from the farewell dinner! All the solids were washed down with the wine, in several varieties. All this made the talk more animated and raucous! Yet every one was well behaved and remained whole of mind. Walkthrus of the various chambers were offered on and off during the farewell. For some, it was years and decades since they last saw the place. Many took remembrance photos. I already stopped at the lab for other errands a few weeks ago, and took pictures then. I did stroll around on my own for what is definitely among the last chances to visit. I have some left over errands at the lab, but I felt it best to get the views in now. A curious aspect of the mutation of society over the later 20th century was evident here. The senior white-haired men wore suit-&-tie, oldtime business attire. The baby-boomers were more casual. I, for one, wore a brushed cotton shirt and silk neck scarf. There were women, remembering that they were left out of engineering until only a couple decades ago. Altho a few accompanied their men, there were several others who were free-standing engineers who really knew their ropes. The firms among the guests were the giants of the industry: Westinghouse, Combustion Engineering, Babcock & Wilcock, Brookhaven National Labs, General Electric. They were not the corporate or executive type, but the folk who plotted graphs, pushed sliderulers, read meters. These people knew what was really going on. I met a couple who also worked in aerospace along their career route! And one fellow I rapped with was fascinated by the comparison between certain nuclear reactor element transmutations and those of supernovae. Several attendees gave testimonials, mostly anecdotes about the lab (you had to be with the in-crowd to get the humor!). Then we all got souvenir pens with the obit '1951-2003' etched on the shank. The reception began at 15h EDST and ran indefinitely into the evening. By 19:30 most of the lads (and lasses) departed. It was just about the right time to saddle up for the astronomers dinner, which starts at around 20h. At 19:45 I was on the train heading there.