Herman Branover and LMMHD

It was in Australia, some time in 1987, during the period that I was providing technical consultancy in the energy field to the business interests of Joseph Gutnick, that I met Peter Kalms and was introduced through him to Professor Herman Branover.

For those who follow the Chabad Hasidic movement, the name Branover immediately brings feelings of great respect, maybe nearly to the same level as the Rebbe of that period, sitting in New York. I recall that Peter Kalms related to me the background of Herman Branover originally from Riga, Latvia. Peter told me that his business in the UK had been responsible for some support funding of Branover’s research work in Israel for several years and that the Rebbe had selected Joseph Gutnick to take over that responsibility. Many who dealt with ‘Diamond Joe’ Gutnick in business or invested in his stocks on the ASX did not know the depth of his orthodoxy and philanthropic support for Israel.

My first responsibility was to be the link with the scientific, defence and political communities during a forthcoming visit to Australia by Herman Branover to meet the Gutnick team and to present his LMMHD technology to Australian organisations. When Herman Branover arrived in Sydney I was introduced to a charming man in his mid-fifties with natural bearing and elegance, carrying a full beard traditional of orthodoxy. He was also greeted at the airport by a throng of young orthodox Jews, all apparent by their dress and hairstyles.

I was educated rapidly that this man was more than a Latvian scientist who had been a refusenik and then eventually been allowed with the payment of a ‘ransom’ to aliyah to Israel. He was held in awe by all. Wherever we went in Australia the throngs followed, keen to absorb whatever message Herman Branover might give. For me there were some other interesting elements, one of which was that his food had to be prepared according to orthodox kosher rules. When he flew out to Tokyo following the visit, his food for the travel was prepared under the supervision of the chief rabbi from the St Kilda synagogue, as Qantas was unable to guarantee observance of the orthodoxy in food preparation and transport.

My next involvement with Professor Branover was to visit his laboratories and LMMHD pilot plant at Ben Gurion University, Beersheva. This was not my first visit to Israel, but it was definitely a stand-out. I remember driving from Tel Aviv into the ‘desert’ towards Beersheva, a town with particular poignancy for Australians from the world war periods. Along the sides of the road were orange orchards rich with fruit, and at one point a sign recording the words of a famous English traveller – ‘5,000 years a desert this has been and 5,000 years a desert it will remain’.

LMMHD is the acronym for Liquid Metal Magneto Hydro Dynamics. At university in the late 60’s we had studied MHD and the search for refractory ceramics to house the reactors, so the practical issues of a conductive fluid flowing through a magnetic field to produce an electric field were known to me. LMMHD solved the problem of high temperature as the molten metal, in this case lead, was at less than 400 degrees. Some of the requirements of LMMHD, such as the use of superconducting niobium alloy magnets, were of particular interest as, during that period, ‘warm’ superconductors were discovered.

However, for LMMHD, as for all renewable energy technologies, energy balance is a challenge, how to get more energy out than you have to put in. In the case of LMMHD, there were several chemical engineering technical challenges such as friction, barrier layers, and thermal insulation. The unique feature of the technology and pilot plant created by Professor Branover’s team was the use of compressed dry nitrogen gas to pump the molten lead to the top of the system where the gas escaped for recycling and ‘old man’ gravity could take over as the lead fell through the magnetic field.

The challenge that seemed to be a blocking function to scale up was that each increase in diameter of the pipes resulted in an increase of losses, as the gas bubbles would tend to coalesce and slip past the lead rather than ‘lifting’ it. Of course there were other issues. Whereas lithium and sodium/potassium ‘alloys’ would reduce the density differential, the disadvantages of higher cost and corrosion/explosion risk weighed against such systems except in space.

I am not sure whether the LMMHD technical scale-up issues for terrestrial applications have been solved, and even so how commerciality of the system could be achieved. Yet none of these issues reduces the joy of the creation and the wit in some of the engineering solutions. Looking back now, nearly thirty years on, I can see remarkable similarities in the practical challenges facing bringing of LMMHD and DSC (Dye Solar Cells) to market. I wonder today whether Herman Branover and Michael Graetzel, two of the great scientific entrepreneurs of our time, have ever met.

The visit to Beersheva included a wonderful middle-eastern feast in a Turkish restaurant where about fifteen scientists from Ben Gurion University consumed significant quantities of Russian vodka, local mezzes and meats. As we enjoyed sipping the vodka, I sat next to Herman Branover chatting and I watched this man, a blend of Torah and science, and he smiled – at home in ‘his Israel’.

Herman Branover is a very special person. I remember him with joy and respect. He is still, and may he be for many more years, a man of science and God and a wonderful Jewish gentleman.

(This article is published under licence from Energitismo Limited)