Monday, July 30, 2012

More notable rivals...

Here is a paper on an approach to the degradation of amorphous silicon over time (the Staebler-Wronski effect) by a restorative annealing. Not sure how often those high but not crazy high temperatures can be accomplished just by stagnating the collector but these are early days in the research. It certainly is worth some research and is a creative response to the Staebler-Wronski effect and the need for high performance electrical and thermal performance.

I'm half way through the paper. Pretty well written too (as those things go.)


This is totally unrelated to my subject (hybrid Photovoltaic-Thermal solar collectors.) So if you are a purist just scroll to the next entry...

Mechanology (more stupid names for interesting products) is going through bankruptcy. Looks like a total liquidation as they have auctioned off their patents suite. I just happened to look them up today and saw that back on the 19th of July 2012 (just a couple of weeks ago as I write) they were putting all the gear and patents on the auction block. It seems they tried to sell themselves as a whole back in November of 2011 and it looks like that did not work.

I first learned about their Twin Intersecting Vane Machine back before 2000 I think. Certainly before 2003. The research was borne out of theoretical - seeming "pure mathematics" concerning toroidal geometry. Toroidal shapes are pretty interesting to me because they are DONUTS! I love, love, LOVE me some donuts. But in the hands of these Mechanology folks this same shaped space is occupied by a pair of vanes that, when spinning, create simultaneously a compression cycle (continuous) and an expansion cycle (also continuous) and to top it off: the ratios of expansion to compression can be different... All of this is a big deal.

For instance. The compression work done for a given amount of energy input was high enough for them to get a DOE grant to try to make them of plastic for fuel cell cars. Fuel cell cars for instance can get more energy from the same cell size (read same "weight") if they are run at higher pressures than atmospheric pressure. But these pressures come at the cost of the weight and energy appetite of the compressor.

But down the line, the real huge win could be a new format for an internal combustion engine. Imagine having a very efficient turbo charger on a rotary engine. But this rotary engine had an elastic power stroke that let it exhaust at nearly atmospheric pressure, in effect riding (extracting energy all the while) a larger fraction of the expansion cycle. They were years away from this but it was still a very interesting try. I thought.

I'll try to figure out what happened. Might be a classic "ran out of money" story. If the why is more interesting than that, I'll post it. Hey, if you bought the patents, let me know. I'd be curious to know what you are up to and if I can help.

OH BOY two blog post in a day. (you are welcome ;^) )

Prototype Work (or maximized minimalism)

Time out from the looking around at what others are up to. Since for the last couple of weeks I've had some time to advance on the prototype. YAY!

(Though, if you want to get a head-start on my review of the rivals check out:

The biggest issue for me is keeping the costs down but not being so thrifty that I quit (the cheapest option.) Running lean is one way to maintain an eye on the goal. EVERY item on the to do list is seen from the "how does this get me closer to the goal" stand point. Even the decision to make a prototype needed to be evaluated. "Running lean" is also a way to not let a venture like this one stink up the rest of your life.

I read a pretty good book on moving ideas into the marketplace a while back. "One Simple Idea." (I get no $ for that link and actually prefer to buy books from vendors that collect sales tax - to save me the hassle and 'cause it is more fair. But they are the easiest to link to and the reviews are useful.  A fight for another day I suppose.) The book is very good and has the advantage of being one of the few about product licensing aimed at individuals with new ideas. There was a lot of pent up demand and the usual invention books don't meet it. So good on Key (the author) for addressing it. Totally worth the price.  I have some reservations here and there but even the stuff I thought was off the mark was very much worth hearing his perspective on. He gives enough detail, as I recall, that you can draw different conclusions. I think of that as pretty rare (but then again I AM inclined to draw my own conclusions.)

So in that book he describes three different types of prototypes. Each has a use and a different cost to achieve. And he argues quite well that you should do just the minimum to get your product across and not waste effort and money on anything extra. In the licensing biz the licensee usually just needs to understand the product so depending on the context they might just need a compelling "looks like" prototype or mockup. The licensee usually knows more about how to make it than you, the inventor, do. So any effort to simulate their contribution (manufacturing and packaging) is not well spent. They just need to understand the new thing and the benefit it provides. Like a hurdler, we just need to clear that hurdle with the minimal energy so we can roll to the next hurdle and do the same.

The other two types after "looks like" are "works like" and then the dreaded "works like and looks like." I'm working on a "works like" because I'm pretty sure the illustrative/educational job needs to be done in 3D and some of the folks I'll be talking to would prefer to see it in material form rather than in computer simulation, where it behaved rather well ;^) . (How do we punctuate around emoticons?) My current theory about how the business side will go is that the prototype will open the door to more simulations. Which is good because my invention is a form factor and optimizing it really should be done in simulation where we can iterate fast. But for now a prototype is required, I think.

