I am in Saginaw, Michigan to present tomorrow on the Oklahoma Food Cooperative. This area is known as the “Tri Cities”, composed of a triangle of Saginaw, Midland, and Bay City. Saginaw Valley State University, sponsor of my trip, is just about in the center of that triangle. On the way to an interview with a reporter in Midland, this morning we drove by the world headquarters of Dow Chemical and Dow Corning, quite the impressive campus.
As I have mentioned before, I generally am not invited to world capitals, and thus over time I am getting an interesting tour of the provinces, places like Atwood, Kansas, Hohenwald, Tennessee, and now Saginaw, Michigan. Everywhere I go though, I see enormous signs of hope, interesting seeds being planted with great promise for the future.
Today I toured the laboratory of Dr. Christopher Schilling, a mechanical engineer who is head of the engineering department here at SVSU. His lab is a hive of alternative energy experimentation and resources. I saw a working ethanol still made out of a 20 gallon water heater tank and two pieces of copper pipe. I saw a two vat biodiesel “plant”, made out of two probably 30 or 40 gallon water heater tanks. I saw a 2nd biodiesel generator that was basically a soda pop bottle, but biodiesel was slowly forming inside of it.
There were solar cells, and a wind generator made out of blades made for him by a farmer in Kansas and an automobile alternator. He had replaced the electromagnets in the alternator with permanent magnets, which increases the efficiency. It doesn’t match a factory-made wind generator, of course, but it was Very Cheap to make, and thus a person could have several.
He is also doing quite a bit of work developing fuel pellets and briquets made from renewable materials like switchgrass and sugarbeets. He had interesting stories to tell about a Swedish system of locally-based manufacturing and distribution of fuel briquets made from hemp grown on Swedish farms. They process them on the farm into fuel briquets (briquets are apparently easier to make than pellets) and then they retail them to local households within a 30 mile radius. Apparently, this kind of local fuel briquet on farm operations are springing up all over Sweden. One advantage of briquets over pellets is that the briquets do not need a special stove, they can burn in fireplaces or ordinary wood stoves, and thus are a way to use a renewable local resource for heating that does not involve chopping down forests. He also thinks the machinery to make the briquets was probably made on the farm, using a hydraulic ram of some sort.
Oh, and he’s also developed a hard plastic made out of biomass that is biodegradable and has a beginning aquaponics project (one fish tank and a few plants).
And then there was the Lister engine on a platform outside. A lister engine is a one cylinder engine that at one time practically ran the British empire. They are apparently virtually indestructible. They use it to run a generator, the fuel is biodiesel. To see its potential, view Ken Boak’s Backyard Power Plant to generate home power and Ken also uses its waste heat to heat his home. It could potentially be used to cool your home also, since ammonia cycle refrigeration uses a heat source (e.g. an RV refrigerator).
About the time I was thinking that “this must be what touring Edison’s lab was like”, he said, “And now, let’s go visit the vermiculture project.” So we hopped into his biodiesel powered Volkswagon bug, and drove off campus and found two nice hoophouse greenhouses. One had a well developed hydroponics operation growing various herbs, lettuces, and tomatoes, using a solution of water and worm tea. The 2nd had several 4 x 8 worm bins, each of which produces about 20 gallons of pure worm tea a month. Holes are drilled in the bottom of the worm bins, and the worm tea drips into gutters which lead to four buckets at the base of each bin, the bins being slightly at a slant so the liquid drips into the buckets.
I should also mention that the hydroponics operation consists of wooden A-frames, that support three or four 6 inch diameter PVC pipes on each side of the frame, with the plants growing out of holes in the tops of the pipes. The pipes zigzag downwards from the top of the A frames. Water and worm tea is pumped with a small pump to the top of the pipe, and then runs through the pipes and back into the tank. They have been experimenting with different rates of dilution, from 100% worm tea to 25% worm tea mixed with 75% water.
The A Frame/pipe hydro system was designed by Dr. Edward Meisel, a chemistry professor at SVSU, who is Dr. Schilling’s collaborator in these various “Green Cardinal” initiatives (the Cardinals being the school’s sports mascot, which I realized when we went to the student union for coffee and were greeted b y a very enthusiastic student in a Cardinal costume. Very red. You can read more about their work at www.greencardinal.org . I am having dinner with Dr. Meisel this evening, he is the fifth generation of their family to live on their nearby farm, and both he and Dr. Schilling are very interested in a “tri-city” food coop. He either built or helped build quite a bit of the alternative energy infrastructure that is developing at SVSU.
Who knew that such interesting work was being done here in the Tri-city area of Michigan?