When the oil runs out: diary

Updated Friday, 2nd June 2006
When the oil runs out we will need new sources of energy. Adam Hart Davies and the Science Shack team spend a couple of days trying out some of the alternatives.

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Chris with solar powered chandelier


Adam with the pieces of a turbine

Day One

Pitch dark in a muddy field in Cornwall. The team finish erecting the (soon to be) ubiquitous Shack for the second time. It has suffered from its last outing at the Magna centre and needs a bit of shoring up but this can wait until tomorrow. It's time to get back to our pub hotel in Launceston to preserve some (alternative) energy for tomorrow morning.

Day two

Adam relaxes with the newspaper and his new chair while the team wrestle with the Shack again. We are at Rupert Armstrong Evans' amazing Mill Works which still provides most of the electricity to the local Cornish village of Trebullet.

He is the seventh generation of a family fascinated by moving water about and making it do things ('it must be a genetic defect'). Nearly all of the village pumps in Britain were made by his forefathers and most village pumps throughout the world are based on his family's designs.

Today he produces small scale hydro electric plants ('the contracts the big guys aren't interested in') both locally and all over the world. He particularly enjoys the work he does for small-scale farmers and businesses in India and China. And he has just completed a project that powers a herb drying plant in Bhutan.

Every TV location is littered with great stories completely unconnected with the subject at hand. As Dave Clements, one of Rupert's colleagues, starts to clean up the bits of machinery for the show he reveals that he is not only au fait with water turbines.

He is also famous for having survived his parachute not opening properly and falling through a roof at 60mph. This happened last year as he distributed poppies over Coventry on Remembrance Day. Rupert chips in with another unconnected story - he claims a family over the hill managed to fly five years before the Wright Brothers but never got the right publicist.

Back on the subject of water and turbines Dave explains that the beautifully sculpted Pelton wheel is especially designed to deal with a high pressure water 'feed' to the turbine. It has a knife-sharp edge that splits the water as it hits.

It then shoots the water back in the direction it came from, thereby making full use of the energy in the movement of the water. It looks like the sculptor Henry Moore owes Pelton a few bob for intellectual property rights!

Adam gets to grips with the various ‘runners’ or wheels that fit inside a ‘turbine’. He is briefed by Rupert who tells him that the Pelton wheel was originally invented during the American gold rush. Gold prospectors needed to power a system that shook the gold sieves.

They used water power by fixing wooden blades to their wagon wheels which they stuck in the river. In places where the water flowed with force but in a fine stream (perhaps beneath a tall, if trickling, waterfall) a more efficient system was needed than a simple bladed wheel to take advantage of the full power of the stream.

A gold prospector called Pelton invented a special wheel for these conditions – one which split the water and shot it back in the direction of the flow. It is still a fundamental piece of the millwright’s armoury.

Adam is, of course, here to see if he can live a life of luxury when the oil runs out. To test his alternative methods of energy generation he wants, by the end of today, to be sitting drinking chilled champagne in a recycled plastic bath, in hot water, and with a stream of hot bubbles warming the cockles of his heart.

Robin has come to help him warm up his bath by chucking a hundred foot coil of plastic into the local stream. The idea is for the river water to pass through a fridge which will do what fridges also do – heat things up.

Using the heat exchange principle and that long coil of river water (which is closed off and chucked back into the stream) this means that Adam’s bath can be heated up using the minimal energy that a fridge uses, rather than the wasteful electric element system in our immersion heaters. The fridge still needs to run off electricity but very little.

That champagne bath seems a long way away. And the bath looks as welcoming as a mausoleum.

11.30am We can’t get away from Pelton wheels as one more Pelton wheel fact emerges. A titchy little wheel is supposedly big enough to run all the electricity requirements of a family home. So if you live next to a fast-flowing, jet-like stream of water you can tell the electricity board to get lost.

Adam learns that Rupert, our resident millwright, has invented his own water wheel, an updated version of a traditional Himalayan wheel known as a ‘gharat’.

He is passionate about the fact that small scale projects don’t require super efficient turbines – ‘they can be low-tech but of very good quality’ – in fact the biggest problem he finds in India, for example, is the bearings. He points out that a turbine is expected to do the equivalent of a car doing a million and a half miles without an oil change.

While Adam and team go off to the luxury pub down the road your web correspondent retires to his temporary office in the old Mill to wrestle with his computer equipment.

A man arrives at the Mill in a big diesel Mercedes. What a shocker – wasting the earth’s resources in a great big gas guzzler. How dare he show up here of all places!

But the man in the Merc, Ian Tansley, is actually Mr Clean – he runs his big car on common or garden vegetable oil which he calmly pours into the fuel tank. Any old veg oil will do as long as you filter it. ‘It can smell of fish and chips, or Chinese food, or Indian, but that’s part of the fun’ he says. Ian can switch from diesel to ‘veg’ as a luminous button shows on his dashboard.

Rudolf Diesel invented his engine to run on vegetable oil’ he adds and he is simply doing what Rudolf originally intended. Ian has devised a system attached to the engine to heat up the viscous vegetable oil. It is then transformed into an environmentally friendly fuel – with no loss of performance for the car.

Vegetable oil, he argues, is far cheaper than diesel, but at the moment there is a big tax on its use in a diesel car – 45p a litre (on top of the 30p a litre of the oil itself) – which means his system ends up costing the same as diesel to run. But a) it is clean and b) he and others are now lobbying the government to remove this tax for people using vegetable oils in their cars.

