Monday, November 05, 2007

Neighborhood Renewable Energy

Qurrent is the winner of the 500,000 Euro Picnic Green sustainable technology challenge. Their technology is a decentralized renewable energy network. Here is how it works: A group of houses or businesses work cooperatively to generate renewable energy. One house may have a wind turbine, another solar panels and another may have both. That group exchange energy locally to maximize efficiency. Rather than sending your surplus electrons through the grid where up to 30% are lost, you share first with your neighbors in a Local Energy Network.

Qurrent has in fact developed computer controlled energy management for entire streets, through which the available energy can be optimized between all houses. That’s a break-through.”

Sir Richard Branson, 01.10.07

The Qurrent design for a Local Energy Network is basically a mini-grid that is connected to the utility grid through one connection. Surplus electricity is first be exchanged within the network cluster members before being sold back to the grid. If the cluster as a whole isn’t producing enough energy, then additional energy is brought in through the grid.

One cool feature of the Qurrent system is the Qbox, a network interface device that knows energy rates and your particular energy needs. The Qbox can autonomously switch on your washing machine when it is most efficient, either when there is surplus energy in your Local Energy Network or when electric demand on the grid is low.

With prototype models already proven and a boost of 500,000 euros, Qurrent is ready for prime time, at least in Europe.

Check out more at Sustainable Design Update.

GaiaLux Light


I have entered the NASA "Design The Future" Contest, a
product design competition, with a design for an
energy efficient LED light fixture that uses recycled
cell phone chargers as the power supply.

See the light design at:

This design is intended for the billion people who
live in parts of the world where power is
intermittent, like in "squatter cities" and in places
where war makes access to electricity difficult.

My design charges batteries when power is available
and provides light when light is needed. The
batteries can provide light for days between charges.
It also shuts off when the batteries are charged and
has no stand-by power loss. (we measured this)

One of the ways the contest is judged is by the number
of page views each entry generates. I would
appreciate it very much if you looked at my entry and
checked out the graphics (click on the thumbnail
images on the left of the screen)

If I win anything it will go exclusively toward
supporting The Appropriate Technology Design
Collaborative, a not for profit that designs new
technologies for less economically developed

The link:


Check out developments at Sustainable Design Update

Friday, August 10, 2007

Paint With Clay

Clay Paint

This non-toxic alternative to paint may not be what comes to mind when you think of wall coverings, but compare it to wall paper, a material most often now made of vinyl.

From Building Green TV:

If you've been thinking about slapping a fresh coat of paint on the walls in your living room, or your bathroom, or your bedroom, or anyplace inside your home, you might want to stop and reconsider. Unless you're buying zero-VOC paint, the fumes can be harmful to your health.

You could skip the paint altogether and, instead, cover your walls in clay. Sounds a little odd; however, once you see the photo gallery at American Clay, you might be sold on the idea.

American Clay's line of natural earth plasters are non-toxic, non-dusting mold resistant, repairable—and the stuff creates essentially zero waste, as leftovers can be saved for patching or even spread around in soil outside.

Interested? You can attend a hands-on workshop near you and give the stuff a try.

Other articles on Sustainable Technology are available at Sustainable Design Update.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Energy Efficient Airplane

Rutan Varieze Airplane
56.25 Miles Per Gallon - 180 Miles Per Hour

If you have to get someplace in a hurry and mass transit doesn’t quite reach where you are going, you may want to try flying – your own plane. Small airplanes can be one of the most efficient forms of transportation if designed for efficiency.

The Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) has developed the CAFÉ or Comparative Aircraft Flight Efficiency Foundation to measure and promote aircraft efficiency. Dr. Paul McCready, the man who designed the human powered airplane that crossed the English Channel is a sponsor of the organization.

