Stimulated CSE?

Just to keep you all “in the loop”, I may very well be in the running for a chunk of the Stimulus Package in regards to rural development/renewable energy/sustainable agriculture grants.  I have begun the application process in conjunction with several local organizations that requested proposals based on our ideas.  The front runner is for a grant to fund the start-up for a CSE business focused on producing small scale energy centers (gasifier+greenhouse) as well as a commercial version of our gasifiers.  The business would be located in a 5-10 acre facility whose grounds would be holistically planned (duh!) and use willow coppice for the windbreaks of 8, .5 acre garden plots that would be farming incubators for graduates of local sustainable farming education programs (pay it forward!).  Those plots would also form the test beds to determine the amount of biochar ag land can take and its effects.  

The structure itself would be comprised of a gasifier powered workshop which would include ethanol and biodiesel production, manufacturing capabilities for several dozen gasifiers annually, a half dozen or more energy centers, as well as equipment to produce 20 tons of pellets annually.  Additionally, the south side of the workshop would be a gasifier heated aquaponics greenhouse that would also house the solar drying still for the biomass crops.  The facility would  have a strong outreach component focused on seminars and workshops on liquid and solid biofuel production, aquaponics, permaculture, sustainable ag and gasification as well as anything else someone wants me to talk about.

This is all happening VERY fast, but these ideas have been “shovel ready” for about a year now so the ramp up is do-able.  Switching from welding burn plates to crafting business plans is throwing my brain into fits, but it beats watching sitcoms for sure.

I have no idea where this will go, but it sure is fun!

Thanks in advance for all the good energy… if I make it to the State review level I will be asking for you to call you Congressman!


Saving the World… Dirty Jobs Edition

Right.  So saving the world isn’t all about cute seals, swanky organic clothes, and sexy Tesla electric cars.  We’ve built a gasifier that can burn just about any carbon source from wood chips to cow pies to straw if its pelletized.  We also have alot of diversity in our CSE which is one of its primary strengths.  Put those two together, add some beer and weird things are bound to happen.  So a few weeks ago we were talking about available local waste resources that could be potential feedstocks, and one of our members happens to run my town Wastewater Treatment plant…. You can see where this is going and I don’t blame you if you stop reading now.  But for those looking for ,erm, unique solutions to the coming energy crisis, please do read on!

This past Monday I got together with several of the more intrepid members of my CSE and met up at our local Sewage Treatment plant to see if we could find a better mix of the leftover sludge that wold burn.  Weeks ago we ran about 10#’s of sludge through the gasifier and the results were not the greatest – it was too wet and our plant treats the leftover solids with lime to kill off the ecoli, etc and the high mineral content didn’t agree with the gasifier -rock dust doesn’t burn so good.  


We hope that adding in some other carbon sources that the village has in abundance (chips and leaves) we can raise the carbon content and it will burn better.  Here is yours truly shlepping chips into the augers (BIG augers… like 18″ diameter!) that they use to move the Bio Solids around.

About the sludge.  Lets be clear about this: these are Class A Biosolids, which means they are clean enough to be certified for use as fertilizer for food crops if need be.  The Biosolids are thoroughly processed, and are now no more human waste than my finished compost is still a melon rind.  Still, I get it that its gross… 

 The issue is that due to the lime, it funks around with the soil PH if you add too much or too often.  


So we are sitting on alot of it.  Like enough to fill the All Purpose Room at my kids school – and that is just since November in a town of 2000 souls.   If we can get this crap (pun intended) to burn we could literally power the entire Municipal yard on sh/t.  [The jokes alone almost make this job worth it –they just never get old!] So that is why 5 relatively normal men are throwing perfectly good wood chips into an auger full of perfectly good Biosolids on a bright Monday Morning.  No one ever said saving the world was easy.

the-biosolid-recipe-resizeWe struggled to get the mix right for awhile.  The augers were set to move the Solids expeditiously filling each gap in the auger almost completely, so there wasn’t enough room to mix in the chips.  Once we slowed the intake of the sheets of drying solids, we were able to get something closer to a 50:50 mix of chips to processed waste which was our goal.  The scale of this study is getting significant, we are rapidly moving from backyard tinkerer to players on a municipal scale.  If we are able to make the recipe work, we could be only months away from setting up a test scale gasifier on site.  How exciting!  But I am getting ahead of myself.


