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!"

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Skill, Baby, Skill! New Energy for Alaska.

The sign on the Alaskan Hotel in the quaint fishing village of Cordova, Alaska (where we are working with the students of the high school science club and scientists from the University of Fairbanks to build a new breed of biofuel reactors based on our Solar CITIES designs created in the Arab Republic of Egypt) reads:

"Palin/Parnell: New Energy for Alaska".

Of course Sarah Palin, the former Alaskan governor and Republican Vice-Presidential hopeful, ran on a fossil-fuel-lobby-supported platform chanting "drill baby, drill!" -- hardly new energy for this historical fuel producing state. But at Solar CITIES we don't think much about the past. Our chief concern, like that of Alaska's now famous "maverick hockey mom", is about our children's future. And their children's future. And our motto is "SKILL, BABY, SKILL!"

Working with the students of Cordova High School, with the State of Alaska, the Denali Commission, the Cordova Electric Cooperative, The Blackstone Ranch Foundation and National Geographic, we are helping to build a culture of environmental technology innovation, developing a truly innovative form of "new energy" -- and a new skill base -- based on Alaska's most ancient heritage: its native wildlife and the pioneering spirit of its people.

Using renewable native natural resources that, managed properly, could last indefinitely, we see a time coming soon when Alaska leads the nation in clean energy and exports "truly natural gas" (methane from methanogens) -- and truly natural-resource-based solutions for the developing world to tackle universal problems in energy and waste management.

Alaska is famous for its sustainable fishing industry, and with Alaska's abundant fish processing wastes (and those of other local food industries, markets, cafeterias, restaurants and homes) as input, its unique cold-loving biogas bacteria (found in lake mud throughout the state) and its indomitable people as transformers and wealth creators, the state has the perfect recipe for a truly new energy, not just for Alaska, but for the whole world.

(photo: Brandon Shaw and Laurel McFadden, working with National Geographic Emerging Explorer's Dr. Katey Walter and T.H. Culhane, teach Solar CITIES how they ignite clean burning bio-methane. Our team is testing to see if we can harness these native microbes to improve the efficiency of biogas digestors.)

(photo: Solar CITIES co-founder T.H. Culhane lights the surface of Cordova's lake Eyak as University of Fairbanks scientist Laurel McFadden punches a hole in the ice, demonstrating the abundant natural gas that Alaska's indigenous psychrophilic lake mud bacteria produce as they consume rotting vegetation)

In that spirit, we invite Sarah Palin to come on down to Cordova and work with us to promote Alaskan bio-methane and the unique "hockey-mom-home-scale" cold-climate bio-digestors we are developing.

How would the kind of technological, educational and political move we are suggesting here fit into America's new energy plan?

Tonight President Obama gave us what we feel is a green light for our efforts when he made the following encouraging statements in his first State of the Union Address:

"I have one simple question: How long should we wait? How long should America put its future on hold? (Applause.) You see, Washington has been telling us to wait for decades, even as the problems have grown worse. Meanwhile, China is not waiting to revamp its economy. Germany is not waiting. India is not waiting. These nations -- they're not standing still. These nations aren't playing for second place. They're putting more emphasis on math and science. They're rebuilding their infrastructure. They're making serious investments in clean energy because they want those jobs. Well, I do not accept second place for the United States of America. (Applause.)

"... we need to encourage American innovation. Last year, we made the largest investment in basic research funding in history -– (applause) -- an investment that could lead to the world's cheapest solar cells or treatment that kills cancer cells but leaves healthy ones untouched. And no area is more ripe for such innovation than energy. You can see the results of last year's investments in clean energy -– in the North Carolina company that will create 1,200 jobs nationwide helping to make advanced batteries; or in the California business that will put a thousand people to work making solar panels. But to create more of these clean energy jobs, we need more production, more efficiency, more incentives...
It means continued investment in advanced biofuels and clean coal technologies. (Applause.) And, yes, it means passing a comprehensive energy and climate bill with incentives that will finally make clean energy the profitable kind of energy in America. (Applause.)

"I am grateful to the House for passing such a bill last year. (Applause.) And this year I'm eager to help advance the bipartisan effort in the Senate. (Applause.)

"I know there have been questions about whether we can afford such changes in a tough economy. I know that there are those who disagree with the overwhelming scientific evidence on climate change. But here's the thing -- even if you doubt the evidence, providing incentives for energy-efficiency and clean energy are the right thing to do for our future -– because the nation that leads the clean energy economy will be the nation that leads the global economy. And America must be that nation. (Applause.)
Third, we need to export more of our goods. (Applause.) Because the more products we make and sell to other countries, the more jobs we support right here in America. (Applause.) So tonight, we set a new goal: We will double our exports over the next five years, an increase that will support two million jobs in America...