However - there is one big unknown in the bio-diesel debate: if we all change to veg oils to run our cars will there be enough land to grow the veg? What do you think? Post your views in our comment area.

The water in Adam's recycled plastic bath has started to heat up - powered by the heat exchange system using water from the local river. Robin Curtis of Earth Energy explains that this system is not only energy efficient. 'We're liberating renewable energy from the river and the ground under our feet. This is a totally CO2-free heating machine' Robin first got interested in the supply of energy as an undergraduate.

'It is the fundamental requirement for human existence in a civilised manner, one of the crucial elements of modern living' he explains. 'In the 70's and 80's with the energy crisis and the miners' strike it was said that there was not going to be enough energy around.

But that is not the point. There is abundant energy around. The problem is delivering it in an environmentally acceptable manner'. He realises he could make a lot of money working in the oil industry. 'The money is huge but now there is the 'I don't want to be involved' factor'. And Robin clearly does not want to be involved in anything which produces C02 and causes global warming.

He says that renewable energy sources such as wind power are, indeed, costly at the moment but if you use them to power the heat exchanger used in geothermal energy supply they start to make a lot of sense - because the geothermal energy has a multiplying effect.

Chris, our resident superhero builder-cum-everything-else-useful-to-Science Shack is making a solar powered chandelier while Adam goes off for a spin in a vegetable oil fuelled Mercedes. Chris left school at 16 and became a joiner in a shipyard building nuclear submarines (he would not reveal any of the top secret details but he did say he worked on 'the wooden bits' in the Trident. Wooden bits??).

Then the Cold War ended and he and most of his mates were laid off. So he went to college and got a degree in 'art and painting and stuff like that'. He then got a job as a runner at Screenhouse Productions in Leeds - the company which makes Science Shack. Screenhouse realised he had been a skilled joiner 'so they said get back into that shed and start making things'. 'I am actually a cameraman', Chris adds, wistfully.

Adam uses a rather dynamic reaction to heat up his vol-au-vents. Iron oxide reacts with aluminium to produce molten iron and aluminium oxide. The two reactants only react once they are heated so a firework is used to produce that initial temperature.

Because the reaction is so strongly exothermic, it then produces its own heat to carry on reacting until the iron oxide and aluminium are all used up. The created molten iron is taken to the oven full of vol-au-vents to warm up gently; they'd be rather burnt if we had left them near the reaction!

The bath is now hot enough for Adam to get into it. But we have not yet attached the 'vortex tube' to the champagne cooler. Rupert's mill is now pumping air down a very long tube to the field where the Shack is.

The tube goes through a hole in the Shack wall and straight into the cooler via the vortex tube - which has air whizzing round inside it. The air on the outside is going very fast while the air in the middle is going slower - this process causes a temperature separation which allows Adam to chill his cooler.

The jury is still out as to how exactly the vortex tube works but two processes which definitely seem to be involved are a) 'kinetic separation' and b) the process of 'turbulent migration'.

The champagne is chilled, the bath is hot, but night has set in. A beautiful full moon - but not enough 'alternative' light from it to film by. So time is spent putting up lights (remember all the electricity here is still powered by Rupert's Cornish water mill).

Adam at last steps into the bath in his luxurious Shack, amidst much team hilarity (Cameraman Mike Wilkie, impressed by the decadent décor, says he has always wanted to make movies like these).

His piping hot bath is filled with aromatherapy bubbles powered by holes in a hot air pipe connected to the vortex tube. This amazing tube also has an opening feeding chilled air into his champagne cooler.

Meanwhile Sophia - one of the powers behind the research in the programme - is cycling like crazy outside in the cold Cornish night air generating power for Adam's TV set. He has chosen to watch a past episode of one of his own programmes - just to add to his self-indulgent fantasy.

He is also listening to soothing music after winding up his clockwork MP3 player. We think it's one of the longest playing clockwork mechanisms ever invented.

Rupert's next-door neighbours have been attracted by the strange noises emanating from a shed in the field next door. They are astonished to find inside the shed a grown man sitting in a tomb-like bath drinking champagne, eating prawn vol-au-vents and humming to Wagner.

A shed filled with giggling cameramen, researchers, test tubes and a TV powered by a woman somewhere outside in the field pedalling an exercise bicycle under a full moon.

Day three

First things first as Adam sits down determined to catch the sun's ray's and cook a full English Breakfast. The sausage however is distinctly lukewarm. However, he keeps his pecker up and is sure it will work later in the day when the sun is at a higher angle. However, even in Cornwall this morning it got at least as warm as the standard hot dog served in Britain.

As the bath is emptied after last night's success, Adam explains how it was made. The recycled plastic sheets were originally milk bottle cartons and disposable coffee cups. The team bent these into this coffin-shaped bath with plastic welding guns.

Adam takes a tea break but can't resist putting a Stirling engine on top of it. Adam explains that this amazing engine runs off the heat generated off the top of a cup of tea and is used in submarines and in space. It was first invented by Robert Stirling in 1816 and can run on any fuel and requires very little maintenance.

It's lunch time and the lukewarm 'solar' hot dogs are still lukewarm so Adam and the team head off for a pub lunch. Post-oil pub lunches would benefit from more sun.


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