The steam coming off the mixed pile shows how wet the mix still is – we estimate it to be over 70% moisture.  That is about 4x too wet to burn – we like our fuels to be in the 15-18% moisture range.  We were able to mix up this good sized pile in about 30 minutes, so the equipment is certainly efficient enough.  Next up will be to set up some solar stills to see how rapidly we can dry the mixture without any energy inputs, and then see if  it can burn well.  

In the mean time, we have 2 concerns.  The Biosolds are about 1-2% nitrogren and adding all that carbon will almost certainly turn this into a giant compost pile – the piles of pure BioSolids are already sitting at 90 F all winter on their own as a result of residual benign bacteria chewing on it – and we just inoculated our solids with all sorts of good bugs.  That would mean we would be losing carbon to the air in the exhalations of the bacteria until it dries.  If that becomes an issue then we will need to dry the Solids before we mix them to prevent the bacteria from firing up.  The second concern that many of us voiced is that in taking the wet BioSolid and mixing in leaves, straw, and chips we end up with a mixture that looks remarkably like cob.  Depending on the binding strength present in the sludge we may very well have just made a 2 ton impressionist sculpture on the municipal grounds when this all dries/hardens.  Let’s hope not!

This may end up being one of our more notable failures, but Edison managed to create 10,000 ways to *not* make a lightbulb so we are due for some flops.  But if we pull this off we may be on to something.  

Seriously, I wouldn’t sh/t you on this…


The Future must be MADE

I love Monday’s.  They, like all my days, start before sunrise.  But on the weekends (I work Tues-Fri) I prepare the day for my family: coffee, tea, hot breakfast, etc.  I try to give myself a 30 minute cushion before the bussle of the day hits with the young’ins and their boundless energy.  It is a good time.  Then they are off to school and Mia and I often get several hours to ourselves – at least a few hours to recharge our relationship with time just for us – at a coffee shop, at home, or shopping in Madison.  Today was the latter, which also involved us seeing a banker about funding the New Revolution before all the money’s gone (more on that later –I hope!).  The afternoons are more focused, with a standing invitation to our Community Supported Energy group for workdays at the farm.  And that is the subject of today’s post as we ramp up on our second Gen 2 gasifier, so I headed North.

The weather is warming, which allows for outdoor work and more workstations to happen at once.  I pull as far into the drive as my low slung VW Golf will let me after the 8″ snow this weekend and am amazed at the scale of work laid out before me.  Opening the door, I am met with a cacophony of productive noise: my buddy that runs the sewer utility is hard at a sheet of steel with a saber saw cutting out burn plates.  After a hearty back slap, I go into the greenhouse/workshop to see “Brother Dick” working hard at a section of salvaged pipe with an angle grinder kicking up an impressive amount of dust as he clears it of corrosion.  Ourimg_7265 electronics expert is giving a piece of 6″ steel pipe the old “what for” with our 14″ cut off saw and spraying the area in a slightly concerning display of sparks in the process.  Further in, the farm owner is hard at a propane tank we cut in half last week as he welds on various braces and legs… I love the smell of welding rods in the afternoon!   There is enough active testosterone in the room to power a Hummvee – you can almost hear Tim  the Tool Man laughing wryly somewhere in the distance.  I pull the farmer off the tank long enough for him to point me at some steel that was cut earlier and he chucks me a big az Milwaukee Drill meaningfully.  My job awaits…