"...We have to seek new markets aggressively, just as our competitors are. If America sits on the sidelines while other nations sign trade deals, we will lose the chance to create jobs on our shores. (Applause.)
"Fourth, we need to invest in the skills and education of our people. (Applause.) "
So... "skill, baby, skill -- not drill, baby, drill!"

Do we think developing the Cordova High School student's skills in cutting edge clean energy technologies -- like indigenous Alaskan biomethane -- and inviting former governor Palin to work with us would help make American competitive and healthy AND advance the bipartisan effort we need to end the gridlock that is wrecking our economy?

You betcha!

(Photo: 3 of the 6 Solar CITIES designed gas collectors and water displacement pressure tanks built with Adam Low's science club students, implemented at Cordova High School.)

(Photo: 3 of the 6 Solar CITIES designed biodigestors inside the insulated Conex 40 foot container. The Conex is divided into a "warm room" (maintained at 25 Celsius) and a "cool room" (maintained at 15 degree Celsius) to see how much energy savings different mixes of bacteria can provide. In each room one tank has cow manure only, one tank has Alaskan lake mud and cow manure and one tank has Alaskan lake muc only.)

(Photo: Solar CITIES co-founder T.H. Culhane (gray jacket from REI) explains how to construct his cold-weather HDPE digestor design to team members Brandon Shaw, Laurel McFadden and Adam Low )

(Photo: Cordova High School Science Teacher Extraordinaire Adam Low with students after finishing construction and flame testing systems 6 (mesophile only) and 5 (mesophile and psychrophile mix). Both systems started producing methane after 43 hours, contradicting the "3 week wait period" expectation. We suspect this is because of the design of the reactor which eliminates most air immediately after loading )

(Photo: Cordova High School Students Shannon and Jessica doing the cold weather plumbing necessary for new energy for Alaska )

(Photo: Solar CITIES co-founder T.H. Culhane puts teflon on the outdoor water-displacement/gas collector vessel. Now it is just a matter of adding enough non-toxic anti-freeze (we decided to go with "tri-melt", a combination of sodium chloride, degraded beet sugar extract and calcium chloride )

(Photo: Cordovan High School Science Student Keegan and University of Fairbanks Aquatic Ecologist Dr. Katey Walter Anthony cut PVC pipe for the reactors)

(Photo: Solar CITIES co-founder Sybille Culhane and Kilian Aurelisu Culhane inspect the gas collector and water pressure tank before final hook up)

(Photo: Kilian points out the advantages of simple kitchen-waste-biodigestors that anybody can build at home to his Mom at the Cordova High School Energy Center saying, "this is the new energy my generation has been waiting for!")

For more information on this project see

The National Geographic Blog here:

and Brandon Shaw's blog here:

Plans for the Culhane/Solar CITIES HDPE water-displacement digestor will be available on-line soon so you can build your own. Remember, none of us are engineering professionals, so PLEASE DO TRY THIS AT HOME!

How to build a Culhane/Solar CITIES HDPE Bio-Digestor

(Design by T.H. Culhane, photos courtesy of Brandon Shaw)

T.H. Culhane designed and innovated this HDPE Plastic IDB Tote 3-tank water-displacement pressurized biogas system (henceforth known as "the Solar CITIES biodigestor system") in Cairo, Egypt and built the first one working with Solar CITIES associates Hanna Fathy and Mike Rimoin and students from the SEKEM Environmental Science Center in October 2009 after many experiments on his own porch in Essen Germany. After building many ARTI India style telescoping biogas digestors in Cairo Egypt throughout the previous year Culhane realized several improvements were necessary for spreading the technology out of the East and Middle East to colder climates. 1st, the necessary round water tanks used by such digestors in tropical and subtropical regions are not normally available in his home countries (Germany and America). He also realized after building an ARTI style digestor on his porch in Germany that the heat losses from a typical floating tank telescoping digestor would make them very difficult to adapt to cold climates. Also, the slight amount of methane that escapes from the open floating tank digestors made them unsuitable for indoor use. Finally, pressurizing the gas for delivery to a distant stove or to an electric motor at a constant pressure that could be regulated was difficult using the floating tank system because of the need for placing weights on top of the tank. For these reasons, Culhane designed a new system using the ubiquitous pallette delivered IDB Tote tanks made of High Density Polyethylene that he and his wife Sybille had already used for their greywater system.

 Here is a 3D animation of version 1:

With the success of the Culhane biogas digestor design in Egypt, Germany, California and now Alaska, Solar CITIES is publishing the plans and materials list here for the first time so that you can join our teams around the world in bringing low cost, climate-friendly clean fuel-from-kitchen-garbage solutions to your home and community.

