Monday, 28 December 2015

Free Energy Is All Around Us

Living moneyless and reducing one's environmental impact usually go hand in hand. But when it comes to finding or developing free sources of energy, it can require some out-of-the-box thinking if you want to create a system that works off the grid (without making use of existing (traditional) structures) AND without making any investments.

I would happily go without electricity (and internet) if it wasn't for my blog. But since I want to keep sharing the changes I make in my life, at least for now, I need to find a solution. Plus I think many others are finding themselves in the same situation and are not 100% convinced they want to give up electricity just yet. 

Because I am far from being an expert on this subject, I asked my friend Arno de Hoon, who is a mechanical engineer, to shed some light on this subject and give me some pointers on how to get started. This article focuses on 100% free options (from found items or waste material) and also includes solutions that would be easy to use while traveling (because I may be starting my nomadic life soon). 

The article contains some relatively easy options and ideas to get started. However, some of these techniques might still require some background knowledge, so it is a good idea to ask help from someone who has a bit of background knowledge on the subject before experimenting with any of these methods for the first time.

***Contribution by Arno de Hoon***

In this article I will explain some basic things you can do or tools you can build to provide yourself with heating/warm water and basic electricity. I will give a small-scale solution which you can carry around and a larger-scale solution to be used as part of a more permanent dwelling, both for electricity and for heating / hot water.


Solar power
The starting point of generating electricity will be the small solar lights which people use in the garden. Often they survive only one year, and after that year they are just thrown out and replaced by new ones. But in these lights it is not the solar cell that stops working, but it is the circuit board inside. If you would take the lamp apart and take a look inside, you will see it is just a small battery charger with the function to turn on the light when it gets dark. We are going to use this solar cell as our own charger. People throw these away on a regular basis so it should be easy to find them for free. Apart from the solar lights we will need some old electronic device as a donor for wiring, a USB port, electronic resistors and diodes (a component which lets the current flow in one direction and blocks it from going back). These items can be found in your nearest electronics store's dumpster, or taken from electronic items that people give away (or anything you are no longer using). You also need 4 NiMH rechargeable batteries (1,2 Volts each).

To make a phone charger out of these parts is pretty straightforward, as long as your phone charges through USB (but all modern phones do). To make a charger, you connect 4 solar cells together to get enough power to charge 4 NiMH batteries (*important note: Don't use other ones! The NiMH batteries are 1,2 volts each (in total 4,8 volts with empty batteries and 5 volts with full batteries), while others are 1,5 volts. When using NiMH you don’t need electronics to protect your phone from overcharging or any additional parts that keep the voltage down to 5 volts*). Then you place one diode, which you can get out of nearly any (broken) electronic device, in the positive wire (usually the red one) so the power can only go from the cell to the batteries. In the drawing you can see how it is done and how to connect it in the right way (the little line on the diode must be facing the batteries). One thing you have to take into consideration is which phone you want to charge. For most brands it doesn’t matter what the setup of the USB socket (D-lines) is, but Samsung and Apple require a specific setup to “know” they are connected to a charger. The schemes are very simplified so people who have no knowledge of electronics can try to build one as well. I know there are better ways to build a phone charger, with regulators and so on, but this is a way to build one from items you can easily find or collect for free.

One thing to keep in mind in this design is that you can’t charge your phone while charging the batteries. You can also use this setup to charge the batteries using a bicycle dynamo. Everything is the same; just replace the four solar cells with the dynamo. So if you are traveling by bike, you can charge your batteries while you are on the road!

Now the next question is: Is it easy to expand this setup into a larger system?

The answer is yes and no. We can come up with a system which charges a car battery. It is possible to make the standard 230 or 110 volt out of a car battery with a converter. But you will need a lot of power to actually supply enough for an average household.

With one car battery you could power a small fridge which is built for motor homes (compressor type because this is the most energy efficient, only 12 volts). To make sure it can keep running you will need strings of 8 solar cells to match the charging current. Apart from that you will need enough power to keep the battery charged. That means you need extra strings of cells, at least 50 of them, so 50x8 cells. But if you can get them for free, why not? In the scheme you can see how to connect them. I have only drawn 4 strings to keep it simple, including a diode for every string, so just imagine 50 strings instead of 4.

Home-built solar panels are another possibility, if you can get the cells and have some time to build them. 
All of the  above are solutions that can only be used off-grid (and cannot be connected to traditional electricity sources).

