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How NASA Saved Lives... With Brooms



Nihar Sreeram

A Surprising Tale of Resourcefulness: How NASA's Ingenious Use of Brooms Averted Disaster

Screwdrivers, pliers, and welding torches made up the majority of a NASA engineer's main toolbox in the 1960s and 1970s alongside...brooms?

Turns out, these engineers weren’t janitors.

These brooms contributed to the protection of NASA’s workers from hazardous explosions and pipe leaks. And it all started with the most basic element in the universe - Hydrogen.

Hydrogen is the first element in the periodic table with only one electron and proton. It is significant for two reasons: it is extremely explosive and is a powerful fuel source.

Back in the 1930s, airships seemed to be the premium form of travel, crossing continents and oceans with ease for years. They stayed afloat by hydrogen or helium gas.

This all came to an end on May 6th, 1937, when a Zeppelin docking in Lakehurst, New Jersey blew up into flames.

This infamous disaster was the Hindenburg, killing 36 people. The reason for the sudden fiery combustion was traced to its hydrogen fuel supply, which kept it afloat, which had leaked, and subsequently ignited by a runaway spark into a monstrous ball of flammable gas. This event would become historic in human reasoning against the use of hydrogen as a fuel source, seemingly marking the end of an industry within minutes.

But why is it so dangerous?

Since hydrogen consists of the smallest atoms known to man, even the tiniest leak in a fuel cell could lead to several molecules escaping.

And just like Hindenburg, all it takes is one spark to ignite the gas and unleash a catastrophic calamity.

And that isn’t even the worst part.

Hydrogen fire is invisible - with the gas being colourless and odourless, there is no visible way to know if there is a leak. Plus, its flames aren’t that lurid, making it hard to spot in a bright room.

However, hydrogen is a very strong fuel source, releasing few carbon–based gasses in comparison to coal and natural gas - our current fuel sources. Hydrogen can also be used in self-containing fuel cells where the only product is water. Liquid hydrogen, as cold as it is, is extremely light and powerful, perfect for powering rockets, and even cars - a project that was in full swing until Tesla came along.

NASA has thus been using hydrogen fuel for decades, and with its kilometres of piping from the main tanks to the launchpad - there are many chances for leaks.

That’s where the brooms come in.

Hydrogen burns at an infernal 2180°C and will most definitely ignite objects it comes in contact with. Back in the 60s and 70s, hydrogen fuel was quite new, and there was no tech designed to find such leakages.

The solution, devised by the seemingly brilliant minds at NASA, was called the broom method: walk with broomsticks in front such that if the bristles come in contact with the fire, they’d burn too, but visibly.

Fortunately, however, we may not have to continue using this ‘jugaad’ style solution when tackling hydrogen combustion, with our newly devised methods of finding hydrogen leaks.

In the early 80s, NASA would develop a simple hydrogen detector that would sound an alarm if it detected a leak. This solved the detection problem, but actually spotting the source of the leak was an issue of its own.

At least it was, until 2007.

In 2007, a chemo-chromic hydrogen detection tape would be perfected. The tape operated based on a specific principle - based on the chemical substance it was touching, the tape would change colour. Using this, NASA would modify and optimize the tape in order to make it extremely resistant, an effort that would undoubtedly secure many lives.

It has been used in rocket launches ever since.

So what do I have to say? Much better than walking with a broom in front of you.

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