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Saturday, January 22, 2011

Australian Floods

After a prolonged gut wrenching drought, large parts of Australia are experiencing epic floods.  It seems very likely that such, so called, 200 year floods could now occur every decade or so.  I could easily be wrong.  Predicting the climate is only slightly more reliable than predicting the weather.  The question is whether or not the Australian community is willing to bet on not having such floods over the next few decades.  And even if another such flood does not occur in the next few decades, it will reoccur at some time in the future.  Are the Ausi Communities willing to leave to their children the legacy of a repeat of the present disaster......

Or are the Ausis willing to bite the bullet and put out the effort to make sure that future flood events bring great benefit instead of great loss to Australia.  After all, in a country plagued by drought, arguably, enough water has fallen on Australia to last her for a decade.  Most of this manna from heaven has flowed out to sea.  What could the Ausis do.

Climate Change
First, forget climate change.  Sure many commentators predict that with climate change Australia will have bigger floods and harsher droughts but it isn't necessary to invoke climate change.  Just look at history.  Australia has had severe floods in 1890, 1893, 1896, 1898 and 1974.  This is just a sample.  There were many more.  The floods of 1893 and 1974 were higher than the present (2011) flood.  Brisbane and other towns of Queensland and Victoria have flooded before and will flood again.

Mark the floods
The second item on the agenda is not to forget the extent of the floods which have just occurred.  It is an all too human characteristic to forget how bad it was as soon as it is over.  Communities need to put up markers showing how high the water came.  This can be stakes similar to road mile markers wherever the maximum extent of the flood crosses a road, plaques in sidewalks, markers on walls of buildings which survived and so forth.  Every person will know how high the water came in his area but must be made aware of the extent of the inundation in the years to come as they visit or move to other communities.  Anyone thinking to buy a house or business must know if the building is in the flood plain.  When this is suggested in council, note who objects.  Could the objector have a building in the flood zone that he want to get rid of.

Move Buildings or Rebuild Up slope
At present Aus is rich. She is arguably the only country which didn't have a recession in the 2008 'downturn'.  She is rich because she is selling off her family jewels (minerals), mainly to China with only the gangue removed but that is another story.  The point here is, at present she could afford to take radical measures.  In the future this could well change.  What I would suggest is this.  The government gives full compensation to anyone in the flood zone.  The owner of the house or business could opt to simply take the money and bank it or they could use it to rebuild up slope.  However, any business or house in the flood zone has a note put in her LIM report that this building is in the flood zone and will not be flood-insured in the future.  In addition, if it is flooded again, no government compensation will be given.  This is a one-off.  Use it as you will.  

Clear the Flood Plain
Demolish and haul away every building possible except for businesses which absolutely have to be in the flood plain.  Turn the flood plain into parkland, wilderness or farm land and do not build levies.  In fact, as soon as a village has been moved up-slope, tear down the levies.  Levis increase the height of flood peaks downstream.  You want flood waters to be able to spread out as far as possible.  This greatly lowers the flood peaks downstream as the water spreads out and than drains back into the channel.  Floods also deposit much needed new soil on the flood plain which then doesn't reach the ocean and pollute Australia's coral reefs. Plant deep rooted trees in the flood plain which not only will create very attractive recreational areas but will slow the flow of water when the next flood comes.

Rebuild with Flood Proof Buildings
Any buildings that have to be in the flood plain, rebuild to be flood proof. This can include having very sound deep founded foundations, houses raised on stilts, blow out panels on the ground floor which give way when a flood comes, saving the building and so forth.  It will be expensive and should only be undertaken for buildings which absolutely have to be in the flood plain.  With respect to buildings, there are two types of location on a flood plain.  One is an area where, during a flood, there are strong currents.  Generally this is near to the channel but not always.  The second is where water simply rises and then falls but without much of a current.  Building solutions are different for each of these types of location.

and how about the benefits from such floods

Live with the Environment
Aus may well be entering a period of extreme weather.  This means very prolonged drought interspersed with very destructive floods*.  Desert people all over the world have learned to live with such conditions.  The Nabateans who lived around the time of Christ in the area of Petra had floods and drought and worked out ways of saving the water for the dry periods.  In the scale of things, their efforts were arguably greater than the Ausis would have to make.

* many would argue that she has always been in this situation

Turn water back into the interior
The Snowy mountain project does this to a small extent.  Find every place where it is possible to turn the water which is flowing toward the Tasmanian sea back into the interior.  This can include tunnels bored through the mountains so that when the water in a given dam rises to just below full, water pours down a tunnel and comes out to the West of the mountains.  This is not a small project but Australia is the leading mining country of the world and has the technology to do it.  At present she also has the wealth.  The only really good way to store water in a desert is underground and as much water as possible should be put into the interior where it can soak down and replenish the water tables.  It might be necessary to flood farms here and there but it is far less expensive to compensate a few farmers who run a sheep per 10 hectares of land than a to compensate the people of a village or city which is destroyed.  Besides, when the waters finally soak into the ground, the farmer in question has an unlimited supply of ground water available to him.

