Solar Power isn't Feasible!

Solar Power isn't Feasible!
This cartoon was on the cover of the book "SolarGas" by David Hoye. It echoes the Sharp Solar slogan "Last time I checked nobody owned the sun!"

Friday, July 20, 2012

Uniting the Avengers: More synergistic possibilities for Google Science Fair finailists to come together to save the world...

It's that time of the year again. Tomorrow morning I fly from  Dusseldorf to San Francisco to be a judge in the annual Google Science Fair, where we will be honoring the work of 15 extraordinary young people from around the world and rewarding one of them with a coveted $50,000 award.

Last month I had the honor of helping judge the Scientific American Science in Action award finalists, another set of 15 young people who dedicated their research and efforts and budding scientific acumen toward finding solutions to challenging environmental, health and social problems.

We ultimately selected two very deserving  14 year old boys from Swaziland, Africa, who came up with a scalable yet inexpensive hydroponics system for their homeland, and these two boys are also entrants in the general Google Science Fair.

During the judging process I wrote a blog post about a fantasy I had for finding a way to reward all these great young people so they could continue to work together to "save the world". In effect I wanted to explore the idea of creating a kind of "Marvel Team-Up" uniting these internationally dispersed kids into a kind of "youth Avengers" whose special talents and projects could be put together synergistically to create a whole much greater than the sum of its parts.

I described my own ideas for how each Science in Action kid's project could fit like a puzzle piece into a holistic "best practice model."

Now I would like to take the opportunity before flying to meet the Google Science Fair finalists to do the same thing with their projects -- a possible "neural network" for synergy, a first stab at finding some connections that could lead to positive unintended consequences.

How they might fit together:

I start my journey of connections on the far right side of this "map of the Google Science Fair finalists".

Raghavendra Ramachanderan, 17, has discovered a way to win energy back from spent fuel through the process of "Visible Light Deoxygenation".  The idea is that, for example, a liquid fuel like hexane (a hydrocarbon) can be oxidized through burning or through a fuel cell to create work or electricity, and then the spent fuel reconstituted through catalyst mediated exposure to sunlight.  We can describe this as a kind of "solar reforming" of burned fuel.  By carrying the process out on glucose and turning it into hexane, Raghavendra demonstrated the possibility of taking this radical process for energy conservation further.  His conclusion, " The success of this experiment will show that fuel can be used repeatedly, since converting used fuel to fuel again using sunlight, behaves like a system where sunlight is trapped into molecules of fuel, which is released upon burning them."

So Raghavendra is working on solving our energy problem, helping ensure that we never run out of fuel, even when the oil runs out.

 Meanwhile, nearbye,  Rohit Fenn, 16, has re-visited a technology that hasn't changed much since it was designed over 300 years ago: the flush toilet, invented by John Harrington in 1596.  Rohit lamented the fact that in much of India today not only is sanitation poor and power lacking but clean water is scarce, so simply flushing an average of 72 liters of drinking quality water  per day per household could be considered criminally irresponsible.

He also noted that many of the urban and rural poor can't even begin to consider upgrading from disease carrying pit latrines to hygienic toilets because the water resources simply don't exist. Either the water itself is unavailable or the electric power needed to pump it is lacking.

His solution: to invent a  simple foot-pedal powered vacuum pump design that any plumber could build out of local materials and get the same efficiency per flush using only half the water.

Luckily, Raghavendra and Rohit live in the same city so theoretically  they could get together, but in an urban agglomeration as large as Bangalore, with over 8.5 million citizens,  it is unlikely they would ever meet. Fortunately they will meet this weekend at Googleplex in Moutain View California half a world away, and have the chance to bring their solutions together for all of us.

It makes sense: if, for example,  we built a demonstration eco-home as a best practice model and installed Rohit's new toilet design, we would radically reduce our water consumption.  But we would still need energy to pump the water to the holding tank so we could flush. And that is where Raghavendra's invention comes in.

Many households throughout the world (and certainly in India where electric infrastructure is spotty or lacking or subject to interruptions) rely on a gas or diesel generator for either primary or backup electricity.  But fuel is expensive. And when the fuel is all used up, not only do their lights go out, but taps run dry and the toilets don't flush. 

 I experienced this difficulty in the Guatemala City slum of Meskital when staying with a Maya Quiche friend -- there was a city wide blackout that lasted in this impoverished neighborhood for an entire week.  With 8 people staying in the same tiny apartment and only one small bathroom things got difficult needless to say.  Since I was staying on the top floor near the unfinished roof (where I was installing a 400 Watt Air403 Wind generator as a gift to the family) I solved my own problem by getting two paint buckets, filling one with leaf and grass clippings snipped from weeds along the road and using the other as a composting toilet that I only had to empty into a ditch in a vacant lot once a week.  The others weren't yet adapted to this solution so they had the hardship of walking to a public toilet.  The home bathroom, which was useless and backed up and smelling, had to be simply locked until the electricity was restored a week later. 

Having gone through this experience I can immediately see how Raghavendra and Rohit's innovations could help in situations like this.  With only half the water needed for toilets a one time pumping event could fill the roof tank and it would last twice as long.  Meanwhile, the spent fuel from the generator (assuming it was collected appropriately) could be recycled using a catalyst in sunlight back into fuel -- or, probably more realistically, glucose containing food wastes could be sunlight reformed into liquid fuels like hexane for combustion in the generator.

So this is an example of synergies in science and action with just the first two finalists. It will be great to observe them meeting and interacting.

 But let's continue our journey across the map.

Moving north to Lucknow, India, we meet Sumit Singh, 14, who created a system for "Verticle Multi-Level Farming to Increase Crop Yields - An Affordable and Feasible Design".  Sumit is familiar to readers of our blog because his project was also a finalist in the Scientific American Science in Action award, and is now up for consideration in the Google Science Fair too.
Using Google Sketchup and a brilliant application of vector geometry in the virtual world and then building a real-world prototype from common bamboo and mud bricks, Sumit made it possible to radically improve food crop yields in constrained spaces such as rooftop gardens.  He demonstrated the proper horizontal and vertical spacing to make maximum use of the sunlight available and realized a design that would use gravity to use limited quantities of water most efficiently.

When I think back to my week in the Meskital slums of Guatemala putting up the wind-mill generator, I wish we had Sumit's solution for rooftop agriculture.  I can envision, in our best-practice model eco-home, having Sumit's Verticle Multi-Level urban farming solution on the roof beneath a 2000 liter water storage tank. Using fuel created from waste starch using Raghavendra's solar catalysed deoxygenation reaction, we would pump water to fill the tank and recharge batteries for electric lights. The water would then flow down through drip irrigation into Sumit's agricultural platform towers.  Then it would make its way down pipes to a toilet tank in the home above Rohit's super low-flush vacuum toilet and on its way to an underground biodigester that would in turn produce cooking fuel for the kitchen and fertilizer for Sumit's rooftop garden design. A truly closed recycling system!

But we need a way to make the small scale agriculture even more efficient and cost-effective -- and applicable to villagers in the most remote and poorest areas too.  

So we continue our journey westward to find Sakhiwe Shongwe, 14, and Bonkhe Mahlalela, 14, from Swaziland in southern Africa.  Sakhiwe and Bonkhe will also be familiar to readers of our blog; like Sumit they were finalists in the Science in Action award, and, in fact they were the award winners.
They won their $50,000 prize for their project, "Unique Simplified Hydroponic Methods; Can The Method be Adapted for Poor Swazi Subsistence Farmers?".

Their innovative idea was to  develop "a Unique Simplified Hydroponic Methods (USHM) (which concentrates on using available village waste materials) that will allow poor Swazi subsistence farmers to grow their crops and vegetables in very large quantities within limited space without using soil as growing medium." 

Take Sakhiwe and Bonkhe's soil-less growing medium, made essentially from trash, and combine it with Sumit's vertical growing platforms and you have a no till, water conservative farming solution for all seasons that even begins to address our urban and rural waste problems. 

Can't wait to see the friendships that develope there!

So let us continue our voyage:

We head almost due North as the migratory bird flies and reach the Ukraine where Alexey Kozlov, 13, and Milena Klimenko, 13, have created the "My Green City" project, focusing on the "study of the effects of vehicle exhaust gases upon the ecology of a large city in real life conditions".

Alexey and Milena and their team (including Mykyta Gordiyenko who was born 2.5 months too late to be officially registered in the group but who nontheless took all the measurements with his Google One Phone!) would contribute much more to our best practice eco-home than a mere awareness that fossil fuel burning cars, buses and trucks create air pollution.  Using GPS data and a program they created in the Python language, along with data display code they generated in JavaScript, CSS and HTML, they were able to take time and location tagged data using a pocket size Carbon Monoxide monitor  and put it up on an interactive Open Street Map that they made publically available.

What they have created should and would be an essential part of every community and neighborhood and would certainly be included in our eco-home.  They have implemented an ability to map out and localize exactly where toxins are accumulating in our immediate environment, correlating the levels of pollution with street intersections, sidewalk and parking lot design, and vegetation. Their work has great planning and policy implications and for our purposes gives us an ability to visualize what is going on in the community.  This is particularly important when it concerns problems caused by outside agents, because no matter how ecologically friendly we hope to make our own homes or communities, if people or practices (like idling trucks or buses) and contaminating where we live and threatening our children, all of our own attempts to provide a healthy environment can be in vain.

By giving us a way to map the spatial and temporal irregularities of pollution, Alexey and Milena and co. give us the chance to spot the trouble spots and take action.

And while we are on the subject of data display and its power to help us pinpoint issues that can then be targeted, every scientist knows that the right kind of graphical presentation can make a world of difference in figuring out how to solve complex problems.  Hans Rosling has shown with "gapminder" that the way we visualize the world's data has profound implications for our ability to affect the health and wealth of nations.

