Saturday, August 20, 2011

African Palm Trees - A Real Power Plant

This post is for engineers, techies, farmers, and renewable energy enthusiasts.  Think of it as a Discovery Channel program on your computer.  Except no commercials.  And well, lower quality.  But more jokes. And short "sentences". Like this.

But in this post I want to tell you about something hopeful (for a change) going on in Honduras.  I want to tell you about something widespread, metaphorically and literally green, and economically beneficial on a large scale.  I want to tell you about something that will make you feel good on account of it being so clever. Think of it as the feel-good hit of the summer, or at least as you're good as you're going to feel reading this blog.

OK, here we go.

The African Palm industry is the second largest industry in the country of Honduras.  African Palms are  a class of trees known as "oil palms", and they produce "palm oil" which is, of course, a type of vegetable oil.  Palmolive: softens hands while you do the dishes.  The main use for palm oil is cooking, and Honduras is exporting it to the tune of $350,000,000 to $450,000,000 per year.  Only coffee can claim higher numbers.

It's funny, because oil palms produce palm oil.  It's like an agricultural palindrome.  Except it's the words that are reversed, not the letters.  I suppose it would be closer to being a real palindrome if oil palms produced smlap lio, but they don't, so that's as close as we're going to get.  But you already understand that, so let's move on.   

[a truck collects palm fruit on an access road in a plantation of African Palms]

As you drive around the bread basket of Honduras, the Sula Valle, you will see miles and miles (kilometers and kilometers) of these palms in giant plantations.  You will see them in different stages of development, since they live for more than 30 years. Those that are less than five or ten years old are only bushy adolescents and don't produce much fruit yet, but as they age they get taller and start producing large clusters of palm fruit that are chopped from the tops of the trees by men with long sleeves and longer poles, the ends of which have a curved saw like a tree trimmer's tool.  In the mornings and afternoons, you will see them riding their bikes back and forth to work with their 20 foot pole saws balanced on their shoulders.  Other workers gather these clusters and throw them into trucks with pitch forks.

The fruit comes in clusters like giant grapes that remind me of the story of Joshua and Caleb coming back from spying out the promised land.  The clusters are called "raquis" pronounced rah-keys.  Kinda like Iraqis without the I.  They weigh up to 50 pounds - the raquis that is, not Iraqis.  Can you imagine what a commotion they make when the come falling down from the tops of the trees?  Stand aside, Clyde, or be killed by a falling vegetable. The raquis of fruit sell for between $1000-$1100 per ton.

[These are raquis, or clusters, of palm fruit.  On the right are a few big ones in a wheel barrow.]

The fruit itself is a woody date-like thing about the size of an oblong golf ball. There are over 100 "palmas", or fruits, in a raqui.  I don't know how many are in Iraqi.  I asked some experts what they were called.  It wen't like this:

Me: What is the name of the actual fruit part?
Expert: It's called a "palma".
Me: I thought "palma" was what they called the whole tree?
Expert:  It is. The tree is called a palma and so is the fruit.  Palmas arboles y palmas frutas.
Me: I understand it softens hands while you do the dishes?

[a palma in the palma is worth two in the bush]

[When you slice open a palma, you can see three distinct parts.  The orange outer part is called the pulp (pulpa) and is 21% oil.  The oil that comes from this part is called crude (crudo) oil and is the type used for cooking.  The brown ring that surrounds the white part is a hard nut (nuez) and the inside is known as the almond (almendra).  The almond is only 1% oil.  This tiny bit of oil is called kernel (palmiste) oil and is also extracted and used for soaps and cosmetics.  Both types of oils are exported to Europe, the USA, and Mexico.]

I had the honor of getting to tour an excellent plant that extracts the oils from the fruit. The name of the plant was Palcasa.  Perhaps "Palcasa" is a contraction of palma casa, or house of palms, sorta? "Palm House... in the middle of our street."

At any rate, this plant is one of a dozen large plants in Honduras and produces about 10% of the country's output.  This particular plant has won environmental awards because of the way they use their waste streams to produce energy, and that is why I am writing about it.

