If an oil tanker is on the path to destruction, it usually meets its end after a derailment and the [possible] subsequent explosions. But what it would take to make one implode?
In their usual tongue in cheek, “don’t try this at home” fashion, the team on the Discovery Channel’s MythBusters recently took on the challenge of destroying an oil train tanker car from the inside out, or outside in — whichever actually proved successful.
According to the urban legend under scrutiny, the interior of a crude-by-rail tank car was being steam cleaned when heavy rains hit. The downpour prompted the workers to seal the tank car, trapping the hot steam in the tanker. As the rain cooled the now hot tank car, the air sealed inside compressed, leading to the eventual implosion when the air pressure difference between the inside and out became too great.
To test this myth, hosts Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman practiced some very basic science, but on a monumental scale. “If it is indeed possible for a tank car to crush itself, well then the testing of it is going to be one of the biggest productions we’ve ever taken on this show,” Savage said.
Air is a mixture of gasses that compress with colder temperatures and expand with higher temperatures. If the air pressure within a sealed container is lower than the air pressure on the outside, the pressure from the outside will cause the container to collapse within itself.
This effect can be easily tested at home with an aluminum can (you know, if you have kids or if you’re bored). Empty the can (chug or pour, depending on the contents) and fill with a small amount of water. Heat the can until that water comes to a boil.
With a shallow pool of cold water in a container nearby, remove the can from the heat source and invert it, dipping the end with the opening into the cold pool of water. As the air within the can is condensed, the air pressure on the outside becomes greater than on the inside, causing the can to implode from the pressure difference. (To see a video of this at-home-science, click this hyperlink.)
But to test this effect on an oil tanker required what was dubbed “the largest prop in MythBusters history.” Not only did they need the tank car, but also the railways to move it and a facility large enough to have a portion of it shut down for safety. They found all of the above at the Port of Morrow in Boardman, Oregon. With proper safety measures in place, Savage and Hyneman set out to crush this 67-foot long, 60,000 pound heap of cold rolled steel with half inch walls.
For the MythBusters team it was a tense installment in series’ final season farewell. After two unsuccessful attempts using structurally sound tank cars, the duo dropped a 3,200 pound concrete block onto the tank car to make a dent, and to compromise the tanker’s stout integrity.
After rising stress levels and dropping air pressure (with the help of a vacuum pump), the team proved successful when in an instant, the oil tank car collapsed in on itself, just like a soda can. Check out the videos below to watch high-speed footage of the implosion.