Material to be bought (per complete system):

First, you will need tank fittings:

You will need 5 1/2" Poly Tank Flanges (part TF050) (1 for the digestor gas output, 1 for the gas collector side input, 2 for the two top gas collector gas outlets and 1 (optional) for the water pressure tank top water input :

You will need 1 1" Poly Tank Flange Assembly (part TF100): (for the digestor effluent output)

And you will need 1 2" Poly Ethyl Tank Flange Assembly (part TF220) (for the digestor feed tube that goes through the HDPE tank cover)

(yes, Virginia, they all look alike; only the size and costs differ. These are all internally threaded for the dimensions specified. You will need larger hole saws to cut the hole to fit them in, i.e. a 2" hole saw will NOT drill the hole for the 2 inch fitting, you will need a 3.25 inch hole saw).

Can't find tank fittings? Home Depot rarely has them (we've sometimes had to resort to using electrical junction box couplings but the o-rings are awful); plumbing and boat repair shops tend to have them. You can also try aquarium and aquaponics/hydroponics shops. The best place to look is and look under Tank Accessories under Polypropylene Bulk Head Fittings

And of course, you will need 3 tanks (one for the digestor, one for the water-displacement gas collector and one for the elevated water pressure vessel)

We get them used, so check Craig's List for your area if you can't find them (restaurants have their food shipped in them so you can also check there). For example, in Los Angeles Craig's List lists them for biodiesel projects under:

"275 Gallon – Biodiesel – Storage Tank Drum Barrel" (this link takes you there)

So you need:

1) 3 IBC Tote HDPE 1000 liter (275 gallon) water tanks, preferably in metal cage frame (as in photo above or you will have to build your own frame)
We use 3 per system - one for the digestor, one for the water-displacement gas collector and one for water pressure.

Sometimes these can be found on Craig's List as "IDB Totes" and range in price from 60 to 150 dollars. the photo shows a system built in Alaska using tanks that have no metal cage, but this meant we had to spend extra time, labor and money building a wooden stand. The metal cage versions simply stack right on top of one another.

2) 3 to 4 meters of 1/2 inch clear plastic tubing (the more the better).

II. Fittings to connect the water displacement gas collector and water pressure tank:

1) 2 2" threaded adapters
2) 2 reduction bushings from 2" to 1 1/4 "
3) 2 reduction bushings from 1 1/4" to 1"
4 2 1" unions
5) 1 1" telescoping union
6) 1 1" valve
7) 1 1" T
8) 1 reduction bushing from 1" to 1/2"
9) 2 1" elbows (90 degrees)
10) 1 1/2 " elbow (90 degrees)
11) 1 1/2" union
12) 1 1/2" valve
13) 1 female threaded 1/2" nipple
14) 1 brass 1/2" thread to 1/2" barbed hose adaptor
15) 1 1/2" hose clamp

15) 3 meters 1" pvc pipe (you won't regret getting a little extra)

Fittings for the digestor feed tube:

(Photo: The cow's mouth and throat)

1) 2 meters 2" pvc pipe
2) 1 2" tank adaptors
3) 2 2" male threaded nipples
4) 2 2" rubber o-ring washers (if they came with the 2" tank adaptor you don't have to worry about this.)

Fittings for the digestor gas output:

1) 1 1/2 " tank adapter (make sure they come with flat washer rubber o-rings) -- you can't go wrong buying extras of these
2) 1 male threaded 1/2" nipple
3) 1 1/2" union
4) 1 1/2 " elbow (90 degrees)
5) 1 1/2 " valve
6) 1 1/2 female threaded nipple
7) 1 1/2" male threaded to 1/2 " barbed brass hose connector.
8) 1 1/2" hose clamp

Fittings for the spent slurry/fertilizer effluent tubes

(Photo: Two feeding tubes upside down (the cow's mouth and top part of throat on bottom, the esophagous that is placed in the stomach on top) next to a digestor tank. To the right of the two feeding tubes you can see the fertlizer effluent tubes -- "the cow's urethra").
1 ) 1 1" tank adapters (with flat washer rubber o-rings preferably)
2) 2 1" o-rings (if they didn't come with the above)
3) 1 1" male threaded nipple
4) 1 1" union
5) 3 1" elbows
6) 1 1" vlave
7) 1 1" female threaded nipple
8) 1 1" male threaded to 1" hose barb (optional; good for connecting a hose in case you want to irrigate your garden with the effluent).
3) 1 meters 1" PVC

A) Flame test valve (between digestor and gas collector) and B) gas collector output valve

A) Flame test valve:
1) 3 1/2" male threaded to 1/2" barbed hose fittings
2) 3 female threaded PVC 1/2 " nipples
3) 1 1/2" T
4) 1 1/2" valve
5) tie wire and screw straps to fix test valve to tank frame
6) 1/2 " plastic tubing
7) 3 1/2 " hose clamps

B) gas collector output valve (ideally you should create two of these, one for each side of the tank so you can bleed out all air and use all gas produced since the tanks have an unfortunate hump on either side. Doing this you don't have to angle the gas collector tank but can keep it level).

1) 1/2" tank fitting
2) 1/2" male threaded nipple
3) 1/2 union (not shown in photo above)
4) 1/2" elbow
5) 1/2" valve
6) 1/2" male threaded to 1/2" barbed hose fitting
7) 2 1/2" hose clamps

III) Gas input to Gas collector (on side of gas collector)

This fitting is nearly identical to the gas output of the digestor but we put the 1/2" union before the valve leading to the tank (correct), whereas in the digestor we had the union before the valve (incorrect, though we did it for stability and it works). It actually makes better sense to always have the union AFTER the valve relative to the tank, in other words you should be able to valve seal the tank before opening the union.

1) 1 1/2" brass hose adapter
2) 1 1/2" female threaded PVC nipple
3) 1 1/2" union
4 1 1/2" valve
5) 1 1/2" elbow
6) 1 1/2" male threaded nipple
7) 1 1/2" tank fitting
8) 2 1/2" hose clamps

IV) Connecting to water pressure tank:

1 1 80 liter (20 gallon) plastic bucket (trash can will do fine) with lid for sump

2) 1 garden sump pump 1/12 HP

3) 1 float switch with daisy chain plug

4) 1 rechargeable power station to run the pump if you are far from a standard electrical socket.

5) 1 extension cord with three outlets

To get food into the digestor:

1) Insinkerator garbage disposal (in sink food grinder/blender) (The 1/3 HP Badger for about 90 dollars works fine)

2) 1 large funnel

Summary of what you need to buy:

3 IBC Tote HDPE 1000 liter water tanks in metal cage frame (3 per system).
4 meters of 1/2 inch clear plastic tubing
2 2" threaded adapters with reduction bushings to 1 1/4", to 1 " and 1/2"
2 meters 2" pvc pipe
2 meters 1" pvc pipe

2 meters 1/2" pvc pipe
PVC primer
PVC glue
1 2" tank adaptor
1 1" tank adaptor
5 1/2 " tank adaptors
2 2" rubber o-ring washers (if tank fittings don't have them)
6 1/2" male threaded nipples
6 1/2 " female threaded nipples
8 1/2 " male threaded to 1/2" hose barb adaptors
8 1/2 " rubber o-ring washers (if tank fittings don't have them)
6 1" tank adapters with 1 " hose barb
6 1" o-rings (if tank fittings don't have them)
3 meters 1" plastic tube
5 1/2 " ball valves
2 1 " ball valves
1 80 liter plastic bucket with lids
1 garden sump pumps 1/12 HP
1 float switch
1 rechargeable power station (optional)
1 extension cord with three outlets
1 funnel 1 Insinkerator garbage disposal (in sink food grinder/blender)

Area required:
Each system requires an area of 1.5 x 3 meters. Three systems in a row would require 1.5 x 9 meters or, placed side by side, 4.5 x 3 meters.

Bacteria culture starters for the system
(first day only, thereafter feed ground up kitchen waste and water slurry, about 1 to 2 kg per day -- but don't start feeding until first flammable methane)

You can use regular old cow manure or horse manure or pig manure for your starter culture of methanogens. Add about 40 kg (20 lbs, or 2 or 3 5 gallon buckets) of manure to each digestor the first day. These digestors then need to be kept above 15 C (55 F) to produce gas; ideal is 37 C (98 F) but they give good output at 25 C (80 F).
For colder temperatures use Alaskan psychrophilic bacteria from lake mud.
Psychrophilic bacteria belong to four phylogenetic groups, the alpha and gamma subdivisions of the Proteobacteria, the Flexibacter-Bacteroides-Cytophaga phylum and the gram-positive branch. Isolates from cold environments include Arthrobacter sp., Psychrobacter sp., and members of the genera Halomonas, Pseudomonas, Hyphomonas, and Sphingomonas, these are some of the extremophil bacteria that scientists believe are like those that might exist on Mars on Jupiter's moon Europa. They are anaerobic Archaea and pose no threat to humans.

What to feed:
Any kitchen waste (ground up in a blender with water) except for bones, corn cobs, tea bags or coffee filters that could clog up the blender. (Wait until first flammable methane production before feeding! This can take between 43 hours and 3 three weeks!).