On “exploding saltpeter”: a correction

In October I posted a complaint about really bad science reporting that was based on a newspaper’s coverage of some egregiously wrong claims about molten salt thermal storage.

Those claims were made by the couple behind “FriedCranes.org,” and consisted of allegations that sodium and potassium nitrate, commonly known as saltpeter and Chilean saltpeter and proposed as media for thermal storage in concentrating solar facilities, are dangerous high explosives.

I countered this claim with references to the reasonably well established fact that neither substance is explosive or even flammable, which is easily confirmed with a moment’s research. And I said, in segueing to the real purpose of my post which was a criticism of the Pahrump newspaper that covered the allegations seriously,

So a couple of enviros get their science badly wrong. It happens far more frequently than I am comfortable with — you can google “chemtrails” for jaw-dropping examples of same. The friedcranes folks seem to be nice enough people, though clearly just a bit too non-discerning in their choice of trusted sources of information.

This morning I received a piece of email from the Fried Cranes people, and based on that message I am afraid I have to make a formal correction of my earlier post. They don’t seem to be nice people after all.  In fact, based on the last paragraph of the email, I’d have to amend that to something along the lines of “vicious, petty little asswipes.”

Dear Mr. Clark:[sic]

Your arrogant comments about “scientific illiteracy” in a recent blog exposed considerable illiteracy of your own. Apparently the Federal Departments of Homeland Security and Transportation are equally illiterate. We refer you to our illiterate editorial of January 23, 2012 where we cited their regulations pertaining to potassium and sodium nitrates:


Apparently Timothy McVeigh was equally “illiterate” when he detonated 2-1/2 tons of ammonium nitrate in Oklahoma City and a Norwegian farmer named Anders Breivik was also “illiterate” when he made this “perfectly safe” fertilizer go “boom” in the capitol city of Oslo just last summer.

It would be appropriate for you to acquaint yourself with all the facts before engaging in the name calling and demonization that are so prevalent from our esteemed administration these days.

Noteworthy is the fact that SolarReserve® is rapidly creating liability layers for themselves as a result of our concerns. The Crescent Dunes Project in Tonopah, Nevada is now owned by an affiliate limited liability company named TonopahSolar®, LLC. Most multinational corporations form subsidiaries, not affiliates. Then the operation and management was further delegated to PIC Group, Inc. out of Marietta, Georgia. Similarly, SolarReserve® has formed an affiliate named SaguacheSolar, LLC, a Delaware corporation registered here in Colorado to own their proposed project here.

When you have published as many books as we have, we will then graciously bow very low and accede to your elite judgements about our intelligence and capabilities. How’s that first book of yours coming, by the way?

John and Erika Keyes

I’d have consigned the email to the bitbucket if not for the really nasty swipe at the end there. If it was intended to get a rise out of me, it worked. So a few notes:

For those of you whose eyes glazed over in high school chemistry, it may be helpful for me to point out that comparing sodium and potassium nitrate to the highly explosive ammonium nitrate is roughly equivalent to comparing water and lye. Both water and lye consist of the highly corrosive hydroxyl ion bonded to something else, just as the saltpeters and ammonium nitrate consist of nitrate ions bonded to something else. Thus the Keyes’ reference to Timothy McVeigh is approximately as relevant as mentioning Drano in a discussion of drinking water.

The reference to the Departments of Homeland Security and Transportation involves a limitation on how much saltpeter you can carry on a passenger or cargo aircraft or by passenger rail. Turns out you can legally carry only five kilograms of saltpeter in your luggage on a domestic flight. [See edit, below.] Only 5kg! It must really be dangerous stuff! Five kilograms is a hair over 11 pounds, or about 176.4 ounces. That same body of regulations, incidentally restricts air passengers to carrying no more than 3 ounces of any personal care product. I’ll do the math for you: the departments of Homeland Security and Transportation apparently consider Johnson’s Baby Shampoo to be 60 times more dangerous than sodium or potassium nitrate!


[Edited to add: It’s worse than I’d imagined. That 5kg figure applies to mixed sodium and potassium nitrates. Either one on its own? The limit’s 25 kg, ir around 55 lb. Which means that shampoo is actually 300 times more dangerous. Or something.]

As for the whole issue of “liability layers,”  one need only point to the prevalence of the practice in other parts of the solar industry not using “highly explosive” saltpeter. NextEra Solar formed the corporate facade “Genesis Solar” to build the Genesis Solar project in California. Solar Millennium, builder of the mothballed Blythe Solar project, formed the shell Solar Trust of America. Stirling Energy and Tessera Solar were both part of an Irish firm named NTR. And so forth. Though it may be far more gratifying to imagine the corporate shell game as a response to one’s heroic expose of its Insanely! Dangerous! Molten Saltpeter!, it turns out to be pretty much standard operating procedure.

Finally: that first book of mine, published four years ago, is available at the link in the sidebar. It may not be as impressive as, say, this marvel of American literature, but I’m kind of proud of it nonetheless. Though perhaps the Keyes were referring to my book on Joshua trees, on which I’ve indeed been working for a frustratingly long time. What can I say? Research and factchecking take time compared to just making shit up on the fly.

12 thoughts on “On “exploding saltpeter”: a correction

  1. Meera L Sethi

    Holy crap, what an odious couple of people. I missed your original post in October, but am glad you took on the misinformation and that you are standing up for yourself, as well as the facts, here.


  2. richard

    Whoa. Someone tell John and Erika Keyes that it’s about quality, not quantity. I browsed some of that “book” you linked to, and … wow. If they really think of themselves as writers, I wonder how their first real book is coming along.

    The corporate shell game is worth worrying about, though, even if—clearly—in this industry it’s not a result of the Keyes’ rabble-rousing. Subsidiaries, affiliates, limited liability: these things matter. I wish it wasn’t people like John and Erika Keyes who were doing the digging and complaining, but there are others out there, better equipped to do the job, who are also taking it on.

  3. Bill Mcdonald

    And all these years, I thought saltpeter was what they put in our food in navy bootcamp!

    Yep, that couple sure sounds like a couple of internet idiots to me.

  4. Sherwood Harrington

    OH!  OH!  OH!  <—highly corrosive exclamatory molecule fragments.  Radical, too.

    Thanks so much for providing a link to these good folks’ magnum (heh) opus.  Without it I would have gone the entire rest of my life not knowing this: 

    “The same thing happens when it comes to environmental issues. Don’t remove the brush from around your home in California to create a firebreak for the next Santa Ana winds. Because that brush is habitat for the Kangaroo Rat. What part of ‘Rat’ don’t you understand? There are millions of Kangaroo Rats all over the west. They ain’t endangered. But it is a neat issue for the lefty enviros to use to hassle their neighbors. And if those houses burn down because firebreaks are outlawed, too bad… ”

    Nah, these folks aren’t illiterate.  They’re just stupid.

  5. Harald Hanche-Olsen

    Of smaller importance, but perhaps worth mentioning: Anders Behring Breivik is no farmer. He did buy a farm to use as a cover for his operation (mainly buying a few tons of fertilizer and building a bomb out of it), but that is all.

  6. OmegaPet

    The Stupid!  It Burns!

    The saltpeter, eh, not so much. 

    As a famous rabbit from Brooklyn would put it,
    “What a bunch of maroons!”

  7. Wild_Bill

    Send them a mirror so they can see what an arrogant, impudent, pseudo intellectual looks like.

    And the last crack about your book ,your writing, they should have half of your talent and intelligence.

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