Getting it Wrong in the Movies

Duncan McLeod is here somewhere, waiting to take your head!

This is something I feel strongly about. Sort of like Phil Plait aka the “Bad Astronomer”  must feel like when he sees science fiction movie scenes that violate the rules of physics and the conservation of momentum.

You know in movies or TV shows where the hero is running through an abandoned plant of some kind – an old refinery, or manufacturing facility, or maybe an old battleship or submarine? Sometimes the plants are ‘live’ but usually not. They are unused, forgotten, but there are always some lights around. And steam leaks.

There are always wisps or jets of steam coming from mysterious pipes. And at the right moment, the hero can open the closest valve and a spray of live steam shoots out and hides is escape. Or in better movies, they dance up and down the stairs with swords. And when the bad guy is caught off guard, or just about to plunge his blade into the hero’s heart? You guessed it! Hero reaches over, turns a valve at random, and some dangerous and/or lethally hot vapor blow right into the face of evil!

You know what?  That’s not real.

It takes energy to create and to maintain steam. Energy = dollars. A truly abandoned plant is emptied and all the pressure and fuel removed. If it’s merely ‘pickled’, maybe with the intent to start operations again some day, it’s sealed up and have an inert gas, like nitrogen, kept in at low pressure. Not frickin’ live steam!

And, if the plant is really operating, other than letting madmen run around with guns or swords or magic lightning bolts, there are not just are a lot of valves waiting around that can actually open up straight to the atmosphere, that can blow into your face. That contain something that will burn you. It’s all controlled through pipes that go up to flare stacks, or safety relief valves. That were designed, checked, tested, and re-checked that, if they ‘fail’ or someone opens a valve accidentally, will automatically resolve into a safe situation or ESD (Emergency Shut Down) the plant. I do this for a living. Accidents like the Bhopal incident, or the Phillips HCC fire (I worked at Phillips when that happened), led to very stringent, systematic design reviews that all hinge around ‘what-if’ scenarios.

This scene?

Yes, this one is real. I’ve seen where it was filmed. Sulfur piles really stink. And if you roll around in the flaked sulfur, you can’t get the smell out of your head for DAYS. Everything will have a whiff of rotten eggs: your hair, your hands.

OK, reality can be boring. But still…glad I got that off my chest.

Alberta Sulfur, Vancouver site



Categories: General Stuff!, Science

Tags: , , , , ,

3 replies

  1. Speaking as someone who worked summers at a coal fired power plant in college, yeah. I was particularly amused at the boilers that showed up in the background of “The China Syndrome”, for instance. No, not heat exchangers, at one point you could see old pea-coal cyclones.

    And people who play with live steam don’t survive. Geeze.

  2. Try watching anything with an airplane in it. It is painful how wrong they are.

  3. Sulfur spread on the grass & wet down will drive away ticks and fleas. My Dad used to bring in the drippings in 5 gallon buckets from the Phillips/Goldsmith Plant for me to use on my yard . Never had any ticks or fleas.

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