Nuclear Steam Generator

THE OTHER ENERGY SOURCE   (Who needs an advanced degree in physics?)

                                                                       by Mike Retzlaff

Several years ago Hank wrote an article for the HopLine and joked about another member’s ‘88 Cutlass automobile as being nuclear powered.  He went on to say the guy “won’t share the details” as he feared retribution from politicians and Big Oil concerns.  Hank left that thought to say we are left with only electricity, natural gas, and propane/butane to fuel our home brewing.  For some reason Hank’s words stuck in my mind.

Sometime later I saw a TV episode of BIZARRE FOODS about Iceland.  Besides illustrating how sharks are harvested, butchered, and then fermented until they reek of ammonia, it showed how the island country enjoys power derived from geothermal steam.  Iceland uses both the steam directly and to drive turbines to generate electricity.  The volcanic steam is piped into virtually every town dweller’s home and business.  The steam arrives at 330 oF which boils water in about 10 seconds and cooks rice in 10 minutes.  Steam, it seems, might fulfill the energy dreams of home brewers everywhere.  I checked with the LSU extension service but found that volcanoes are scarce in these parts and there aren’t any accessible geothermal resources in Southeast Louisiana. 

Without geothermal power on the horizon, I started thinking about how to generate steam without resorting to using electricity, natural gas, or any form of LPG.  The point was to get away from these expensive, fossil-fuel energy sources.  That dilemma got me thinking of how a small nuclear steam generator could be designed and built with the patio/garage brewer in mind.  I searched the web for ideas and finally bought some books from Amazon® before collecting the necessary pieces-parts required for such a contraption.

I picked up a large number of used smoke alarms which contain a small quantity of radioactive material as part of the detector circuit.  There isn’t much Amercium-241 in each detector so I had to be quite judicious in retrieving it from the tiny canisters.    

My steam generator is based on the breeder reactor design but my assembly isn’t capable of actually making fuel due to the lack of gamma rays.  However, the half-life of Amercium-241 is 432 years so I don’t think I should see any diminished performance for quite some time. 

One of the tricky parts was bending the stainless steel tubing so it would fit snugly within the housing I had and then welding the fittings to the coils.  The thermo-siphon system negates the use of a pump to circulate the water while heating and keeps the unit independent of an electrical power source.  Sheet lead in the proper thickness for the shielding was also difficult to procure.

The generator is now finally assembled and has done quite well in the initial test runs.  I store it in separate halves and complete the assembly the day before use.  The assembly of the unit isn’t much different than plugging a battery pack into a cordless drill.

The really tiny amount of Americium-241 being utilized makes everything comparatively safe but there is nothing “instant” about its speed in getting up to operational temp. 

In theory, naturally occurring radon gas poses more of a threat to me and the neighborhood than do the alpha rays emitted by this unit.  However, for safety’s sake, I do keep a dosimeter in my pocket while handling and operating the unit.  As anticipated, the exposure is negligible.   

Basically, what I have done is build an industrial strength sous vide.  It differs from an electric heating element in the fact that it won’t scorch the mash, wort, or hops during operation.

I may build or modify a kettle to incorporate a steam jacket which would surely speed things up in bringing the kettle contents to temp but that’s a project for later.

UPDATE on THE OTHER ENERGY SOURCE (Perhaps a degree in nuclear physics would have helped)

In regards to my nuclear steam generator, a few things have popped up which make me question some of my assumptions.  While stored without use for only a few weeks, the heating module got so hot that I couldn’t handle it.  I used a boat hook to drag it out of the garage as it was starting to scorch the paneling.  I cooled it down with a garden hose but that’s only a quick fix and I need to formulate a permanent solution. 

Another indicator of unexpected problems is that I woke the other morning with something scratching my legs.  It turned out to be my toenails which had fallen out during my sleep.  It isn’t painful but feels a bit odd.

By chance I discovered that the dosimeter I was using to monitor radiation is actually an EPT (early pregnancy test) pen.  I guess that’s why it’s always read negative.

On the plus side, I’ve found a lot of dead caterpillars in my garden near the garage and my peppers and tomatoes are growing vigorously and quite large.  Also my male pattern baldness has miraculously reversed but the new growth has an orange tint.

This project now seems to have been more of a personal challenge and curiosity than a necessity.  I don’t do enough brewing at home anymore to justify keeping it.  I would like to donate it to the club for use in Brew Offs and, of course, as a loaner to interested members.  Included are printed instructions which are spiral bound to fold over or lay flat.  The plasticized pages are waterproof and can be safely displayed for reference during a brew session.  Also included are two rolls of crime scene tape; just to keep folks safely away from the steam tubing.

