Energy: The Lowest Common Denominator Part II
By: Tom Chatham
Energy can be found in many different forms. Our need for energy determines how fast the economy can grow or how much work each of us can do. The world would be much different without the many types of energy available today. If energy becomes scarce in the future, your life may depend on what you know about it.
A good man is said to be about equal to 1/10th horsepower. Even that little amount of power can be used to grow food, produce small amounts of electrical power by hand and move loads. It is the smallest unit of power that you want to have available to you. If you are very young or very old that power will be limited and other sources will be needed to make up the difference.
The availability of draft animals can increase your production many times over that of human power. Animals can be used not only to pull loads and plow fields but to provide power for mechanical devices to increase output. The ability to fuel these animals with locally produced foods, many of which are unrefined and unharvested, gives you the self sufficiency required to produce under most circumstances.
The ability to convert most energy sources for use provides the means to power mechanical devices to do a multitude of jobs both small and large. Whether it is a waterwheel used to grind grains, a horse to press sorghum, an engine to provide transportation or a tractor to plow a field, most energy sources are converted into mechanical energy for useful work. The more energy available, the more work you can do.
Electricity is a cornerstone of modern life. Nearly everything we do relies on electricity. Most of the devices we use are just advanced models of the manual devices in use many years ago. Electricity can be produced by generators powered by mechanical devices or from chemical reactions. It can be used as it is produced or stored in various ways for later use.
The ability to convert heat energy into other forms is one of the first ways man learned to harness power. Steam engines to power machines, steam to heat buildings and cook food and the burning of solid materials to alter molecular structures of resources are just some of the ways we use heat to provide the materials we need and to accomplish work. With a thermoelectric generator you can convert heat directly into electricity similar to how a solar cell produces electricity.
The ability to convert solid energy into liquid products that concentrate the energy and make it more useful has been beneficial to the human race. Petroleum, alcohol, LPG, animal fats, and other plant based fuels provide us with an energy source that is highly mobile and easily utilized.
Solid fuel sources almost all started as something else before achieving a solid state. Wood, coal and animal dung are some of the sources of energy we rely on for everyday use around the world. Most solid energy sources rely on a combination of hydrogen and carbon content to provide the energy they emit. At the most basic level, solid fuels are the most readily available energy source for individuals. There are very few energy systems that we use that wood and coal cannot provide the power for. They can be converted into a gas by burning to be used in internal combustion engines or burned to provide heat for other processes.
The use of combustible gasses as a source of energy is more difficult and requires special equipment to be useful. It can be derived from a multitude of sources which makes it a good energy source. It can be extracted from gas deposits in the ground or produced by the decay or burning of plant material. The production of wood gas and methane from animal waste products is a process within the capabilities of the individual.
Diesel power plants for closed loop operation in an underground base was studied for practicality. The system would utilize sodium hydroxide for disposal of carbon dioxide in the exhaust gas, liquid oxygen for the combustion of the fuel in the engines and fuel oil stored in tanks to power the engines. Fuel cells and nuclear power were deemed more cost effective in the end.
The ability of some chemicals to emit energy when combined in certain combinations is useful in some applications. A simple storage battery allows the storing of electrical power in chemical form. A fuel cell can combine hydrogen and oxygen or other combinations to produce usable power. Water can be electrolyzed to break it into these two gasses for storage.
An interesting note on chemical power is a system the government developed for powering underground bases. Boeing determined that iron-chlorine fuel cells would be the most efficient. This power scheme utilized underground tanks filled with liquid chlorine that was combined with hydrogen to form hydrochloric acid (HCL). This reaction created electricity in the fuel cells. The HCL is then pumped into tanks filled with small iron balls. This reaction results in ferrous chloride and hydrogen gas which is pumped back to the fuel cell to be combined with liquid chlorine starting the cycle over. It was determined that this was the most cost effective method up to four years use while liquid metal cooled nuclear reactors would be more cost effective for longer periods.
Natural power sources-
Some of the available energy sources we have to draw on do no fit neatly into other categories. Sunlight to produce electricity, wind to turn a generator, flowing water to turn a shaft and nuclear energy all provide energy we can harness with special equipment. Many types of natural forces exist that have the potential to provide energy. We are only now starting to unlock some of the secrets of this little known world. Men like Tesla are thought to have discovered some of these secrets only to have them lost to time.
