Monday, 21 August 2017

Give a Man a Fish...

What we have done for ourselves alone dies with us; what we have done for others and the world remains and is immortal.  - Albert Pike

There's an unwritten rule of blogging that you shouldn't talk about long periods of not writing. It's a good rule but, as with all rules, it's best thought of as a rule of thumb, and not to be taken as gospel.

Today, I want to give an account of my lack of activity over the last months, and to tell you all about something really exciting that I've been involved with.

As some of my regular readers will be aware, I became aware of a local project, ostensibly run by the Catholic church, for young people in one of the most deprived areas in Manchester. It began as a youth project some seven years ago, and is notable for, among other things,  having lasted this long. Most projects of this nature tend to die a natural death within about eighteen months or so, but this one keeps going and growing.

It's a fantastic project, using music as a means of generating positive aspirations, confidence, and a sense of family. We have a tight-knit group of young people who come and learn to sing, play instruments, and perform at all sorts of events, mostly charitable, or in aid of other projects broadly like ours. We have an industry-standard recording studio with live room, amp boxes, vocal booth, and a large hall with a stage. 

I became involved as a volunteer mentor, delivering vocal coaching, instrument lessons, etc. and due to my past experience as a photographer, I've become responsible for the project's media, taking pictures, shooting video, and teaching film-making and editing to the young people. It's a perfect fit

One of the reasons that the project is still going strong, and growing, is that it's somewhat cyclical, with new members coming through from primary school and integrating with members from all the high schools in the area, and with older members becoming mentors themselves, developing these skills during their tenure with the project. It grows and grows, and we do some fantastic work, both in the furtherance of the general aims of the project, and in helping other projects to achieve their aims.

We're now becoming something of a go-to for other projects and charitable organisations for music and media for their own purposes. For example, earlier this year, we were commissioned to record a song for CAFOD's (Catholic Agency for Overseas Development) 'Earth Day' celebrations. They requested a reworking of John Denver's It's About Time. We duly delivered this, along with a video for their use. This was achieved with the help of some stellar people (pun intended), such as NASA, The Clean Ocean Project, Peter Bowdidge, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and others. I'll pop the video in at the bottom of the page.

One of the projects that CAFOD are involved in is the real reason for writing this piece, and my intent is to raise awareness of the project and hopefully direct some to its just giving page.

Let me talk for a while about the developing world, and some of the problems faced by its denizens.

In some parts of the world, just getting the resources you need to survive day-to-day is a full-time occupation, by which I don't mean a thirty-five hour working week, but actually full time, as in all the time you have available. This can present some real problems, not least because if all your time and energy is taken up trekking tens of kilometres a day for water, there's little left for the one thing with the potential to lift you out of that cycle; education. 

The worst hit by this cycle are girls and young women, to whom the brunt of this responsibility falls based on the patriarchal structure of their (and our, lest we forget) society. Even where education is available, it's problematic, because of the time required just to get water, and being able to read at night requires light sources which, without an efficient and reliable energy supply, is a pipe dream. Additionally, because of the cost of getting power to these remote areas, even where there are schools, energy is expensive to acquire, even to the degree that schools struggle to maintain themselves.

It's estimated that somewhere in the region of 1.3 billion people in the world have no access to power. Of those, on the order of 170 million live within a kilometre or so of a river.As is often the case, where complicated solutions are impractical or expensive, an extremely simple solution can tick all the boxes and even generate new boxes to tick. 

Enter the River Power Pod.

Image courtesy River Power Pod Ltd
This is the kind of idea that should, to a thinker, elicit the kind of response that Huxley uttered on first hearing about evolutionary theory. It's so simple, one wonders why it took a Charles Darwin to come up with it. That's not to say that it doesn't represent engineering challenges but, at bottom, it's among the simplest notions.

The River Power Pod is a portable turbine. Properly, it's an in-stream hydro-turbine, which is geek-speak for 'you dunk it in a river and it generates electricity'. This electricity can be used to charge batteries and drive energy-efficient LED lights, among other things, making education attainable for people who previously had little no access. 

