Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Engineering FUNdamentals -- the Old Engineer

An old engineer with a small business was going through difficult times. His only remaining client, ACME Transportation, hired him to break up and replace a concrete slab that he had poured years ago – and if he couldn't do the job, ACME said it would have no choice but to find another engineer. He panicked because he couldn't afford to lease the machinery or hire the workers. His only son, Brad, who used to help him with the business, was in prison. The old engineer wrote a letter to him and described the predicament.

Dear Brad:

I'm feeling pretty desperate  -- I need to break up and replace that concrete slab we poured for ACME years ago but I don't have the cash to get the equipment I need. If you were here, I know you'd find a way to get the job done --
all my troubles would be over.

Love, Dad

A few days later, he received a letter from his son.

Dear Dad:
 

Even if you could break up that concrete, DON'T! I buried all the bodies underneath it.

Love, Brad
 
At 4 a.m. the next morning, the old engineer got a call from the FBI -- they had screened Brad's letters and were now on-site at the ACME location with men and machinery. The old man panicked again. Four hours later he got another call from the FBI: They  had broke up the slab but hadn't found any bodies, but they promised to replace the shattered concrete at the department's expense.

That same day, the old man received another letter from his son.

Dear Dad:

That was the best I could do under the circumstances.

Love, Brad

Engineering FUNdamentals -- the Old Engineer

An old engineer with a small business was going through difficult times. His only remaining client, ACME Transportation, hired him to break up and replace a concrete slab that he had poured years ago – and if he couldn't do the job, ACME said it would have no choice but to find another engineer. He panicked because he couldn't afford to lease the machinery or hire the workers. His only son, Brad, who used to help him with the business, was in prison. The old engineer wrote a letter to him and described the predicament.

Dear Brad:

I'm feeling pretty desperate  -- I need to break up and replace that concrete slab we poured for ACME years ago but I don't have the cash to get the equipment I need. If you were here, I know you'd find a way to get the job done --
all my troubles would be over.

Love, Dad

A few days later, he received a letter from his son.

Dear Dad:
 

Even if you could break up that concrete, DON'T! I buried all the bodies underneath it.

Love, Brad
 
At 4 a.m. the next morning, the old engineer got a call from the FBI -- they had screened Brad's letters and were now on-site at the ACME location with men and machinery. The old man panicked again. Four hours later he got another call from the FBI: They  had broke up the slab but hadn't found any bodies, but they promised to replace the shattered concrete at the department's expense.

That same day, the old man received another letter from his son.

Dear Dad:

That was the best I could do under the circumstances.

Love, Brad

Monday, March 8, 2010

Cow Power

When the Blue Spruce Farm in Bridport, Vermont, turns on its lights, it's using electricity that comes from cows -- more specifically, from cow manure. And there's no foreseeable shortage -- one cow can produce 30 gallons of manure each day. So, the more than 1000 cows at Blue Spruce Farm generate a pile of power.

The farm spreads some of the manure on its fields for fertilizer. The rest they push into a 600-gallon concrete tank kept at 101 degrees Fahrenheit -- the temperature of a cow's stomach. Bacteria in the tank pick up where the cows' stomachs left off, continuing to digest the manure, producing methane that powers the farm's generators, turning out enough electricity to power 400 homes. The farm sells the extra electricity it can't use, making a tidy sum.

The total system costs were estimated at nearly $1 million and included construction of a reception pit, digester with heating and gas mixing systems, and a solids separating and drying building. Several different sources of funds contributed to the total system costs. Rural Development contributed to the electrical generator portion of the system with estimated costs of $389,275. These costs included the electrical generator, with plumbing and service hookups, and a utility building for the generator.

The process of using manure and other biodegradable substances to generate methane for fuel has gotten a lot of press.

At the University of Michigan College of Engineering, Project BLUElab is developing a prototype biodigester that uses bacterial digestions to turn animal waste, human waste, and food scraps into useful biogas (60-70 percent methane) for cooking or heating water and odorless fertilizer. Eventually, BLUElab will implement the system in the developing world.