As we stare down the future that we are desperately trying to envision for our children there is so much to do. This blog has changed mightily in its 3 years.  It started as a journal of our struggles to live lighter here in HOA Middle America.  In that regard I guess it is still the same, but my answers to those struggles certainly have altered.  3 years ago I was focused on using our .4 acres to showcase “Green” living.  Cutting waste streams, native landscaping, and reducing energy by buying new appliances, changing lightbulbs, etc while growing some organic veggies for our kids to eat.  Pretty sure there is even a post in there about where to buy organic clothes.  But the whole time I was reading: Permaculture, Natural Capitalism, Sustainable Ag, Smart Growth, and success stories like Small is Possible and dozens more. The more I read, the more inspiring options I saw.  And  then I started hitting books like David Holmgren’s Permaculture Principles, books on Peak Oil and others like James Martin’s The Meaning of the 21st Century.  Books that inspired me; books that scared the hell out of me.  I watched the Crash Course and read all 600 pages of David Blume’s Alcohol can be a Gas.  My answers to the Big Problems morphed as I became more fully aware of how awesomely BIG those problems truly are.  I still reduce energy, but now I am more focused on making it.  I am less concerned about promoting “green” energy, than I am about finding ways to link energy/food/economic systems into processes that are carbon negative, yet produce surpluses of both fuel and food while actually building fertility.   I went from native landscaping to edible landscaping to permaculture designs that need no inputs and create surpluses at every turn.  But back to my “hairy man” fest.

Here we are, 5 men that may or may not have much in common.  Our ages span almost 5 decades from youngest to eldest.  Our interests and specialties range from treating sewage sludge to designing remotely operated underwater vehicles to draft horses to organic agriculture.  But we are all linked by our heartfelt belief that the current path we are on is all effed up and that we need a better future.  But more than that, we are committed that this future must be MADE. There is no waiting around for Obama or Hydrogen or Kyoto II.  If those things work that will be awesome, but for me –for us– the best way to predict the future is to help create it.  Literally in this case.  We are turning hundreds of pounds of salvage steel into gasifiers as we work to perfect our systems.   I am looking at buying 8 acres of agricultural wasteland on the edge of town to make this crap happen.   We are a group of “do-ers” and we are getting busy.  And so are thousands of others across this nation.  If you are busy doing the Good Work – I thank you on behalf of my children.  If not, there is much to do and we need more people doing it.

We’ve had bumper stickers on our cars for years.  It is time to put the slogans into practice.   Hand me that drill, I’ve got work to do.

Be the Change.


Event Horizons

2006-0110neutron-fullNo, this post is not really about black holes.  Though at times we all feel we are in a point from which no light can escape, and I guess there are times this deep into winter when we can get so wrapped up that events outside our dense little homebound microcosms cease to exist.    But this post is about more concrete things than theories of relativity.  

Today I attended an ad hoc meeting called by one of the “firesouls” of our little CSE group.   He was getting concerned that our vision was becoming diluted by the seemingly infinite possibilities of the gasifier and was looking for us to refocus on the Here and Now.  This is very real problem in our group – we are all visionaries and have the cursed blessing of taking ideas and running with them.  In other words we are *really* good at starting things…. finishing them is not a given.  Ex. we are designing ethanol stills and tilapia water filters when the gasifier hasn’t even run an engine for more than 10 minutes yet.  Oi.

So today we sat for 3 hours in a coffee shop with a bunch of tables pulled together and between way too much caffeine, $5000 in laptops and alot of scratch paper the 3 of us pounded out some actionables for the next 15/30/60 days -our “Event Horizon” for our Gasifier project.  Here are the main issues:

  • 15 Days: Design a small compressor and storage tank system to pre-charge the syngas to allow us a steady flow to the engine that can be metered.  This sounds complicated, but we hope to have a compressed tank of syngas running a small engine and generator in this time frame.
  • 30 days: Design an auger system to begin automating the pellet feed system while simultaneously design/build a simple triggered circut that will regulate that feed system. 
  • 60 days: This is a bit out, so we have little things like the construction of 2-3 more gasifiers in that window.  Our hope is to have a bill of materials and hold some “work party” weekends to spread the labor and get more people skilled up.

