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.


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



Appleseed Biodiesel Update

Processor and Settling Tank

Processor and Settling Tank

Super busy day running around gathering up parts for the processor, but significant progress was made.  With the exception of a 55 gallon steel drum (open top) for the drying tank and misc. iron pipe all the major components are on hand or en route!  The pic on right is the used 58 gallon electric water heater that I scored for $50 on Craigslist.  Not sure how much sediment is inside it, but the outside looks to be in decent shape.  That size will let me do 40 gallon batches which is sweet.  To its right is my major coup of the weekend.  It is an 80 gallon welded well tank.  The steel is significantly thicker than a steel drum so it will weld nicer and it is already plumbed with most of the threaded holes I need.  Best of all it has a drain in the coned bottom so it will drain 100% clean.  I will need to add a vent hole to the top and probably one to the side, but it is very close to done.  The well tank retailed for $280, but whoever special ordered it at Menard’s apparently backed out.  I have been eyeing it on the clearance rack for a month where it sat for $75.  Sunday I grabbed the plumbing manager and offered $50 to “take it off his hands”.  Sold!  It would make an incredible processor with its cone bottom (good for draining off glycerin), but until I figure out how to add heat cheaply it will be a settling tank for the WVO.  WVO left to sit for 3-4 weeks is significantly easier to process and dry as all the junk settles to the bottom.  The yellow can is me just being optimistic 😉



Yes, that is 3 drums in a Golf...

Yes, that is 3 drums in a Golf...

I have been scouring the region for plastic barrels and steel drums, and finally I was able to get my hands on 3 white (so you can see how full they are) plastic barrels for $20 each.  Best of all I was able to fit all 3 into the golf in one trip!!  The cubic feet available in that hatch is flipping unreal.  One drum will be a washing tank for the processed Biodiesel, one will be used to store finished BD, and the final one will be an additional storage tank for WVO as it ages.  This will give me the ability to have WVO on site that is “new” and another tank (likely the well tank) that is ready to go.  Nice.

Also in the pic is the 1″ “clear water” pump from Harbor Frieght.  These little pumps are almost legendary for their utility and bulletproof history.  While typically $40 -already a steal, my good luck continued as this was their display model and they had it 50% off!  This pump will be used to move fluids all around the system- from the settling tank to the processor, for mixing the WVO into BD, for transferring the BD into the wash tank where it will also do the washing, and then finally it should be able to pump the clean diesel into the storage tank.  To have one pump do all that, you need ALOT of valves.  I picked up 5 3/4″ brass valves at Farm and Fleet today for $5.50 each.  Very close to completing the gathering phase, soon it will be time to assemble!

Total outlay so far is $275 with around $100 to go -all this for a kit that can make 2500 gallons of fuel per year.  Unbelievable.  With another $100 invested for more washing and settling tanks the kit can do 12,000+ gallons per annum -a batch a day.  Sourcing feedstock for that would be a chore though.

Hopefully the 15 gallon carboys I found on eBay will get here soon so I can start gathering WVO -if so I will be on track for my 10/31 deadline!  


Bio-Diesel Processor Update

With my new2me 2000 Golf TDI parked in the drive I am continuing to ramp up sourcing the parts needed for making an Appleseed Biodiesel Processor.  Last week I was able to pick up a 58 gallon water heater on Craigs list for $50, and this weekend I got 4 15 gallon plastic carboys off of eBay for $33 each.  That is 20% off of new and lets me check another piece of the system into the “used” category.  Here is the likely price breakdown:


1 Water Heater:                    $50

4 15 gallon carboy’s             $125


2 Steel Drums   ($0-50 each)

2 Plastic Drums ($0-20 each)

2 5gln Carboys ($6 each)

1 1/2 hp water pump ($35)

5 3/4″ valves     $8/each

Misc. plumbing   $30

Steel angle iron for stands    $0-20

Kerosene Burner (optional) $80

Total outlay:  $600ish

Even buying everything with the optional carboys and burners!  The kerosene burner will let me heat/dry the biodiesel using biodiesel (less than .25 gallons per batch of 40 gallons) and the 15 gallon carboys will make sourcing the Waste Veggie Oil (WVO) much easier as they are sized to be able to be picked up.  

This set up will let me make a batch a week, or 2500 gallons annually which is 400% more than I need.  Pricing of methanol drives my final price, but it looks like final product will be about $1.50/gallon vs. $4.05.  Payback will occur at about 200 gallons, or 4 batches.  Nice.  I only use about 30 gallons a month so figure 6 months of time or, what, about a 100% APR on my investment not factoring time.  I’ll take it.

After I have the process worked out so that I can make good fuel consistently, I would like to begin switching from methanol to ethanol as the catalyst.  Methanol is sourced from natural gas, and is much more toxic than ethanol.  In the end I would like to grow an oil crop like canola or sunflowers, press the oil out using a screw press and make BD out of the oil.   the left over seed cake can then be processed into ethanol, with the left overs there either feeding livestock or going into a methanol digester.  This system can work, though I am not aware of a setup that interconnects them in such an intergrated permaculture way.  So that is for 2009!


