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.