Also the Bio Diesel processor got a massive boost today in my securing of a source of Waste Veggie Oil (WVO) here in town.  It is a small supply, only about 10glns/wk but enough to go ahead and finish the processor.  Here are the Event Horizons for the BD Unit:

  • 15 Days: Procure 3 open top steel drums, 600/400/200/100 micron filters, and build a portable 12 volt pump system to move thick WVO around.
  • 30 Days: FAb up a unit to hold a 55 gallon drum over a syngas burner, dry and filter 40 gallons of WVO, Build the processor and hook it up to the gasifier.
  • 60 Days: run a batch of BD through the unit without blowing up, and… drive the Golf with first tank of homebrew!

These are incredibly ambitious goals, but when you surround yourself with retired engineers, super tinkerers with incredibly rich and eclectic knowledge bases and computer technicians that have worked on Antarctic research stations your ideas of “possible” get goofy.  Plus we are motivated both by the possibilities of the new administration and by the growing reality that the next decade will likely get weird in a Big Hurry.  

I am convinced that resiliency can no longer be an esoteric dream from an armchair, but has become a necessity that will take a crap-ton of work if we are to achieve it.   The future we envision will not be given to our children unless  it is first earned by us, their parents.  

Be the Change.


Gasifier Data!

Spent a goodly part of today out at the farm playing Energy Hero where we ran our second generation gasifier for about 3 hours.  We have the design of the system to a point now that we felt ready to start tracking some temperatures and taking data on the fuel consumed per hour and such.

 The goal of our second generation gasifier is primarily to produce reliably high grade Syn-Gas, and then to facilitate the removal of heat for storage as hot water for later use as space heating, in aquaculture, or even for BioDiesel or Ethanol production.  Today we tracked surface temps at a variety of points on the unit for over an hour while measuring fuel consumption.  The details are in the linked file below, but here is the skinny: we maintained gas temps under 80 F despite stressing the cooling tower with 100F water.  Also we now know that the gasifier uses about 10.5#’s of pellets per hour with our current fan.  Not bad!  This all took place during the January meeting of my Community Supported Energy Club – we even ate hot dogs and chili cooked on syn gas burners!  My first carbon negative lunch!

Link to my pretty chart of temp readings with a descriptive blurb:

Gasifier v 2.0 Surface Temperature Chart

Unfortunately I do not have any pics of this gasifier on this computer-as soon as I get them transfered I will post them.  We also took good video last week, but it is being edited. 

Super Cool!


Community Supported Energy


Some of you may know that I helped to build a wood chip gasifier last winter.  Basically it is a contraption that takes a carbon source (we use chipped wood) and breaks it down into carbon monoxide and hydrogen gas through pyrolosis (fancy burning).  That gas is then used to power an Internal Combustion Engine.  Our system is sized to run a 30hp engine, and we are working on two systems geared more to heat capture to increase efficiency.  30hp equates to about a 15kw generator -or enough power for a small home.  Plus it makes a stink load of heat so water/space heating are options too.  It cost under $500 and can run full throttle for an hour on 10#’s of chips.
So we now have this virtually free source of heat and electricity.  And I now have a diesel vehicle.  Making Biodiesel takes 3 things (other than the processor): waste grease (I live in Wisconsin), electricity to run pumps, and heat to dry the grease and facilitate the reaction.  The processor I am building can handle up to 12,000 gallons a year.  I need about 600.  That means I have built a machine that can create a significant surplus if I can find enough waste oil.  Huh.
Waste Veggie Oil may not be around forever, and I like to grow things, so I also looked into growing oil seed crops.  For simplicity sake, lets use an annual crop like canola rather than a permaculture perennial fuel crop system (you could use hickory and take the prunings to power the gasifier for starters and still have a complete understory to play with for other plants).  If I can find a farmer to grow 80 acres of Canola I can press 12000 gallons of oil out of it.  I also just happen to know of someone that bought a commercial cold press from Austria a few years ago.  The thing about pressing oilseed is you are left with all this mash.  That mash is still rich in starches/sugars plus protiens and fibers.  Talking with my farmer mentor who is really into ethanol, it turns out that this mash would make quite a bit of ethanol too.  Like another several thousand gallons.  Huh. 
But then we still have mash left after that.  That mash is still full of cellulose and protein.  It can either be fed into a animal digester (hogs, cows, chickens or tilapia come to mind) or a methane digester to further gain efficiencies. Now we are either making even more electricity or a lot more food.  The gasifier would actually partner REALLY well with a greenhouse Tilapia operation solving most of the sustainability concerns, and using cattails as the water filter to grow even more ethanol feedstock. Huh.
All of this permaculture energy and food growing could be bundled up into a Community Supported Energy (CSE) organization. Community members would buy “shares” of energy (ethanol or biodiesel) which would be delivered monthly/weekly/as needed -the literally tons of tilapia would be a bonus!  The subscribers get the energy they want, the budding energy technician can produce clean renewable fuels for a living wage.  If it sounds like a CSA that is the point.  
We haven’t even begun to think this through yet (like canola is a low grade fuel crop planted in a monoculture), but there are ALOT of people who have -David Blume of Alcohol Can Be a Gas fame is one.  As resources decline, people will need local energy as much as they need local food, probably more as making energy is much more specialized than growing food.  Plus its really damn interesting.
Winter Projects?  
I got one…and its a Doozy.
Anyone good at writing grants?
Be the Change