And it doesn't end there, either. Indeed, we've barely scratched the surface. Other issues often faced in remote areas, especially in the tropics, is drought. Fields lay dry, dusty and unproductive, with the infrastructure for reliable irrigation also being expensive and labour intensive, putting it well beyond the reach of many. This, of course, all adds to the cycle. Power, fresh water and reliable sources of food staples, things we barely have to give a second thought in the first world, in which our most pressing concern is often whether we'll get home in time for Coronation Street or, at least, comparably trivial by comparison.

The brainchild of a clever boffin from Lancashire in association with several UK universities, the River Power Pod can be employed to drive pumps, delivering fresh water and irrigation to remote areas. Further, in some places, such as Kenya, many are relying on kerosene for light, cooking and heating. This has some fairly obvious problems. Kerosene has been classified as Xn (harmful) by the World Health Organisation. Ingestion is generally not problematic in acute cases, but chronic exposure and particularly inhalation, especially in elevated temperatures and/or enclosed spaces, has been shown to cause central nervous system depression, a symptom of inhibited brain activity. This is a serious condition with symptoms including shallow respiration, reduction in heart rate, irritability ataxia and loss of consciousness, which can in turn lead to coma and/or death.

Moreover, kerosene is, in terms of the average income in these regions, horribly expensive. Any solution that frees up that income means that it can better be spent on education and other social improvements.

The River Power Pod has been tested in all sorts of environments, and has had some commercial interest (it has to be sustainable, after all), not least from power companies and governments across the world. For example, in conjunction with Practical Action, an international development charity, the power pod has been assessed such places as the Terai in Nepal for early warning systems for flash flooding. Such early warning systems have been in place for some time but, due to the kinds of issues faced in getting reliable power supplies to such places, powering early warning systems has been problematic. The River Power Pod is perfect for such a situation, as it's robust in wet environments, meaning that early warning systems can be made reliable, leading to timely evacuation in flood-prone areas, saving lives. 

It's in Embu, Kenya, that the River Power Pod is getting a chance to properly stretch its legs. Ged Heffernan, former physics teacher and one-time manufacturing lead for Rolls Royce and for Mercedes in association with the McLaren F1 team and with indycar, tells me that among the biggest problems faced in addressing some of these issues in the past is simple reliability. Such problems can be catastrophic, and leave people worse off than before the attempt was made. Being unable to take care of energy-generating infrastructure, when systems break down, people whose aspirations have been lifted by the provision of facilities are left in total dejection when those aspirations are removed. Thankfully, he has a plan for that, and it's a doozy.

Working in conjunction with two local schools and a technical college, Ged, along with his colleague, Caitlin Thompson - a masters graduate in physical geography from Lancaster University - is training young men and women to build and maintain the pods themselves. This has the interest of the Kenyan government and, once up and running, will lead to a local industry worth real money to people in a sorely deprived region, and a firm future. This will also have the adding bonus of getting girls and young women involved in STEM subjects, something largely denied them at the moment due to the perpetual cycle of subsistence.

This is a pilot project, of course, and a proof of concept. The hope is that, if successful - and, all things considered, there's no good reason to suppose that it will be anything less than a roaring success - this will provide a means and a model to bring sustainable, renewable power, as well as fresh water and a means of irrigation, to some of the remotest and most deprived regions on Earth.

