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!"

Monday, December 3, 2007

Collective Intelligence, the Joy of Networking and how "The Random Walk" leads to

Please excuse the long-winded title; I just finished reading Voltaire's "Candide" twice for the third time (!) the -- the first time was in French Class at Dobbs Ferry High School as an independent study for our unsung hero history teacher, Jerry Hafner, who believed that self-directed study was more effective than state framework based curricula, and the second and third time was over the past few months doing a simultaneous reading in French and Arabic, in a dual language book I found in an obscure Cairo bookstore called "Madboulis" on Talat Harb street. And the thing about long-winded titles is that they were the norm during the 18th century, and I have fallen in love with the amount of information about a chapter they packed in.

My mentor at UCLA, Professor Susanna Hecht, was passionate about travelogues and literature from the age of discovery and enlightenment, and gave us the opportunity for a lot of self-directed study, particularly of utopian literature and the works of explorers -- the writings of everyone from Campanella ("City of the Sun" ) and Bacon ("A New Atlantis") to Defoe ("Robinson Crusoe", which I also recently read in Arabic in a recently re-published bi-lingual book from Madboulis, proving it still has international appeal) and Alexander von Humboldt, and her own personal favorite, Euclides da Cunha, whose 19th century prose about the lost edens of Amazonia she has recently translated in her latest book.

Such literary voyages into the minds and spaces occupied by great ideas of social and landscape tranformation in an age of wonder have an impact on the student, and ci could not remain unaffected. So forgive me if it colors my writing style!

What is more, in this new age of discovery and enlightenment, opened up by the world wide web, the dense writitng style of our forebears, who were true explorers, not armchair explorers,mind you, and wrote centuries before the advent o the tehcnologies that now make us all "windows explorers", is incredibly useful, and should make a comeback.

It is useful for us "windows explorers" because of the historically recent evolution of the AI hypo-organisms called "web-bots" or "search-bots" who spend their time indefatigably hunting and gathering in hyperspace. They are the true "windows explorers". The web bots slavishly devoted to their "Googling" search engine using masters, are connection freaks. In their digital DNA is a program that compels them to make associations and relentlessly look for patterns of recognition in the vast sea of information that would overload the human mind. The web-bots in Google are the virtual Zabaleen of the internet, scouring through the garbage and flotsam and jetsam of hundreds of millions of loquacious human beings and mining that mountain for useful combinations of materials.

So in my mind the web bots in the serach engines of today are in some ways the equivalents of the humble servants of the great explorers of yesteryear. They are the natives of cyberspace, helping the 21st century's neuromantic equivalents of Alexander von Humboldt and Bonpland. They are the servants you never read about, those hardy souls who led the way through caves and mountain passes and river fords, who carried and preserved all the specimens of plants and animals and human bones on tortuous jungle paths, who identified species new to European minds and translated encounters with "savages" into friendly cross-cultural conversations.

Given their programmed desire to help us make our discoveries, I try now to write deliberately for THEM. I try to write in a style that might alienate many readers grown up in an era of short "sound-bites" and watered-down, sensationalized headlines, yes. But I am doing it with a purpose.

I learned the style from a great journalist, my father, John Culhane, who, after years of winning prizes as a hard-copy writer for the Chicago Daily News, Newsweek, the New York Times Magazine and Reader's Digest, among so many other publications, became fascinated by the power of hypertext before there was an internet to put it in. My Dad wrote increasingly in a style that felt like "James Joyce's "stream of consciousness" meets the annotated bibliography". It all seemed to start when he gave a keynote speech to my high school rotary club called "Only Connect" with the message that we were all participants in "The Great Conversation" and all we had to do was connect the dots that people were leaving behind in their writings and discussions. In this way, he told us, humanity advances.

John Culhane was ahead of his time for many years until the world-wide web and hypertext suddenly became a user-friendly phenomenon. Now, as he writes his memoirs and puts them on the web, you see how you can unpack his densely imbricated thought streams and mine them for gems of insight to fit your own discoveries (singing "Hi Ho, Hi Ho" on your way back from the mine!)

Having come of age in the time of hypertext and web bots, I am deliberately writing in a more or less 18th - 19th century style (hybridized with the newly evolved style of John Culhane), a style packed with information which was necessary perhaps in an earlier age when printing was so expensive and labor-intensive, being hand-set type; the more you could pack in a small space the better.

