Solar Thermal Energy

Energy balls ho!!!

Nikola Tesla once said, “electric power is everywhere present in unlimited quantities and can drive the world’s machinery without the need of coal, oil, gas, or any other of the common fuels.” He was referring to research he was doing on what he called “cosmic rays” but his words can be interpreted today to support the use of the energy supplied by solar radiation. According to NASA, our nearest and dearest star, the sun, emits approximately 3.8 x 1033¬†ergs/second, or about 5 x 1023¬†horsepower/second or 3,814,254.84 watts/second. Enough, according to NASA, to “melt a bridge of ice 2 miles wide, 1 mile thick, and extending the entire way from the Earth to the Sun,¬†in one second.” To put it in a more Earthly perspective, we humans with our ipods, boob-tubes, magic finger mattresses and other electric must-haves consumed a mere 1,523.552 watts in the year 2008. The sun is an astoundingly bountiful source of free energy that literally rains down from the heavens every second of every day and the great thing about it is that harnessing that energy is so easy and so “low-tech” that even a grade-schooler can do it. Why isn’t our entire civilization doing it? Instead of diving down the political, conspiracy rabbit hole that inevitably ends in rants about reptilian overlords and illuminati puppet-masters, I will simply lay out the beauty and simplicity of solar thermal energy production technology. I’ll look at the pros of it in contrast to the cons of other sources of power and review where it is being utilized in our world and what plans there are for its future.

When I was in elementary school in the early 1990s, I was fortunate enough to live near the Shenandoah Environment and Education Center in Newnan, Georgia. My class was treated to what I remember as fairly regular field trips to the center where our young, fertile minds were enriched with all sorts of activities designed to foster environmental awareness, activism and technological curiosity. One of these activities I remember vividly as it not only sated my hunger for knowledge but my literal hunger as well. It was a solar hot dog cooker. Using only household items like a shoe box and tin foil, I learned it was possible to harness the power of the sun to actually cook a hotdog. This was a watershed for me that eventually led to the demise of hundreds of innocent insects by way of solar death ray in mine and my friends’ backyards but I digress. This simple technology can actually be used to create very large amounts of power‚Äďenough to energize entire cities. Plus, the footprint for this energy production might as well be non-existent when compared to those of nuclear, coal, gas and oil because there is no non-renewable fuel to mine, there are no waste products and there are even imaginable scenarios in which there need not even be an actual single-use facility campus taking up valuable real estate.

The concept behind generating electricity is remarkably simple. I think most ordinary people probably imagine that the power coming through the outlets on their walls comes from some magical place beyond the realm of the average person’s understanding. This my friends, is not the case. Power plants, though obviously complicated systems as a whole, are simply a means of turning a turbine generator. Even the most complicated nuclear power plants simply provide a heat source that generates steam to turn a turbine generator. The sad part of this is that, as mentioned previously, the environmental cost of these plants is just too high. Especially when we consider the alternative, solar thermal plants. Coal and nuclear require strip mining mountain tops, a non-renewable process that creates toxic slurry that seeps into drinking water, endangers the lives of miners and their families and leaves irreparable scars on the landscape.

If you squint your eyes it kinda looks like a necrotic spider bite

Once refined and taken to the plant, some coal gets converted into energy but the rest gets burned off into gases and particulates that pollute the air, water, wildlife, etc. and nuclear produces un-usable, toxic nuclear waste that has to be buried and stored for thousands of years before it becomes benign enough to be assimilated into the ecosystem again. None of this even addresses the fact that the actual plant campuses, in addition to the millions of acres of mines required to keep them functioning, monopolize hundreds of acres in their own right. To paraphrase writer Ted Nace, “overall, based on figures compiled by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for the years prior to the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act (1977) and by the Office of Surface Mining for the subsequent years, approximately¬†8.4 million acres of land have been surface mined¬†in the US alone. Continuing the current rate of surface mining for the next half-century would require approximately 7 million more acres to be surface or longwall mined. That estimate is based on the presumption that the quality of coal and the thickness of ore veins will not decline over time. Realistically, such a decline is unavoidable, based on the “good business” practice of mining the best and most accessible coal first. So 7 million acres is a conservative estimate and does not take into account land used for the construction of new coal-powered plants.”