I caught up with Ged so that I could ask him some technical questions for the nerds among my readers. 
Overview: The device is scalable, so we can make them in any diameter from 100mm to multiple metres – a 1 Megawatt unit in a healthy flow would be around 15m diameter. We can make smaller in-pipe units of 10s of mm . However as our device is a hydro-kinetic turbine we are focussed upon the kinetic energy available for conversion and that is only a squared relationship with the cross-sectional area of the turbine; we are far more excited by the velocity of the flow as the available kinetic energy has a cubed relationship with this – I always like the raw fact that doubling the velocity of the flow gives you eight times more energy! For this reason we hunt out faster flowing water for our high output locations – nature is kind to us on this as even a slow river often has narrow sections where it passes through rocks or other obstructions – slightly over simplified, but halving the cross-sectional area of the river at a point can double the velocity hence yield eight times as much energy from the same turbine placed in a wide part of the river. But rivers are not simple, and there are areas of high and low velocity in the same cross-section of river; e.g. other than variations in riverbed and riverbank features, the outside of a bend, close to the riverbank, is often the fastest flowing element – handy for easy exploitation as you can hang the turbine in the river without the need for expensive bridges/foundations and without the need to get in the water! (Desirable in a number of the locations we work due to the alligators, hippos, and river-blindness bugs!) The location we have chosen for our first Kenyan turbine is a natural flume created in the river by a collection of large boulders. It is also possible to speed the river up by creating an artificial flume where there isn’t an undesirable environmental impact – this can be done using local material such as rocks or by simply creating panels from timber. We are currently assessing a site in the UK where someone is looking to create a zero-carbon home on an old mill site that we can use as a research site for further work with schools and universities. This site has a fairly low volume of water flowing through the site but we are surveying the site for natural flumes where the velocity is high and the cross-sectional area sufficient to viably insert a turbine, as well as locations for collation of groundwater and harvested rainwater.

Hackenslash What's the output of the pod?

GH A function of turbine diameter and flow velocity 
i. \(Pa = ½ C_p  ρ  A  v^3\) • \(A\) = area in metres squared (\(m2\)) • ρ = density of water \((1000 kg/m3)\) • V = velocity of flow (\(m/s\)) • Cp = the power coefficient = \(16/27 = 0.593\) (Betz limit - theoretical maximum power available)

ii. Our turbine has demonstrated up to 0.55 (That’s very good up at 93% of the theoretical limit!) • Turbulence and matching the load to the available energy play a major part in achieving optimal efficiency – a loaded turbine runs at half the RPM of an unloaded one but extracts far more energy from the flow. b. In the right conditions, one of our 250mm diameter turbines has the potential to produce up to 1.5kW electrical output in a 5m/s flow when matched to a decent generator. The one inside the boat, a 300mm turbine has the potential to achieve 2.2kW in the same conditions. That figure rises to 6kW for the 500mm unit we are taking to Kenya.

Hackenslash What sort of minimum flow is required for significant output?

GH In tank-testing at Lancaster University the turbine began to rotate at just 0.3m/s and technically produces power, but, as mentioned above, output is a cubed relationship to velocity so the power is very low at this velocity – unless of course the diameter of the turbine is high. b. 0.7m/s is our slowest viable velocity as the friction in drivetrains tends to be too high a factor below this velocity. In a slow river in Stafford, running at 0.7m/s, the yellow 250mm turbine charged our phones. c. There isn’t a typical flow velocity for a river as there are so many factors and it is really down to choosing a spot – even rivers in the UK that run around 1m/s for the majority of their flow have points where they are running up to 3m/s (e.g. River Eden in Carlisle where we conducted our STEM day with a local school) d. The highest velocity we look for is currently 5m/s as it gets a bit ‘tasty’ to work in anything higher than that – but we will be assessing locations with potentially higher flows while in Kenya.

Hackenslash what's minimum operating depth?

 GH A simple function of the turbine diameter – we usually recommend an envelope that is double the diameter and three times the length of the turbine being used. b. A 100mm turbine could operate in as little as 200mm of flowing water c. The 250mm turbine runs at its best in a depth of 500mm, but our turbines still operate (albeit at lower efficiency) when only a third of them is submerged in flowing water! The yellow one started to light up the load-cell when it was only partially submerged and at 45 degrees to the flow when we were demonstrating in Kenya. Little monsters – really difficult to stop them; even rotate in wind when it’s strong enough!
I think, dear reader, that it's a bit of a no-brainer. This is something we should, if we're concerned about the future and well-being of our species, get behind with everything we've got. It's a genuine game-changer, and has the potential to have the sort of world impact that most of us can only aspire to.

Please share this article among your friends, and especially see that it gets in front of anybody who is anybody, anybody who can exert influence, or money, or publicity, or anything else that might help make this project fly.

The project's JustGiving target is a mere £62,500, and is more than two-thirds of the way there already.

You can also find news and details of the project at their Facebook page, and on Twitter, as well as the company's own website.

Let's help to change the world and leave it better than we found it.

Asante sana!