The CAFÉ Foundation measured a custom built airplane that can achieve 180 miles per hour while only burning just 3.2 gallons of gas per hour. (link)

The CAFÉ Foundation also sponsors the Personal Air Vehicle Challenge, modeled after the X-Prize, the PAV challenge is to design an airplane that:

  • 200 mph “car” that flies above gridlock without traffic delays
  • Quiet, safe, comfortable and reliable
  • Able to be flown by anyone with a driver’s license
  • As affordable as travel by car or airliner
  • Near all-weather, on-demand travel enabled by synthetic vision
  • Highly fuel efficient and able to use alternative fuels
  • Up to 800 mile range
  • Walk to grandma’s from small residential airfields
VIA: Sustainable Design Update

Renewable Fuel

XelaTeco BioDigester

I follow the work of the Appropriate Infrastructure Development Group (AIDG) pretty closely. Through education and business development AIDG promotes sustainable technologies that improve the quality of life in developing countries. AIDG has identified several sustainable technologies that can be made locally, with local “eco-engineers”. One technology AIDG is promoting in Guatemala is the use of Biodigesters.

Biodigesters are appropriate technologies that take advantage of the energy that is naturally present in animal waste and kitchen trash. As these waste products break down, whether in the ground, a compost heap, landfill, or biodigester, they release methane, a potent greenhouse gas. In contrast to the other waste storage and disposal methods mentioned, a biodigester traps the methane before it becomes a problem and stores it for heating and cooking. In this way, biodigesters can provide a sustainable substitute for the propane, kerosene, and firewood that many rural families in developing countries use to serve these needs. For those families that have to buy their fuel, a biodigester can save them hundreds of U.S. dollars every year. For those that cut trees down for firewood, a biodigester will save them time and help to prevent the deforestation that is becoming prevalent in places where large numbers of people still gather their own firewood.

Biodigesters also create high quality fertilizer.

In a biodigester, animal waste is converted into biogas and fertilizer. Apart from providing fuel to the family that uses it, a biodigester is also a source of high quality organic fertilizer the family can use on its crops. During the decomposition process in the biodigester, the waste is also sterilized. This means that animal manure, which has caused many health problems in developing countries when placed on fields with close to the ground crops such as lettuce or cabbage, can be used without fear of causing sickness. Disease causing bacteria, such as E. Coli, are killed inside the biodigester and never make contact with the plants.

In households that use biodigester gas instead of wood to cook with there is a measurable improvement in the occupants health.

Introducing this simple technology reduces pressure on natural forests, provides free high quality fertilizer, reduces food borne illness due to E. Coli, improves health and saves money. This is a win-win-win-win-win technology.

(some text above was taken from the AIDG website)

Link to a National Public Radio Podcast on AIDG work in Guatemala.


Previously Posted on Sustainable Design Update

Monday, February 26, 2007

Appropriate Technology in Guatemala

DIY Renewable Energy in Guatemala


Xelateco - Home grown appropriate technology in Guatemala.

My favorite Tech blogger and NPR correspondent, Xeni Jardin, is finishing a week long series of reports from Guatemala. Yesterday she reported on a group of American eco-engineers, the Appropriate Infrastructure Development Group (AIDG), who is working with a number of Mayan villages to provide the basics of clean water and energy.

Xelateco is the name of the workshop in the town of Quetzaltenango (or Xela for short). The American group AIDG is working with tech-minded Guatemalans to build eco-friendly devices. The workshop is a small business supported by the U.S.-based nonprofit.

What separates this enterprise from so many “Gringos Without Borders” is that AIDG provides knowledge and assistance with the goal of having the local group become independent.

In my travels to Guatemala and Central America over the last 30 years I have seen many short sighted but well intended projects come and go and leave circumstances on the ground largely unchanged. AIDG deserves your attention and your support.

Xeni has a unique voice in the Tech world. Check out her report here.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Hot Electric Car

Tesla Roadster

Tesla Roadster - Photo

My son worked for an electric car and bicycle store for one summer. The cars were kind of cute but had real problems with range and speed. They went about 25 mph and could make it about 50 miles with a little luck. Tesla Motors Inc. has rebranded the idea of the electric car with their high design and high performance Tesla Roadster.