So for our eco-home demonstration synergy we  need  team members who can help us create an inexpensive way to visualize spatial information such as that produced by Alexey and Milena, and a way to transmit building and construction  information for doing the kind of hydroponics that Sakhiwe and Bonkhe and Sumit have innovated, and the type of toilet that Rohit has designed.

Wouldn't it be easier if we could walk through an interactive 3D model before trying to build anything in the real world?  Raghavendra, we remember,  has  himself created a brilliant molecular model animation of the novel deoxygenation process he is working on -- what if we could see all of this in real 3D!?

This is what Melvin Zammit, 18, from Kirkop, Malta brings to the table.  He has created a working prototype of an LED based 3D system that relies on the principle of persistence of vision (POV) and spinning layers of light  to create a floating 3D image projection  that can be walked around, requiring no glasses. It can  eventually can be developed to create "realistic volumetric displays".

Once the stuff of science fiction, Melvin's invention suggests a near future in which visitors to our eco-home can discuss how to build environmetnal technologies or view the results of mapped pollution monitoring in real time and as if in real life. And because the LEDs can be programmed to simulate almost anything, Melvin's contribution would enable us to make certain invisible processes, such as those going on inside the body or in the worlds of microbiology and nanotechnology, to finally be visible to everybody.

Speaking of the invisible world of microbiology, over in Spain, three enterprising students who could definitely benefit from Melvin's technology  have embarked on a study that has implications not just for how we see the nano-world in a drop of water, but how we measure the health and cleanliness of water.  Just as our Ukrainian friends have been helping us visualize air pollution in Kiev through a publically available OpenStreetMap project, Ivan Hervias Rodriguez 17, Marcos Ochoa 16 and Sergio Pascual 15, from Logrono on the Iberian peninsula, are mapping out "The Hidden Life of Water" and publishing their findings (photographic, video, text and graphs)  in an on-line database. So far they have created and cataloged over 50,000 pictures and movies, giving a first hand look at the invisible world within water.

What is most important about their work from our point of view is what it means to our ability to determine whether water is clean or not and what we should do about it.  The students came up with four water type classifications:  Level I: clean water; Level II: water slightly contaminated; Level III: water that is moderately contaminated and Level IV: water that is heavily contaminated. They not only mapped these types of water regionally, using standard measurements of key parameters for contamination (pH, conductivity, temperature, BOD (biological oxygen demand), and presence of nitrites and nitrates and ions of calcium, but then correlated these water types with the consortia of microorganisms found there.

What is emerging is a sense of what a "healthy" ecology for clean water is.  Normally we tend to think that "the only good water is dead water".  All sources of water are suspected of containing pathogens and the way we treat it is to sterilize it, "disinfecting" it of all living beings whether they are beneficial or not.  We boil it, pour toxic chlorine into it, expose it to UV radiation of dose it with ozone, all in attempt to kill whatever might be there, and we also filter it to keep even the tiniest organism out of what we drink and wash with.  All of these measures to kill "La Vida Oculta de Agua" are expensive, time and energy intensive, and many create ancillary health problems (such as the tri-halomethane carcinogens that result from an interaction between chlorine and organic matter in the water). 

But what if we could simply determine when "living water" -- water that still has microorganisms in it -- is healthy to drink? For many communities in developing countries that can't afford the chemicals or energy or systems to purify water and who are risking the terrible consequences of deforestation and indoor air pollution trying to fetch and use fuel to boil water, the ability to simply determine which water was safe to drink and which wasn't could save money, effort and lives.

And taking this idea further, what if it was possible to create a "probiotic" inoculant that would allow a natural water ecosystem to evolve that was self regulating and safe to drink and bathe in and cook with.  The John Todd Living Machine for water purification points in this direction as does the "Schmutzdecke slow sand filter" concept. But what we really need is some way to assay water sources to know how healthy they are, and identify remediations not necessarily based on killing whats in the water, but on replacing the "bad guys" with "good guys".

 With their database and diagnostic tools, these students from Spain make it possible to get to this point.  Eventually people should be able to ascertain quickly whether a water source is potable or not, or useful for cooking or bathing or washing.  People should be able to determine if the proper species composition for health and self regulation is possible, much as we use keystone species of macrofauna to determine the health of rain forests, coral reefs and savannah ecosystems.

You would never declare a forest or coral reef "clean" or "healthy" by applauding the ABSENCE of life forms, yet this is what we do with water.    Ivan, Sergio and Marcos work gives us a chance to look at water in a new way and finally see just who and what we are dealing with in there so we can better know which organisms to target for support or destruction. It permits a much more nuanced approach to water treatment and their expertise would make a nice fit for our eco-home demonstration -- they could look at the water being pumped into the rooftop tank and at everystep of its journey, from the hydroponic rooftop garden down to the sinks and showers and toilets and on to the biodigester and back up to the garden, determine where it could best contribute to the overall health of the system and where it could be tapped for human consumption.  With the proper technological enhancements, the residents could visualize what was going on in the water in 3D in front of them and easily respond when the ecology got out of balance, instead of bombarding their water with chemicals.

Then our ecohome would start concerning itself with how to heat the water -- whether for boiling or bathing, and how to supply electricity to the  water  pumps  and to lights when making fuel isn't practical or is undesirable. 

For that we turn to the work of Yassine Bouanane, 17 from Laval, Canada. 
Yassine has developed an innovative  low cost solar tracking mechanism based on the embedded computing power now available through the open source Arduino microcontroller platform.  It uses two servos to increase the electrical output of a photovoltaic panel by an incredible 36% meaning that, for example, a single 100 Watt panel that would normally produce perhaps 1/2 kWH during an average day could produce nearly .7 kWH during the same time, reducing the cost associated with "going solar", particularly for people who are low income (the cost of the Arduino and servos is considerably less than the cost of an 36 watt panel, for example). The same principle, with more robust hardware, could also be applied to solar thermal tracking for heating water.   Using servos connected basically to gimbles holding the solar panel, Yassine's code enables what has become essentially a "robotic solar panel" to do as the Beatles sing and "follow the sun".

In the true spirit of the open source community, Yassine has generously  created a website with his schematics and Arduino C code available for download for free so that anybody can replicate his work. He writes,  
" est un site internet ayant pour but d'aider des personnes vivant dans des régions pauvres ou éloignées et qui disposent de panneaux photovoltaïques en leur offrant un système qui permet d'orienter leurs panneaux photovoltaïques vers le soleil."
Translated into English this says,

" is an internet site having as its aim the goal of helping people living in poor regions or in remote locations who want to use solar panels by offering them a way of orienting the photovoltaics toward the sun".

Where many students are using similar Ardunio based robotics to create revolving turrets to track targets and shoot things, Yassine has turned his skills toward a more wholesome and important target -- shooting for a clean energy future for all.

His system would make a valuable  contribution to our eco-home demonstration and has implications not only for efficient photovoltaics but creating heliostats that can track the sun and concentrate it for water purification! Because even with a sophisticated understanding of the microbial treasures in water, we need to make sure that disease organisms do not infect the residents of our model eco-village, and concentrated sunlight is a great way to distill water and destroy germs.

But what happens when people do get sick?

It turns out that not far south from Yassine, another Google Science Fair finalist is also using low cost microcontroller circuits to solve problems.  Catherine Wong, 16, from Morristown USA, who was also a Science in Action finalist,  designed a cell-phone compatible, bluetooth enabled electrocardiograph (EKG) prototype that was capable of transmitting an EKG image over the cell phone network for remote examination. Her goal is to ensure that people experiencing poverty and often far from medical services can use their own already purchased phone technology to gather important data about their health and get it to professionals without incurring the costs and dangers of either docotor or patient having to travel.  Her dream is to make things that work for those of us the least well off and in her references she cites one of my most influential and favorite works, "Design for the other 90%":
Chau, R. (2006). Design for the other 90%: Internet Village Motoman network. Retrieved October 5, 2010, from Smithsonian Institution website:‌Design/‌internet-village-motoman-network

With Catherine's technology and java program on-hand at our eco-home demonstration we can site our best practice model away from city services and medical services and feel much more secure that we have a place that is safe to raise our children and take care of our elderly and loved ones.

So with this team of youthful superhero avengers on our side we are moving rapidly toward a world where we can take care of most existential issues ourselves, with low cost devices that we can often build ourselves, and visualize our environmental and personal health data ourselves and  can telecommunicate with experts when necessary.

What we still need is a way to cut down on the costs of accessing experts, whether we are talking about doctors or environmental scientists or educators.  As Marx pointed out in the labor value theory of capitalism, it is the cost of labor that really makes the economy work; the problem is that the poor often remain poor because they can't afford quality expertise.  This is true for engineering and it is also true for education.

What is needed is a way to use inexpensive AI to help us advise, consult and teach.  And this is what Martin Schneider, 14 from Dresher USA and Joshua Li, 14 from Ambler USA are doing with thier "Can You Beat Bob?" project.

Martin and Joshua have captured the spirit of the age -- the Zeitgeist, if you will -- and are keenly aware that "educational video games have emerged as a new medium for teaching core concepts and supplementing existing curriculum".  What they bring to this emerging field is empirical evidence that a virtual competitor (who they named "Bob") could significantly increase the time fourth-graders in an elementary school engaged in productive math games.

With their help and their awareness that what they demonstrated through some rather good science can be applied to gaming that teaches science and history, we can go a step further in realizing what I've been calling "a sustainable development simulator" where people can turn their own homes and communities into sustainable development demonstrations by first "playing their way to success" in a gaming simulation and then taking the STEM skills they learn into the real world for application.

What often holds people back from reifying their desire to apply concept to the real world, however, is a feeling that they can't do it without an "expert" with them.  By having virtual experts available tirelessly at all times to guide and motivate people learning real life skills we radically increase the likelihood that they will be able to use what they learn in a gaming or educational situation in their own lives.

Now while we are on the topic of the benefits of applied artificial intelligence, we come to the work of Brittany Wenger, 17, moving south  from Martin and Joshua down to  Lakewood Ranch, USA.