If CCH accepts the donation, it may be prudent to make an application to the NRC (Nuclear Regulatory Commission) for a permit.  That should stave off the EPA with their incessant pesky questioning and general nosiness.  

NEW UPDATE on THE OTHER ENERGY SOURCE (You should always think things through)

As a follow-up on my attempt to improve home-brewing and the efforts of brewers everywhere, I have more news.

The CCH Board of Directors declined the offer of my nuclear steam generator.  I understand the Haus refused permission to store it on the property.  Potential environmental concerns and financial liability seemed the key components of this ruling.  I understand the decision but was left in a quandary. 

I couldn’t leave it unattended in my garage as it works a little too well.  I tried storing it in a big tub with running water and an overflow hose leading to the storm drain in front of my house.  My water bill was far too high to maintain this “fix” so I thought of drilling an artesian well but the estimated cost is prohibitive.

I offered it to a few members of the club who brew quite a bit but they’re all pussies and afraid of a little radiation.  They’ve all lived full lives and don’t want more children, so what the hell?  One of them has a big swimming pool and wouldn’t have to bear any expense in heating the pool during the winter season but that fact seems to have escaped his attention.

I offered it to the folks at NOLA Brewing but they ran me off the property. Now I can’t go back because of a restraining order which includes the taproom.

I visited Lafreniere Park and surveyed the large lagoon which is featured as part of the grounds.  I figured that just might be the place for permanent storage of the heating module.  Upon just a little reflection, I decided against it because of the children playing in the park and the fact that the lagoon is only 3 feet deep.  The unit might heat the shallow water to the point of poaching the fish and driving away the ducks, geese, & swans.  On the other hand, the park could eventually promote the lagoon as a “hot springs and mineral bath.” Then again, most bureaucrats lack vision and might not see it as an improvement.  I scrapped that idea.

I thought of leaving it on the curb the night before trash day and it certainly would have been gone within hours due to roving, curbside scavengers.  However, my sense of social responsibility and even the moderate possibility of it being returned were enough reason to cause me to seek another solution.

I decided to release it back into nature by dropping it over the guard rail of the Huey P. Long Bridge.  My neighbor, who was to drive me up to mid-span for the release, asked “isn’t that a little dangerous?”  “Not really”, I said, “as long as you turn on your emergency flashers when we stop.”  Once at the rail, I looked for freighters and barges as to avoid accidental contact before heaving it over.  We completed the task without a hitch.  You’d be surprised how much of a splash an 8 lb. canister makes after falling 133’ into such a deep river.  It now rests with probably thousands of discarded murder weapons in the silt at the bottom of the scenic and historic Mississippi River.

When you consider the discharge of legal and illegal effluence which occurs every day from the myriad of petro-chemical plants and refineries upriver, my actions should not be of any real negative consequence.  Actually, the presence of this unit may help to neutralize the detrimental effects of all that other stuff. 

Just to be on the safe side, I wouldn’t recommend fishing downstream of the bridge for the next several hundred years.

A NEW, NEW UPDATE on THE OTHER ENERGY SOURCE  (an unexpected visit)

After my last HopLine update on the nuclear steam generating unit, I got a visit from the FBI and Homeland Security.  I can assure you that neither agency has a sense of humor whatsoever!

They were armed with guns, a search warrant, Geiger counter, scintillator, attack dogs, and a SWAT team.  The only things missing were armored vehicles and the 82nd Airborne Division.  They went through my house, garage, car, and front & back yards.  I won’t need another proctology exam for at least a few more years.  I just wish they’d engaged the services of a licensed medical doctor.

I explained to them that the articles I submitted to the HopLine are simply satire; that they don’t reflect reality.  Once I explained away their fears, they hastily ripped out several walls in my house and garage.  At that point, the Geiger counter and scintillator were put to use but, fortunately for me, alpha radiation doesn’t leave any lasting traces of radioactivity or ionization.  I was interrogated at length by several agents at once and threatened with all sorts of draconian punishments.  It was like being slapped around by the Three Stooges. 

They left with no evidence which surely explains why I wasn’t required to accompany them.  I asked if they planned to compensate me for the damage they did to my house and garage.  One Special Agent gruffly said “Send us a bill.”  I’m sure I’ll have to engage an attorney to recoup the expense of those repairs.  The damage they did to my illusion of personal security, not to mention what they did to my lower GI tract, is a story unto itself.

Apparently, some reader(s) of the HopLine made a call to report “possible terrorist activity.”  I am simply a creative individual following in the footsteps of Edison and Tesla in trying to develop an idea to improve my lot in life and that of my fellow brewers.  Because of the distress caused me by a shallow thinking informant whose mind is trapped in the Dark Ages, I am reticent in sharing my efforts toward the many ideas rambling about in my head. 

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