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Rough Science 6 Colorado: Power Video Diaries: Hermione Cockburn

Updated Tuesday 1st November 2005

Exclusive video extra in which Hermione Cockburn talks about the challenge for the Power programme, from the sixth BBC/OU TV series Rough Science, based in Colorado


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Okay, well I’m very relieved to have got through my first Rough Science challenge. Joining the team has been a great experience, and to get through the first one and be successful is even better. It’s funny, I’ve watched the show for a long time and so I almost felt like I knew Mike and Jonathan and Ellen before I came out here but I didn’t at all, but they’ve just been so great to work with. So first of all I got teamed up with Mike, which is fantastic, and Kate set us the challenge of first of all finding coal, then extracting coal gas.

Now, it’s funny I thought about this a little bit and coal gas to me is this great historical thing, you know, I remember sort of driving past gas works, things like that, but this is something that we were going to try now. Now as a scientist, as a geologist coming into an area and being asked to find something, it’s quite difficult because you need quite a lot of prior knowledge to actually find something out. But what Kate and I did on that first day was just kind of go back to first principles and follow some logical steps on how you would locate coal.

Now we’re here in San Juan Mountains, a big volcanic province, there’s going to be no coal here. So we drove south heading into the San Juan basin, a sedimentary basin, and that’s where you find coal sandwiched between sedimentary rocks. And it was easy. Colorado’s absolutely choc-a-bloc with coal. You can drive along and you just see it outcropping in the layers, it was absolutely beautiful. But what we wanted to get into this show was this rather unusual thing that you only get in certain places, and this is a natural coal gas seep. And literally methane is just burping out of the ground as coal seams are tilted up, and it’s just seeping up though. And it’s a toxic gas so it kills of fvegetation, and it’s really bubbling up so it’s coming through a stream, it’s like Kate described it like a Jacuzzi, and that’s what it’s like. It was like being in New Zealand or something in a thermal spring, it was amazing.

So we found this spot and just did this lovely bit where we actually collected some of this methane that was bubbling up and set fire to it, because it’s toxic as I said, it’s also highly flammable. So that was great fun, Kate was very easy to work with, so encouraging and we just had such a laugh doing that.

Then the final part of day one was actually going to collect the coal, so we drove to another location which was a beautiful kind of pristine slope but you could just see the coal underneath the surface sort of coming out, weathering out in the soil and the debris. And Kate and I got digging, and it is Kate and I that did the digging, you don’t get the crew involved, they’re just standing back letting us do it. No, they’re brilliant, they do help out but this was just chipping away finding a few bits of coal underground. And we collected a whole load and brought it back for Mikey B who had got on fantastically and practically built this whole apparatus that you can see behind me. So the first day was just brilliant.

Then the second day was sort of more Rough Science how I expected it to be. We were around our great workshop at the Lakuana Mill playing about, just having a great time, working things through, trying things out on the plumbing and the chemistry side which, you know, Mikey B was just brilliant on. And we got - what happened on day two? I can’t remember how far we got, but essentially we got it sort of happening on a small scale. Mike might have described that. But we were sure it was the right kind of coal. I mean coal has different grades and we weren’t sure how much gas we were going to get out. But it wasn’t looking that good at the end of day two, but we were all sort of confident that day three we could get it working, and we did a redesign on the furnace which you’ll have seen in the programme I hope.

I’m really struggling to remember because day three was just a triumph. We redesigned our furnace, as I say, improved the coal tar trap, improved all the plumbing with a little help from the local hardware store, got that all set up, worked out where we wanted our lights and we had an old stove that we wanted to try out. But the funny thing was - and for me I wasn’t sure how this would go - we didn’t have a chance to try it out before we actually filmed it. And this is what I’ve always wondered about rough science, how fixed is it? You know, do they try it all out and then bring the cameras in when it’s all working? Not at all. It’s just really honestly we just set the thing up, we hadn’t tried it and then the cameras came along and right at the end of the programme we just did it for real because we wouldn’t have had enough gas to kind of test it.

So we filled up the gasometer got everything ready, and we weren’t sure whether it was all going to work or not but it did, and it’s just such a good feeling. Like genuine hugs, and it was brilliant. So that’s it, we managed to extract the coal gas using the dry distillation process and light it, and that was it. So I have to say I was really relieved after that day, day three, and really, really looking forward to the next challenge.


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