In effect what Brittany is doing is creating and training that "medical expert"  that poor people and most of us couldn't afford to consult with for the early detection of Breast Cancer. Like Catherine, Brittany is keenly aware that the costs of health care exceed the ability of the afflicted to pay and with 1 out of every 8 women getting breast cancer urgent solutions are needed.  Personally motivated by the suffering cancer caused in her own family she dedicated herself to making diagnosis faster, less invasive and cheaper as well as more effective.

 In Brittany's experiments she developed a custom-crafted neural network in Java that could learn to recognize the difference between malignant and benign cancer samples obtained using a simple Fine Needle Aspirates (FNAs), the least invasive biopsy.  She writes, "

Artificial neural networks detect patterns too complex to be recognized by humans and can be applied to breast mass malignancy classification when evaluating Fine Needle Aspirates (FNAs).

By letting her "medical Bob" AI to do the prescreening, the need for doctors to do more invasive and expensive procedures can be diminished. And by opening up the learning to "the cloud" Brittany has been able to validate her approach with 7.6 million trials using existing dataset instances, showing the power of open-source data approaches and cloud computing to solve big problems. Unlike commercial products which lack certain capacities she says "the network has been published in the cloud, allowing for global submissions and benefit". And the benefits of opening things up to world are that her predictive success was 97.4% .  With more samples we  "may achieve perfection" she says and "maybe ready to diagnose actual patients."

Once again, with this tool as part of our toolkit, the best practice model for sustainable living gets a step closer to being realized -- using Yassine's solar tracker to help provide the necessary electricity for running a computer and internet satellite connection (we brought such equipment to the remotest part of Nepal in our recent "last mile technology" expedition with Alton Byers and Chris Rainier) people can now access an artificial diagnostic expert from anywhere and at low or no cost, and in this case the AI is capable of things no human expert could do.

As we continue west  on to Piano USA  in the middle of the United States, we meet Kimberley Yu, 16, and Phillip Yu, 14. This brother sister team has taken on the challenge of finding a cure to Frontotemporal dementia (FTD), a fatal neurodegenerative disease akin to Alzheimer's that afflicts a quarter of a million Americans but currently has no effective treatments.  Similar to Brittany, the Yu's passion for solving this problem comes from a sad personal experience - a devastating form of dementia affected their great grandfather in rural China.  So once again we have young people inspired to solve problems on behalf of "the other 90%" with solutions that can be applied anywhere.

The Yus have done ground breaking original research that has opened up new avenues of study and treatment by actually identifying which specific proteins (FUS)  and pathways (NF-kB)  lead to the chronic inflammation that results in frontotemporal dementia. With their discoveries targeted drugs and therapies can now be developed that goes right to the source of the problem and corrects it rather than having to rely on a shotgun approach that is expensive, time consuming, filled with dangers of side effects and ultimately perhaps useless.  In effect the Yus are creating a map for the pathways that lead to cellular abnormalities. 

With such a team on our team we have in our problem solving community a couple of people who as young siblings were "always curious about science" and now know how to take issues that look to the experts like they have no solution and then work with the right methodology and insight to put their finger on the answer.

Moving on to San Diego we come to Jonah Kohn,  14 whose project "Good Vibrations" "combines science and music to try to help people.  The goal of my device", he says, "is to improve the quality of life for people with hearing loss, especially severe hearing loss".  Using the concept of "multi-frequency tactile sound" which he learned about through bone conduction of his guitar strings via his teeth, he went on to investigate "what haven't reseraches done?" and realized that current work on frequency discrimination has focused on speech which has a limited range. Noting that though cochlear implants have "eight to twenty four channels" they "don't help as much with music because the frequencies tend to be different than for speech" he worked on a device that could use sensory information from the fingers to compensate for information the ears couldn't distinguish.  By dividing the sound spectrum into multiple frequency ranges and using vibrating speakers to apply those ranges through multiple contacts to a user's body, he was able to demonstrate that tone discrimination, pitch discrimination and volume hearing were all significantly improved  (36 to 52 % ) among cochlear implant subjects under the age of 50 (after which tactile sensitivity diminishes dramatically).  Interestingly, normal-range hearing subjects experienced almost no benefit from his device as the brain seems to ignore the redundant information coming in from other sensory organs.

As a musician I can attest to the importance of being able to perceive the richness of this artform in creating human well-being and couldn't imagine not being able to listen to music.  For our sustainable living team to have somebody on board like Jonah who thinks not just about the needs of the "other 90%" but of that percentage of people suffering the deprivation of this important sense -- hearing  -- gives us the chance for true equity and compassion for our fellows, a prerequisite for a sustainable civilization.  What is more, the ability to break physical phenomena like music down into constituent frequencies and then create devices that can help different brains reconstitute that data into a whole from different sensory pathways has important implications for whole-brain holistic learning and multiple intelligences and works nicely with the 3D data visualization of Melvin with his spinning LED layers  and the mapping of air pollutants by Alexey and Milena. They should find some great synergies discussing different forms of data visualization and how best to present information to our brains.

As we move up the coast to Los Gatos California we meet Sabera Talukder, 16, who was also  a finalist in the Google Science in Action contest.

Sabera's "low cost solution to clean drinking water", "Pani Purification" (Pani is Hindi for water) adds another piece to the puzzle for providing best practice infrastructure for our model sustainable home and community.  A Bengali-American teenager, she made a summer trip to her father's village in Bangladesh and came home determined to help solve the unfortunate water problems plaguing the people in the area.

While other girls her age were working on putting together the right accessories for their wardrobe, Sabera was working on putting together an effective solution to water contamination using Jute Bag and Copper Mesh fileters, solar battery powered UV lights and activated carbon.  Simple but effective solutions like painting tubing white to reflect the UV light and increase its efficiency were implemented.  Flow control  via pressure sensitive valves conserved energy so that she could use a very small and inexpensive PV panel to trickle charge a normal car battery and get effective results.

Sabera's attention to the details of how to create a system that locals could build out of ubiquitous and cheap materials rather than expensive imports makes her system a nice addition to the others cited above.  Her criteria should be in the handbook for every would-be engineer hoping to engage in development work:

The Criteria:
 The apparatus must be portable.
-It must be made of cheap materials.
-It must cost under 25$.
-It must be self sufficient.
-It must be durable.
-The materials must be locally available.
-It must be easy to fix if problems arise.
-It must be able to weather different climates.
-Local villagers must be able to maintain and operate it.
-It must be easy to deploy, and accessible for everyone.

 In addition to building and testing the prototype, she ran tests to prove the efficacy of the system, running separate and combined UVc and Activated Carbon treatments on known pathogens in the three major shape groups  like Rhodospirillum rubrum (spiral shaped) , Bacillus subtilis (rod shaped)  and Mircococcus luteus (sphere shaped).

With Sabera on our team we can much better protect the health of our families; combined with the know-how of Ivan, Marcos and Sergio we some powerful answers emerging   to the question "how can we ensure that everybody has safe clean water to drink and use and return to our environment?"

The final stop on our journey West takes us to Tigard USA where we meet Yamini Naidu, 17. 
Yamini's work synergizes nicely with that of Melvin and Raghavaendra.  Where Melvin creates floating 3D images through light interference patterns and Rhaghavendra used 3D animation to model the deoxygenation reaction driven by sunlight that he is studying, Yamini creaed a "homology model of a human receptor protein using a computer modeling program". The goal?
To go "from models to medications: identification of medication leads for treating methamphetamine addiction".

It is all fine and good for us to try to pool all the talent we find at the Google Science Fair to create a best practice model eutopia that can provide clean, abundant energy, food and water and eliminate our wastes, and that allows us to monitor our health in youth and old age, visualize data so that we can end environmental threats and disease threats and ensure that all people can enjoy the benefits of life and music and art and civilization and the company of loved ones until the end of our days. But if we truly are going to make a better world, we also have to use today's tools to solve yesterdays self-inflicted problems, often born out of a deep dissatisfaction with the status quo.

Drug addiction is a terrible social problem that we can hope living in a sustainable community that is back in touch with nature and guided with intelligence will prevent.  But what do we do with the millions of people who are already addicted? What about those who chose to drop out and now can't find their way back in?

Yamini's computational chemistry work toward a rational drug design approach helps us answer that question. She discovered two novel allosteric binding sites and "put her creativity to the test" to design novel chemical compounds (called YTN) to interact with those sites and displace METH. The TAAR1 receptor she has identified is also associated with Diabetes, Schizophrenia, Depression, Alzheimer's Disease and stroke, so there are promising synergies between Yamini and Kimberly and Philip Yu that we can anticipate. Meanwhile, her recognition of the potential for the TAAR1 to be used in the creation of a biosensor binding to toxic compound leading to "the devlopment of efficient methods to treat environmental pollution" that can be "done through in silico modeling analysis" gives her nice resonance with the environmental sensing work her fellow finalists are doing in the Ukraine and in Spain.

 One can also hear her discussing the possibility for virtual screening of 3D homology models related to the receptors she is studying with Brittany, exploring how computer programs can do the jobs that human experts once did, but with greater speed and accuracy, and talking to Martin and Joshua about developing computer games that, rather than addicting kids, help kids get off of real drug addictions by coming up with virtual solutions during "in silico" experimentation that can be applied "in vivo".

Motivated by the loss of her uncle due to a stroke, and recognizing that Meth users also suffer strokes, she is hopeful that her research will also help provide insight "in the treatment of strokes whose etiology is still unknown".  But when not engaged in her medical research, she trains in a form of  classical Indian dance, using this skill and art "to help the community by participating  in performances to help raise funds for various causes sponsored by local charitable and cultural organizations."

This desire to use art and music to help others creates a nice synergy with the goals of Jonah and indeed is a thread that binds all of these extraordinary young people, who are as multi-dimensional as one can imagine, reflecting not just good STEM education (Science Technology, Engineering and Math) but the right variant on what we call STEAM education (Science, Technology, Engineering ART and Math, or Science, Technology, Edutainment, Art and Music).