Solar thermal power plants require only heliostat mirrors, some fancy plumbing and the acreage required for said mirrors and plumbing. The obvious joke to be made here by any witty (unlikely) critic of solar thermal power is that it’s just a bunch of “smoke and mirrors,” but anyone making that claim simply has their facts wrong. Reality emphatically invalidates them. To borrow from Nace again, “Based on the current mix of mining techniques, a solar thermal plant like Blythe [The¬†Blythe Solar Power Project¬†is a¬†solar power¬†station under construction in¬†Riverside County, California.] will produce¬†18 GWh per acre of land over a 60-year period. In contrast, a coal-fired power plant will produce¬†15 GWh per acre of mined land. In other words, the land footprint of coal is about 20 percent bigger than the land footprint of solar thermal.”

In the country of Spain, just on the outskirts of the city of Seville, lies the PS10 Solar Power Station, Europe’s first commercial solar power plant. Rising up out of the countryside as “Top Gear” host James May puts it, “like a modern cathedral for the worship of some forgotten deity,” is a series of aesthetically-pleasing towers and mirrors, which are¬†part of a larger project set to produce enough green energy for 180,000 homes, or most of the city of Seville. The completed project will produce over 300MW, will include towers, two more of which are under construction, photovoltaic power plants and a mixture of newer parabolic solar collectors which will be installed at a later date. The entire power project will be fully operational by 2013 and will generate zero greenhouse gas emissions.

It’s incredible that this will be accomplished using the same principles behind frying an ant with a magnifying glass or cooking a hotdog with tin foil on a hot day. I imagine that if our ancient ancestors in Egypt and Babylon had mastered the unassumingly important

Hieroglyphics? More like Pyro-glyphics.

technology to produce good mirrors, our civilization might be more advanced by more than a millenium (the first modern silvered-glass¬†mirror is credited to German chemist Justus von Liebig¬†in 1835). Of course that’s only my conjecture.

To continue on my course of conjecture, I can imagine a design scenario in which this amazing technology could be utilized to power our cities while sacrificing zero real estate for the purpose. The answer is rooftops. These solar towers and mirror arrays could be built in cities atop already existing buildings and would not only give us all the green energy we need and utilize currently useless rooftop real estate, but would reflect sweltering solar radiation away from our streets and buildings effectively putting it to use powering our lives.

Speaking of un-used or un-useable real estate, some estimates put desert as comprising approximately a third of the Earth’s land surface. This land is not arable, it is uninhabitable for humans and it is bombarded daily by sweltering sunlight with zero obstruction. Why not build solar thermal plants on it? It’s sitting there right now doing nothing but providing habitat for scorpions and pit vipers. Why not put it to work? That idea is precisely what is behind a large portion of the European Union’s plan to overhaul European energy consumption over the next 40 years. Current estimates state that only 0.3 percent (approximately 6500 square miles) of the Sahara desert would need to be covered by solar energy production plants in order to power the whole of the European continent in addition to Africa and the Middle East.

Of course there are hurdles to switching to this technology but I believe they all can be overcome and that the benefits both fiscally and environmentally are well worth the trouble. We should rid ourselves of the insanely complex infrastructure inhabited by the fossil fuel industry and trade it for a simple, clean technology that takes advantage of the renewable, ubiquitous power source that the sun provides our planet 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

This is Dr. Tom Voychehovski’s worldview game. Copy & paste the questions into the comment box and provide your own answers. Provide your name and a short tweet about yourself. The only rule of the game is to keep answers to the length of a tweet!

Evolution and Me and You

This game will¬†evolve into ‚ÄúThe smartest human of the week‚ÄĚ. But we are starting now at, so to speak ‚Äúgarage‚ÄĚ level.

This blog has no capacity for browsing, scoring, chat-rooming and site -navigating  frills.


1. Pick up your V number which is not taken- check the comments below.

2. describe yourself in 1 line ( name or else)

3. Answer 13 questions describing your worldview ‚Äď in maximum 140 characters- or twitter size. ¬†Mark them with your number .