Camping, Golf’s, Appleseeds, & Terra Preta

The past two weeks have been insane.  First we ran out to SW MN to nab our newest vehicle and less than a week later I delivered my beloved Honda Insight to its new owner (not so bad as he is the farmer that loans me all the land for my projects).  Then Labor Day weekend we took a whirlwind trip back to SW MN to visit my in-laws and take the first camping trip with our little’uns at Blue Mounds State Park.  The State Park was much cooler than I expected.  The “mound” is a large bluff with exposed Quartzite and houses the only public Bison herd in MN -though they are fenced in which was a buzzkill.  It was great to make smores with the kids and begin teaching my kids how to tend fires.  So many cool things-a pair of Katydids took up residence under our rainfly and serenaded us each night; the kids were able to watch bats on the hunt, and I was able to hike 5 contiguous miles through restored prairie in full late summer bloom. The Golf TDI got 52 mpg on the way out and 51 on the way back with the cruise at 70 mph.  Nice. 

Market Garden

With stress levels high from overextending all year, we have put all fall market garden plans on hold.  As crops come down we are putting them in covercrop, and taking time off until I plant the hoop house to spinach and mache in 3 weeks.  I am trying a annual only cover crop on one plot to see how it preforms.  Thrown in are Wasaba Oats, Japanese Buckwheat, Oilseed Radish, and Yellow Field Peas.  The oats are for straw biomass, the buckwheat is for quick cover, the radish is pure experiment as I have never grown it and want to see it in action -hope is for decent below ground biomass, and the peas are for nitrogen.  All will kill at zero degrees to leave a nice mat of mulch for the spring crops.


This is where my heart and mind are at right now.  Tons of time online researching this and a couple of books from Chelsea Green on the way as well.  After looking into most of the “turn key” systems out there -most of which run over $3000, I have decided on a processor that is based on the Appleseed Biodiesel Processor. The Appleseed is essentially an open source project of backyard handy men/women working together to find a workable and safe solution.  The design they have come up with is uber simple and can be made out of reused junk if need be (sounds like our gasifier!), but even sourcing everything new will cost under $5-700 for system that can easily do 2000+ gallons of biodiesel a year.    As my goal is to have one up and running by Halloween/Samhain, expect alot more posts on this in the coming months as my focus switches off of farming for the season.

Terra Preta

A year or so ago I was introduced to terra preta and it blew my mind.  As I got more interested in our gasifier project we realized we would have a ready source of biochar and could actually start to make terra preta nuevo here in Wisconsin.  When my brain is melted from reading about and designing biodiesel processors I am pouring over Cornell research papers on this subject. Again, look for more in depth posts on this.  Adding DEEP fertility while sequestering carbon from a system that can heat and power a building -count me in!

The End Goal is to build an “Energy Shed” that will house a gasifier whose waste heat and electricity are powering bio-diesel and ethanol processors, and the waste products from these operations will the heat and power a multi use greenhouse growing greens and veggies and housing tanks of Tilapia for protein that will be fed off the mash from the ethanol still.  Waste from the fish will then be turned back into the fields as fertilizer to complete the cycle.  Permaculture in action!  

This one may take years, but to quote Ghostbusters: “We have the tools… we have the talent”

Be the Change!


Gone Bio Diesel Crazy

We are heading out tomorrow morning to grab the Golf.  Spent much of the weekend first researching VW tuning (Friday) and the boning up on Bio Diesel Processing.  Here is some of my findings

VW Tuning

The MK IV cars (1999.5-2004) come into the world with 90hp/155lb ft torque.  They also make a routine of going 700+ miles on their 14.5 gallon tanks (45-48mpg).   They also come very well equipped 4 wheel disc brakes, side curtain air bags, and lots of luxury items in the GLS models.  The mileage is great, but I need a bit more power to tow my barrels.  Luckily the tuner community has lots of answers.

  • Fuel Nozzles.  Upgrading these to “Euro” spec injectors nets 10-15hp and 20#’s of torque.  No loss of mileage if you keep out of the turbo
  • “Chip” tuning will clean up the fuel map and bump the boost up a bit to 18.5psi max.  This get you another 10hp and real close to 200#/ft of torque.
  • 2.5″ Down Pipe and performance cat and remove the muffle (diesels are quiet) gets you a broader power band (turbo spools 300rpm’s sooner), a handful of ponies/torque, but more importantly let the turbo breather better and lowers your Exhaust Gas Temps (EGT’s) by several hundred degrees (reduces stress on engine components/oil).  This one is optional and will only get done if I see my EGTs going up on towing runs.
  • There are many drivers with these mods in the “800 Club”: 800 miles on one tank  That’s 55mpg in  vehicle that can tow 2000#’s while seating 4 adults in 5star safety.  Nice.