I am, you see, deliberately writing for the search engines, not for the "everyman" or the "everyreader" , because my target audience are the windows explorers (and those "firefoxes" who are roaming the forests of information hunting down their word-prey) who are interested in helping construction a new "eu-topia". I am trying to find the time to hyperlink everything I write together so that a user's random walk through Google might serendipitously lead to a discovery useful FOR THEM, or at least a chance to lend their piece to the evolving puzzle of enlightenment in an age threatened by climate change, toxicity, radioactivity and disease.

This inchoate (and, I admit, sometimes "incoherent" :)) writing style is all about keywords and hyperlinks, and increasing the statistical likelihood that like-minds will stumble upon useful information contained here-in (I am also encouraged by re-reading the works of Buckminster Fuller, who, in a pre-hypertext age, also packed information into his works, using unusual concatenations and word play to trigger associations in the minds of readers sympathetic to his desire to engineer and better world through design revolutions. Only connect!)

The right key words might put a google searching world-changer in touch with a concept buried somewhere in my experiences that could lead to their next "Aha!" or "Eureka" moment. Since I don't believe that my own little inventions and innovations will be able to solve problems fast enough or well enough to get us through the nightmare of Global Warming and Social Upheaval on our collective horizon, I am making a bid for the power of collective intelligence to solve our global problems, and trying hard to play my tiny part. Perhaps something I say or write or do has a message for you. I don't know!

I do know, however, from following the work of my robotocist friends Nicolaus Correll, Jim Pugh and Chris Cianci at the EPFL in Switzerland, that Swarm Theory and investigations into the behavior of insects (which my Harvard professor E.O. Wilson got me excited about when I took his sociobiology class back in 1980!) are demonstrating the power of the "random walk" to produce efficient outcomes when coupled with the right search engine logic and the proper networks for interconnectivity.
The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

And today, to finish my meandering story, was a kind of proof of the concept: A man from Guernsey, England who had spent time in Africa named Marcel Lenormand stumbled upon a post I wrote about our problems trying to build a solar tracker in Egypt and offered his help to find a solution. He then left a very encouraging comment on our latest post about our discoveries concerning do-it-yourself solar collectors using open plastic barrels and float valves. Clicking on his name in Google brought up a comment he had left for another organization, concerning his discovery of a revolutionary urban bio-gas solution created by the Appropriate Rural Technology Institute in India.

(Useful construction details found here).

What Marcel could never have known is that Solar CITIES has been in deep conversation with the Zabaleen garbage community in the ghettos of Cairo, searching for ways to turn the city's organic waste into biogas, and assessing the potential for an urban bio-gas revolution. We had been looking at rural solutions and attending conferences on biogas, but nobody had come up with a system appropriate for the densely crowded urban situation. And yet, thanks to a random walk following Marcel's comment threads on the web, we found the very solution we are looking for!

(These pigs beneath Romani's house in the urban poor community of Manshiyat Nasser's Zabaleen Christians could provide the gas they need to produce heat for cooking and bathing and for generating electricity, like in the Mel Gibson /Tina Turner movie "Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome")

And that is how collective intelligence and random walks can affect development, if we all, like responsible ants, leave the right trail of where we have been and the ground we have covered. In this way, we fulfill Abraham Lincoln's message: "If we could first know where we have been, and wither we are tending, we would better know what to do, and how to go about it."

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Finally -- A Hand-Made Solar System Prototype that Really Works -- in Cairo Winters Too!

We did it: A do-it-yourself solar hot water prototype built from local and recycled materials that we can train others to replicate and mass produce!

This is the final version of our hand-made solar hot water systems for the Zabaleen community in Muqattam, Manshiyat Nasser (without the sytrofoam insulation on the hot water tank, showing how we wrapped a second 200 liter surfactant barrel (originally from Saudi Arabia, containing Sodium Lauryl Ether Sulfate, a.k.a. shampoo) with mylar (from the inside of potato chips bags and from sheets sold by street vendors at Attaba metro station), then bubble wrap (purchased at Moskee, near Attaba) then mylar. The final step was to build a 3 cm styrofoam box around the barrel, glued together with spray foam insulation.

This system heats up all 200 liters to at least 40 degrees on most winter days (except days of full cloud cover). The secret is in the placement of the float valve and the hot and cold water inlets and outlets. We place the Zahran floar valve 37 cm from the top of the tank and the hot water outlet (to the house) at 25 cm below the top (this allows the float valve to open and close as water is drained from the barrel, replacing it with the same amount of water from the blue cold water barrel top left).

Meanwhile, the hot water inlet to the panels is located 20 cm from the bottom of the tank, 10 cm above the cold water outlet to the panels (which is at 10 cm) . This is the Palestinian system we observed in Palestine, applied to our plastic barrel system.