Here are the questions. Copy them and Paste in the ‚ÄúLeave a reply‚ÄĚ ( They ask you to give name and email . This is embarrassing ¬†but they try to sort out the spam). Write your answers after each question. Click ‚Äúpost comment‚ÄĚ. ¬†Put them on the fridge and use every day. This your explicit Worldview.

I .What is the Universe made of?
II.What is the nature of mind?

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“Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy” -Benji Franklin

Personalized pint glasses, so cool.

My good friend Russell Berry has given me something invaluable. He’s given me THE KNOWLEDGE. I’m talking of course about the knowledge of beer making. Beer making is as old as civilization itself. Humans have been fermenting the drink of the gods since we discovered agriculture and started building cities over 10,000 years ago and I’m willing to bet, even before that. There are hunter-gatherer tribes living in remote areas of the world today and even they know how to make fermented beverages. No matter if you’re a loin cloth-wearing savage living in the jungle or a supermodel-entertaining millionaire living in a high rise in Manhattan, you love beer. And knowing how to make the golden beverage is an essential knowledge that must be spread. Here’s how we did it.

We set to work on a recipe for a summer brown ale. Berry’s Summer Brown Ale to be exact. The first and maybe most important part of making beer is cleanliness and hygiene. When you’re using bacteria to ferment a consumable product, the last thing you want is to spoil it with bad bugs. Wash your hands and Scrub your equipment! Cleanliness is next to godliness and we are making the drink of the gods so there you go.


Next, boil some water. The water you boil is called “strike” water. The strike water is water that is initially mixed with malted grains to form a “mash,” which is just a mixture of cracked grains and boiling water. Simple! Basically we’re just making tea out of hops and grains.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Step 1. Sterilize equipment.

Step 2. Boil water! When making beer you’ll want to have three-four large pots/buckets. One needs to be made of metal so that it can withstand being put on the stove. Stainless steel is best for this purpose. I’d recommend one 7 gallon stainless steel pot for boiling, two 7 gallon cpvc buckets for sparging (we’ll get to that in a minute) and a 6-7 gallon insulated cooler for mashing. The plastic buckets and cooler bucket should have taps on them for reasons you’ll soon see and the cpvc should be food-grade to avoid the leaching of toxic plastic chemicals into your brew.

Big blue!

Once your strike water boils you should pour it into the cooler bucket and let it cool to approximately 175 degrees Fahrenheit (these instructions will vary slightly for different brews). From now on I’ll refer to the cooler bucket as the “mashtun.” There’s a decent amount of jargon here, which I personally enjoy but for n00bs, I’ll supply vocabulary and definitions as we go along. A mashtun (pronounced mash-ton) is precisely what it sounds like. It’s a container for mashing. Russell modified an igloo tap cooler for his mashing purposes. He removed the plastic tap and replaced it with a stainless steel ball valve. It’s important to use as many stainless steel parts as possible when making consumables. Parts made of brass or other metals can contain lead and other harmful substances that could leach into your brew.

My feet are scrong Joe Rogan!

Now for a bit more shop talk before we move on. Inside and on the bottom of your mashtun is an apparatus called a “false bottom.” The false bottom acts as a strainer for when you drain your wort into the boil pot for the next stage of brewing. Russell made his out of cpvc, drinking-water-grade pipe. The piping has slits carved in it to allow the liquid wort (I’ll tell you what that is later) to flow through but not any grain kernels or sediment. You can see that the false bottom plugs directly into the stainless steel ball valve. All the strained liquid wort will flow through the false bottom and out of the spout. The long, vertical pipe sticking straight up is an air flow tube that keeps the pressure in the false bottom from building up and creating a show-stopping vacuum.

"The false bottom" via Sophia's Instagram ūüôā

As soon as your strike water has reached 175 degrees F, you’ll add your grains. We used four types of grains:¬†7.50 lb Pale Malt (2 Row) US (2.0 SRM) Grain 75.00 %,¬†1.00 lb Caramel/Crystal Malt – 60L (60.0 SRM) Grain 10.00 %,¬†1.00 lb Victory Malt (25.0 SRM) Grain 10.00 % and¬†0.50 lb Chocolate Malt (350.0 SRM) Grain 5.00 %.