[The Palcasa plant for extracting oil from African Palms]

[You can see small, medium, and large trucks unloading raquis of palmas into large reddish brown piles.  The processing plant is owned by over 1000 farmers in a coop and it processes about 60 tons per hour.]

[The first step to extracting the palm oil: Raquis are queued up in giant hoppers and get dispensed into  carts mounted on railroad tracks.]

[The carts are rolled into steaming chambers where the fruit becomes sterilized. The steam also helps separate or loosen the fruits (palmas) from the raquis.]

At this point something clever happens. The fruit is separated from the raquis and goes onto further processing. The wasted biomass material left over from the raquis goes to a giant furnace where it is burned. From this they produce the steam used at the plant in addition to generating electricity with a steam turbine. They produce 3.4 MW of power this way (equals 34,000 one hundred Watt light bulbs).  The plant uses a lot of this power, and they sell the rest to the national electrical grid.  If they had to purchase this electricity it would cost them over $8000 per day!!

The nut is removed from the pulp and the two parts go their separate ways, never to be reunited. There is some crying at this point, and hugging, and taking of pictures with cell phones.  But eventually the pulp goes to have its oil extracted and the nut goes on for further processing.  The oil that comes out is a mirky orange substance about the color of a pumpkin. It's called crude oil at this point, and goes on to get filtered and sold. After the oil extraction, the leftover solid wastes join their raquis brethren in the furnace to be burned.

[The crude oil is stored in these tanks.  The hill on the right has a young plantation that is probably not yet producing fruit. The trees are planted in rows and columns 10 meters apart so that when they are fully grown their canopies will not crowd each other.]

[The nuts after being separated from the pulp] 

At this point the nuts are opened and the almonds are removed and crushed to remove the high value palmiste oil. I'm not sure how this is done; I think he said something about an army of ballerinas and Tchiakovsky at Christmas, but I may have missed something in the translation. After the oil is removed from the almond, what remains is a meal sold as feed for chickens and other livestock. The shell from the nut goes to the furnace.  Everything is used in one way or another.

[bags of chicken feed being loaded on a truck]

At this point in the process, every bit of the raquis has either been converted into a useful product for sale, or has been sent to the furnace to help generate electricity. But I haven't mentioned one other thing: the liquid wastes.  What can be done with the liquid wastes?  You guessed it! Make biogas! My favorite subject.

Each ton of fruit combines with water and produces one ton of "mud" which would, normally, be a waste product.  But the mud is allowed to cool and sent to one of four underground concrete tanks, each about the size of a football field. They are covered with an air tight, flexible cover which inflates with methane as hosts of methane-producing bacteria digest the amino acids in the "mud". 

[a vat of liquid waste "mud" from one of the extraction processes]

[These are the flexible membranes that collect the methane.  Although I didn't see any signs, I'm guessing this is a no smoking area.]

[The furnace that burns the solid wastes is about 30 feet tall.]

[Some of the char that comes out of the furnace is reused in the biogas process to help remove unwanted chemicals, specifically H2S and CO2.]

The presence of CO2 in the biogas dilutes the energy content of it, so it's good if it can be removed. The presence of H2S, however, is more sinister. It will mix with water to produce sulfuric acid, a nasty substance you don't want floating around inside your machines because it corrodes their internal parts.  After removing these gases, the biogas is largely methane (CH4) and can be burned in generators to produce still more electricity. This is also sold to the national electrical grid.  Furthermore, since their electricity production is so green, they earn carbon credits that are sold to Dutch companies who are required (by the Kyoto treaty, I think) to purchase them to offset their own greenhouse gas emissions.  Cha-ching in Spanish is cha-chinga.  OK, not really.

The Palcasa plant is doing an amazing job at using every scrap of the African Palm to produce renewable energy, multiple useful products, and tons of jobs for the country of Honduras. Other large processors in Honduras are following their example and converting their plants to operate similarly.  It's one of the most successful things I have ever seen in Honduras, and it's worthy of emulation and adulation.  Oh yes, and it softens hands while you do the dishes.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Miscellaneous Images from Honduras

I spent a total of six weeks in Honduras this summer. My Spanish improved noticeably and I received my first and only complement on it by a Honduran national.  Then again, I only think he was complementing me.  I find it harder to understand than to mistakenly imagine I'm being understood.  