Wired Magazine has a great article:

He releases the brake and my head snaps back. One-one-thousand: I get a floating feeling, like going over the falls in a roller coaster. Two-one-thousand: The world tunnels, the trees blur. Three-one-thousand: We hit 60 miles per hour. Eberhard brakes. We’re at a standstill again — elapsed time, nine seconds. When potential buyers get a look at the vehicle this summer, it will be among the quickest production cars in the world. And, compared to other supercars like the Bugatti Veyron, Ferrari Enzo, and Lamborghini Diablo, it’s a bargain. More intriguing: It has no combustion engine.

The trick? The Tesla Roadster is powered by 6,831 rechargeable lithium-ion batteries — the same cells that run a laptop computer. Range: 250 miles. Fuel efficiency: 1 to 2 cents per mile. Top speed: more than 130 mph. The first cars will be built at a factory in England and are slated to hit the market next summer. And Tesla Motors, Eberhard’s company, is already gearing up for a four-door battery-powered sedan.

Read the rest of the article here.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Renewable Energy Boost

Wind Farm - Photo by National Renewable Energy Lab

For a long time renewable energy technologies have needed a financial "shot in the arm" for research and development. This need is particularly strong in the area of design for manufacturability. It now looks like China will make the needed infusion of cash that will make renewables competitive in future markets. Unfortunately this will further reduce US competitiveness in renewable and clean technologies.

Reuters has an interesting article today.

HONG KONG (Reuters) - China is set to spend $200 billion on renewable energy over the next 15 years, and industry players are racing to grab a slice of the action.

That kind of money would buy you an oil firm the size of Chevron and leave change to fund the current renewables programs of all Europe's top oil firms for 25 years.

So from the arid plains of Xinjiang to the rolling hills of sub-tropical Guangdong, Chinese and foreign firms are erecting 40-storey wind turbines, installing solar panels, and conducting tests on corn for biofuel.

Beijing wants a tenth of its energy to come from environmentally friendly sources by 2010 -- a desire driven by soaring air pollution and chronic environmental degradation that is swelling medical bills and provoking discontent.

Projects will need turbines, blades and other power components, which is why General Electric Co., Vestas Wind Systems and Gamesa, as well as homegrown firms China Solar Energy Holdings Ltd. and Suntech, are expanding capacity in the country.

See the full article here.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Ethanol, Hydrogen and Carbon Dioxide


Wild Grasses - Feedstock of the next industrial revolution?

Over the last week I have been thinking about everything ethanol. (No, this wasn’t a lost weekend). The New York Times had an article on ethanol 3/26/06.

Background – Ethanol is alcohol made from fermenting biological matter. Ethanol along with Bio-Diesel are two promising types of bio-fuels – fuels derived from biological resources. Biofuels are renewable and if the chain of development from planting, through cultivation, harvesting and processing into useable fuel is carefully managed, biofuels can reduce the use of fossil energy, reduce pollution and increase our national security.

Ethanol has been in the news for a variety of reasons. First there have been some studies that show the net energy gain from the manufacture of ethanol is very little or worse yet, negative. Much of this negative chatter has come from conservative talk show hosts bemoaning farm subsidies for the production of ethanol from corn. However there are some new technologies on the horizon.

In their fall 2005 newsletter the Rocky Mountain Institute has a great article on Ethanol and best practices for development of an Ethanol infrastructure. As usual the RMI was ahead of the curve on this development. In their newsletter from the fall of 2005:

Switchgrass Biofuels, and specifically ethanol, have been the subject of a great deal of criticism in recent months by detractors claiming that more energy is required to produce ethanol than is available in the final product, that it is too expensive, and that it produces negligible carbon reductions. These critiques are simply not accurate. State-of-the-art technologies have been competently forecasted—even proven in the market—to produce ethanol that is far more cost-effective and less energy-intensive than gasoline. We'll explore why, and why the critics have gotten it wrong.

When we say biofuels, we mean liquid fuels made from biomass—chiefly biodiesel and ethanol, which can be substituted for diesel fuel or for gasoline, respectively. The technology used to produce biodiesel is well understood, although its biomass feedstocks are limited and production today is fairly expensive. We will instead focus on ethanol, which we believe has significantly greater potential.

