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Airdate: Feb 04, 2013
Scientist: Catherine Oertel

Oertel - Organ Pipes

Oertel - Organ Pipes
Can chemistry keep some of the world's oldest organs from turning to dust?

Oertel Organ Pipes

Music; Ambience: Organ Music (Georg Muffat's Third Toccata, Wesley Hall, organist, recorded at Fairchild Chapel)

Some of the world's first and most famous organs have a serious problem their pipes are corroding. Chemistry to the rescue! I'm Jim Metzner and this is the Pulse of the Planet. Chemist Catherine Oertel is an Associate Professor at Oberlin College. She's been working with colleagues in Sweden to find causes and solutions for corroded pipes.

Oertal: One of the ways that the organ pipe corrosion problem was first noticed was at the at a church in Lbeck in Northern Germany in St. Jacobi there. So, there's an organ that dates from the 17th century, and it has pipes that are even earlier than that from the 15th century. And some of these pipes had gotten so badly corroded that holes actually were appearing in their bodies, and so, that was really affecting the sound, in the most extreme cases, preventing sound from happening entirely. The first question was to think about how different chemical agents in the air might affect the pipe metal. And so, what we could do in the lab is to do some simulations where we exposed samples of metal to atmospheres that are similar to those that they might experience in organs and then to see how these metals behave in response to that. And so, one of the things that came out of that work is the discovery that the acids that are causing organ pipe corrosion primarily are those that are released from the wood of the organ case itself, and that's a little bit surprising because I think originally people might have suspected that industrial pollutants were to blame. So, knowing that the corrosion comes from this very immediate environment one of the things that can be done, of course, is to improve ventilation within the organ to sort of install fans and blowers that can help to remove that acidic atmosphere. Another thing that's been done is using nanoparticles to coat the wood to try to prevent those aids from leeching out."

Our thanks to organist Wesley Hall. I'm Jim Metzner and this is the Pulse of the Planet.