This grain information isn’t terribly important unless you’re attempting to clone our brew. If you’re reading this and you want to make your own beer, chances are you’ll buy your ingredients from a different source than we did and you’ll probably also be making a different brew so ingredients and minor details don’t really matter here.

You’ll want to boil more water. You’ll be continually boiling water throughout this entire process. I’d estimate that it would be prudent to boil about 7-7.5 gallons of water all-in-all. Approximately 5.5 gallons will become beer. The other two gallons are there to pad your batch and to account for water lost as steam during the boiling process.

(Note: It is important that any grains you purchase for the brewing of beer be milled. Milling grain for beer is a fairly gentle process. If you were creating flour for baking a cake for instance, you would mill your grain into powder but for beer it is important to merely crack the hulls of your grain. This will allow the vital sugars inside the germ to be extracted during the mashing process.)

Double, double toil and trouble...

Snap back to the brewing process. After you’ve boiled the strike water and poured it into the mashtun, add the grains. Stir/pour the grains into the strike water slowly and in a circular motion to create an even grain bed. I recommend using a wooden spoon to stir-in your mash. A plastic one would be too flimsy I think and a metal one could make nicks or gouges in the wall of your mashtun that could provide safe harbors for bad bacteria.¬†Mash until the temperature falls to approximately 150 degrees fahrenheit. Put the top on the mashtun and let the mash steep for approximately 30-35 minutes. What you’re doing here is allowing sugars to seep out of the cracked grain. The liquid this process creates is called “wort.” Wort is the sweet, sugary grain “tea” that will eventually become your beer!

At this point, you’ll move to step 3.

Step 3. Sparging.

In goes the "hot liquor," out comes the wort. Beautiful.

The only trickle-down economics that actually work.

Gettin' on dat hot LIQUOR

Roll that beautiful wort footage!

Sparging is the process of trickling hot water through your mashtun for the purpose of extracting the wort. We used an apparatus called a “fly sparge.” It’s similar in construction to the false bottom. Russell made his fly sparge out of the same drinking-water-grade cpvc piping but instead of slits, it has holes drilled in it at intervals to allow the water to trickle evenly through the mash. You need to evenly trickle the water, or the “hot liquor” to use the brewing vernacular, so that you get all that your mash has to offer. In the picture to the left, you can see our whole setup. The hot liquor tank is at the top. It drains into the fly sparge, which trickles the hot liquor down over the mash and through the mashtun false-bottom where the wort drains out into the boil pot for the next stage of brewing.

*Important note. We boiled down about 1.5 pounds of sugar and water into a syrupy consistency and put it in the bottom of the boil pot before draining the wort into it. This sugar will be important during the fermentation process as it will provide the yeast with the fuel they need to make alcohol!

Step 4: Brewing the Wort.


This is where the brewing process briefly turns from science to art. During the brewing process is when you add different ingredients at different times to influence the flavor of the brew. We added¬†1.00 oz Cascade [6.30 %] (60 min) Hops 20.6 IBU,¬†0.50 oz Cascade [6.30 %] (15 min) Hops 5.1 IBU and¬†2.50 oz Fresh sweet valencia orange zest (5 min). We also added some other spices to tweak the final product but I won’t list them here because every brewer should keep some secret ingredients to him or herself ūüėČ

This must be why they call it "suds"

The process of draining the wort creates quite a froth, so I recommend spooning-off this foam before the brew really starts to boil. We boiled the wort for 60 minutes. (*Note: You have to be vigilant during this process otherwise your brew could boil over spilling precious beer and making a huge mess. I recommend stirring every five minutes or so. Also, try not to always stir in the same direction. Mix it up and do figure eights through the center of the liquid. Stirring in one, constant direction creates sort of an “eye of the storm” if you will–neutral zone inside the whirlpool created by your stirring that will allow boiling hot liquid to shoot up and splatter everywhere. Just pay attention, stir when you see your brew starting to bubble up a lot and try not to burn yourself.)