A second method is to use  electricity from the down flowing water and using it to pump water to the West.  However simple tunnels have to be the first choice where possible.  The works necessary to pump a significant portion of the recent floods into the interior would likely be beyond even Australia's resources.

Take advantage of the Rebuild
Rebuilding houses and business premises in new locations can have huge benefits to Australia.  All buildings can incorporate high thermal mass, external insulation, built in water heating solar panels and photo-electric panels, insect and fire proof construction and so forth.  Aus could end up with houses which are far more ecologically friendly, more comfortable, invulnerable to fire, flood and insects and use far less energy.  It would be similar to "The New Deal" in America which left her far better off than before the depression.  Aus could end up far better off than before the flood.

Disasters are also opportunities.  The greater the disaster the greater the opportunities.  Disasters are a bit like death.  If there was no death we would still be a bacterial slime.  Death clears the way for new forms of life.  The great extinctions of the world cleared the way for new ecology's.  On a much smaller scale, disasters such as the Australian floods can be opportunities for small leaps forward.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Charcoal Production

   Abstract
Traditional methods of charcoal production are messy, often operate in batches,  produce variable yields and  only use the volatile fraction of the pyrolysis process  to create the heat to char the wood.  A higher yield, continuous system is suggested which utilizes the combustion of the volatile fraction of the pyrolysis process to protect already pyrolyzed wood (charcoal)  from further oxidation.  In a commercial operation based on this system, considerable heat energy will be available for drying the feed stock or for whatever other purpose is required.  Continuous production should be easily to mechanize.  

Background
Over the last few years biochar/charcoal has become a hot new research topic. A number of factors, some old and some new have led to this situation.

Archaeologists have long known that Charcoal is refractory (doesn't break down easily) since they often find charcoal in ancient sites where fire has been used.  This is fortunate for them since at a push, charcoal can be used for carbon dating extending back 50,000 years.

Global warming has come upon us with the villain in the piece being our burning of sequestered carbon in the form of coal and oil and gas.  The resulting CO2 is the main suspect.

Some countries, Notably New Zealand, have rushed to sign up to Kyoto and take on a financial obligation for her production of green house gases.  This will cost the tax payers of New Zealand considerable money for no gain what so ever.  If we can use biochar to sequester carbon, this will reduce this hemorrhage of money.


All of the above were necessary but not sufficient reasons to spark the present interest in biochar.  The critical final factor was the discovery of Terra Preta in jungle locations.  In an area of  very poor soils, these charcoal rich soils are very productive.

Research efforts are underway all over the world to understand biochar.  The efforts are concentrating on the effect of different production methods (mainly the temperature at which the charcoal is produced) on its value as a soil enhancer and on its longevity in the soil.  In the Appendix, some information is given on the questions being asked.

However, the use of biochar as a soil enhancer will never become commercial if it is expensive to produce.  A commercial system should be inexpensive enough to locate at each source of raw material such as lumber mills with their offcuts and sawdust,  at forests with large supplies of prunings and forest litter or at an abattoir with a supply of bones.  It should be a continuous system rather than a batch system and it should effectively char a wide variety of material from fine sawdust and leaves to large pieces of wood and bark.The advantage of producing biochar on site is that it is reduced in volume and weight and hence is less expensive to transport.

The Learning Curve
As soon as Terra Preta was heard of, we started experiments  to produce charcoal.  It was thought that if charcoal is a valuable addition to tropical soils which are too warm to retain humus, it couldn't hurt to add it to temperate soils, many of which are humus poor.  The hope is that biochar will have the same water retaining and ion exchange properties as humus.

Charcoal Mark 1 consisted of simply making a fire, using material from the branch pile (about 2 meters high) and covering it with dirt once the flames had died down.  Anywhere a smoker showed through the dirt, more dirt was added.  After a dozen tries, discouragement set in.  The morning after the charcoal making exercise, the fire would more often than not still be hot and there were sections of ash where the charcoal had been consumed.  The system was laborious, dirty, batch rather than continuous and ineffective.  A huge quantity of branches resulted in very little charcoal.

Carcoal Mark 2 consisted of stuffing a 45gal drum with prunings from the branch pile and lighting it.  When the flames had died down, the barrel was gently tipped on its side and then upended, open side down.   Some dirt was kicked around the rim to seal it.  Next morning (many next mornings) we had some charcoal, the material was cold but there was much unburnt material from the bottom of the barrel.  However this led to Mark 3.

Charcoal Mark 3 used the same 45 gal drum but this time, a flame was lit in the bottom of the barrel using shavings from the woodwork shop and then branches were fed in to the barrel from the ever growing branch pile.  The system worked best if a large branch was propped under one edge of the drum to tilt it a little.  Air flowed down the lower side and flame up the upper side. Branches were added until the drum was about half full of charcoal and then for a few minutes, only very fine material was added to to give lots of flame which died down quickly but kept the barrel very hot.  This was done to ensure that any large pieces at the top of the charcoal were fully charred.  The barrel was then upended as described above.

During the production of one batch, large branches were pushed down into the charcoal layer to avoid them toppling  the drum.  When the Charcoal was examined next morning, uncharred wood was  found.  The butts of the branches had been protected from the heat of the fire and from oxygen.   It is critical that  new material is introduced on or above the surface of the growing layer of charcoal.