Yamini's personal statement seems to be applicable to all the contestants: "an aspiration to use science for the benefit of humanity, linking together... civic affairs with science innovation [with the] goal... to give back to the community because the community has given me so many oppportunities... asking not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country."

These are an incredible group of young people, and it will be fascinating to see how they interact and share ideas.

I can only hope that one day we, as a society, can provide more opportunities for these high caliber minds and hearts to come together and share their ideas and outlooks and ultimately put them into synergistic practice, creating an implementation space we can all turn to,  lighting a path for the rest of us to get out of the darkness of environmental destruction, poverty and disease.

We hear the song that reminds us to believe that "the children are our future".  Properly nurtured and supported and encouraged to work together, these children certainly are!


Monday, July 16, 2012

Analysis of Renewable Energy Potential in the Hinku Valley Part 2

(In our last post we reported on the installed solar electric capacity of the Hinku Valley trail from Lukla to Khare at the base of Mera Peak. In this post we explore solutions to the indoor air pollution and deforestation challenges facing the region.)

The problems:  Deforestation and Indoor Air Pollution

Despite a successful  ban on the collection of the slow growing shrub juniper and its replacement with kerosene and despitee the growing penetration of photovoltaics in the Hinku Valley of Nepal  (roughly 2 kilowatts of installed capacity throughout the valley with an average of  20 Watts per lodge) and the presence of 4 solar cookers (2 in each of two villages), the fate of the forest and general alpine ecosystem is still very uncertain.


 Additionally,  indoor air pollution is still a major health hazard, claiming lives and causing respiratory and eye illnesses as well as cancer, particularly among women and children.

Firewood continues to be the primary fuel used for both cooking, heating bathing and washing water, and for keeping the homes and lodges warm.

 The Hinku doesn't have large yak populations so yak dung for these purposes is in short supply, and even in areas like the Khumbu Valley where there are still substantial yak populations, yak dung, while a sustainable fuel from a production and consumption standpoint, still causes great discomfort and suffering through air pollution when used for combustion.

A yak and a solar cooker - two ways of heating water in the village of Khare at the base of Mera Peak in Nepal.

In summary, as  Balgain and Shakya (BSP report 2005) point out
"The heavy dependence on fuelwood resources has a negative impact on the environment resulting in deforestation around villages and the deterioration of soil stability on the affected hillsides. In addition, the burning  of dung reduces soil fertility.  With deforestation around villages, the daily labour required for collecting  fuelwood increases impacting primarily women and children and leaving little time for education as well as for productive tasks. Additionally the smoke  emitted from the burning of the biomass has adverse health effects on women and children causing widespread eye and respiratory diseases." (p. 6).

The kerosene that has replaced shrub juniper in the highest alpine areas carries with it its own health risks (the hydrocarbon smoke and fumes are both poisonous and carcinogenic) and carries with it substantial economic risks (prices can fluctuate wildly as the supply comes from India and relies not only on price and social stability there but on an entire supply chain that must get the fuel parsed into appropriate containers and transported for many days through the narrow passes up to the mountain villages.)

The Sun as Solution

There is a widespread belief that solar energy can provide the solution to the energy problems faced by people in remote areas, and this is true but only if all forms of solar energy are considered, including organic wastes.  The naive assumption that electricity, whether derived directly from the sun through photovoltaics, or indirectly through wind power or hydro power, can provide the answer  inhibits real solutions from being implemented.

The "energy-ladder" assumption that electricity is considered the apogee of energy development has been called into question when full environmental and cost accounting is done (see "From Linear Fuel Switching to Multiple Cooking Strategies: A Critique and Alternative to the Energy Ladder Model" by Masera  Saatkamp and Kammen, 2000). Instead, as Masera, Saatkamp and Kammen point out, "rural households do not ``switch'' fuels, but more generally follow a multiple fuel
or ``fuel stacking'' strategy by which new cooking technologies and fuels are added, but
even the most traditional systems are rarely abandoned."  To help solve the problems in highland Nepal we need to understand how local people weigh the costs and benefits of any given technology and consider with them what the best mix might be at any given time.

 Westerners accustomed to using electric water heaters, electric space heaters and electric stoves usually do not understand that converting electricity into heat is the least efficient use of this energy medium and that electrical resistance heating uses so much electricity that it is nearly impossible to deliver on a material or cost-effective basis for poverty alleviation.

 Electricity generated in remote areas, whether via fossil-fuel powered gensets, or any of the renewable sources, has been found to be insufficient for sustainable cooking or heating;  its appropriate use is for lighting, communications and computer equipment and power tools.

 For all forms of heating where electricity is in limited supply or costly, people will continue to use wood, charcoal, biomass (like dung and brush) or liquid fuels (like petrol, diesel or kerosene) unless we can supply them with more efficient direct forms of heating.  Even in areas where reliable micro-hydro electricity has been developed, for example  in the Khumbu valley and around Lukla,  there are seasonal outages and rationing and problems with siltation and most lodges must rely on backup generators just to provide lighting. We experienced frequent interruptions in electric service on this expedition when we were staying in Lukla.   Climate change and disruptions of the normal cycles of glacial buildup, thaw and melt will increase the challenge of year-round reliance on hydroelectricity as an answer to all energy needs, even where it is available and well developed.  Thus, other options must be made available to create a diverse portfolio of solutions that is resistant to disruption.

Solar Water Heating (SHW), particularly through the use of highly efficient vacuum tubes which quickly create hot water ranging from 80 C to 110 C, is  a marvelous solution that is easy to implement in the Hinku as we discovered during the 2011 expedition to Dingboche (one must merely be careful to pack glass tubes very carefully and securely for transport and ensure that nothing can fall on them once installed).  SHW is ideal for bathing;  for cooking purposes solar hot water can also be used, usually as preheating solution  to get the water from its ambient temperature in the region (normally between 0 and 15 C) to temperatures well  above 50 C. Using SHW for base energy it then takes very little additional fuel to get it to boil. 


Solar Cookers have also proven themselves popular in the Himalayas, but are still rare in the Hinku, and can not be relied on during cloudy weather.

 Greenhouse heating as an adjunct to space heating is a very plausible answer to mitigating the use of forest resources but  has not been observed despite the presence of two green houses in the Hinku Valley -- these were detached from the lodges so the heat was not utilized for human habitation.  Nonetheless the possibility exists with some awareness training and examples.


 Other forms of solar space heating (passive solar architecture, the construction of solar space heaters using black paint coated aluminum cans in a glass box piped into the house and facing South) have not been observed in Nepal but could be easily implemented; interestingly none of the houses or lodges we observed in the Hinku valley were oriented to use the sun's light or heat; there were no south facing windows to permit solar gain, no thermal masses used to retain solar heat; nothing in the construction of the lodges or homes seemed to be designed to permit heat gain or avoid losses. 

In this overlook of the village of Khare at the base of Mera Peak it is clear that there is no consideration of orientation to the sun used in the building of lodges or dwellings.  Passive solar architecture is not utilized in this region

Our lodge in Thangna (the village before Khare on the trail to Mera Peak) had PV for light and emergency phone, facing south, but thesmall windows were boarded up, had no panes of glass or plastic, and faced west, generally covered in shade.

Anrita Sherpa from the Mountain Institute pointed out to many of the lodge owners in the Hinku how his brother in Naamche Bazaar, who uses solar vacuum tube systems, solar cookers, heat exchanging efficient stoves, on-demand propane gas heaters, photovoltaics and large south facing windows, also insulates his lodge by placing hundreds of recycled PET water bottles between the stove walls and the plywood, creating a dead air space that keeps most of the heat in and reduces the need for fuel. 

A sign inside the lodge at the base of Mera Peak reads "Please note: Wood Precious. Heater Charge is Rs 200. Please remember to pay".  There is no insulation other than sporadic thatch coverings on bare stone walls and no glass or plastic paned windows; the few windows that do exist for ventilation in the smoke filled areas are small and face random directions.
A similar sign at Sona Guest House in Thangna reflects the same reality with a "notice for heater charge" apologizing to trekkers with the note: "Please don't feel more expensive because we have wood problem."

Insulation may be the single most important and easy to implement immediate solution for direct reduction of woodfuel in the Hinku.  Besides this, the use of mylar reflective sheet to keep heat inside the lodges would also have a profound effect.  In this case one would be applying the principle used by emergency "silvered" blankets to save people from hypothermia and the principle used by the inside of thermos containers.

 Foodscraps and human and non-human bodywastes: reliable sources of solar energy through biogas

In our opinion, concerning the transition away from burning biomass or fossil fuels, the simplest solution to both the environmental and the health challenges posed by firewood and kerosene is the use of biogas.

 Biogas is an oft neglected form of stored solar energy that nonetheless can be made available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year, come rain or shine.  If the Cole Porter song "Night and Day, you are the one..." were rewritten to speak about the potential for renewable energy, it would be speaking about biogas.

Rather than falling on solar thermal panels or vacuum tubes  to heat up water which must be stored in a hot water tank, or on photovoltaic panels to create electricity which must be stored in batteries, biogas production depends on sunlight stored in the chemical bonds of organic material -- plants and animals, fungi and microbes, and the waste products they produce.

 In general the cycle is very straightforward: sunlight is absorbed by plants in a farmer's field, humans and animals eat the plants and convert some of the stored solar energy into movement and growth and excrete some as their manures.  A significant portion of the stored solar energy that was converted into chemical bonds through photosynthesis is  contained in plant parts that humans and animals do not eat or is in left over food scraps, and this reliable and easily obtained form of sunshine is simply thrown away in the garbage, paradoxically creating health and hygiene problems.

