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Saving Money – a Conundrum

Paul Palmer was born in NYC, went to Stuyvesant HS and Queens College, then to Yale for his PhD in Physical Chemistry.

In the 1970s he migrated to California and started Zero Waste Systems Inc. which introduced the term "Zero Waste."

They took unwanted chemicals from Silicon Valley and resold them for reuse. They took all of the unwanted laboratory chemicals from the Bay Area and sold them for half price. They had the largest inventory in California.

His book about that experience is called Getting To Zero Waste.

Roughly twenty years ago, an extraordinary event took place that I didn't understand at first. I have been mulling it over ever since and I think I have some answers.

The federal government announced a brand new method for accomplishing a common goal. It was cheaper, easier and quicker. They convened an investigation into this method, decreeing at the end that it worked reliably. Most of the public was totally convinced. There were lots of places needing this new method to be applied, all over the world. What an opportunity to make a giant leap forward in engineering.

You might think that the next step the government would want to take would be to test out this new method in a variety of ways and places and configurations. The money savings alone were impressive. The job that had previously required the combined efforts and expertise of squads of expert engineers could now be done by a couple of guys with the right equipment. And the equipment was simply and universally available. What an opportunity!

But somehow the research never took place. The applications failed to materialize and I couldn't figure out why. But now I know, and I will share it with the reader.

There is a large industry that calls itself the controlled demolition industry. These consist of highly experienced people who have seen all kinds of jobs and tried all kinds of approaches. One such is called Controlled Demolition of Phoenix, Maryland. There are many more in Texas, such as Dallas Demolition in Dallas. You can see what their work really looks like by going here. or for an introduction to the serious difficulties of planning a building take down, try.

Designing the exact placement of hundreds of explosives is no walk in the park. Do it wrong and steel shrapnel can go flying out of the building to kill people or injure property a half mile away. Bring the building parts down in the wrong sequence and instead of landing on the nice empty parking lot, a building can lean over and fall sidewise, destroying other structures that you are hired to protect. Mistakes can be costly, even lethal.

That is why the new method invented by the National Institute of Standards (NIST) was such a barn burner. It abjured explosives, relying instead on a raging fire of kerosene in an upper story of the building. NIST's method could bring the building down on its own footprint, easily and reliably.

NIST pointed to two tall buildings they had tried it on. In both cases, the approach worked perfectly. The cost, ten or twenty thousand gallons of kerosene, had an insignificant cost compared to all the expertise, preparation and expensive explosives needed by other methods.

They even had a new name for the way that the buildings collapsed straight downward. They called it pancaking — an evocative name that caught the imagination of all who heard it. But one experiment, or even two, does not a successful research project make.






In this first case in fact, there was still a problem. It seemed to be one of contagion, as the two collapsing buildings brought down another nearby building a few hours later by no mechanism that NIST could figure out. But that's what research is for. There are buildings all over the world slated for demolition. This new method would surely be tested on dozens of them to iron out the kinks. The savings in cost could not be ignored.

Unfortunately, history has not dealt well with this new method of building demolition. To my knowledge, there has never been a single research demolition using the new NIST method. For some reason, the method has been bottled up while the standard approaches, using explosives runs on apace. What can be going on behind the scenes?

Any new method for doing anything will have its critics and detractors. Knowledge proceeds in fits and starts, until at last, in the case of a truly innovative work, it conquers by force of its success. But if there is no test, there can be no success.

The critics believe they know exactly why no further research is being carried out by NIST. They are quick to explain that NIST knows exactly what conclusion research would lead to. NIST would find that its new method has no validity at all, and in the first application, was granted a success by smoke and mirrors, hidden from the public.

The critics, who include many experts including physicists, chemists, architects and construction engineers, say that the original buildings were chock full of hidden explosives and were not brought down by a kerosene fire at all. They even say that the third building, which collapsed a few hours later so mysteriously, was also full of explosives.

You can't deny that this alternate explanation makes a great deal of sense. When the critics go further and analyze the timing of collapse, and the chemical elements surprisingly found in the dust that settled everywhere, these additional research elements support their claims and destroy NIST's claims.

This then, they claim, is the reason why no additional research has been carried out. Because NIST knows that their new method will emerge a failure, not a savior.

But as any American citizen will tell you, their government never lies to the people. So amidst the clash of theories, an unfortunate cloud of uncertainty still hangs over the whole event. Perhaps a new administration will want to come clean and revisit the NIST hearings.

One can but hope!

~ Paul Palmer

For a controlled demolition Inc. in Phoenix Maryland, see:









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