Wind and Water power
When generating wind and water power, the movement (rotation of a wheel that has been turned into a turbine) is used as a powertrain / driveline. In these designs there is a rotating axle, so you can power a dynamo with it or use it as a driver for any kind of motion as desired (for
operating drive belts, grinding stones, pumps, or even as a firestarter). To create this structure, you have many options. For example, you can attach blades or buckets to a bicycle wheel, to make it rotate in a stream or turn it into a wind turbine by attaching blades (like a fan) and attach a dynamo to charge the charger, or power a light bulb. The dynamo can be connected in the same way as it can be found on a bicycle, with the small turning part pressing against the wheel.
The best option for this type of energy is to use a wheel that already has a dynamo built into the wheel, because it has a low resistance so the wheel will spin more easily. In the past, before the steam engine, nearly everything was powered by windmills and waterwheels. However, to make a wind- or water-powered generator to charge a 12V car battery, requires a lot of know-how and it can practically only be done in a stationary location. A built-in reduction is almost always necessary. It is an efficient construct, but you will need knowledge of dynamos with current regulators. This article would get way too long if I were to get into this in detail, but there is information on the internet on how to build windmills for charging car batteries. However, before you build your own, make sure you do enough research on this. If you don’t have the knowledge, stick with the bicycle wheel.

Potato Power
With fruits and vegetables you can make your own battery cells. The potato is most well-known for this purpose. What you need is a zinc-plated nail or screw (only zinc-plated will work... about 50% of screws and nails are zinc plated; they have a silvery color) which you stick into one end of the potato, and a solid copper wire which you stick into the other end: and there you have a power cell. A small LCD clock can run on 2 potato 'cells'. To power a LED flashlight you will need approximately eight of these potato cells (you can connect them in the same way as the solar cells). The latest research has shown that if you boil the potatoes first, you can power the flashlight for days. Raw fruits like lemons, apples and oranges work as well, but they are less powerful.


Hot Water
Another type of energy is heat. Heat can be stored in all kinds of materials, such as water or rocks. If you go camping and you have warm sunny days with cold nights, you can collect rocks that have been exposed to the sunlight, just before it gets dark. Put the rocks inside your sleeping bag and it will radiate warmth for several hours (the bigger the rock, the longer it lasts)

If you have a camp fire, this works even better. Put some stones close to the fire for 1-2 hours until they reach about 55°C and put them in a sock (just put your hand in the sock, grab the rock and pull the sock inside out, covering the rock). Make sure it doesn't get too warm, because then the rock can explode. Read more about this technique here. Also, after you put out the fire, you can place some new rocks (perhaps you already put some around it) in or near the hot ashes so that they heat up. Then when your hot stones get cold you have new ones to stay warm throughout the night. 

With found items, you can also build your own solar water heater. It is easier than you might think. All you need is a dark bottle (such as a glass beer or wine bottle) and a bigger, clear  plastic bottle (soda bottle). You cut off the bottom of the soda bottle, put the beer bottle inside with the neck through the neck of the soda bottle (maybe you have to cut that as well to make it fit). Tape, glue or slide the bottom of the soda bottle back on and there is your heater. You put the water you want to heat in the dark bottle and place it in direct sunlight. 

To make it work even better, you can use something that reflects light, shape it like a satellite dish and put the bottle in the middle. Place it in a way that as much sunlight as possible passes through the bottles. If you can’t glue or tape the dark bottle in place, you can put the beer bottle on the ground and use the soda bottle as a cover (upside-down). The temperature rises to up to 90 degrees Celsius (194 F). So you can sterilize small items in the water, or you can use the device to sterilize water before you drink it (you may still need to filter it though). You can also wrap it in clothing and use it as a hot water bottle to keep yourself warm at night.

If we scale this up, we can build a complete system which can be used off the grid. To build it you will need a 60 liters drum, some piping, a sheet of glass, a metal plate, some plywood and isolation material. You will need to fill this system up at dawn and due to natural convection (thermosiphon) it doesn't require a pump. The water will heat up to 80-90 degrees, which takes about a day in Dutch summers. The speed depends on solar strength, so the stronger the sunlight, the faster it will heat up. Close to the equator it may only take 4-6 hours. Around there, the system can be used year-round, but in northern or southern parts of the globe (relative to the equator) only in summer.  
The pipes inside the collector (=the black rectangular open-box-shape in the drawing) are resting on a big metal plate to get as much surface for heating as possible. Inside the closed box the temperature rises quickly and this is how the water gets heated. The easiest way to make this is to find a discarded radiator (= the pipes) which you put inside a box. Then you cover the box with glass, and there you have the collector. You connect the bottom of the collector to the bottom of the barrel and the top of the collector to a place near to the top of the barrel (it has to be beneath the water level). The box can be made from plywood (which is easiest to find), or any other material that can withstand the heat. Next, just let the sun work its magic. (N.B.: This system only works without pressure and therefore cannot be connected to town water).

This article explains only the tip of the iceberg of available options. The ones described here are some of the basics and involve rather low-risk mechanics and electronics. However, if you are interested to learn more and are willing to do some research, then there are many more options out there. Free energy truly is all around us, if we know where to find it and how to harvest it. Just be creative and think about ways to utilize the forces of nature that are already out there. I hope this article will inspire some of you to start creating with nature!

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1 comment:

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