All of that stored solar energy, whether in the hydro-carbon bonds found in human and animal wastes, plant wastes or left-over food wastes, can be easily converted into methane gas (CH4) by anaerobic bacteria and Archaea that are ubiquitously found in the stomachs and intestines of all animals as well as in lake and pond mud all over the world. The procedure for creating biogas is deceptively simple: one simply creates an "artificial stomach" from any kind of container (plastic, cement, mud, canvas, leather...) fills it with water and any source of the abovementioned bacteria, and fits to it a feeding tube that goes under the water level into which organic waste can be fed, and effluent tube that comes from a spot a little higher than the feeding tube, but still underwater, and a gas outlet tube that comes from the topmost part of the "stomach" where the lightweight biogas will accumulate.  That is it. There is no secret and no special technique that needs to be applied.  The microbes do the rest.

One can always improve the gas production by finding ways to increase the surface area inside the artificial stomach (we use hundreds of small plastic cylinders like the "bioblocks" found in pond filters that permit biofilm growth) and one wants to make sure not to overfeed with food waste lest the stomach get too acid -- the bacteria need a neutral pH.  Similarly, to work properly the bacteria need to be kept between 20 and 40 degrees Celsius, but this are trivial plumbing and insulation and feeding rate concerns, not any kind of rocket science.

In fact biogas production is probably the simplest and most efficient way that any human being, family or community can make good use of solar energy immediately. Everybody has the main ingredients (the bacteria live in our own guts and can be obtained from our feces, and everybody has food wastes of some kind).

Where people are still burning wood and charcoal and suffering from the effects of indoor air pollution and deforestation we must ask ourselves what the reasons are that this easiest of technologies has not yet been implemented in their community.

Biogas in the fight against indoor air pollution in Nepal

Nepal has a long and successful history of biogas training, installation and use and is one of the few countries to have several agencies dedicated to dissemination and improvement of this radically simple and effective technology.

Nepal supports biogas principally in a effort to stop the suffering and mortality caused throughout the country by indoor air pollution.  A secondary priority is the ability for biogas to help curtain deforestation. However, as EPA director Lisa Jackson told a group of us at the Aspen Energy Forum in 2011, if we focus on end-goals that have broad support and appeal (like stopping deaths of women and children from indoor smoke) we will also achieve the other goals (stopping reliance on firewood and charcoal which exacerbate deforestation).

A moving mural on the street in Kathmandu near the river warns the public of the tragic suffering that indoor air pollution created by cooking fires causes in women and children. This depiction of a pregnant Nepalese woman tragically exposing herself and her unborn child to toxic fumes underscores how important it is for us to get clean food-scrap based biogas into common usage as the ideal replacement for firewood and charcoal and not merely "improved cooking stoves" which a recent study reported in Scientific Amercian shows are actually ineffective.

This improved cookstove in Khare uses a 9 Volt computer fan to increase the burn efficiency of the wood fuel. The fan is powered by a battery recharged by a 10 watt solar electric panel.

Some homes have hand powered fans that bolt on to the stoves to increase their effeciency. This one has a handle on the other side that the woman turns as she is cooking to blow air through the stove so that the wood burns cleaner.

 Across from the United States Embassy in Kathmandu on the second floor of a small building complex  is the  office for  "The Partnership for Clean Indoor Air" . Their mandate is

Project 1: Improving Households Energy Management Practices in Sacred Himalayan Landscapes, Langtang National Park-Rasuwa Funded by GEF/UNDP Small Grant Programme
Project 2: Advocacy for Gender Sensitive Energy Policy in Nepal funded by ENERGIA Network

They are partnered with an International Organization, orignally UK based but now with offices in Bangladesh, Kenya, Peru, Sri Lanka, Zimbabwe, Sudan and Nepal called "Practical Action". 



In 2009 Practical Action Nepal published a book called "Inventory of Innovative Indoor Air Pollution Alleviating Technologies in Nepal" which primarily covered improved cookstoves and solar cookers, but which had a chapter on "biogas technology" as disseminated  in Nepal.  I visited the office in Kathmandu and they kindly gave me a copy which is also available in its entirety as a .pdf on the web. I have reproduced the relevant sections here in these photographic scans:





 Nepal has already successfully introduced more than 250,000 domestic biodigestors in their country of some 30 million people and the technology is well known throughout the lowlands. Through awareness campaigns and targeting subsidies the number of digestors is growing daily.  Only in the Himalayan communities is the biogas solution either still unknown or considered "difficult" to implement.

 Nonetheless verybody I met with in Nepal who is involved with biogas seemed to think that high alititude biogas is both  important and doable.  In fact they have been testing several systems in high altitude with good results. The Practical Action report states,

"A research is undertaken to develop appropriate biogas plant designs for altitude higher than 2,100 m.  Two plants were installed during the 3rd Phase in Khumjung and Lukla of Solukhumbu district with greenhouse technology. However,despite the merit of the design and technology, the project cost was very high.  Four years ago, three other simpler new designs were tested in Beni VDC of Solu district with much lower project cost. One of the three designs, a simple addition of heap composting on top of the digestor is found to be the most appropriate and cost-effective design. This design is thus widely promoted between 2,100 and 3,000 m altitude as part of the regular national programme with subsidy. The GGC-2047 design with heap composting  technology was approved for commercial dissemination last year. Till date, some 40 biogas plants with heap composting are constructed in upper part of Rasuwa district and more are under construction. Some 30 plants with such heap composting are installed in Solukhumbu district.  The results are satisfactory. BSP-Nepal is going to undertake more promotional work in remote districts of Karnali and other areas like Manang and Mustang for construction of biogas plants with heap composting  technique.  Further research was initiated in 2007 in Rasuwa district (Langtang area) between 3,000 to 3,850 m using modified GGC-2047 (improved design with provision of multiple feeding , heap composting and warm water feeding."



Since 2003 Nepal has had a robust "Biogas Support Programme" (BSP) which is a "Development Cooperation among AEPC (The Government of Nepal Alternative Energy Promotion Center), SNV (The Government of Netherlands Netherlands Development Organization), the kfw Entwicklungbank (Government of Germany German Development Cooperation) and The World Bank.

The BSP has published a very useful book on the success of Nepal's biogas program, which is available as a .pdf here:  "The Nepal Biogas Support Program: A Successful Model of Pulbic Private Partnership for Rural Household Energy Supply" written by Sundar Bajgain, Indira Sthapit Shakya and editted by Matthew S. Mendis. It is filled with great graphs, facts and figures, including success measurement indicators on a social level, as well as  designs and economic and financial assessements.

As mentioned  Nepal has currently installed more than a quarter million home scale biogas digester systems, most of them directly thanks to the BSP and installed  during the first two phases of their BSP program.

If there is an area that needs to be strengthened in Nepal concerning the provision of low cost clean and renewable energy through biogas it is the adaptation of these systems to the colder high altitude regions of the country, precisely where we are doing our studies.   This is acknowledged in the BSP report.

 Sometimes it is the extra cost associated with building a well insulated digester and maintaining its temperature that is cited, other times it is the difficulty of transporting the building materials to the remote areas through narrow and difficult mountain passes, and sometimes, when people understand that digestors can be built with the same lightweight plastic water tanks or sillage bags available in their communities and that lightweight styrofoam insulation is adequate to keep them warm once heated, and that a combination of solar thermal heating and warm water feeding and compost heating are viable solutions to create that heat,  the usual barriers cited are worries that their isn't enough feedstock to make investment in biogas digesters worthwhile.

The belief that animal manure is necessary for biogas production

All over the world it has been successfully demonstrated that almost all organic material can be made suitable for biogas production.  In  the Mukuru slum of Nairobi we have visited public toilets that produce cooking gas for a neighboring restaurant and in the city of Pune India the Appropriate Rural Technology Institute has appropriated rural biogas digestors, made them smaller and proven that kitchen garbage is actually a simpler and more effective feedstock.  In China Puxin biogas company is showing with its new design that grass and leaves can also be used effectively.  The Culhane household in Germany produces biogas every day for cooking from a porchtop digester that is fed through an Insinkerator brand food waste grinder attached to the kitchen sink and they find that the food scraps produced by a family of 3 alone is enough for daily cooking. The Culhane's have also successfully produced useful biogas from their child's diaper wastes.

Nonetheless, in  many countries including Nepal the criteria for embracing biogas has been based on a belief that one needs a certain number of stable-fed livestock in order to get sufficient feedstock for useful gas production.

The BSP booklet states:
Both Hindu and Buddhist religions have a very positive attitude about cattle. They
attach no stigma or cultural inhibitions to the handling of dung coming from cattle or
buffaloes. The cattle are highly valued and as a result, they are seldom sold. They
are kept close to the farmhouse and in many cases are stable fed during prolonged
periods when land grazing is not practical. 
The conditions in which cattle are raised in Nepal are thus ideal for providing the
animal dung, the feedstock necessary to fuel small farmer based biogas systems,
Permanence of cattle and the family attending the cattle guaranties an adequate and
a continuous source of feed for the biogas systems. 
Only small size (4-10 m3) biogas systems, using cattle and buffalo dung, have been
promoted to date in Nepal. The widespread ownership of cattle provides a good
indicator for the potential of biogas in Nepal. Although some families have only one
cattle, most small farmers have two cattle or buffaloes, which is the minimum
number required for feeding the biogas systems of 4m 3 capacity.

These cultural norms have been key factors in the success of lowland biogas in the country.
But because areas like the Hinku valley have few animals, and in the Khumbu the yaks are free ranging, it has been considered impractical to gather their dung for active biodigestion.  The general design of biodigestors promoted in Nepal (the GCC 2047) and its minimum size (4 m3) discourages the use of this simple technology by families that may have only one cow or yak, even though a single animal could provide enough dung on a daily level for a 2m3 digestor which would yield up to two hours of cooking fuel per day, adequate for many small household.  Meanwhile, though ARTI India has proven that even a 1m3 digestor, made from plastic water tanks, when fed with as little as 2 kg of  kitchen waste or other sugary or starch rich organic waste, can supply a family with anywhere from a half an hour to two hours of cooking fuel per day, this option has not generally  been on the table with development agencies.

