Exponential Thinking: Renewable Energy – Part 2


Welcome Back to Exponential Thinking: Part 2,2

Renewable Energies Part 1

There are many renewable energy technologies beyond solar power that we can tap into to help offset the costs of running our systems.

Anaerobic Digester – A Renewable Source of Natural Gas

Haase anaerobic digesterNatural Gas is commonly touted as an exciting form of sustainable energy. What they don’t tell you is that it requires extremely destructive practices like fracking in order to get natural gas. We simply cannot blow up all of our mountain ranges and pollute our water systems in the search for natural gas. It is an absurd tradeoff that negates the beneficial aspects of using natural gas as fuel.

However, there is a solution to this problem. It is possible to create large amounts of natural gas renewably while creating additional value such as like organic waste decomposition and landfill reduction. What is this solution? The Anaerobic Digester.

We can tap into the power of billions of anaerobic microbes to digest tons of organic waste and convert it into a delicious compostable slurry for the garden as well as natural gas to power our engines. This technology is becoming increasingly adopted as the benefits far outweigh any downsides. There is no odor as the digester is a closed system and all the gas is captured as valuable fuel. The “waste product” is actually a valuable additive to composting soils.  

Many innovative farmers are building anaerobic digesters on-site to process excess organic waste into energy and compost material. The aquaponioneer may consider it as a solution for the oodles of fish effluent a good system provides.  

Bio-Oil and SynGas – A Renewable Gasoline Substitute?

An exciting and relatively unknown form of sustainable energy lies in the form of SynGas, which I originally learned about from Appalachian State University. You can see the amazing video of their system that simultaneously creates biochar, syngas, and bio-oil from a single feedstock. Bio-oil and Syngas are astonishing solutions to the question of weaning off fossil fuels.

In the video, you will see the biochar oven pyrolyzing some wood chips. Biochar results from this because the oven evaporates every atom of material off of the carbon chain that acts as a molecular backbone to the feedstock. What is left is a carbon matrix known as biochar or charcoal. But what happens to all those evaporated atoms and molecules?

The video shows how this gas is captured and separated with a cyclone filter. Bio-oil is the heavier solids that fall out of the bottom of the cyclone filter.  Bio-oil can act as a replacement for crude oil. Then, the lighter solids are filtered out at the top of the cyclone filter. This gas is run through a radiator, which captures the heat energy (allowing one to heat a greenhouse) and condenses the vapors into a liquid known as syngas. Syngas burns like gasoline. This innovation stands to create an incredible machine that captures all the energy released in the pyrolysis process.

We create biochar on our farm at FRESH Farm Aquaponics as a filter and part of our growing media mixture. We are excited to build a system inspired by Appalachian State University. Please, I implore you to watch this video, click here.

Tapping the Wheelwork of Nature

Tesla was especially fond of hydroelectric power and for good reason. In partnership with George Westinghouse, Tesla built the world’s first hydroelectric power plant on the bank of Niagara Falls in upstate New York/Canada in 1896. This was a turning point in the journey for renewable power. Today hydroelectric power still represents a great method of renewable energy production.

Niagra Falls Energy

What I learned from My Inventions is that renewable energy isn’t just about generating electricity itself. Renewable energy is tapping into the Wheelwork of Nature. But how can we tap into the great power of moving water in our aquaponic systems? While it would be hard to draw any appreciable amount of power from a typical aquaponics system, there are still many ways we can tap into the power of moving water with aquaponics. The key is to understand that there is a natural force, gravity, that pulls water from the highest point down to the lowest point in the system, where it finds level. If we can tap into the energy of gravity as it pulls the water down, we can use gravity and other natural forces to our advantage and benefit.

The Bell Siphon – Tapping into “the Siphon Effect”

The most common form of this in our aquaponics systems are bell siphons. Many media beds use bell siphons to automatically empty the media bed using the “siphon effect”. I first learned about the bell siphon from Affnan.

By tapping the energy created by the siphon effect, the water is expelled from the bell siphon faster than it flows into it. This is how the bell siphon is able to drain a media bed way quicker than the pump fills it up. This extra energy added to the water benefits the system with increased oxygenation in the root zone of the plants as well as in the water itself as it is forcefully spat back into the sump tank. This is a common use of the natural force of flowing water in our aquaponics systems.  

Venturi Siphons – Aeration by Design

Another relatively common form of a siphon is known as the Venturi. By adding a small air intake into a pipe of sufficiently fast water flow, the Venturi siphon sucks air into the water. This effectively oxygenates the water for free. By recognizing where we can draw on natural forces like the siphon effect, we can continuously improve our aquaponics systems and effectively attach them to the wheelwork of nature, as Tesla elegantly puts it.

The Air Burping Pump – by Glenn Martinez

Another very interesting method of tapping natural forces with aquaponics is seen in the Air Burping Pump, which I originally learned about from Glenn Martinez of Olomana Gardens in Hawaii. At the second annual Aquaponics Association Conference, Glenn presented a model of his air burping pump made of transparent PVC. What I saw amazed me.

He was moving water with his air pump. What?

With a single air pump, he was moving water and fish solids, aerating his roots and his water.  The idea is, by drawing on the force of buoyancy of the air, you can lift or “burp” water up through an enclosed tube.  

Air assisted water pumpA column of a pipe is inserted into the fish tank, just like the hose to a conventional water pump. However, instead of attaching to the submersible pump, the vertical pipe takes a right angle turn into a 1-way valve. The valve stops water from flowing backward out of the pipe once it enters it.

Then, an air hose from a normal aquarium air pump is inserted into the now valved pipe. Air is pumped into the tube and because the 1-way valve stops water from exiting the pipe, it is forced upwards. The air moves up the vertical pipe and lifts with it a portion of water. The water and air cloud rise all the way to the top of the pipe where it is deposited into a grow bed. The water burps out as the air rushes upwards, hence “Air Burping Pump”. By using a pump like this, you can eliminate water pumps from your system, which can break down and also use a lot more energy than air pumps. Tap into the power of levity and you can save even more power in your aquaponics system.

What Does It All Mean?

Aquaponics is already an incredibly efficient, highly productive system that creates the top quality food. When Aquaponics meets sustainable energy, the possibility of creating a truly closed-loop ecosystem that produces more than it consumes a reality. We are, in effect, “attaching [our] machinery to the very wheelwork of nature” as Tesla envisioned a century ago.  

We aquapioneers are on an amazing journey at the start of this industry. Our innovations, experiments, trials and tribulations are all towards the greater good of helping humanity draw on the infinite energy source present all around us. 

Next Time

Stay tuned for next time as we continue our discussion on aquaponics and exponential technologies as we dive into Smart Agriculture Technologies. How are sensor networks helping farmers create a smart farm that is like electric fungi? How are robotic drones replacing the beasts of burden of the last 2000 years? Where is the Uber of Farming? All this and more in our next article.


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