I called the "works like and looks like" prototype "dreaded" for good reason. If you find yourself doing one you better have good reasons because the expense is often enormous to make just a small number of anything (the whole point of mass production is to get the advantages of scale.) The more complex the item the more fiddly bits you'll be making in pricy small batches (or sourcing small batches.)  Key has what seems like good advice: never do a Works and Looks Like if another type will do. It is more efficient and shows your customer (in the licensee case) that you are in business mode and not wasting resources on unnecessary work.

So, as to keeping costs down, I'm building a test platform that should let me hook up and then tear-down the assembly safely and repeatedly for storage and improvements. The framework is wood, since I can work it easily with the tools at hand. Then for the other bits I am in perpetual "bodger-mode" (in the rough and ready, maker, sense.)

A good example of this bodger-mode, this weekend I grafted in a part from this type of clamp: Jorgensen hand screw.
I needed an adjustable sliding component. For $22, I got the drive screw (and a spare!)  The only tricky part then was finding a 15 mm drill bit on short notice... A call to Pastime Hardware in El Cerrito came up empty (a rare occurrence) BUT they referred me to Atalic Ace and suggested I check on 19/32nds as well. Bingo (meaning "Success!" for my non-native English readers) on both counts.

Some time with a paper model, some drawings (sketches really) and off to make sawdust! By 1:30 Sunday afternoon I had a working lift attached to the test bed and all for under $50 (yes it was an expensive drill bit! But now I know deep down that 19/32nds of an inch is darn close to 15mm and really, isn't the pursuit of knowledge what we are all about?!)

Remind me to tell y'all about how brake parts found their way into the prototype project as well.

OK next time a look at Cogenra and maybe Volther too...

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Where was I?... Oh, yeah... Technolgy also rans

In the solar field there are a bunch of technologies coming and going.  Not just Solyndra but dozens of concerns rising and falling. For a while I tried to keep an eye on everything and I still try to skim publications to see what is being worried about and who's out front and the like.

But the deep reading has to be more limited. Hybrids. Photovoltaic-Thermal hybrids get the close readings here at camp Solar Spork. And some are pretty darn interesting I think. And I'm glad to not be alone in trying to accomplish a marriage between the electrical and heat requirements of buildings.  It would be a very alarming sign if no one else was working on it. So lets take a few postings to look at the current cast of characters. I guess these are not "also rans" but "also runnings" in that the race is still on. (I do have some interesting "did not finish" examples to share some time.)

(OH READERS? please do comment some time - this working alone can make it hard to know if one is making sense. Love to know how you came to this blog and what you are up to and the basis of your interest.)

First up:

They used to have a better name. This one just looses me. Anyhow, very interesting technology and they have some money and some early adopters and lots of data... Lots of what they have is not even their own gear just their assembly of same. So they put an array of PV panels and then ventilate the backs and draw that heated air into a heat exchanger for transport to a storage tank and or use in heating. Pretty good reporting on the performance to be found on their site. I wonder at their choice of date ranges:

Two sets of twenty systems each were analyzed to provide a robust sample size. Performance data from twenty systems was collected and analyzed for a ninety day period beginning January 1, 2011 and ending March 31 2011. Performance data from a separate twenty systems was collected and analyzed from the period March 1, 2011 to March 31, 2011.

This date range seems custom picked to flatter their system. To be fair, maybe this is the soonest they could start the study. They published it in June 2012 so maybe there is more to come? We'll see.

Still they are making the case pretty well and like other thermal players they are suffering the super low prices of natural gas.  Last year or so they were not talking about retrofit installations but the reality of the slow housing starts in the US seems to have given them the hint that the retrofit market needs some love.

Take a look and see what you think. Are they making the case for Hybrids? What makes sense in the way they put it and what should be clarified.

(These guys seem like the real deal - spending money and effort on the system and on making the case. Not just pimping a presentation and a prototype)
[edit note: fixed a bum link: 11/17/2014]

Head UP and Head DOWN

Part of "owning up" to being an inventor is learning a process that keeps doing a reality check. Over and over. Making sure you are working on a product that will likely have a use in the marketplace. The earlier you learn it will not go the more time and money you save. Some of it is guess work. But not all of it, and we can shift the odds by paying close and dispassionate attention to the marketplace.  Early and often.

I had a discussion with a guy who specialized in modeling the performance of solar systems a while back. He was a fierce skeptic about concentrator collectors. He thought the complexity of the tracking and the optical losses would never catchup with the head start given to flat plate collectors.  Interesting talk and I largely agreed. I think I have met most of his objections (I was not in a position to disclose, I just let him lay out his concerns and objections.)  It was a super helpful talk.

One of the things that lead me to was looking into the concentrator charlatans. I had seen a number of them on my earlier survey of the environment but had not thought they were anything but ambitious and misguided. It has been my practice to alternate between
1) looking around at the others in the field of concentrating and hybrid collectors.
2) minding just my work to get things done.

So on one of the "take a look around" periods... off deep in a discussion board I found a guy really making a pest of himself about an Australian concentrator company's claims about performance and an ever-slipping delivery date. Pest or not he was pointing out some all too familiar patterns. One prototype. Lots of investment news. Lots of distributorships sold. Few technical details. Then they vanish...