The height of the brick column supporting the cold water barrel is 170 cm, and the height of the brick column supporting the hot water barrel is 115 cm, just above the top of the panels themselves.

The "secret" to our do-it-yourself solar hot water systems is our use of the Zahran Float Valve, created by Egyptian inventor Magdy Zahran, who has become a good friend.

Below you see the cold water tank, the hot water tank, then both tanks together:

T.H. Culhane had a hunch that toilet bowl flush float valves would enable the use of unsealed tanks in solar hot water systems and hunted around Cairo for one that could be used in a big tank. He stumbled upon a shop on Fagala street (Kamal Sediki Street) where all the plumbing suppliers are, and inquired of the shop keeper if he had any float valves suitable for a 200 liter tank. The man not only pulled the float valve (called a "Zahran Owama") off the shelf but asked T.H. if he would like to discuss his solar hot water project with the inventor himself, Magdy Zahran. He said, "he lives around the corner and I can call him."

Magdy Zahran took us to his factory and even brought us on Egyptian Satellite TV on a show called "The Missing Link" ("Al-Halaqa Mafquda") about local inventors to introduce our "Double Whammy" (Two Owama) Solar Hot water system using Zahran float valves and Zahran plastic input-output fittings, as shown here:

The use of these Zahran products is an innovation that enables us to radically cut costs and use relatively inexpensive and stable recycled plastic water barrels that are available all over the world, instead of using expensive steel tanks and expensive metal plumbing fixtures.

This is helping us bring costs down to a level the urban poor can afford.

Most families in our study area rely on water from a single standpipe at the entrance to their houses, and have few or no pipes running water to the rest of the house.

In our project we run three pipes -- a cold water supply pipe from the standpipe to the roof to fill the cold water barrel when there is water available, a cold water supply pipe to the bathrooms and kitchen in the house from a T where a pipe from the cold water barrel feeds into the bottom of the hot water barrel, and a hot water pipe from the top of the hot water barrel (that is to say, from the outlet 25 cm from the top of the barrel) to the house.

Needless to say, we put check valves on all our pipelines, to keep water from backflowing into the system. This adds to our costs but improves reliability (note that check valves can fail, so be sure and place them where they can be easily replaced).

This is what most families in our study area currently use to heat their bathing water (and they must store their water in numerous barrels and buckets as depicted). Our system gives them hassle free rooftop storage (200 liters cold, 200 liters hot) and provides adequate water pressure.

These are the kinds of bathrooms our beneficiaries currently have:

This is Talaat conducting our "hot water service and demand survey" for my UCLA Ph.D. Dissertation in Urban Planning, from which we determine who he beneficiaries of our US AID small infrastructure grant for solar roof construction:

Two of the children in the room, when initially asked what problems they had with hot water provision, said without prompting, "we learned in school that one day Egypt could be like Germany and use solar hot water systems, but we don't know when or how..."

Isn't that funny? "One day" a sunny land like Egypt will use solar energy like they do in cloudy, rainy Germany!? And here we are in the 11th hour at 5 minutes to midnight...

Fortunately this family will have a Solar CITIES hand made solar hot water system -- which they will help build -- by Christmas!

And here I am, blessed by having the chance to play Santa Claus to this Coptic Christian Zabaleen family:

And finally, here are some pictures of Solar CITIES field coordinator Hanna Fathy and his brothers Ayman and Romani and friend Hani building the system that will go on their roof:

Saturday, December 1, 2007

In search of an all plastic solar hot water system for domestic hot water

"As Providence would have it", in a recent ichat with Andy Posner, between Essen, Germany and Providence, Rhode Island, talking about the potential for building a solar hot water system entirely out of plastic to grace the roofs of the Zabaleen plastic recyclers in the slums of Cairo, we stumbled upon this diagram from a paper by J. Razavia, M. R. RiaziCorresponding Author Contact Information, E-mail The Corresponding Author, b and M. Mahmoodia entitled "Rate of heat transfer in polypropylene tubes in solar water heaters" (Solar Energy Volume 74, Issue 6, June 2003, Pages 441-445). Razavi and Mahmoodi are doing their research in Tehran, Iran, while Mahmoodi collaborates from Kuwait, and they are proving that while the world is villifying Iranian energy scientists for pursuing nuclear power and Kuwaiti scientists for a monotheistic devotion to oil, some of the most innovative and hopeful work in renewable energy is being done in these two unlikely nations.

