07 November 2005

Fuel for a future

A lot of scientific computing goes into fuel cells; but a lot of it promises to come out, too. As computing power becomes every smaller and portable, there is an increasing need to provide it with the sort of long life power supply that will unshackle it from connection to fixed infrastructures. This is a need which it has in common with many other electronics, some of which have the mass market demand which allows economic research and development. In particular, the development of small, high efficiency storage batteries owes its impetus to the explosive market growth for cellular telephones which can perform for a working week without recharging.

László is an agronomist by training and formal qualification, but for the last five years he has been the driving force behind the evolution of a small fishing community on a desiccated coastal strip in a so-called “failed state”. Under László’s enthusiasm, the community is pulling itself up by its own bootlaces to reinventing itself as a research based centre for fragile but optimistic local development. Research, these days, means computing – and not just the obvious application of general software platforms either. A digital camera or sound recording device is a specialised computer; so are many other scientific instruments. The camera, typically storing two thousand high resolution images for study (and backing up to a hand held data vault holding fifty thousand in no more space than a pack of cards), is a mobile research dream come true – but the batteries need replacement after perhaps five hundred images have been captured. According to László, the small miracle of lithium ion (Li-Ion) and nickel metal hydride (NiMH) power storage is essential to realistic use of the fuel cell in decentralised ‘stand alone’ energy microeconomies – and, in particular, to the reliable operation of computers which he has installed to underpin the research activities making his small utopia viable.

Overall, the community has low gross power needs by European or US standards; it has been designed that way. Small scale solar, wind, tidal and geothermal sources provide more than will ever be needed even for László’s most ambitious plans. Consumption from those sources is not uniform, however, and its peaks do not match those of production. Energy storage or supply smoothing is crucial to any utilisation strategy – and fuel cells play an essential rôle.

Some of the excess power at peak output is used for electrolysis, the resulting hydrogen and O2 being stored for various purposes including fuel for a direct hydrogen cell array. So called biological or microbial fuel cells are also in use, fed on biological waste from the community’s agriculture which is surplus to, or unsuitable for, fertiliser or other agricultural needs. Methanol is also produced from some waste, for a variety of purposes including the fuel cell input – the waste hydrogen from the process being added to the electrolysis supply for the hydrogen cells.

Waste products from static fuel cells are not squandered. Water vapour vented as a byproduct is condensed and saved: the area is above any definition of a desert, but not so wet that a free source can be wasted. Heat from the condensation process is stored in a water bath excavated below a new complex of buildings; the complex includes a hatchery and a hospital, both temperature sensitive and benefiting from the heat buffer during cold nights. It’s not a high efficiency or high output system, but it serves a valuable purpose in smoothing supplies to the deliberately low energy economy of the community.
Starting hydrogen cells during the cold nights can sometimes be problematic, but daytime temperatures are correspondingly high and persist into the evenings after solar output has ceased; careful management provides sufficiently constant output for viability. Methanol cells are used primarily for dispersed applications, including unmanned data collection sites and the sustained operation of a laptop in László’s Landrover during frequent and extended trips around the area. The Landrover doesn’t yet run on hydrogen, and remains a gasoline dependent Achilles’ heel; László hopes to seal that gap soon, but the problems are on a different order from static applications or low consumption mobile computing.

For static computing purposes at the community’s central village (and the short range radio communications hub used in the absence of any telephony networks), power is stored in various low tech conventional ways. For mobile and computing and communications (such as the laptop and various related scientific instruments in László’s vehicle, or carried by various other community members in ox carts, or left to run in small shelters visited only occasionally) a different approach is needed.

Although methanol cells small enough to be installed within a laptop, PDA or personal radio transceiver are on the horizon, László is sceptical about their usefulness in his own situation for a very long time. Methanol cells small enough to be portable are a different matter, however. In a Landrover, a cart, an unattended shelter, even on a camel, it is feasible to have a methanol cell (typically housed in an ammunition box, of which a depressing number are available) which simultaneously provides an operating output (for a laptop used in the vehicle or shelter, for instance) while also charging NiMH and Li-Ion cells for operations away from even this base.

This partnering of methods is what underpins László’s strategy for extending a computing web over a large geographical area with no supporting technological infrastructure. The centre can use large scale static methods; methanol produced there is relatively easy to transport as required, either for mobile use or for delivery to self contained units. NiMH and Li-Ion provide the final link to completely “unplugged science” operating outward from there.

László is not just scientifically and socially visionary or technologically ingenious, there is political shrewdness as well. In the early days, bandits and roving paramilitary groups frequently took what they wanted from the community by force instead of trading for it. After a very short while, the lesson was learned: a stolen artefact was pretty much useless without the expertise which was distributed through the community’s population, and completely useless unless backed up by the fuel László’s hybrid renewable and fuel cell economy. Almost uniquely in its region, his community is now free of depredation and is gradually binding these rival groups into a delicate but precious scientific computing based barter economy.

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