The question is: are they scamming just the investors or themselves and the investors or are they just a technology also-ran? It is hard to tell. In some ways it does not matter. The economic system (as it stands) needs everybody to try something and we let the market sort it out. But now I think a significant number are/were not trying to accomplish a new, more efficient solar collector but instead to take a good looking prototype and a slick pitch from would-be green investor to would-be green investor and take as much money from each as possible.

But where does that leave me? I'm not pitching investors so I guess that gets me off the scammer list. But that leaves me two other options: Scamming myself (blinded by pride) or a technological also-ran. Oh, I guess there is the "guy who figured it out" option too. Only one way to find out which of these three.

Charge on.

Fiddly Bits!

I decided to work on the prototype... Shoulda gone to Intersolar.

Plan B is to scan through the intersolar event website and see who was there and check out their websites. Working in the gap between solar PV and solar Thermal puts me in an odd spot market-wise. Lots of folks on the PV side have no clue about Thermal and the thermal folks are just spitting blood with the prices of natural gas so low.

Prototype blues: I need one way vacuum valves that can lock. Won't be needed in the real deal but my works like prototype needs them. So I get to work on weird tangents just to get through to the next "real" part of the work. Satisfying in some ways to make tons of dust and have a fiddly bit of metal to do the job result but also distracting in a bad way.

How to make it? I have two ideas (basically the same design with two ways to achieve it.

1: Drill press method. roughly machine some small plates and bolt them together.

2: Lathe method. Design a bunch of concentric holes. Tap the smallest for the lockigng screw and stack the components in there and then we are off to the races.

Method #2 means dragooning a neighbor into lending some lathe experience and time.

Method #1 takes lots of trial and error.

ONWARD and DOWNWARD (into the weeds this week)

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Intersolar is happening in San Francisco this week.

I went last year and learned A LOT:

About the business climate.
About how the current manufacturers see themselves in the solar panel eco-system.
About how pressed the manufacturers are on costs as the prices continued to crash.

There were even some folks showing hybrid photovoltaic thermal solutions. (the very subject eventually, I promise, of this blog.)

I was carrying around a copy of my white paper on my research into a high temperature hybrid design and how high temperatures are possible and why they are desirable. I handed off a few. I wrote a bunch of follow-up emails. NOTHING.

well. almost nothing.  (spoiler alert: moral of this post? write thank yous TO EVERYBODY! EVERYBODY means everybody)

One came back with a big big clue as to where I might peddle my wares. For now lets just say "not solar energy companies." They have clamped their jaws around flat panel collectors and are riding the cost curve to the ground (the metaphor mixer is in fine shape dontcha think?) Most of the novelty in that business is directed at coming closer to the approximately 24% theoretical limit, shaving costs and economic/finance manipulations to make the market soak up and adopt solar systems faster. That and long shot plays in thin films and novel alternatives to Silicon. Not efforts to thumb one's nose at.

So I got no takers on "can we talk about research?" but a good bunch of practice on quickly outlining what I am up to.

Do I go back? Or finally put some fresh time in on the prototype? Stay Tuned.
Did you check out the cool roof project mentioned in the last post? I came across it quite a while back when I had an idea about using pigments like the color shifting cars to give roofs two different looks, one to the Sun and one to the ground. The pigment systems turn out to be too expensive to use in roofing where CHEAP rules. If you have priced roofing you'll say it is not cheap but on a per pound and per square foot basis it _is_ cheap. That business depends on low cost inputs, the pigments binders and fibers all have to be cheap and durable so you can afford to use lots of it and still pay for all the labor involved in installing it. It was an interesting lesson in manufacturing costs for me.

Anyhow. The idea of a roof looking one way to the sun and another to the passers by is pretty compelling even if the color shifting system cannot be applied. The idea was that for the direct light of the sun (the primary lighting on the roof) is for the most part not bounced to our eyes. Most of it is absorbed and or reflected elsewhere. The absorbed bit during the summer is the worrisome bit. All that heat... Thus the silver roofing in places where we cannot see the roof. Silver paint is pretty ugly and buildings do have to keep up appearances.

OH, a neat story I think I read in Amory Lovin's Natural Capitalism about a building superintendent who, once he learned about cool roofs and had some tie to the cost (I forget how he was incentiveizd) made it a practice to mop the silver roof to keep the absorptive dust down to a minimum. This tiny act took a part of a morning and paid off over and over in a big way in reduced energy costs. One morning and a bucket of mop water.

Funny book that, full of adoration for what turned out to be the fraudulent Enron and for a long while the website of the book stood like a ghost town. (I took a look for it again and the participation part where passersby could tease them about the Enron bits was not there anymore.)  But the book is not all bunk. Lots of interesting systems thinking and reminders about how misaligned the incentives are in so many economic relationships and energy systems.

Ok... this has been sitting in the draft folder too long.  More soon.