We at Solar CITIES want to applaud Razavi, Riazi and Mahmoodi, and thank them for providing yet another clue as to how we can improve our Zabaleen plastic systems.

We already proved we could use recycled 200 liter plastic surfactant barrels for both the cold water and hot water storage tanks in our systems, locally made Zahran plastic seals and fittings for tank connections and polypropylene pipes and fittings for all our plumbing work. And this past fall we proved we could make the boxes that house the absorber plates and copper pipes in our collectors out of recycled plastic shopping bags -- the same bags you see littering the streets of Cairo, jokingly called "the national bird of Egypt" because there are more of them flying around the few nature reserves than actual wild-life.

We found that the Egyptian Plastics Recycling company "PrimaPlast" purchases the bags that the Zabaleen gather, clean and shred, and melt them into panels 3 meters by 1.5 meters by 1 cm.

We purchase the panels directly from deputy chairman Rafik Nasralla at the factory in Madinat El-Badr, cut them up and make them into boxes and now we no longer have to use aluminum sheet (energy intensive and wasteful) or wood (in scarce supply in a desert country) for our boxes.

The next hurdle was to be "how do we replace the copper in the systems"? Copper is the most expensive part of our hand-made solar hot water systems, accounting for roughly 90 dollars per panel (180 dollars for a two panel system).

We were aware that solar pool heating systems use unglazed polypropylene, but thought that the polypropylene wouldn't perform well under glass and/or might not put out the kind of temperatures we need for DHW (domestic hot water). But we hadn't tried it, preferring to wait until the community accepted our systems before trying out another dubious innovation.

Gene Lin, our infrastructure engineering colleague at US AID who helped us get the $25,000 grant we are using to build over 30 solar roofs in the slums of Cairo, suggested we use steel pipe instead of copper, and we have had plans to build such a system. Now, thanks to Razavi, Riazi and Mahmood's work, we may be able to leapfrog that decision and go right to polypropylene for the heating collector system itself.

The authors say, " [Riazi and Razavi, 1997] compared the performance of polypropylene tubes with steel tubes through a set of experiments. It was found that polypropylene tubes may increase water temperature by 10 °C more than steel tubes, and as a result it was recommended that use of polypropylene tubes in solar water heating systems is preferable over steel tubes."

Their data is displayed as follows (Tin is the city water temp flowing in, To is the temperature going to the hot water tank, V is the velocity or flow rate in millliters per second)

Table 1. Set of experimental data Image

Note that at a flow rate of 15 milliliters per second we get an average output temp of 44.4 degrees (a nice temperature for a hot bath), definitely enough to fill a 10 liter bathing bucket in a little over 10 minutes. This means that over 5 hours of good sun, or 300 minutes, you could easily thermosiphon fill our whole 200 liter tank and then some!

Note also that, according to their diagram and calculations we eliminate the need for aluminum or tin absorber plates (in our current design, based on the solar collectors we observed at the Wadi Foods factory in Noubariya, we use 7 16 mm copper pipes in a grid 80 cm x 180 cm and fill the spaces between them with aluminum strips made into absorber fins that grab the copper pipes. This costs nearly 16 dollars per unit and takes time and labor to bend and tie the fins onto the pipes. In the Iranian/Kuwaiti system they use a densely packed grid of 36 plastic pipes, obviating the need for aluminum altogether:

"n is the number of tubes, ℓ and d are the length and inside diameter of tubes. In our calculations n=36, d=1.9 cm and ℓ=200 cm (Ai=42,955 cm2)."

This not only saves money for aluminum, but does away with the need for the cost and mess of black paint, and the potential for galvanic corrosion wherever the aluminum and copper touch and there is no paint separating them. It also eliminates the problem of getting good heat transfer by trying to get the absorber fins to touch the copper.

All in all the Razavi, Riazi and Mahmood experiments hold great promise toward reaching our holy grail of an all plastic solar hot water system.

If their data holds in our field tests this January we will have taken yet another step closer to bringing do-it-yourself renewable energy systems to the urban poor!

(Final note: there is a flaw in the diagram from Razavi et al's paper reprinted above: Please note that the arrows for numbers 1 and 2, main water supply and hot water outlet for use, are reversed; the main water supply arrow should be going INTO the tank, and the hot water OUTLET should be flowing out of the tank. Furthermore, according to our experiments and experience in Palestine, #3, the hot water inlet from the collector to tank, should ideally not be .28 m from the top of the tank, as shown in the diagram, but approximately .28 m from the bottom of the tank, just above #4, the cold water outlet from the tank to the collector. This, we have found, gives maximum performance in the winter months.)