Fall Projects

So I am in a mid summer lull.  Not that I have lots of free time mind you… we’re still building barrels, harvesting 1-200#’s of spuds a week, weeding, watering, working 50 hours a week etc its just that things are in a routine and I guess I have some mental free time which I have been putting to use.  Much of that has gone into Fall Planning.


We will not be putting in any large crops for fall, or more precisely any crops for market.  Projects are falling behind and I would like to catch up.  We still have alot of fall squash in the ground, and will see those, our beans for drying, onions, etc to harvest and will plant a winter hoop house for greens.  But the land that is coming out of production will be entirely put into cover crop at the market garden to allow us to get a better jump on weeds next year.  Hopefully next year will start to see a significant drop in the amount of tilling we do as well.  I also need to map out a Big Vigorous Veggie (BVV) rotation to ensure we are confusing the Colorado potato beetles and not taxing the land.


As we transition away from the Plug-in Prius plan (too expensive in a downturn), I am going full force into the TDI VW camp.  Still some major descisions there.  Do we go WVO?  Can I find grease, and will it still be there in 3-5 years?  Then there is what kind of VW.  Jettas are the more easier acquired and cheapest, but I want at least a Golf for the hatchback functionality if not a Jetta Wagon.  A Passat Wagon would be able to be a rain barrel delivery truck, and I have always loved them, but they are so dang pricey.  More thought, and more than a bit os serendipity, is needed


I am completely enamored with our gasifier, but it is impossible to put one in here.  We are committed to our next home being The One, but need to re build the $30k beating my 401k has taken in the past 6 months for that to happen.  Figure 2-3 more years.  I also think that a Bio Diesel still is where I will end up on the diesel front.  While a WVO is simpler and cheaper to maintain, every single engine will need one, while a Bio-Diesel still will allow me to make fuel for multiple, unmodified, engines powering everything from my Grillo to our cars, to farm trucks and tractors.  Also, if we build it oversized we could start a small fuel co-op and spread the start-up costs, but as importantly offset even more dino fuel by spreading to other families -in permaculture you strive for a surplus, right?  My wife Mia is uncomfortable with me making fuel in our HOA -safety, insurance, pushing the neighbors just a bit too far, etc so it will likely have to be off site.  Also, BD stills take a goodly amount of energy -the oil must be heated for a long time -and they typically use one or more 1500 watt heating elements.  That is like running 2-3 waterheaters for days on end -using electricity.  Ouch.   But back up a minute -BD stills need  heat and electricity.   Our gasifier  makes heat and electricity.   Can we do a “tri”-gen facility producing hot water, electricity to a grid tie, and Bio Diesel in one set up?  Time will tell.  But the ability to heat a home, power a site, and fuel a fleet from one contraption -that runs off of wood chips grown on site- may be eco nerd nirvana.

Lots of loose ends to wrap up here, but it will be an exciting Fall to follow an exciting Summer, which followed an exciting Spring.  Living in a time of Historical Change may be stressful, but at least its not boring!

Be the Change!


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