 The idea of using food scraps from the lodges has not been considered in the highlands of Nepal until recently and for this reason there has been inadequate attention to urban and high altitude installations of systems.

Solar CITIES Egypt's Hanna Fathy and I found the same situation in Rwanda and discussed this with SNV, who support the project there as well as in Nepal.  We were told that SNV had tried  food waste based systems but had a poor experience when families believed they could increase the amount of gas they were getting from a small fixed sized system by simply putting in more food waste; the systems went acid and stopped producing gas and there wasn't sufficient followup to teach them that the systems will often recover if left to sit without feeding and can be put back into service by neutralizing the pH with calcium carbonate or sodium bicarbonate or some other alkaline solution (wood ash would also work) or by simply adding more manure or human toilet wastes and waiting for several weeks. It was considered simpler to restrict the program to people who had animals since animal wastes are pH neutral, contain the bacteria necessary for the reaction and can be added in unlimited amounts and so are ideal for families with livestock as a feedstock, even though the energy content is tens to hundreds of times lower than food wastes.

The last two days of our expedition while in Kathmandu I had meetings with the professors and students at Tribhuvan university (who remembered me from last year), the head of the Nepal Biogas Support Program (BSP) and the head of Practical Action Nepal. They kindly supplied me with lots of publications to read on the airplane and we had long discussions. 

With BSP and Practical Action  engineers and outreach specialists  I had productive  discussions about specific techniques we should be pursuing to keep the digesters warm.

The use of the compost toilets for heat is one they recommend, and this is something Solar CITIES also  recommended in the first Moutain Institute/Blackstone Ranch/National Geographic Expedition to Nepal in 2011 so we are on the same page there. They also recommend the use of vacuum tube solar for the "warm water feeding" of the digestors. This is something we started in Dingboche with the installation of a 15 vacuum tube SHW system on the roof of the Mountain Institute Information Center in the village and a workshop we conducted on how we could use the 80 C hot water it produced each day, through the In-Sink  Food Waste Grinder that Insinkerator corporation kindly donated, to warm water feed the digestor and keep it at temperature.

In Dingboche we were able to prove that even over 5000 meters the less expensive vacuum tube solar hot water systems performed well and could supply reliable heat for a digester; the only bad experience with the system we had was when a strong wind blew the cold water tank down from above the system and smashed some of the tubes.  Because the cheaper systems lose all of their water if a single tube breaks the system must wait for replacement tubes before continuing to operate.  The more expensive "heat tube" vacuum systems, like the Culhane's have on their roof in northern Germany and like the systems on the Italian funded Solar Pyramid en route to Everest Base Camp, continues working even with several broken tubes, and would increase reliability if the budget permitted, but the inexpensive systems are perfectly adequate (this is in contradistinction with the flat pate solar hot water systems which reflect much of the sun's heat early and late in the day and tend to experience burst copper pipes at extreme altitudes due to thermal expansion and contraction).

 With good insulation (easily achieved with light weight styrofoam) the temperature in a digestor fed by a small vacuum tube solar hot water system like the one we installed in Dingboche over 5000 meters  (costing no more than $200) should stay between the required parameters (20 to 40 C) to produce reliable biogas. These digestors can be built from 1000 or 2000 liter plastic water tanks and insulated with styrofoam.

Besides small plastic digestors, another option is the one time investment in a large cement community digester like the GCC 1047 that the BSP supports, or the Puxin digestor cited in the Practical Action manual, which Solar CITIES recently built in the Philippines in a remote jungle village. Once the fixed costs of materials and transportation for cement (35 sacks, 40 pounds each), sand (obtained lcoally) and gravel (obtained regionally) styrofoam and the Puxin steel molds is paid for, the systems have a lifetime of over 30 years. These can be built underneath the compost toilets and can be connected to solar hot water systems; the technical challenge is actually simpler than transporting rock and cement and timber to build the typical sherpa homes and lodges and toilet and sheds.

Another option for keeping high altitude biodigesters at the appropriate temperature and making good use of the nutrient rich fertilizer they create is to build them inside a greenhouse structure. In Khote we found two operating greenhouses uses a simple plastic sheet for its greenhouse effect. One greenhouse was next to the Mera Lodge for convenience sake but the heated air was not being used to assist with space heating in the lodge; the other was down near the river.  When Culhane poked his head inside the greenhouse during sunlit hours the temperature was sweltering and uncomfortably hot; well over 40 C.  It was clear that a simple greenhouse structure like those already existing in the Hinku valley could provide much of the thermal gain necessary to keep the digester at the proper operating temperature if the digester were well insulated and the heat was supplemented by hot water feeding (A note to the thermodynamicists in the audience: a well insulated digester wouldn't experience much heat loss or heat gain due to the ambient temperature of the air in the surrounding greenhouse; the function of the greenhouse would be to prevent heat losses by maintaining a temperature greater than that of the digester above the digester. This would inhibit heat from flowing up into the greenhouse. Hot water feeding would do the main heating of the slurry in the digester).

Families in the Hinku Valley and elsewhere in Nepal's highlands could replicate what is being done in China where the fertilizer produced by the biodigester flows into the greenhouse soil, radically improving its productive capacity. As this is occuring, CO2 is expected to build up at the bottom of the greenhouse through bacterial action in the soil, helping to buffer the temperature; one can also burn a portion of the biogas produced directly into the greenhouse  to not only keep it warm at night and during cloudy times but to increase the CO2 levels in the entire greenhouse therebye causing an additional "greenhouse effect" -- the same one now threatening our global climate whereby carbon dioxide acts as a heat trapping gas.  The elevated CO2 levels would also accelerate plant growth.  In all of these ways a combination of biodigester and greenhouse makes a very powerful solution set for improving the quality of life and the quality of food for people in the highlands of Nepal.

I visited the labs at Tribhuvan university  and saw not only the same  Puxin biogas system that we had installed in a girls school on the island of Palawan in the Philippines the previous month,  but a bunch of improved cookstove designs and gasification designs.  I also met students working on biogas and home made wind power solutions.  They are now part of our Solar CITIES biogas innoventors and practioners group on facebook and I have been corresponding with them since getting back to Germany.  The consensus from our conversations has been that high altitude biogas will be fairly simple to achieve, but it needs targeted investment and a dedication to proving the model.

Culhane spent the morning with students at Tribhuvan University who were working on their own windmill blade designs as well as projects to get biogas from tobacco residues.

The Tribhuvan University students also showed Culhane simple gasifiers that can be used to turn waste biomass (leaves, grass, wood chips, branches, dung, dried food waste) into a gaseous fuel through pyrolysis and gasification. These devices also can create biochar which can be agglomerated using starch or mud and the resultant biochar briquettes can be used for cleaner cooking. Gasifiers like this thus yield two products -- direct gaseous fuel and char.

 The conclusion of the first chapter of the BSP report gives an idea not only of the importance of biogas for Nepal, but of the huge potential once we can improve the digestors for cold climate and urban operation, which is something Solar CITIES has been successfully working on and is committed to:

The biogas systems installed by the BSP ore of the fixed dome type. The capacities
of the systems presently promoted are of 4, 6, 8 and 10 m3, using cow and buffalo
dung and water as the main feed materials. The popular sizes are 4 and 6 m3 sizes.
A 6 m3 system requires 36 kg of dung and an equal amount of water per day in the
hilly areas to burn a stove for 3.5 hours.
Biogas can be used for cooking, lighting, refrigeration as well as operating machines.
However, to date biogas is popularly used in Nepal for cooking. Used for cooking,
biogas has to a large extent helped in reducing the use of fuelwood and hence
conserve the forests, In replacing kerosene for cooking and lighting, biogas has
helped reduce expenses on imported fuel. The slurry from the digester is also used
as fertiliser in the fields. This has enhanced agricultural production and replaced the
use of chemical fertiliser. This technology has social implications such as health
benefits from reduced indoor pollutions and livelihood enhancement from income
generation opportunities such as masonry available in this sector. In recent years
this technology has also indicated potentials as a source of national income through
carbon trading under the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM).
1.5. Potentials of biogas in Nepal
Livestock plays an important role in the Nepalese farming system. According to the
Agriculture Sector Census of 2001/02, the total cattle population in Nepal was
estimated to be 2.2 million heads, while 1.6 million heads of buffaloes were
registered. Based upon a study of the technical and geographic feasibility, it is
estimated that a total of 1.9 million biogas systems can be installed in Nepal: 57
percent in Tarai, 37 percent in Hills and 6 percent In Mountain regions (BSP, 2004).
When taking economic factors into consideration, the potential of the smaller fixed
dome design (4 and 6 m3) in Nepal is estimated at about half a million units. With
innovative financing (subsidy structures, co-operatives) and delivery structures (self
help building), the potential can be doubled to one million units
. Besides the above
small domestic biogas systems, there is huge potential of cold climate, industrial as
well as municipality systems.

The current small fixed dome design works well at altitudes up to 1500m. However,
during the winter months the gas production decreases, especially above the 1500m.
When the fixed dome design is built at altitudes of 2000m or higher, special
adjustments to the design are required such as thermal insulation and warm water
feeding to maintain gas production during the winter.
 The "huge potential" described above can be realized in a very short period of time.  Part of what was called for by the BSP to make this happen are "innovative financing and delivery structures (self help building)".   Part of the two missions we have made to the Himalayas on these Mountain Institute/Blackstone Ranch Foundation/National Geographic expeditions these past two years have been to explore the concept of "last mile technology, something that National Geographic Fellow Chris Rainier joined Alton Byers and Thomas Culhane on this expedition to investigate.   The training workshops that Byers and Rainier and Culhane and Sherpa gave were explorations of these kinds of 'innovative delivery structures'.  In this context the annual visits of scientific teams from the Mountain Institute and the National Geographic, partially funded by generous grants from the Blackstone Ranch Foundation, enable us bring and share ideas and expertise on a continuing basis with the requisite follow up.  The ability to come together at symposia and conferences like the National Geographic Explorer's symposium each June gives us the chance to refine and improve upon those structures.  Solar CITIES, meanwhile, applies the lessons learned in their home laboratory, testing and improving on insights gained in the field.

