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TRIUMF | Vancouver, BC | Canada

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Water, Water, Everywhere, Nor Any Drop to…Think?

–by Nigel S. Lockyer, Director

Did you ever hear or think of a word and then have it seem to pop up everywhere? Well, for me, the word is water. Pick your word and count how many different ways it comes up in conversation, on television, in the news, or however else you encounter information on a daily basis.

I’m interested in the origin of water on our planet. Its not as obvious as you might think. Over the past few years, I have followed the subject in the popular-science press and have read a couple of books to try to understand the answer—in short, no firm conclusion. But more on this later.  First, let’s follow water…water always flows downhill, right?

In Canada, water is ubiquitous. In science, water is ubiquitous. In technology, water is ubiquitous. But let’s start with the obscure. TRIUMF is ordering a new water-jet cutter to replace a plasma-arc cutter for our machine shop. The water jet is supposed to be better because it doesn’t heat the metal during cutting. Hard to believe that water cuts metal…but it does—abrasives in the water help—because the pressures can reach 50,000 psi. The modules which contain the infrastructure associated with our isotope-production program are cooled with water; and recently, we diagnosed some regular leaks due to poor quality control of the brazing. (We need to fix that!) Oh, going back in history, it occurs to me my thesis used a water target…but I wasn’t so interested in water back then.

The Meson Building, the original science research building of TRIUMF, is adjacent to Cyclotron Building (which holds the world’s largest cyclotron) and contains our eye-cancer therapy centre and many of our material science experiments with muons. Well, the roof leaks, you guessed it–water. This doesn’t phase me too much because every lab in the world has been designed, I am sure, with leaky roofs. My favorite is the meson building at Fermilab. (Maybe there’s something about meson buildings!) Bring your “wellies” (short for Wellingtons or … hard to believe.. fashionable rubber rain boots in Vancouver).

Ok, more water. The Saturday morning physics lecture this week for local high-school students was by Paul Percival from Simon Fraser University. He talked about supercritical water and how he is able to study chemical reactions in a pressure vessel at several hundred degrees and hundreds of bars pressure using spin-polarized muons. I was impressed with one potential application he described — that supercritical water can be used to burn “toxic waste” such as old nerve gas from weapons stockpiles. He showed a very cool picture of what looked like a flame burning in water…figure that out. I was waiting for him to say he had made “fake water” where he replaced the hydrogen with muonium. Wonder what that would taste like? Drink fast!

Flame burning under water

Flame burning under water

The second talk was about pulsars by Ingrid Stairs from the University of British Columbia. (Nobody ever says the full name of the university, just “UBC” is good enough in Canada. The accent is on the “U,” draw it out to last about half a second, then and say “BC” quickly. Now you have a Vancouver accent.) Having mentioned Vancouver, how could we not talk about salmon? So two years ago there were only one million salmon that returned to the Fraser River for spawning. A Royal Commission was set up by the government to understand why they were missing 9 million salmon…the best theory was that new salmon farms, located along Vancouver Island where the young salmon pass on their way out to sea, were polluting the water. Each year there are usually 10 million salmon. While the committee was investigating, the run this year harvested 35 million salmon. The most in memory! But back to pulsars…

Pulsars are way out there in terms of extreme environments. I was amazed when one of the young people asked, “Are there any practical applications?” I started science because I thought it was fun…thank goodness there have been a FEW practical applications since then! By the way, the electricity for my laptop comes from hydro-electric power in northern BC…more water at work. Some time ago I was talking with the president of the University of Victoria, David Turpin. (The University of Victoria is one of the 11 universities that own and operate TRIUMF). He was telling me about their new underwater projects off the coast of Vancouver Island called Neptune and Venus. Very cool stuff. The ocean floor is being instrumented to monitor all kinds of ecological and geophysical indicators, establishing some of the first time-series trends across large surfaces of the ocean.

Then I remember another way water is connected – the U.S. particle physics and nuclear physics science budgets are part of the Energy and Water Appropriations package passed by the Congress. How weird is that? Then I watched a Discovery Channel TV show on the crash of the Air France jet over the Atlantic on its way from Brazil to Paris. They think the problem was super-cooled water, formed in a thunder storm at 35,000 feet, that clogged the air-speed detectors, rendering them useless. This may have effectively caused much of the online software to fail.

The colour of water is blue as you probably know; it isn’t clear. In fact, the colour of water is thought to be the only material whose color is due to electronic vibrational transitions rather than just interaction of photons with electrons in the material.

Oh, all this talk about water makes me thirsty for a nice class of cold, not too cold, maybe 25 degrees, pure, Ok not too pure, I do want a few minerals, bubbly of course, CO2 filled (does that count as carbon sequestration?), glass of blue liquid water…derived from outgassing of the earth’s mantle that had solidified from molten rock in the early earth producing an atmosphere with water vapour…or perhaps derived from a comet…or maybe it was an asteroid, or maybe interstellar dust grains with fractal surfaces, that crashed to earth 4.5 billion years ago!

Now, what was I doing before this?  And why am I all wet?


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9 Responses to “Water, Water, Everywhere, Nor Any Drop to…Think?”

  1. Mr. Keyes says:

    It’s a very interesting spin off of this supercritical water topic of the Saturday Morning Lecture. I used to think about things in this way in class too but my teacher told my parents I day dream a lot. And I was grounded…

  2. Nigel says:

    The subject of super critical water oxidation (SCWO) is very interesting and the actual uses are many. It appears from the literature that it can be used to get rid of all kinds of hazardous waste such as PCBs, sewage, chemical weapons…too many of them lying around. The Chinese have studied SCWO for cleaning urine and thus recycling water on long space flights. I tried to find out if Canada does anything using SCWO for waste, but it appears not. We burn waste, we bury waste, we treat it with chemicals… but it doesn’t appear we use supercritical water. Super critical CO2 is a whole other story.

    Thanks for the comment!

  3. Sarai says:

    Practical applications of pulsars? Why not revel in the joy of their discovery and observation? That’s more than enough! :) Fascinating stuff re: Air France, have been waiting for that info to reach my via the grapevine and from a physicist… *sigh*… The Neptune and Venus link doesn’t seem to work, could you check it? The suspense is killing me now that you’ve brought it up. The new water-jet cutter sounds cool – how do you think it will compare to the plasma arc cutter? Better yet, take some pics. Thanks for a very, very entertaining post!

  4. Nigel says:


    Sorry about the Neptune Canada link; their website is down right now. Not sure why. You can try Ocean Networks Canada (google it) to see the umbrella effort. And yes, I recall learning about pulsars when Hulse & Wilson got the Nobel. Fascinating objects in our universe!



  5. Quantum Diaries says:

    @Sarai — It seems that NEPTUNE Canada’s website is having some technical difficulties. While you’re waiting for the site to come back online, check out their YouTube channel for some videos on the project.

    Update: Neptune Canada is back online.

  6. Nancy Malarkey says:

    Enjoyed this entry. Good read.

  7. Sarai says:

    @Nigel and Quantum Diaries: thanks for sorting that out – it’s going to be a fun afternoon :) Appreciate it – keep the blogposts coming!!

  8. katesisco says:

    ‘h2o derived from outgassing of the Earth’s mantle’ I prefer the action of UV on oxygen compounds high in the stratosphere which fall when the electromagnetic energy holding the water vapor decreases.

  9. Fabulous says:

    There is practically nothing I really enjoy more compared to visiting this website each afternoon shortly after work. Thanks for most of the marvelous posts!!

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