In many ways, most of the energy sources we depend on today can be traced back to the sun itself. Solar energy causes the earth to heat and cool causing wind. It enables plants to grow which can produce gasses when they decay or in some cases store energy while living that can be used like the wood in trees. Plant life can lead to sources of stored energy like coal and petroleum. The heating of the planet causes evaporation which leads to rain that flows downhill providing a source of water power. With some simple materials the heat of the sun can be harnessed for power and the light itself can be converted into electrical power. The sun is the ultimate expression of energy and the many forms it can take that can be harnessed for human use.
Some of the easiest energy sources for the individual to tap into are:
The primary use for sunlight is to grow things. Photosynthesis makes the world we know possible. Sunlight can be harnessed to produce electricity directly utilizing solar cells or with panels to trap the heat for multiple uses. The heat can be used to produce steam, heat food or power absorption type refrigeration units. Passive and active systems can also be used to heat homes.
Wind can be harnessed to propel a ship or turn a windmill. With a windmill you can turn a shaft to do mechanical work like grind grain, turn a generator or pump water.
Water flowing from a high place to lower levels can be harnessed to turn a shaft to do mechanical work much as a windmill can. With a stored body of water, you can control when you use it and how much work you do. In some regards, it is much like a storage battery.
Fuel sources like wood or coal can be burned to power many types of devices. They can be burned to produce heat or turned into a gas to be used in gas appliances or internal combustion engines. In the 1800’s prior to electricity, town gas was used to power stoves, heaters and gas lamps. The town gas was produced by burning coal.
A gas burns more efficiently than a solid or a liquid because it can mix more thoroughly with air to achieve more complete combustion. Propane and natural gas are the most utilized types of gas in use today. Unless you have a natural gas well in your yard, it would be difficult to get one of these gasses if supplies were cut off for some reason. A gas made from wood or coal may be adaptable for modern appliances with some experimentation. Methane made from animal waste is a viable alternative if a sufficient supply exists. By storing this waste in an enclosed container with some water and other organic material, bacteria will release the methane from the waste and provide a usable gas. In some third world countries this gas is used to power stoves for cooking. In the U.S. some large livestock operations such as dairy farms, use this gas for producing electricity. With wood or coal gas a person can power engines such as generators or vehicles.
The most common liquid fuels used today are derived from petroleum. Petroleum fuels are derived from complex distillation techniques that result in products with dozens or even hundreds of different chemicals in them. It would be difficult for the average person to effectively refine petroleum from crude oil. It is possible to reprocess some petroleum products individually. One fuel a person can make is black diesel. It is made from used motor oil and can be used to power older diesel engines. Some newer engines have sensors that monitor the fuel and the dark fuel prevents them from registering properly so it may not work on them properly. Diesel can also be made from plant based oils such as those used in cooking.
Another liquid fuel an individual can produce is alcohol. Alcohol can be made from many different plants. Some plants produce more than others. One of the most widely used plants is corn. A professional distillery can extract about 2.5 gallons of alcohol from a bushel of corn. One of the misconceptions is that fuels for internal combustion engines must be liquid. While this is the current method it is very inefficient. In the 1930’s a man succeeded in improving the gas mileage of cars. He developed a system of fully vaporizing gasoline and cooling it sufficiently before entering the engine. His system resulted in consistent results of over 200 mpg. This is the root of all of the stories about a 100 mpg carburetor. Unfortunately when the results of his tests became known the system quickly disappeared and the experiment has never been repeated. The problem with vaporizing modern gasoline is that it contains so many different chemicals. It would need to be heated to over 400 degrees to fully vaporize.
Alcohol is a much better candidate for a vapor system. Since alcohol is a single chemical, it will vaporize at 180 degrees. This is within the normal operating temperature of a vehicle. When vaporized, the energy content of a gallon of alcohol should theoretically give you around 90 mpg. Just something to think about in the future.
No matter where you are, if you look around you will likely see several types of energy you can use if you are ever thrown back on your own resources. Most people see these things every day and never give them a second thought. When planning for the future, whatever your plans are, it is necessary to give some thought to energy sources, how they affect you and how you plan to utilize them. Whether it is food to live, fuel to cook, heat and provide transportation or light to see, you will require energy in many different ways even for a relatively simple lifestyle. The knowledge you can gain now is relatively cheap but will have incomprehensible value to you in the future whatever you may do.