In all batches, the next morning the charcoal was cool, no ash was to be seen and everything from leaves to 5cm diameter branches were charred. The only batch with uncharred material was the above one where the branches were pushed into the charcoal layer.  An easily identified gum leaf, placed in the palm and rubbed with the thumb disintegrated into powdered charcoal while large chunks of wood, rapped on the edge of the drum to break them were completely charred all the way through.  A modest supply of branches gave a good yield of charcoal.

Why Does It Work
What is apparently happening is that as new material is put in the burning drum, it pyrolyzes and give out flammable gases.  Nothing new in that.  The burning gases use up the oxygen, protecting the charcoal from further combustion.  As long as there is a reasonable amount of visible flame, charcoal is produced rather than being consumed.

A Comercial Unit
As a first pilot plant, one could start with a cast iron or steel cylinder with the same proportions as a 45 gal drum.  For ease of fabrication it could probably be octagonal, hexagonal or even square.  A conveyor belt would bring feed stock to a feed in trough sticking out of the side (like the old trash burners had).  The critical part, though, is to turn this into a continuous rather than a batch system.  This could be done by having an augur at the bottom to extract the charcoal.  The charcoal extraction system would have to be  air tight to ensure that air did not enter the charcoal bed.  The charcoal would be dumped into steel carts with air tight tops and left sealed overnight to ensure that the charcoal was extinguished.

Combustion air could come from the top as in the simple home system or could be introduced through vents in the side of the retort, above the surface of the charcoal.  Having these vents adjustable would give an added measure of control to the operator.  The extraction of charcoal from the bottom of the retort would ensure that the top of the charcoal bed was always below the vents.  The air could  be introduced tangentially to ensure a whirling, well mixed flame.

For the use of biochar to catch on, charcoal production must be inexpensive.  It is best if it can be carried out where the feed material is available since turning wood into charcoal greatly reduces its shipping weight and somewhat reduces its volume.  Any system which is continuous will be far more productive per retort than a batch system of the same configuration and size and hence more cost effective.  Having to cool and harvest a system takes considerable time and greatly reduces the production of a system of a given size.  Considerable heat will be produced which can be utilized for whatever purpose needed.

appendix and pictures to come
pilot plant under construction

Monday, January 3, 2011

The reverse super market ploy

New Zealand is getting great prices for her logs.  Great News.  We have a very successful lumber industry based, for the most part on Pinus radiata, the Monterey pine.  All the forests are planted and as soon as they are logged, new trees are planted in their place.  Most of the forests are pruned and this is done three times early in their   17 to 25 year rotation cycle.  This produces clear wood with good structural properties.  By the way, in case you aren't familiar with the Super market ploy, it goes like this.

A super market chain builds a super market in your town.  Prices are great backed up by the huge buying power of the chain and her deep pockets.  Main street can't compete.  After a year or two, businesses selling the same products as the super market close down.  A department store opens up and more of main street goes under.  As soon as main street folds their tents, the price rises back to around the national average.  So what is the reverse Super Market Ploy.

A large country with a command economy and huge foreign currency reserves gives great prices for a raw material, in this case logs.  Little country which was the first to broker a free trade agreement with large country is delighted with the price her raw logs are getting.  The price of logs to the mills of the little country go up to the price the big country is paying (remember the free trade agreement).  Mills of the small country go out of business*.  Any guesses where the prices of logs will go when the milling industry of the little country has been destroyed.

*Three mills went out of business in New Zealand just in the three weeks leading up to Christmas 2010

There is nothing new about any of this.  In former times, force was used.  Think about all of the colonizing countries of Europe.  A good and very recent example is Britain in India.  Remember Gandi's campaigns.  Britain wouldn't let the Indians make their own salt so Gandi led a march to the sea to make salt. They wouldn't let India make their own cloth from their own cotton so Gandi wove cloth at home.  Britain wanted India to stay as a third world supplier of raw materials and for Britain to get all the profits from value added activities.

Now however, economics is used but the aim is the same.  Namely to turn other countries into third world suppliers of raw materials.  There are ways to fight this sort of economic take over.  Recently the USA successfully brought a case to the WTO concerning cheap tires from China flooding her market.  She succeeded with  some sort of argument which had to do with the effect on the American Tire industry.  It took America considerable time and effort but she was successful.  Such things might depend on the particular agreement that you have with a specific large country.  Of course this example is of product dumping rather than of the Reverse Super Market Ploy but the principle is the same.  You can fight at least some of the effects of a free trade agreement if you are willing to go the hard yards.  You also need considerable "smarts".  The ins and outs of finding a way to avoid economic colonization when you have a free trade agreement with a large country are far too complicated for me to understand.

  It is a complex problem involving not selling off your means of production, Generating you own capital rather than borrowing money, either as a nation or as individuals, living more modestly, not buying on credit not contracting big purchases off shore, not sending your industry offshore and so forth.  At the very bottom of the problem is human greed.  

I hope our politicians show the same cleverness and ingenuity as our inventors.  We'll see.