I got tiger-stripe tan lines on my feet from wearing my Keens and working outdoors. I even developed a little heat tolerance and have been able to endure the Texas heat much better since I returned (it's been 105 regularly whereas it was a cool 95 in Honduras).  I used to think that the idea of building up a tolerance to heat was a myth perpetrated by people who wanted to make me feel bad for using air conditioning. Well, maybe it is, but I have become a believer in the myth and in doing so received the unexpected benefit of being OK with the heat.  Of course, I lost about 30 pounds too, so that may have something to do with feeling cooler.

Here are some miscellaneous images from my time in Honduras.  None of them, by themselves, is adequate visual anchoring for a blog post of their own but together they weave a mismatched tapestry reminiscent of an engineer trying to dress himself...

[This is the biggest black plastic tank I could find.  They are made for drinking water storage, but we use them for other projects too. Our biodigester uses a 1,700 liter tank, but this Mother Ship is a 22,000 liter tank. "Maybe I could use it one day," he says to himself with a dreamy tone of voice.  I like this picture because it makes me look thinner by comparison.]

[I took this picture while I was waiting for the students to complete their white water rafting experience.  I was laying in a shady hammock on the banks of the Congreal river when I took it. The shoes are the Keens I mentioned from which I got my tiger stripes.]

[This is a toucan that lives at the Jungle River lodge and, apparently, likes lemonade.]

[I made a deal with one of my students: if I would go out into the (presumably) snake-infested gully to retrieve his misthrown Frisbee, then he would make my peanut butter sandwich. It turned out to have been a good deal, although I suspect I would have a different opinion if I would have had to use the machete in my hand to defend myself against like, a cobra or something.]

[We bought a dump truck load of rocks to form the base of our solar hot water heater.  It was kinda cool when they were delivered.]

[This is just about the last picture I took.  It's the sunset from Sambo Creek on the north coast of Honduras.]

Friday, August 12, 2011

Loma de Luz

During our most recent four week trip to Honduras, we visited a mercy hospital on the north coast called Loma de Luz (hill of light).  Our hosts were Brad and Trish Ward, who showed us great hospital-ality and brainstormed with us about future projects we could undertake together.  I was refreshed by this visit; I found kindred spirits, especially in Brad.  He and I spent a couple of nights talking late into the night about US culture vs. Latin American culture, about doing projects vs. building relationships, and about the sometimes unclear boundaries between capitalism, socialism, mercy, and kindness.  More on this discussion in another post coming soon to a theater near you.

[In the view from the top of the water tower at Loma de Luz you can see the Cayos Cochinos islands.]

[We toured the hospital that treats folks from all around the area.]

[Their facilities were nice and included a couple of operating rooms. They didn't let us operate on anyone.]

[The small (orange!) houses are for families with children needing extended treatments; think Ronald McDonald house.  The larger white house is a more permanent children's home that shelters vulnerable people like abused children, orphans, and women in crisis.]

[the front door to one of the little orange houses]

[This is Brad's "barn" and greenhouse.  He's making his own blend of fertilizer from manure, machette-cut hay, and biochar (like charcoal) for use with the acres of African palms you can see planted behind these structures. In the greenhouse he plans to build a system of hydroponics married with tilapia production.]

[Brad is experimenting with different chicken breeds.  The meaty breed used by McDonalds get so breast-heavy they can't even stand up.  I feel like that sometimes. He also has tougher free ranging chickens but they tend to smoke cigarettes and cuss a lot.  Maybe he can cross breed a happy medium?]

[Brad discusses his plans to use sheep to keep the grass down around the African palms, and to use free ranging chickens to keep the parasites down (they eat them out of the goat poop, mmm!). I tried to get a picture of Brad that was in focus but my camera kept focusing on the background, sorry.]

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Promise Home Orphanage: Part 3, Biogas Generator

As I mentioned in my last post, the Promise Home orphanage endeavors to raise large quantities of tilapia to fund its operations. Tilapia is big business here in Honduras (where I have been for the last 3+ weeks).  In fact, today we had lunch a little restaurant called "La Rocca" where they pull a tilapia out of the tank for you, whack it on the head with a wooden mallet, and then fry it up!  Lunch with entertainment! You get the head, fins, tail, and a side of plantains.  It's not Tex-Mex, but I like it anyway.

