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Here’s Why Confusing Diesel With Gas at the Pump Is a Problem

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It can happen to anyone. Maybe you were distracted by a text message or phone call or someone else pulling up at the pump. You grabbed the wrong handle, and now your gas tank is loaded with diesel fuel—a simple mistake that can cost you big-time.

The issue is combustion. Gasoline-powered cars have engines which run on a combination of liquid fuel and ordinary air, which are mixed together inside the vehicle and make their way to a cylinder block, where the fuel-air mix is compressed by pistons. A spark is used to ignite the substance in a small, contained explosion, and the gas produced as a result pushes back against the pistons, forcing them down and generating the power necessary to keep the car running as it goes from place to place. But these engines can't combust diesel, for one key reason.

Unlike gasoline, diesel doesn’t readily mix with air unless certain conditions are met. While gasoline can evaporate at room temperature, diesel must be exposed to intense heat in order to follow suit. Diesel engines work by spraying the fuel into a cylinder that’s already filled with high-temperature compressed air, which makes the diesel itself combust spontaneously—no spark required. Gasoline engines can’t provide diesel with the temperatures it needs to combust, and, unable to evaporate sufficiently, diesel won’t ignite when the spark is released.

To those who drive gas-powered vehicles, diesel is useless. Ideally, you realized your mistake at the gas station before the car was even started—but if not, as soon as the last drops of gasoline in the car, truck, or motorcycle’s system are gone, the vehicle will shut down, leaving you stranded. And because gas-powered rides aren’t able to process the fuel, the diesel has to be removed manually—a process that isn't cheap.

First, you'll need to call a tow truck; then it’s time to enlist a skilled car mechanic. Depending on how much of the liquid you’ve poured into the tank, there’s a good to fair chance that some of it made its way into the car’s fuel line. Your mechanic will probably have no choice but to drain the entire fuel system, which can set you back $500 to $1000.

Thankfully, gas stations try to stop their customers from making this mistake in the first place. Often, the nozzles on diesel pumps are designed to be too wide to slot into most gas tanks. Also, at many locales, these pumps are colored bright green, yellow, or orange, which makes them more conspicuous and serves as a visual reminder that they are not, in fact, gasoline dispensers. However, there isn’t a universal chromatic system. A few companies—like BP—use green-tipped pumps on their gas dispensers. So before you use any pump at any gas station, do yourself a favor and read the label.

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History
The Queen of Code: Remembering Grace Hopper
By Lynn Gilbert, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

Grace Hopper was a computing pioneer. She coined the term "computer bug" after finding a moth stuck inside Harvard's Mark II computer in 1947 (which in turn led to the term "debug," meaning solving problems in computer code). She did the foundational work that led to the COBOL programming language, used in mission-critical computing systems for decades (including today). She worked in World War II using very early computers to help end the war. When she retired from the U.S. Navy at age 79, she was the oldest active-duty commissioned officer in the service. Hopper, who was born on this day in 1906, is a hero of computing and a brilliant role model, but not many people know her story.

In this short documentary from FiveThirtyEight, directed by Gillian Jacobs, we learned about Grace Hopper from several biographers, archival photographs, and footage of her speaking in her later years. If you've never heard of Grace Hopper, or you're even vaguely interested in the history of computing or women in computing, this is a must-watch:

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science
Why Are Glaciers Blue?
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The bright azure blue sported by many glaciers is one of nature's most stunning hues. But how does it happen, when the snow we see is usually white? As Joe Hanson of It's Okay to Be Smart explains in the video below, the snow and ice we see mostly looks white, cloudy, or clear because all of the visible light striking its surface is reflected back to us. But glaciers have a totally different structure—their many layers of tightly compressed snow means light has to travel much further, and is scattered many times throughout the depths. As the light bounces around, the light at the red and yellow end of the spectrum gets absorbed thanks to the vibrations of the water molecules inside the ice, leaving only blue and green light behind. For the details of exactly why that happens, check out Hanson's trip to Alaska's beautiful (and endangered) Mendenhall Glacier below.

[h/t The Kid Should See This]

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