Sunday, October 19, 2008

Weird Military Energy Ideas

In January 2007 I wrote on Alternative Fuel Fantasies for Military on this blog. Since then I saw several new ideas coming forward painted with pink hopes, like making using of unusued trash also gain attention. (See my post Military Garbage as an Energy Resource in June 2008).

An article in Biofuelsjournal reports that Defense Energy Support Center and U.S. Army will test a new initiative to turn biodegradable waste into diesel fuel, in order to reduce the Army's logistical footprint at installations or Forward Operating Bases.

The units operate by breaking down biowaste products through a bacterial action with the potential capability of producing longer, unique hydrocarbon strands. This bacterial action occurs while releasing oil, which can then be processed to useable fuel; in this case diesel fuel is the target result. Each mobile test unit is comprised of a 45-foot trailer with 10 reactor units, 10 fuel receivers and a control office. The DESC and Army officials plan to place the first mobile biomass unit at Fort Stewart, GA, in October 2008, and will be followed by several others.

October 2008 issue of National Defense Magazine has a good article written byMatthew Rusling (Can ‘Weird’ Ideas Cure Our Energy Woes. Below I give important parts (to me) of his article.

One invention, called the crowd farm, draws energy from human movement. In a busy train station, a system of sub-floor blocks would depress slightly when stepped on by droves of commuters. The blocks would generate electric current as they rubbed against each other.

A crowd could theoretically power a moving train this way, according to the concept’s authors, James Graham and Thaddeus Jusczyk, who were both graduate students at Massachusetts Institute of Technology when their idea won first place in the Holcim Foundation’s Sustainable Construction Competition in Japan last year. They calculate that 28,527 steps would produce enough energy to power a moving train for one second. The principle could also be applied at large events such as rock concerts, where more movement could result in louder music.

Another idea purports to generate electricity from man-made tornadoes. The Atmospheric Vortex Engine, invented by Canadian scientist Louis Michaud, is a more than 200-yard-wide area whose walls are 100 meters high. Warm air enters at the sides and flows in a circular motion. The air reaches speeds of up to 200 mph and a vacuum forms in the center. The winds keep this shape as they rise several miles into the sky. Each of these structures could generate 50 to 500 megawatts of electrical power. Michaud’s website said the process could become a major source of electrical energy. “The unit cost of electrical energy produced with an AVE could be half the cost of the next most economical alternative.”

Another company is extracting oil from the excrement of microorganisms. In a process not unlike beer making, scientists at LS9 Inc. Renewable Petroleum Company break down sugars from plants or other sources into what is essentially a sugar-based brew, which is cooked up in a large fermentation tank. The microbes, which are from strains of E. coli, are then added and begin to feed off the sugars. The company claims to be the first to report the cloning of the genes responsible for hydrocarbon production, which it infuses into microbes. Those microbes then excrete diesel fuel. The procedure is environmentally friendly, said Greg Pal, senior director of corporate development. “Unlike ethanol, it does not go through an energy intensive process to separate water from ethanol…..The fuel is more energy dense than ethanol or butanol”. The plan is expected to go commercial in an estimated two to three years.

And now on waste: Michael Ladisch and Nate Mosier at Purdue University, along with project leader Jerry Warner, founder of Defense Life Sciences LLC, have invented a machine that converts garbage to energy. Now the Army is testing it in Iraq. A contraption about the size of a small truck takes kitchen waste and converts it to ethanol. Gas is then fed to a diesel engine that generates electricity from a generator. The ethanol, in vapor form, is also fed to a diesel engine, which also generates electricity from a generator.

About a ton of trash could power roughly three or four houses for a day, for example, although the technology would not necessarily be used to power single houses. The company, Defense Life Sciences, also plans to eventually put it to commercial use, such as powering an office building with cafeteria refuse. Waste conversion has been used in other ways. In Rwanda, prisoners’ feces are converted into combustible “biogas,” or methane gas that can be used for cooking. And Israeli firm BioPetrol is developing ways to make gasoline out of human sewage sludge.

While many alternative ideas are technically feasible, the question remains whether they are or will be cost effective.

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