At any rate, if you have a tilapia business you either need to drain the tank a few times per year to shovel out the poop (somebody call Mike Rowe), or build a self flushing type of tank as they did at Promise Home. Our project is to build a biogas generator to convert the fish poop into methane gas which can be used to heat water, cook, or generate electricity, for example.  After the tanks are "flushed" the contents go to a sediment tank.  The idea is to slow down the velocity of the water so that the "solids" sink to the bottom.  That's where we come in.  And I mean literally come in.

[William dons the waders in preparation to enter the sediment tank.  His matching hat was not planned, just a nice coincidence.]

[He's using a sump pump to vacuum the fish poop off the bottom of the sediment tank.  The water is not clear enough to see through, so you have to step around to feel where you have vacuumed and where you have not.  Squishy stuff underfoot = need to vacuum.]

[The green hose was 2" in diameter which made it pretty heavy and hard to manage when it was full.  We switched to a 1" black polyducto hose like the one in the foreground.]

[This is one of my favorite pictures, mostly for the gross-out factor.  This is where the sump pump empties into a 600 gallon tank. It's a fountain of renewable energy!  The tank is manufactured for use in collecting drinking water, and we cut the top off with a circular saw.  If the tank was square, we would use a square saw. Ba dump bump.  The black tank in the picture behind Tim will be inserted, upside down, onto the "fountain" and will fill up with sludge.  Being inverted it will be able to collect the gas produced without leaking.  It must all be kept in an oxygen-free environment on account of that's the way the bacteria like it.]

[We turned the pump off after about 500 gallons. Later we added a little lime water to control the pH levels and a triple dose of Rid-X Septic Tank treatment to try and jump start the bacterial growth.  Make my coffee a Rid-X triple shot low fat mocha with calcium carbonate sprinkles, por favor.]

Here's how it works.  First, a class of bacteria called Acid Forming bacteria break down the complex organic molecules into fatty acids.  Then a second class of bacteria called Methane Forming bacterial eat these acids and produce methane gas (CH4) as a byproduct. This is the same gas that we commonly refer to as "natural gas" and it can be burned in any of the same appliances such as burners, electric generators, etc..  For the last week or so, we have been monitoring the gas output, but it hasn't been the mother load of biogas that we had hoped for.  In fact, it's been just a trickle.  We're not sure what's wrong, but we know sometimes it can take weeks to get stabilized.  Stay tuned for more news on the fish-poop-to-renewable-energy project of the century!  Cue fish poop music in your mind.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Promise Home Orphanage: Part 2, Solar Hot Water Heater

In Part 1 of this post, I mentioned the motivation and desperate need for adequately funded facilities for orphans in Honduras. Promise Home, located in Toyos, Honduras, endeavors to be a financially self-sustaining orphanage that also provides both education and vocational training to their children, so that the young adults leaving their care are prepared to enter the Honduran culture, not the culture of North America.  To fund this monumental project, they have planted lots of fruit trees, a plantation of African Palms, and a fish farm to grow thousands of tilapia.  African palms may be the largest industry in Honduras, I'm not sure, but it's huge.  And lots of folks are growing tilapia too, so these two revenue streams for the orphanage will also serve as the vocational "classrooms". 

Why financially self-sustaining you ask?  Because there are lots of examples of orphanages that operate on donations that start off strong, but later the donor base erodes away and then they are underfunded and under utilized.  So at Promise Home, the idea is to generate a business using the transient donations, and use the ongoing revenues of that business to run the orphanage in the long term.  

One of our projects to support them is to design and build an inexpensive solar hot water heater. This post shows photos from our work. The tilapia grow better in warm water, so this could be a big help to them.  To date, we have 24 black "polyducto" tubes, each 150 feet long.  They lay on a bed of gravel and are irradiated by the intense sunshine as water is pumped through them.  We are able to heat a 600 gallon tank in a few hours and have a peak power level of over 10 kW.