Bog water

We added one full ounce of cascade leafy hops at the very beginning of the 60 minutes. With 15 minutes to go, we added another full ounce of the leafy cascade hops as well as a tablespoon of Irish moss for clarity. At five minutes left  we added the orange zest. And finally, at zero minutes we added the willamette pellet hops for added aroma.

Once you’ve boiled and crafted your brew, it’s time to cool it down so that you can add the yeast!

Step 5: Cool the Wort.

Just chillin' some wort brah.

Fermentation bucket in the ice bath.

Bob-it like it's hot

For this process, you’ll need a second person to help you carry your 5.0-5.5 gallons of boiling-hot wort outside. Once outside, you’ll use a weird-looking apparatus called a “wort chiller” to cool your brew down to about room temperature (70-80 degrees F). The wort chiller is made of a coil of copper piping with hose connectors at each end. Before you jump to any conclusions, neither the hoses nor the hose water ever touches your brew. The wort chiller simply allows the cold hose water to travel through the wort and transfer heat away from it. This process only takes few minutes, it’s fairly efficient. Once your wort is chilled down to around room temperature, pour it through a straining screen into your initial fermentation bucket and place the bucket in an ice bath to continue the cooling process. Next, if you’re interested, you can check the specific gravity of your brew. This will give you an idea of what the alcohol content will be once the fermentation process is complete. To check the specific gravity, you’ll need yet another little tool, which I’ve included a picture of. It’s basically a little bobber that measures buoyancy. It comes with instructions that are fairly easy to follow so I’ll leave it at that.

Step 6: Add yeast.

Work minions!

This entire process hinges on the abilities of our little bacterial yeast friends to convert sugars into alcohol. All you have to do to get them started on their noble work is dump them in the bucket. Next just put the top on your fermentation bucket, seal it up, put it in a cool, dark place in your house and forget about it for a couple of weeks. For Berry’s Summer Brown Ale, the initial fermentation time is approximately 21 days, however this time will vary for different types of brews. We made a trappist ale the other night and it has to ferment for approximately two to three months before it’s ready for bottling. Also, when sealing up your brew to ferment, it’s important to have a gas valve on the top of the bucket. I’m not sure if the gas created by the fermenting yeast will build up enough pressure to pop the top off of your fermentation bucket, but it’s something I’d rather not bet on. They sell the gas valves at home brewing shops for very little money. It’s definitely worth the few dollars to buy one. The valve should just be inserted into the little hole in the bucket top made just for this purpose.

There you go! Once your beer has fermented, you’ll need to bottle it. We saved old beer bottles from parties, cleaned and scrubbed them thoroughly with sanitizers and used them to bottle our beer. The best bottles to use are the non-screw top kind. We used a hand-held bottle topper to cap our beers. It’s just a little vice that crimps the tops down over the bottle lip. ¬†Once bottled, home brews should be refrigerated for 1-2 weeks before imbibing to clarify and for secondary fermentation. There’s also a certain amount of “priming sugar” you should add to the beer right before bottling to ensure good carbonation but I won’t go into that here. The info is freely available on the Internets if you’re interested.

The Berry’s Summer Brown Ale was very good. It was super enjoyable, gave me a great buzz and was very easy to drink. I think next time I would add more orange zest to give it more of a citrus kick but that’s about all I’d change. Can’t wait for our trappist brew to mature. We brewed it on Leap Day, February 29, (of course we named it Leap Beer) to celebrate the Leap Year. Should be a good one! Can’t wait ūüôā Have fun brewing!

Skynet Watch

Robotics scientists at the University of Pennsylvania have taken the liberty of doing all of Skynet’s heavy lifting and designed mini-flying “quadrotor” helicopters that can fly in formation. The sound they make can only be described as a swarm of locusts descending upon your town to devour everything in sight. The applications of these things for Skynet are pretty obvious. I can only speculate that next they’re going to strap weapons to them and put them on an autonomous network patrolling our borders. What could go wrong?

*Update! Here’s a TED talk by the guy behind these flying menaces.