Monday, January 3, 2011

Cylinders full of Argon

It was a hot summer afternoon. From a long time ago, when the summers were still proper summers, and no one had heard of global climate change. We were a bunch of undergraduates, standing rather uncomfortably, in an extremely hot shed of a foundry in our engineering college. The idea was to learn something about hands-on engineering, so the ones amongst us, who wanted to build those rocket engines off to the moon, would know how the casting was made. To the rest of us, who had other future plans, the pressing issue was that of India, chasing a target of two hundred runs with five wickets to go. In the post lunch session, on the last day of the match. This is how we got our kicks back then, when there was no twenty-twenty cricket. It goes without saying that we wanted to get done as soon as possible, and run off to find out what was happening on the pitch. Except, that there was one serious problem.

Involving a ghost. In molten aluminum.

Foundry is an interesting area of applied science. Those in the field, swear by it. Pretty much everything that is cast with metal or alloys, has to be cast in a foundry. Very simply speaking, you take a vat of molten metal, and pour it down in a hollowed out shape called a mold. Then, you let it cool. And, you are done. There is more to it than this mundane description, but the rest of it is more art than science. That is when you understand why chemists in the medieval times were called alchemists. And why they had bizarre rituals for everything they did. Who wouldn't, if the idea was to turn iron into gold! After many years as a practicing engineer, I have come to believe that only a small part of what we do can be explained by the nicely bound textbooks lining up the shelves. Most of it is just experience and sometimes, plain old superstition. Yes, there is such a thing called Voodoo engineering. It is everywhere.  

Our demonstrator was a lab-technician, in his early sixties. We often used to take bets on if he would kick the bucket first, or retirement. He had eyeglasses with extremely high power, which made the lenses look like ground glass. He was a short and lean guy with salt and pepper hair, and a very noticeable stoop. And, he was one of those rare technicians, who you would always see in overalls. A lot of us actually thought that he was born wearing them.  And, on this particular summer day, he was extremely upset. He had chased all of us to one end of the shed, where we were huddled together, plotting our next course of action. And he was muttering something and going round and round a vat full of molten aluminum. If this was the rainmaker's dance, the monsoons would have come by now.

I am no expert on foundry. But, as far as I know, one of the things you worry about,  is trapped gas in the molten metal. In molten Aluminum, very typically, Hydrogen is the culprit. It can give you a very bad cast if you don't let it escape. And a lot of technicians can tell if the hydrogen is still there. And, sometimes they like to say that a ghost got trapped in the metal. Our man, was one such accomplished maestro. If he was the Zubin Mehta of molten metals, you could say that he was asking us, the orchestra, to fiddle around with the andante and the adagio, while he was getting ready for the crescendo. That's when he would have poured the metal in the cast. And us? We just wanted to get out of the confounded shed, back to the warm breeze under the rickety fans in the hostel, with live cricket on our transistor radios.

Lamboo, who was one of my batch-mates, was getting restless. To this day, I don't know what his real name is. He was an extremely confident character, and we were all sure that he was destined to rule the world someday. And, he was a budding mechanical engineer. So, why would he take all this nonsense about the rainmaker's dance around a vat of Aluminum. Plus, he too had to get back to the cricket. So, he strutted out to the other end of the shed and said to the technician, "Sir, I think I know how to solve your problem. Do you have a cylinder of Argon in the lab somewhere?". As textbook engineers to be, we were learning that you could bubble hydrogen out of molten metal using Argon, which is an inert gas. Obviously, Lamboo was trying to show off.

Our man stopped in his tracks, as if his prayers were interrupted. He went all red in his face. He looked extremely angry. He found his way to the corner of the shed, from where, he picked up an iron rod that looked like a digging post. He picked it up with both hands, and shaking with rage, walked rather menacingly towards Lamboo. Most of us were completely stunned at this point, and no one even thought of moving. I was thinking of what I would write in Lamboo's obituary in the institute's magazine. And, I could see even Lamboo was frozen where he stood, like a deer caught in the headlights of a car. We were just waiting for the final moment.

Our man came to within a few steps of Lamboo. He lifted the rod with both his hands and swung it at a large angle. Then, as we were about to close our eyes, we saw that he had turned his attention to the vat and not Lamboo. The rod whacked the vat real hard, and the entire shed shook from the loud noise of the impact. Our man looked satisfied. Apparently, the whack was solid enough to dissuade poor Mister Hydrogen from any thoughts of clinging on to Miss Aluminum. Still seething with anger, he turned to Lamboo and said, "Young man, never show me those cylinders full of Argon, Understand?"

I don't remember who won the test match that day. Years later, I met Lamboo at an airport. He had become the CEO of a large company that he founded. Dealing with all sorts of metallurgical supplies. He was telling me like a proud parent about the things they did. I asked him if they supplied any inert gases. "Oh yes, bottles full of Helium and Neon. And, cylinders full of Argon!"

Putting on a big smile, I said, "Young man, never show me those cylinders full of Argon, Understand?" Lamboo smiled a strange smile, the half-diplomatic, and half are-you-crazy smile.

I don't think he remembers that strange afternoon in the foundry. And, the rainmaker's dance around a vat of molten Aluminum.


  1. hahaha :) brilliant description...

  2. This is one 'nut'ty post... *laughs hysterically*

    *dazed looks*

    What??? That was not funny???