[closeup of pipes on the ground]

[high tech pipe holder]

[Sarah pulling pipes]

[each roll is 200 ft long and costs 200 Lempiras, or $10]

[we bought 2,477,316 rocks, each individually wrapped]

[Sarah checking the level of things]

[view from Promise Home]

[Tim built a giant potato gun.  You can see the 600 gallon black storage tank on the left. This is where the circulated water is stored and gets hotter and hotter.  I call it the jacuzzi.]

[20 foot lengths of 3 inch PVC pipes, loaded in the nearby town and driven to the site Honduran style]

[day one of surveying, I loaded my photos in reverse order...duh]

[If you've read this far, you're either a techie or a blood relative and feel obligated to do so.  At any rate, here is the performance data. The circulating water coming out of the black tubes is the red curve, and the 600 gallon storage tank temperature is the blue curve.  You can see about 1:30 PM we had a rain storm and the device actually started cooling the water, instead of heating it!! We will have to build a regulating mechanism to keep our system from acting like this: a gigantic automobile radiator!]

So I realize now that I am at the end of this post and I don't have a picture of the final product. Blogging for Dummies would be very critical of me. Oh well. It's not like you're paying to read this.  Who am I kidding, it's not like you're even reading it!

Promise Home Orphanage: Part 1, Nueva Esparansa

I am with a team of engineering students serving the Promise Home orphanage in Toyos, Honduras. Toyos is a little town an hour and a half from San Pedro Sula, the second largest city in Honduras and the home of the state-run Nueva Esparansa (New Hope) center for children.  Nueva Esparansa is where children of the city are taken when they are taken away from their parents. This might be because they are abused, orphaned, abandoned, or simply can't be afforded anymore on account of Papa ran off and now Mama can't feed the whole flock.  It's where the children of drug addicts sometimes are taken, and it's where children with special needs are taken to never return.  It's insultingly underfunded (less than $0.75 per child per day) and devoid of hope, despite its name.

But we are assisting a new private orphanage called Promise Home with infrastructure projects as they prepare a place that can receive kids like these.  My next few posts will be about our work at Promise Home.

[these kids were taking naps on the ceramic tile floor, cool but hard]

[We spent a lot of time in the baby room holding the little ones and giving them some love. Lucy's arms were sore the next day from so much holding.]

[childrens' beds]

I want to make jokes about the name Nueva Esparansa, and how it's the same as episode IV, "A New Hope", otherwise known as the original Star Wars. But this place isn't in a galaxy far far away.  It's here in the real world.  And it's almost hopeless.  So it's not very funny. But I make jokes anyway, because it was so upsetting that jokes help me cope.  I must have issues.

To get to Nueva Esparansa we had to drive through a very poor neighborhood with lots of "squatters" living in make shift housing on par with the ones I have seen Nairobi, though fewer in number.  As we approached the site, we saw a 15 foot concrete wall in which a huge steel door opened for us to drive through. It was reminiscent of the Black Gate of Mordor, but that's yet another movie.  The building was rather new and clean and the workers inside were pleasant and professional.

We were given the tour of the play areas, classrooms, and sleeping quarters, and while the supplies were meager, the thing that really upset me was not the facilities but the fact that this place was needed at all.  In one room we held babies, sometimes two at a time, so they could receive a little more attention than their caretakers could give.  There was a boy with a condition (perhaps muscular dystrophy?) that could not speak. He seemed to spend most of his days sitting on a pad on the floor. He seemed about 12 years old, and my guess is that he is a permanent resident.  He laughed at the funny things the babies did and liked it when I made funny sounds with my mouth. There were also two boys, each 10 years old, that had some type of mental retardation.  They were left in baby cribs almost all of the time. Their diapers were changed while I was there. They are given no training or education, and will also likely never leave.  The special care they require is too expensive, and their chances for adoption are very small.  They have been thrown away.  These boys, more than anything else I saw that day, broke my heart.

My team of students was also touched by their time at Nueva Esparansa, and everyone was remotivated to work hard on our projects for Promise Home.  The next few posts will describe these projects, but this post is meant to illustrate the need of it.