Bio Diesel

I’m not going to go into all the ins and outs of making it here.  A staggering amount of info can be found on Journey to Forever’s bio fuels pages which is where I have spent several hours this weekend as I huddled indoors to avoid the ragweed pollen until my allergy medicine could catch up.  I am convinced that we will be going Bio Diesel and not WVO at this point – our Subaru may very well get traded in for a ’09 Sport Wagon Jetta, and one BD processor can handle multiple vehicles if it is sized right.  Progress so far:

  • First contact at our local China Buffet -permission granted to salvage their grease!
  • Spoke to my farmer friend and he is willing to donate space for a Processor-I am not willing to have 99.5% pure Lye and Sulfuric Acid within reach of the kiddos.   Our discussion grew into making an “Energy Shed” to house a gasifier, Bio Diesel Processor, and an Ethanol Still.  Huh.
  • Emailed out to several Craigs listers with various Processor Bits for sale -mostly large drums, pumps, etc.  Looks like a 50 gallon sized still can be made for under $1000.  That is big enough for 2500 gallons a year or so.  That would be 112,000 TDI miles so there is room for 3-4 more in the project, or more likely I only run it once a month.

Time will tell where this goes.  I would be happy making 5-10 gallons weekly, but it seems that the effort is about the roughly same if you make 1 gallon or 40.  If I proceed, it will likely be with a 5 gallon mini processor to get the feel of it, and then maybe ramp up to a 50 gallon processor if it seems doable.  Price for BD home brew seems to be in the $1 range these days -driven mostly by the price of methanol which I still need to find a local supplier for.
Much of this was mulled over while harvesting (and selling!) my 900th pound of potatoes.  Still 3-500 pounds left!


End of an Era

3 years ago I bought my beloved Honda Insight… a 2001 5spd with 54k miles on it. I have absolutely adored that car -it was literally the only car that could have broken by affair with Big Speed and my modified 330hp Mitsubishi EVO 8 race car. The Insight was everything I wanted -wicked huge mileage -peaking as high as 102.2, rolling poster child for “a Better Way”, and a nice slice of minimalism in a life that is not yet bike friendly. But in the past year our need for a second car that can either tow a trailer for our Eco LLC business or have a backseat for the kids has increased as our little uns begin to get Involved: swim and ballet lessons, sports, play dates, etc. Out here in the rural suburbia seemingly everything, be it groceries or a pool, is 10 miles away. So we began to look at options.

4 Months ago I was completed smitten with Plug In Priuses. Sure the $30k buy in ($20k + $10k conversion) was uber steep, but I had a plan to sell 160 rain barrels in the next two years to cover at least the cost of the conversion. Then oil hit $140+ and inflation crested 5%. That Prius became $35k as used hybrids appreciated and we struggled mightly to sell our first load of rain barrels as America (finally!) tighten her belt. We’ve sold most of the barrels, but just barely and selling another 100 is not likely since the majority went to one buyer.

But we still need a high mileage 4 seat car.  So 3 weeks ago I began to look very seriously for a used VW TDI.  There were never a ton of these on the road (thought the 2006+ are MUCH more common!) and they are also in demand.  Prices are ranging from 10-30% above Kelly’s Blue Book -and most buyers are flying in to get them and driving them 3 states home.  I had 4 semi local cars slip through my fingers -even calling within an hour of the ad posting is not enough to get these.   Then just this week I found my new car. I had email Mia my “Dream Ad” and don’t you know it, I came home from work to find a  new Ebay listing that matched it perfectly.  Its a 2000 Golf TDI GLS 5spd with about 110k miles on it.  I am as vain as the next guy so I wanted it loaded -moonroof, premium sound, and heated seats (these little diesels take like 20 miles to heat up in the winter) and I found it on Ebay.    4 doors, super clean, and I bought it for $4k less than I am selling my Insight for so the budget is uber happy.  Its in MN so I am bumming a ride with family on their return trip to South Dakota this weekend.

More on why I bought a TDI -this paragraph gets more than a little Car Guy.  Most guys driving them are getting 42-48mpg every single tank -and the hypermilers are getting 60mpg!  Second, they can be turned into nice little tow vehicles.  In Europe these engines have about 20 more hp -and the only part change is larger fuel injection nozzles-about $300.  You can also add a “chip” that remaps some of the boost parameters for the turbo and get another 10-15hp.  More importantly you can also get another 80 ft/lbs of torque making the Golf a better tow vehicle than our Forester.  Open up the exhaust with a bigger down pipe off the turbo and you can keep your Exhaust Gas Temps down too and add a few more ponies.  Here is the kicker -there are many guys with these mods still getting over 50mpg every single tank.  You only use the extra fuel and boost of the mods if you push the engine hard while accelerating/towing. Even still, I have yet to see anyone on the forums at TDI CLUB getting under 40mpg in a modded 5spd.   Nice.

Are hybrids more efficient?  You bet.  But they can’t tow, cost over twice as much, and I can’t make my own fuel in a pinch.  I am very happy with my decision and will likely start doing some home bio-diesel processing using Journey to Forever’s 5 gallon “Test” kit this Fall.  Making 5 gallons a week actually would cut my Dino Fuel use 100 gallons anually over a standard Prius.  I have already found a source for grease, just need to build the kit. In my “spare” time.

Very sad to see my beloved Insight going away, but also excited for the future!


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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