....But conventional processes and feedstocks used to make ethanol are not feasible in the United States on a large scale for three reasons: they're not cost-competitive with long-run gasoline prices without subsidies, they compete with food crops for land, and they have only marginally positive energy balances.

Happily, in addition to starch-based feedstocks, ethanol can be produced from "cellulosic" feedstocks, including biomass wastes, fast-growing hays like switchgrass, and short-rotation woody crops like poplar. While not cost-competitive today, already observed advances in technology lead us to believe that in the next few years, ethanol made from these crops will become cost-competitive, won't compete with food for cropland, and will have a sizeable positive energy balance. Indeed, because these crops are expected to have big biomass yields (~10–15 dry tons/acre, up from the current ~5 dry tons/acre), much less land will be required than conventionally thought. Further, cellulosic ethanol will typically have twice the ethanol yield of corn-based ethanol, at lower capital cost, with far better net energy yield.

We can't remember how many times we've been asked the question: "But doesn't ethanol require more energy to produce than it contains?" The simple answer is no—most scientific studies, especially those in recent years reflecting modern techniques, do not support this concern. These studies have shown that ethanol has a higher energy content than the fossil energy used in its production. Some studies that contend that ethanol is a net energy loser include (incorrectly) the energy of the sun used to grow a feedstock in ethanol's energy balance, which misses the fundamental point that the sun's energy is free. Furthermore, because crops like switchgrass are perennials, they are not replanted and cultivated every year, avoiding farm-equipment energy. Indeed, if polycultured to imitate the prairies where they grow naturally, they should require no fertilizer, irrigation, or pesticides either.

So, Cellulosic Ethanol could be a great way to reduce our dependence on Persian Gulf Oil.

A second technology that in my mind is linked to the potential of Cellulosic Ethanol is in development at the University of Minnesota. Dr. Lanny Schmidt has been developing a method of reforming alcohol into hydrogen using a very clever and simple technique. The core idea in his invention is to use a fuel injector to spray a fine spray of ethanol onto a catalyst. Water that naturally occurs in the ethanol turns to steam and this keeps the invention from exploding. (Apparently Dr. Schmidt had many a test rig explode in the lab!) With a carefully crafted catalyst the process runs clean and is very efficient.

Now, on one hand we have a new technology for the conversion of grasses and other agricultural waste into ethanol, and on the other hand we have a new technology for converting ethanol into hydrogen. This makes the possibility of using ethanol as a medium for storing hydrogen, and locally converting ethanol into hydrogen, say at the pump, a possibility. There are a lot of design decisions to make, like how to handle the CO2 that is generated as part of the conversion process. The overall process is close to carbon neutral but if we make high quality CO2 under controlled circumstances, then it seems like a good idea to sequester the CO2.

This leads to the third of the two technologies I wanted to write about today – Supercritical Carbon Dioxide. In the supercritical phase, that is when the pressure is really high, carbon dioxide can be in a phase right on the edge between gas and liquid. It can flow through a lot of materials and it is a highly polar solvent. SCCO2 can be used in some industrial processes as a solvent, or in certain processes it can react with some simple industrial waste products to make a form of carbonate mineral. This process makes a high quality form of pre-cast concrete. It can be used to make concrete block, concrete bricks, pre-cast stone or structural members. The process could sequester a couple of pounds of CO2 in every concrete block made with the process.

So, if you have Cellulosic Ethanol on one hand, a new highly efficient technology for the conversion of Ethanol to Hydrogen which leaves CO2 behind on your other hand, then on your third hand you have the SCCO2 conversion of industrial waste to carbonate minerals, you may have the makings of an entirely environmentally benign manufacturing/ industrial park.

I do plan on covering the SCCO2 process in an upcoming post. It is a lot like pre-cast concrete, only good for the environment.

Check out Cellulosic Ethanol at the Rocky Mountain Institute here.

Check out Dr. Schmidt’s Ethanol to Hydrogen technology here.