Andy Posner's "Two Way Street" and how video games could help us rethink "poverty, pollution and prosperity"...

Andy Posner was discussing with his thesis advisor, Professor Kurt Teichert at Brown University, how to create what Andy calls (in anticipation of his forthcoming book of the same title) "The Two Way Street: Rethinking Poverty, Pollution and Prosperity" and was kind enough to publish some of the results of that discussion as a comment on our last post on the "Zeitgeist Conspiracy". Andy suggested that our conception of creating a Solar CITIES Alternate Reality game could indeed really help get "average people" (meaning, I think, the average of the small fraction of the elite who make up the so called "first world") to invest time and energy and ideas in helping close the gap between US (the privileged few, which I guarantee includes YOU since you are able to read this) and THEM ("the other 90%" who have no access to such delightful things as computers and internet service and, oh yes, let us not forget, clean water, electricity and heating and cooling).

Andy closed with a vision of making sure that the "serious games" we intend to create remain "open source" in such a way that we end up delivering what he calls "open-source development" and "open-source poverty alleviation". A beautiful notion, especially coupled with his ideas on rethinking poverty, pollution and prosperity by making the "open-source" applications (and here I may be putting words in his mouth) "open-ended". That would be his "two-way street" to my way of thinking. Open-source, open-ended apps. Open-source because they are freely available and endlessly "moddable" (I know, you want me to say "modifiable", but all game "modders" know that a new lexicon is evolving for these exciting times), open-ENDED because there is no final product, just a continuous evolution of local solutions that adapt to the changing circumstances of the "end-user". The end-user becomes the "open-ended" user, and this is vital in a time of rampant climate change, which, we are coming to understand, is unlikely to end in our lifetimes or those of our immediate descendants (recreating the slowly changing biosphere with its long cycles that permit the stable persistence of delicate organisms is likely to take a long long time -- we are now living in the punctuation mark of what Harvard Professor Stephen Jay Gould used to tell us was a long history of "punctuated equilibrium"! )

So now the question becomes, how do we get on Posner's "Two Way Street"? What is the on-ramp?

In one sense, the open-source tools are already there. We talked in our last post about the folks over at Digital Urban using the game engines of Half-Life 2 (Valve's Steam Source SDK) and Elder Scrolls: Oblivion and Second Life and Google Earth and Sketchup and Studio 3DMax to begin creating interactive urban planning environments. One could also make a bid for using the masterful physics engine that undergirds Unreal Tournament 3. But there are other game engines (and the games that ride on them) that are entering the mainstream that could be steered onto this "two way street" and help us rethink poverty, pollution and prosperity.

One is the German award-winning game "Crazy Machines II". It is an outgrowth of such popular children's education titles as "The Incredible Machine" and it's offspring series, including competing games such as "Genius" and "Physikus" (subtitle "Save the World!) and "Incredible Challenge"; today is indeed time of incredible challenges that require incredible machines, co-developed by every stakeholder. Now that they have released "Crazy Machines - The Inventor's Workshop" the question is "can real inventions -- important life-saving inventions -- come out of these virtual workshops?"

These games all contain physics engines that enable kids to build "crazy machines" and other Rube Goldberg style devices (conceiving a better mousetrap) and then allow the player to model the behavior of that system in real time, to see if what was in the imagination can be transformed into reality. Well... virtual reality, that is!

Still, since the mathematical, physical laws built into the software are the same laws the universe uses in reality, the resulting models are pretty effective predictors of what would happen in the real world. And there is no reason to believe that a well designed game using a robust physics engine should have any less predictive power than, say, the $12,000 thermodynamics program our friend and colleague, Dr. Kurt Lund out in San Diego, has used to help us figure out some of our solar configurations using recycled plastic coke bottles for application in the ghettos of Cairo.

The barrier is in getting these tools redesigned so that we can drive them on to Andy Posner's "two way street" and use them to rethink poverty, pollution and prosperity. And this is the challenge to all those of us who have the luxury of owning and using and understanding computers and their massive computational power: if you aren't willing to get off your duff and come out to the land of the "other 90%" and help out, at least get involved modding the software that exists so that we can drive it on the new information superhighway that can connect and inform us all.

The transaction costs of modding such "open-source/open-ended" software solutions is astonishingly low and the benefits are blissfully high.

Let's get to work: This is a call to all computer users to start modding, and thereby helping us all rethink the three P's!