Heat and Hydrogen from Scrap Aluminum and cookstove ashes:

 One of the lessons learned on the past two expeditions to areas of Nepal over 4000 meters is that there are substantial garbage depots filled with aluminum cans and other waste from the trekking industry and local populations. Because wood fuel is so heavily relied upon, there is also a substantial source of wood ash.  Most of this wood ash is from the burning of rhododendron wood which is a hardwood, and it turns out that hardwoods (along with fruit tree wood, palm fronds and banana peels among other plants) are potassium rich and easily yield a strong pottasium hydroxide solution (lye) when hot water is passed through them.

Culhane found that by collecting hot ashes from the cook fires in the Sherpa lodges and simply pouring dirty water on them in a steel container yielded him a powerful concentrated lye solution the next day.  He then found that if he placed scrap aluminum, recovered from the trail where it is easy to find aluminum cans and can tabs, he could generate rather large quantities of flammable hydrogen and that the chemical reaction created heat up to 64 C.  He also discovered, in 2011, that if he used a less concentrated lye solution and connected the aluminum to a Joule Thief Circuit, he could generate enough electricity (by creating an aluminum-air battery reaction) to run several bright LED lights. 

Culhane used these reactions to his benefit in the field, lighting his tent for example, and keeping his hands warm, and shared the knowledge he discovered with members of the Sherpa community.  Upon his return to Germany he further refined his techniques, demonstrating, for example, that a dinner plate's worth of dirty waste aluminum foil could yield up to 50 liters of H2 gas and heat a small bucket of water to 30 C, then he shared those explorations with the other members of the team at the Explorers conference.

The refinements and new knowledge will be shared during the next trips to Nepal but they are also being shared actively with our Sherpa colleagues using social media, primarily facebook, youtube and Google Plus.  In a similar vein the Sherpa community is sharing its knowledge and innovations with us using the same media and this was one of the rationales for Chris Rainier's last mile technology workshops.  Innovative knowledge delivery systems are now available for empowering cross talk across cultures and beyond borders.

Some of the solutions, like biogas, wind, solar heat, composting toilets and photovoltaics, are ready for immediate scale up. Some, like aluminum-lye reactions for heat, electricity and hydrogen, are still experimental, but through these innovative information transmission mechanisms, can achieve practical results in an accelerated timeline.

A vision for how to use waste aluminum and wood ash in the highlands of Nepal

Sources of potential hydrogen fuel abound.

Learning about the wood-ash/aluminum/waste water hydrogen reaction, many people have asked "what is the cost efficiency of buying/making the hydroxide per return in hydrogen gas BTUs? And how much KOH can practically be made from ashes where draino is not available? "

The economics do need to be made explicit but when working in remote villages trying to apply "last mile" technologies we can operate along different assumptions. I ask, "besides making heat and hydrogen with it, what would you do with the scrap aluminum up in the Hinku valley or the Khumbu Valley  or out in the Okavanga Delta where there is no economic incentive to cart the aluminum cans and tabs and foil  all the way down to Kathmandu or to Maun for recycling and it sits in trash dumps and is currently burned?" 

When people find out that we can make hydrogen from ashes and aluminum scrap they often ask, "but where are you going to get aluminum in these remote areas?  You can't make it can you?". The answer is lying on every trail and in the garbage pits.
 The hydrogen principally comes from the 80% H20 in the lye solution (which is generally 20% KOH or NaOH); the Al turns into AlO2 (alum)  or NaAlO2 (sodium aluminate) which precipitates out of solution as  a kind of gritty powder which can indeed  be recycled back into aluminum and is actually easier to transport that cans or dirty  crumpled foil because it has turned into an amorphous powder.  

There are also "dead" batteries lying along the trails and in the trash heaps which can still be used to run LED flashlights through the Joule Theif circuit.
If people  still  didn't want to cart the oxidized aluminum to a city recycling center it can be easily thrown back in the garbage pit without bulking it up, because it is now a powder,  or it can be scattered on the ground  (one has to see how much AlO2 the soil can handle if one places it in the garden, it can almost certainly be placed in areas where food is not being grown; there should be no worries  of any toxicity due to  the small quantities one would be creating in these areas (alum is a component of many fertilizer treatments,   though not of direct use to plants,  sodium aluminate is actually used in wastewater treatment plants as an effective way to remove phosphorous; excess aluminum ions can be rendered inert with the addition of lime and in any case aluminum is the most abundant element in soil; issues with aluminum in excess come from free Al +++ ions which can be controlled with pH).
 The BTUs that reacting waste aluminum with wood-ash lye creates are, in a sense, "free" BTUs".  About 50% of the value comes from the exothermic reaction which can reach up to 80 C   while hydrogen is being generated (although I have only observed 64 C in my experiments)  while approximately 50%  is in the form of H2 bonds. 
 The hydrogen in my scenario can be bubbled into the biodigestor to help feed the microbes in there (the methanogens metabolize H2 and acetate at the end of the chain of reactions that invovle many species of bacteria) while the heat can help keep the temperature of the digester warm. 
Since the H2 production is more or less instant (i.e. it occurs within 30 seconds or so of combining the reactants but can take up to a half hour or more to finish the reaction and accumulate useful quantities of hydrogen; heat production rises within the first few minutes and falls off within a half hour or so) it is also a great emergency source of fuel and heat in cold areas such as we find in Nepal.
Once a biogas reactor has been comissioned it can take 3 weeks or longer to build up the right bacterial populations and densities to start turning waste into energy.  Biogas production from food ground up food scraps then  takes 24 hours.  The key to keeping the biogas system working effectively in the high altitude area  is maintaining the right temperature and the right feeding; aluminum-lye reactions can help here by turning two common waste materials found in every Sherpa or Rai home and trekking lodge (aluminum cans and wood ashes) and turning them easily into heat and hydrogen.  Hydrogen is one of the principle feedstocks of the methanogenic bacteria in the biogas digester; they are the last species in the bacterial consortia to metabolize and they wait for the hydrolytic and acidogenic and acetogenic species to turn food waste or other organic material into the acetate and hydrogen which they feed on. It seems reasonable to assume that if hydrogen that bubbles out of the aluminum-lye reaction is fed to the digester it will improve its performance; any hydrogen not metabolized by the bacteria into methane (CH4), hydrogen sulfide (H2S) or water (H2O) would be collected in the gas collector with the methane and carbon dioxide and hydrogen normally present in biogas.
Aluminum-lye reactions are also useful  for emergencies and for extreme cold weather conditions.  Just as trekkers often bring chemical hand-warmers with them for emergencies (usually made from calcium chloride or sodium acetate), wood ash, water and aluminum can also be used for emergency heating.  
Because the raw materials are present in the region and are generally considered a nuisance, cost efficiency for these hydrogen and heat generating reactions  isn't really an issue.    In the communities where we are working we can think "what can I do with these ashes that have been thrown out and this aluminum that has been thrown out, and this dirty water that has been thrown away?" The answer can be "mix them together in a plastic container and get heat and hydrogen!"
 The net cost is ZERO if one is willing to donate one's labor, and it may turn out to be easier at these altitudes to do the chemical reaction each time enough aluminum and ash accumulate rather  than expending the energy to haul it to the trash heap. 
A side benefit to collecting waste aluminum and cookstove ashes from the lodges in the area rather than throwing them in the trash heaps is that the same chemical reaction can be used to provide enough electric current for LED lights.  Culhane discovered after the Khumbu trip of 2011 that a weak solution of lye (made from wood ashes over which hot water has been poured) can be combined with aluminum foil or tabs and hooked up to several parallel wired bright white LED lights through a Joule Thief circuit.  Using stainless steel as the positive electrode and aluminum as the negative, the stripping of the oxidation layer from the aluminum by the lye enables it to recombine with oxygen from the air which liberates electrons.  What you have is an "aluminum-air battery". This chemical reaction normally yields no more than .5 volts but the Joule Thief circuit, Culhane discovered, enables one to do useful things with this low voltage.  

Throughout Nepal's highlands Culhane used his "Solar CITIES aluminum tab torch" to light his tent and to navigate paths on dark nights.  Culhane lit up 5 LEDs at a time and they provided enough light to read by in the tent if one held the book close and certainly enough to be a reliable night light.  

Culhane demonstrated to his Sherpa colleagues how to create such a lighting solution using the local ashes and aluminum tabs and sees improvements to the technology playing an important role in offsetting the current uses of firewood for lighting in homes that do not have the money to purchase solar electric panels or wind generators.  It is also surmised that the reaction can eventually be scaled up and improved through parallel and series configurations  to provide lighting for fluorescent bulbs and electric current to charge mobile phones.

It is to be noted that if and when highland Nepal switches to biogas made from human, animal and food and agricultural wastes (including wilted flowers) and wood burning is the exception rather than the norm, the source of potassium hydroxide (lye) from wood ash will diminish and this will make it harder to maintain a "hydrogen from waste aluminum" solution if it ever gets started.  Culhane is not concerned about this for several reasons.

The first is that it doesn't take very much ash to make the required amounts of KOH solution and for cultural reasons there will always be some wood burning done.  Ritual burning of shrubs for incense, cremation and cooking fires created for flavor or aesthetic reasons should provide enough KOH to consume the available aluminum; principally the idea is to make use of aluminum that is simply becoming a garbage problem and exploit its potential for heat and hydrogen while rendering it into an easy to manage or recycle powder. 

The second is that once a biogas economy has been created it should be self sustaining.  A portion of the biogas produced  can be used to maintain temperatures in insulated tanks, particularly when compost heat is added to the equation.

