Groan at the pun, not the project

20 November 2000

Running my eye over yet another newsflash from an agency excited by the idea of a diesel fuel made from vegetables, I wonder whether it is just the youth of the reporter that underlies the excitement or whether the stimulus is in the slightly exotic names of the places and plants. Like so many biomass stories, this one emanates from India. More particularly, it concerns a cluster of villages near Kunigal, which is about forty miles (sixty kilometres) from Bangalore. The cluster has been the subject of a state-aided project run by a wing of the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore. And the villagers have enjoyed more economic and otherwise beneficial supplies of water and electricity as a result.

The ‘new’ diesel-generator fuel is called honge oil. It is abstracted from the locally available seeds of the Pongamia pinnata tree. The juice does need thorough filtering and cleaning, and a bit of warming to reduce its viscosity, but the scientists think it can be as good as or even better than petroleum derivatives in the end. After its extraction the residual 75 per cent of the original seedstuff is useful as fertiliser.

I gather that honge oil, like other vegetable fuels, was fed to Indian lamps — and engines — decades ago, but succumbed to commercial competitors until its recent renaissance as a fuel cheaper than even the subsidised diesel. Biogas from agricultural waste in the village cluster district is another fuel used to generate power for the rural population and is produced by wood gasifiers.

I don’t know how to pronounce honge, but it sounds just as good whether you rhyme it with strong, blancmange, congé, ‘Wrong - eh?’, or something subtler. Say it whatever way, until the next excited journalist’s scoop or the next energy crisis comes along it does well enough as a reminder of truly green genset possibilities. (Yes, you can groan now, but please applaud too.)

You can’t miss this contaminant

Call it ill-advised if you like, but some scientists — and even some engineers — fall into the trap of telling the media at large before they divulge their discoveries or inventions discreetly to their peers. Remember cold fusion, for instance? And you must have lost count of perpetual motion machines.

I was therefore not altogether surprised to learn first about a recent scientific discovery from EUSJA News, the periodical of the European Union of Science Journalists’ Associations. The story was of a revelation by research chemists, and it concerned fundamental particles interesting to you and me even though they explicitly exclude electrons and protons. The heaviest-yet element had been found!

The element’s atomic number is zero (because electrons and protons are absent) but the atom does contain one neutron and 311 other particles. No fewer than 125 of these are assistant neutrons. Of the others, 75 are vice-neutrons and 111 are assistant vice-neutrons. The atomic mass is thus 312. The 312 particles are held together by a continuous exchange of meson-like particles known as morons.

So fresh was the EUSJA News report, which had been picked up on the internet, that only a provisional name had been given to the element: administratum.

Being devoid of electrons, administratum is inert, but it had been detected chemically because of its retardent ability. A miniscule quantity extends to four days the time of a reaction that would normally take one second.

The element’s half-life of about three years does not betoken normal radioactive decay but rather a reorganisation of assistant, vice- and assistant vice-neutrons. This has been shown actually to increase the atomic mass.

Administratum occurs naturally in the atmosphere but tends to concentrate in government agencies, large corporations and universities. The densest pockets are usually in the newest and best-appointed buildings.

EUSJA News adds that the element is toxic at any concentration and, where allowed to accumulate, able to halt any productive reaction. The periodical does not mention possible or observed effects in power generating systems but I guess that operators will not need to conduct any specific research on these: even the youngest hands will identify every ingress without help of instrumentation.

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