in the eye of the beholder

I have one of those widgets on my Google home page that provides "today's reason to drink". Not, you understand, because I particularly need a good reason to drink. In fact, a father who was a part time alcoholic (he was great between the binges) and a very frustrating new allergy to red wine have conspired to keep me sober. Instead, I see it as "today's reason to celebrate".

So, when I saw that today is National Biodiesel day - I assume in the US - I realised that this was a day that I should certainly celebrate.

Until ten days ago I wouldn't have given it a second glance, but that was before I paid a visit to the Sasol Advanced Fuels Laboratory (SAFL) at UCT and discovered that there is a world of unexpected beauty inside every engine.

In a rather nondescript building tucked behind the maintenance department on the UCT campus, researchers are testing Sasol fuels and discovering some amazing things. I expected rather dour and nurdy chemists, but what I found when I visited there was a world of excitement and wonder.

Would you have expected the head of a lab dedicated to testing fuel made from coal to have been so inspired by the beauty of one of his students' discoveries that he reproduced it in a piece of jewellery for his wife?

The labs are filled with engines, but on the walls are pictures of the most amazing colours, captured by high speed film. Sprays of multi-coloured energy bursting out in a stream of light.

Even the apparatus is beautiful. In one lab, a sapphire with a diameter of 10cm plays a vital part in the combustion bomb, a piece of apparatus designed to measure soot, temperature and composition of fuels in the instant when the fuel combusts.

“Sapphires have special thermal properties,” head of the lab, Prof Andy Yates, told me, adding that the stone itself has been the subject of intense contemplation by students with more than just their studies on their minds.

In the picture above is the world's fastest fuel compression machine, built by one of the SAFL students. It looks at what happens when a known air : fuel ratio is squeezed very suddenly. The machine stops a piston which is moving at up to 40km/hr twenty times faster than a blink.

“It reveals a lot about fuel,” Yates explains. “What happens is that it 'thinks' about burning, starts to burn, stops burning and then explodes. These timescales are crucial to extracting the maximum capacity out of fuels.”

From my perspective, the best of all, and the colour that so inspired Prof Yates, with its supreme beauty was the "mysterious blue" of the cool flame that burns in the fraction of a second before the fuel explodes.

I'll never look at an engine in quite the same way again.


Anonymous said…
If only more of the public new what was going on behind the scenes. I just read this and thought wow, we just hear about the hybrids and zero emission and do not realise that their are other projects that are also trying to reach a goal of zero emission with cleaner burning engines.
This makes one think of the entire green footprint.
Also reminds me of God's creation and beauty in everything around us.
Leonie e. Brown said…
Very cool and interesting article. Dont u wanna write something about what we can do at home?
Lynne said…
Sure Leonie. What do you have in mind?
julochka said…
i've had a similar engine love experience down inside a ship. but this is even better because they're looking into alternative fuels. these are exciting times we live in and quite possibly, the upside of this global economic downturn will be alternative thinking that will push us away from oil that would be beautiful.

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