Cleaner Cooking in Nicaragua


Cow power could also become cow production because it’s not only a major fuel worldwide but also a basic "building block" for literally dozens, or possibly hundreds, of compounds that we use to make literally thousands of products we use every day – plastics, for example.

Of course, methane has its problems, particularly in climate change. It’s as much as 60 times more potent than carbon dioxide a a greenhouse gas. In New Zealand, half of the country's greenhouse gases are methane from belching sheep and cows. (The country's government scientists want to breed livestock that don't do that.)  Another problem: As an increasing number of vehicles designed to burn hydrogen take to the road, companies will use "steam cracking" to process billions of tons of methane to make hydrogen. But no one has adequately described plans for handling the billions of tons of pure carbon that the cracking process will leave behind. Methane is also extremely dangerous to the human body -- high enough concentrations in the air can suffocate breathing creatures. And in the proper concentration (5 percent to 15 percent) in the air, methane is highly explosive.

Engineers are, or course, working on these problems, and I'm confident that they'll solve them. The questions are, how long will it take to find some answers and what alternatives should we be working on while we're waiting for solutions? (I have another question of my own: We've been talking about these problems for 40 years… why do we only get serious about solving problems when we're in crisis mode?)

Cow Power

When the Blue Spruce Farm in Bridport, Vermont, turns on its lights, it's using electricity that comes from cows -- more specifically, from cow manure. And there's no foreseeable shortage -- one cow can produce 30 gallons of manure each day. So, the more than 1000 cows at Blue Spruce Farm generate a pile of power.

The farm spreads some of the manure on its fields for fertilizer. The rest they push into a 600-gallon concrete tank kept at 101 degrees Fahrenheit -- the temperature of a cow's stomach. Bacteria in the tank pick up where the cows' stomachs left off, continuing to digest the manure, producing methane that powers the farm's generators, turning out enough electricity to power 400 homes. The farm sells the extra electricity it can't use, making a tidy sum.

The total system costs were estimated at nearly $1 million and included construction of a reception pit, digester with heating and gas mixing systems, and a solids separating and drying building. Several different sources of funds contributed to the total system costs. Rural Development contributed to the electrical generator portion of the system with estimated costs of $389,275. These costs included the electrical generator, with plumbing and service hookups, and a utility building for the generator.

The process of using manure and other biodegradable substances to generate methane for fuel has gotten a lot of press.

At the University of Michigan College of Engineering, Project BLUElab is developing a prototype biodigester that uses bacterial digestions to turn animal waste, human waste, and food scraps into useful biogas (60-70 percent methane) for cooking or heating water and odorless fertilizer. Eventually, BLUElab will implement the system in the developing world.

Cleaner Cooking in Nicaragua


Cow power could also become cow production because it’s not only a major fuel worldwide but also a basic "building block" for literally dozens, or possibly hundreds, of compounds that we use to make literally thousands of products we use every day – plastics, for example.

Of course, methane has its problems, particularly in climate change. It’s as much as 60 times more potent than carbon dioxide a a greenhouse gas. In New Zealand, half of the country's greenhouse gases are methane from belching sheep and cows. (The country's government scientists want to breed livestock that don't do that.)  Another problem: As an increasing number of vehicles designed to burn hydrogen take to the road, companies will use "steam cracking" to process billions of tons of methane to make hydrogen. But no one has adequately described plans for handling the billions of tons of pure carbon that the cracking process will leave behind. Methane is also extremely dangerous to the human body -- high enough concentrations in the air can suffocate breathing creatures. And in the proper concentration (5 percent to 15 percent) in the air, methane is highly explosive.

Engineers are, or course, working on these problems, and I'm confident that they'll solve them. The questions are, how long will it take to find some answers and what alternatives should we be working on while we're waiting for solutions? (I have another question of my own: We've been talking about these problems for 40 years… why do we only get serious about solving problems when we're in crisis mode?)