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Snowballs in Hell? GE Engineers Put Impossible Idioms to the Test

Idioms are a huge part of our daily speak. But for the team at General Electric, these popular turns of phrase offer up something more: a mission (should they choose to accept it). In a new set of “unimpossible” videos, GE engineers are putting the most ridiculous idioms to the test, using technology to make them a reality.


Yes, you can now be “that guy” at the party. Because snowballs do have a chance in hell, thanks to a bit of aerospace engineering. To put this idiom to the test, a snowball was wrapped in dry ice, shrouded in ABS plastic, rolled in alumina-silicate (a fibrous insulator used to keep jet engines at constant temperature) and finally, encapsulated in a vessel made from a nickel-based “super alloy.”

The alloy alone can shield against 1,300 degrees Celsius (2,372 F), but all said and done, the snowball life-support system managed to hold an internal temperature of negative 100 degrees Celsius  (-148 F) – even when covered in molten metal.


Ah, the smell of a million volts in the morning. To “catch lighting in a bottle,” the team set off for GE’s High Voltage and Power Conversion Lab, a machining “cave of wonders” complete with an impulse generator that fires up to 2.4 million volts. Yeah, we’ll take five.

The bottle itself houses a supercapacitor (think a battery on steroids), which can absorb and release energy – but getting the lighting to participate was the biggest challenge. “These capacitors are limited by how quickly they can absorb the energy,” the team explains. “If you start throwing energy at it too quickly, the voltage can build up dangerously high across the device, and you could actually cause it to arc across the device. We call it flashover.”

To engineer a bolt that would obtain a high-voltage flash, but still be low enough for the bottle to work with, the crew built an apparatus with various gaps along its path. As the lighting jumped between them, the voyage would be forced down. “We basically simplified the lightning to its bare minimum,” they say. All in a day’s work.


If you’re a stubborn SOB, chances are you’ve been likened to a brick wall at some point in your life. But that might not be such a bad thing. It might be surprising, but getting a brick wall to “listen” is relatively simple.

The team used a combination of laser vibrometers and accelerometers, fine-tuned sensors capable of detecting the slightest movement within a material. You actually have a similar accelerometer in your smartphone – it’s what detects changes in orientation and tells the screen to rotate.

The average adult speaks at 60-70 decibels, which, at close range, is enough to cause a wall to vibrate. Those vibrations were picked up by the sensors, transmitted, and played back 160 yards away on the other side.

There are still plenty of idioms to test– “under the weather,” anyone? – so we’re hoping to see more from the project in the coming months. Let us know which you’d like to see in the comments below!

IMAGES: General Electric/YouTube

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