Compost heat is already well known in the Khumbu where potato growing families have built above ground composting toilets next to the houses and lodges that use rhododendron leaves with the human fecal material to create high temperatures that turn both aerobically into high quality fertilizer.  In some cases the heat is also exploited to heat animal sheds or the homes themselves. This practice is unknown to most people in the Hinku valley where potatoes are not grown and where toilets are generally pit latrines located far from the home (usually next to rivers, which creates the possibility of unsanitary conditions and ground water contamination).  

Anrita Sherpa and Culhane spent time in Khote and Khare discussing the advantages of compost toilets and shared their experiences in the Khumbu and around the world with composting toilets.  Since compost heat has already been demonstrated to be effective for biogas systems by the BSP in high altitude situations it is just a matter of integrating the various systems that are already found in the region into a best practice model that will replicate.  

Once compost systems and cooking systems and greenhouses are all connected there should be plenty of heat for a robust biogas solution.  Aluminum-lye reactions can still play a role but they will become less and less necessary.  Ultimately the chief use for aluminum may be for low-grade lighting and peripheral electronics charging until it becomes profitable to take the aluminum to an actual recycling center.

Culhane has discovered that it is worth carrying small bottles of crystalized Sodium Hydroxide (NaOH) salts, purchased as drain cleaner, wherever he goes to power his "Solar CITIES tab torch" and suspects that once people catch on to how easy it is to get some light from aluminum, they will keep on hand bottles of NaOH crystals or liquid drain cleaning preparations, much as we do under most kitchen sinks in developed countries, or will prepare enough KOH so that they can get instant light when there are no batteries or instant heat and hydrogen when needed.  Since both NaOH and KOH are used in soap making they are hardly rare or exotic chemicals, no matter what their origin, and most societies will  have some around or know how to make them so that they can be used for other purposes like heat, light and electricity and hydrogen formation.

Summing it up on the way to the summit

Our trip to the Hinku valley, like the one to the Khumbu the year before, gives us great confidence that we can solve the energy and health and ecological problems currently plaguing the high altitude communities of Nepal.

When I visited Prof. Dr. Tri Ratna Bajracharya at Tribhuvan University at the end of this expedition he was kind enough to give me the "Proceedings of the Third International Conference on Addressing Climate Change for Sustainable Development through Up-Scaling  Renewable Energy Technologies" of which he was one of the editors.

This conference, held from October 12-14, 2011 in Kathmandu, covered the following topics:

Of relevance to our expedition are serveral articles in the proceedings. I have high-lighted in bold those most germane to our work:

5. Assessement of Current Energy Consumption Pattern and Green House Gaseous Emission Trend: A Case Study of Helambu VDC of Sinhupalchok, District Nepal

6. Energy Conservation through Thermal Insulation Building for Minimizing the Greenhouse Gas Emission at Local Level

8.  Information Dissemination on Effectivness of Alternative Energy Use and Biodiversity Conservation in Buffer Zones of Shuklaphanta Wildlife Reserve, Nepal

9. Perception on Climate Change and Its Impact and Adaptation Practices in Energy Resource in Chepang Community in Chitwan District, Nepal

10. Restocking Traditional Rural Energy Sources Through Rehabilitation of Dryland Ecosystem in Southern Pakistan

21. Household Energy Generation and Consumption Pattern: A Case Study from Syafrubesi VDC, Rasuwa

22.  Issues Relating to Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy in Bangladesh

24.  Mini-grid: A Project for Empowering Rural Nepal

25.  Prospect of Integration of Energy Resources for Reliable Rural Electrification in Nepal

27.  Bio-Hydrogen Production:  Present Problems and Future Possibilities

28.  Biomass Bamboo Knot Furnace for Replacement to Heavy Oil in Joss Paper Mill

29.  Bimethanantion of Organic Waste under Psychrophilic Conditions

30.  Clustering Plan:  Micro-scale CHP from biogamss (dn10kW) for Decentralized Steam Turbine Power System

31.  Design and Fabrication of Stoves Using Jatropha curcas as the Cooking Fuel and its Prospects for Clean Development Mechanism

32.  Energy and Environmental Benefits of Liquid Biofuel Switching from the Traditional Solid Fuel in the Rural Community of Palpa District

33.  Innovation of Jeeban's Amrit-Irving Model Bio-Reactor for Organic Municipal Waste Management

34.  Performance Assessment of Biomass Cookstoves in Rural Bhutan

35.  Performance Evaluation and Emission Characteristics of AIT Model Biomass Gasifier

36.  Role of Biogas in Easing Ecological Stress: A Case Study from Buffer Zone of Shuklaphanta Wildlife Reserve

37. Study on the Temperature Variation Inside the Biodigester of Modified 2m3 GGC 2047 Biogas Plant

39. Fabrication of Dye-Densitized Solar Cells (DSSCs) with Zinc Oxide (ZnO) Nanorod Electrodes

41:  Off-grid Sustainable Small-scale Photovoltaic Project in High-Altitude Region of Nepal

42.  Performance Comparison of Funnel Type and Bernard Type Solar Cooker

43.  Solar Thermal Power Plant in Thailand:  Potential, Opportunity and Barriers

44.  Thermosyphon Heat Exchanger for Cleaning System of Community Power Generation

46. Locally Manufactured Wind Turbine Blade Mold Pattern

47. Reliability Analysis of Hybrid PV/Wind Energy  System at Remote Telecom Station

49.  Energy Recovery from Munipial Solid Waste as Refuse Derived Fuel

50. The Spread of Rice Stoves in Nepal

53.  A comparative analysis of the Solar Energy Programs for Rural Electrification: Experiences and Lessons from South Asia

Note that

27.  Bio-Hydrogen Production:  Present Problems and Future Possibilities


29.  Bimethanantion of Organic Waste under Psychrophilic Conditions

support our summary of opportunities for the Hinku Valley.

Pradhan, Sharma et al.  (27)  say "Hydrogen is an important intermediate product in anaerobic digestion. Therefore, if the final step of methnogenesis were blocked by inhibiting methanogens, only acidogens would be left to produce hydrogen, carbon dioxide and volatile acids...(p. 143) Hawkes et. al (2007) has reported on two stage hydrogen-methane process and found most of the two stage process has a higher total efficiency in terms of waste retreatment and energy recovery than a traditional one stage process."   While their work seeks to inhibit methane production to harvest the hydrogen, our proposal is to use hydrogen produced through ash-lye and scrap aluminum reactions to enhance methane production while liberating significant quantities of heat ( 31 kilojoules per gram of aluminum released as heat during the reaction

Jha, Bhattari and Liu  (29) point out the potential for using bacteria acclimatized to psychrophilic conditions; in our expedition in 2011 to Mt. Everest Base Camp Culhane brought back active psychrophilic methanogens that were making methane under the ice in mud wallows and ponds along the Khumbu trail and, by feeding them organic waste, proved that they were capable of making good yields of biogas.  These bacteria are available all over the high Himalaya regions. 

They write, "Most of the psychrophilic studies relate to biomethanantion by low temperature acclimatized mesophiles (psychrotrophs; not true psychrophiles) (Kashyap et al. 2003).  As a result the majority of remedies proposed in the literature to enchance biogas production are aimed at  increasing  the digestor temperature to mesophilc range such as the use of the gas produced for preparation of feed slurry, integration of a green house, construction of a system below buildings (heat transfer from the barn) and use of excess gas to heat up the digester to maintain higher digesester temperature (Sutter et al. 1987; Zeeman et al, 1988). However, these techniques suffer from techno-economical constraints (Kashyap et al. 2003). The energy required to heat the process makes it uneconomical in temperate climates".

Nonetheless, Culhane and Katey Walter Anthony, on the first Blackstone Ranch/National Geographic Innovation Challenge grants in 2010, demonstrated the effectiveness of biodigestors inoculated with true psychrophilic bacteria obtained from thermokarst lakes in Alaska. Their research further suggested that greater efficiencies could be obtained from a mix of true psychrophiles and psychrotrophic mesophiles, taking advantage of the fact that the water in the digester tends to settle into distinct thermoclines so that slurry between 10 and 20 C is found at the bottom of the digester while slurry between 20 and 40 C can be found at the top of the digestor.  With proper design (the use of vertical surface in the tank for biofilm formation) psychrophiles can coexist with mesophiles. The psychrophiles inhabit the bottom regions of the tank and the mesophiles the upper regions.  The data of Walter Anthony and her group showed greater production of biogas from a mixed tank kept in a room of ambient temperature 25 C than either population considered alone.

Jha, Bhattari and Liu corroborate these observations in their papaer stating "with the extension of retention time and diminishing loading rate psychrophilic anaerobic digesters can successfully degrade organic matter for reasonable biogas production (Lettings et al., 2000; Lettomaga et al, 2001; Sutter and Wellinger, 1985)... Yu and Gu (1996( reported that psychrophilic anaerobic digestion is stable and is as mesophilic or thermophilic digestion processes. A reduction in pathrogenic micro organisms by psychrophilic anaerobic digestion was also observed (cote et al, 2006)." 

These data have fit nicely with the proposal Culhane has made for Hinku and Khumbu development, suggesting that psychrophilic bacteria be obtained from the Khumbu and Hinku Valley glacial lakes, combined in a modified digester with yak dung and human fecal material derived mesophiles and the system be used to degrade all organic wastes, from food scraps and toilets, to produce  energy for heating water and space that can replace firewood and fossil fuels while creating a valuable fertilizer and reducing pathogens as the preferred solution for waste water treatment.  With the addition of hydrogen thermal energy generation and hydrogen feeding of the digesters taking advantage of the aluminum and ash waste in the region, supplemented by compost and greenhouse and solar heat, 
the challenge of stopping both indoor air pollution and deforestation as well as greenhouse gas emission should be solved.


Miscellaneous photos from the trip: