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!"

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Help Create the Solar CITIES Crowd Sourced Community Cloud Citizen Science Computing Network!

You've heard of cloud computing, right? The idea is to treat information as a public utility and spread capital costs among users so that one can "reduce costs significantly while increasing the speed of application development" (so sayeth Wikipedia, one of the most cumulonimbus of clouds!). You've probably also heard of Berkeley's SETI@home project, wherein you lend some of your computing power to the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. It is no secret that when we pool our resources we can develop economies of scale, and that science can proceed much more rapidly when we increase our sample sizes by sharing data openly and without restriction.

You've probably also heard of "Crowd Sourcing" wherein "the public may be invited to develop a new technology, carry out a design task (also known as community-based design[1] and distributed participatory design), refine or carry out the steps of an algorithm (see Human-based computation), or help capture, systematize or analyze large amounts of data." (thank you you wonderful innumerable contributors to Wikipedia!)

If you are really nerd-hip-cool, you probably already have participated in some "Citizen Science" Projects (Citizen Science is any "ongoing program of scientific work in which individual volunteers or networks of volunteers, many of whom may have no specific scientific training, perform or manage research-related tasks such as observation, measurement or computation." (Thanks Wiki!) With Citizen Science "professional researchers" (the ones with all the extensive training and responsibility who also get paychecks for their explorations) not only are able to engage the public but are able to achieve research objectives that were heretefore impossible without NASA size budgets and facilities.

You've probably heard of all this. You've probably seen it in action (that's why you come to blogs like this -- to find out if we've caught on yet!). Yeah, we wouldn't be blogging if we weren't hip to these concepts.

What we haven't often seen is effective poverty alleviation or sustainable development operating using the cloud model, the crowd model, the citizen science model. As Paul Polak et al. point out in "Design for the Other 90%" most of our most talented designers, inventors, innovators, artists, mathematicians, scientists, engineers and musicians (I could go on -- "our most talented janitors, mothers, businesspeople, teachers, security professionals" etc.) are caught up in thinking about the very few -- the elite, the upper middle class, the people who can pay. An awful lot of energy goes into creating ever more efficient and aesthetically pleasing gadgets, trinkets and toys. But when it comes to creating technologies for the rest of humanity that can help stop environmental and social decay the field gets very thin.

Too often we find ourselves "re-inventing the wheel", needlessly replicating experiments that have already failed, failing to replicate the ones that succeed and waiting for serendipity to put us in touch with like minded people who can share results and experiences that could potentially protect biodiversity, clean environments, end suffering and save lives.

Solar CITIES is dedicated to "Connecting Community Catalysts Integrating Technologies for Industrial Ecology Solutions", so our mission suggests a personal cloud computing model.

In many discussions in Cairo, Egypt, South Central Los Angeles and Seattle Washington, whilst building home-scale biogas reactors and solar hot water systems, Solar CITIES colleague Mike Rimoin and I amped up the volume of our enthusiasm through the sustained beat of "cloud computing as the best way to use Web 2.x to accelerate innovation and implementation of much needed home and community scale envirotechnology." In his mid-late 20s, as a business school grad, Mike well understands how cloud computing, crowd sourcing and citizen science are transforming the so-called 1st world. We want very much to bring these paradigm shifting tools and techniques to the art of sustainable development.

To that end we are inviting you to participate in the Solar CITIES Crowd Sourced Community Cloud Citizen Science Network (yes, YOU -- if you've read this far you are part of the team, someone who stands out of the maddening crowd because you are IN with the cloud source crowd).

What do you have to do?

For starters, because we are currently on a two-year National Geographic Innovations Challenge Project working to improve the efficiency of small-scale biodigestors around the world, you would build your own bio-reactor (believe us, it isn't hard). You would build one at any scale, feed it, and share your results with us.

We need data - lots and lots and lots of data. We need replicability. We need scalability -- we need to know how these things operate at the smallest and largest sizes and everything in-between. And we need lots and lots of trial and error with different parameters and different controls, under different temperatures and pressures and pH's, with different bacteria, different ecologies, different feedstocks. We need to see how these systems operate by the ocean, in the mountains, in the forests, on balconies, in backyards, in garages and basements, in the snow, in the desert...

Since nobody is going to fund such an ambitious project (because household and community scale do-it-yourself technologies that are affordable and adaptable to the conditions of the very very poor and use local recycled materials and social liquidity to operate rarely create profit) we need a virtual army of tinkerers sharing the results of worldwide bricolage.

To rephrase an old saying appropo to citizen science: We are not professionals. Please DO try this at home!

Cumulus 1:
Location: Essen, Germany, Solar CITIES home office
Experiment: Mini-digestors to test different substrates and feeding regimes

(Photo: Citizen Science in the Kitchen. Each of these 1.5 gallon containers is a mini-Solar CITIES biogas reactor, modeled after our signature HDPE systems. All have gravel on the bottom and are filled with water. The one on the right contains about 1/2 kg pond mud from the frozen duck pond that our son Kilian goes to with his grandfather on his daily walk. It was set up on March 5th. The middle container contains effluent from our in-active porch bioreactor, drawn on Friday March 9th, an icy day after a snowstorm, with the reactor having been left unfed for 4 months and having gone through freeze and thaw cycles. The left container contains the contents of two of our son's diapers, the first put in on March 5th. )

(Photo: All containers adjusted to room temperature (about 20 C). Within two days (by Monday March 8) the pond mud (PM container right), which was cored with a piece of 3" diameter plastic plumbing pipe driven about 7 inches into a frozen pond, was producing microbubbles. The diaper contents reactor (KD, container left), set up at the same time, did nothing). In the middle container, containing clear cold reactor effluent (EF) set up three days later, I placed a piece of netting above the gravel to increase surface area. Into each reactor I put about 25 ml vinegar, hoping not to raise the pH too much, because acetate is the primary food of methanogens. By Tuesday morning, March 9th, both PM and EF were producing a lot of microbubbles, particularly when tapped with a finger or shaken (the bubbles came out of the gravel). KD produced absolutely nothing. All containers were fed some blended oatmeal. By Thursday PM and EF contained more gas and KD had nothing. I then added another load of diaper waste to KD. On Friday March 12, after our visit to the Sondermann biogas farm, I returned home at about 2:30 and tested PM and EF -- both produced flammable gas which I used up in a quick pop. By the next day, Saturday March 13, at 12:30, PM had about 500 ml gas and EF about 250 ml. Both gave good flame tests with burns of about 2 to 3 seconds. KD still produced nothing. I added about 100 ml of sodium acetate (vinegar mixed with baking soda) to all. By Monday March 15 all bubbling ceased in EF and PM slowed down. Not sure if this was due to overfeeding, too much sodium or acidification. But KD began to show a frothy bubbly substance at the top for the first time. By Wednesday, March 17 (St. Patricks Day) I had purchased a thermometer and a pH meter. Teh day was sunny and the temp 25 C. Bubbles were appearing in PM and KD with no reaction in EF this time. pH was 7.09 for EF, 6.1 for PM, and 6.6 for KD. I fed PM and EF about 50 ml of fruit juice blend in the late afternoon. By Thursday, March 18, at 1 p.m. PM and EF were both producing bubbles again and KD was vigorously producing bubbles. On Friday March 19 I added blended food waste and water to all three which are all actively bubbling. Underfeeding of readily digestible food may have been cause of earlier shut down. Conclusions: It appears that the pond mud outproduces the other two systems by at least 2x at 20 C, and human fecal material seems to be a very slow starter material for methanogenesis, but it does work. Surprisingly, even after a hard winter, no feeding and complete settling, the mesophiles from our porch reactor's overflow pipe remain viable and start a new reactor faster than fresh humanure)

Cumulus 2:
Location: South Central Los Angeles, Alvaro Silva residence.
Experiment: A Backyard Solar CITIES 3 tank water displacement digestor started with 4 gallons of horse manure from the Glendale Equestrian Center.

Cumulus 3:
Location: Seattle, Washington, Mike Rimoin & Co. Residence
Experiment: A modified Solar CITIES digestor using HDPE reactor with solar heat exchanger as reactor and 55 gallon drum telescoping gas collectors. Starter material is elephant dung and manure from 27 other species of animal from the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle, courtesy of horticulturist David Selk and Dan Corum a.ka. "Dr. Doo"

Cumulus 4:
Location: 460 Lucas, Santa Rosa California, Frank DiMassa's property
Experiment: Solar CITIES water displacement system using float valve in sump. Starter material: Horse manure from Foothills Park composting bin.

1 comment:

Marcel said...

Excellent stuff T.H. Well done!

I'm particularly liking the gas farm in your house with clear description of what's going on when.

I have to say, one of my pipe-dreams would be to have a microcontroller like the Arduino monitoring temp, pH and gas output and then automatically feeding the system based on those kinds of readings. The result would be a 'fire-and-forget' setup that as long as it has a supply of feed, will keep producing gas.

We're all used to automated systems that we don't have to think about the mechanics of on a day-to-day basis, so a requirement of frequent attention could be a barrier to common adoption - particularly in developed countries.

What do you say?