Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Visualizing the Nexus: Do you Speak 5D

Section from Yellow Submarine


Do you speak 3D?

 Can you talk in "animated object"?  Can you communicate in "graphic novel"? Do you speak in pictures?

Moving pictures?

Pictures that move people?

Today's children are growing up in a world where those may soon be legitimate questions.

We often say that "a picture is worth a thousand words" but we still assume that only a small percentage of humanity will ever really develop the skills to be considered a true "artist".  Speaking in pictures, moving or static, 2d or 3d, is still considered the domain of "experts".
But it needn't always be.

On January 8, 2011 in the German newspaper, "Stellen" (nrw.stellenanzeigen.de) the front page article was
"Experten fur 3D-Welten: Qualifikation -- Neue Technologie wird in vielen Branchen gebraucht."
The English translation: "Experts for 3D Worlds: (Get) qualified -- these new technologies will be needed in many fields".

The accompanying picture shows a worker wearing a special three dimensional visualization technology that allows him to manipulate virtual objects in thin air. The caption reads, "Das Arbeiten mit virtuellen und 3D Welten ist gefragt -- mit Qualifikationen kann man sich fit dafur machen." (My loose translation: "Working with virtual and 3D worlds is in demand -- with the right qualifications one can make oneself fit for the new jobs").

The article goes on to inform the readers in this historical working class area of Germany that many of the new jobs -- in the auto industry, in medicine, in architecture and planning, to say nothing of film and games -- demand facility with 3D visualization. But they point out that getting qualified can take more than 6 months of intense study, and that the education system is not yet equipped to equip students (much less retrain the rest of us) for this sudden demand. In addition, training courses can cost as much as 400 Euros a day and the software is very expensive.   However, they conclude, for those who are truly motivated, there are tutorials on-line and there is open source software available.

An interesting state of affairs.  There is a tacit assumption that the ability to translate an idea into three dimensions requires special training and that certain barriers to entry for this heretefore domain of experts will (should?) always exist.  But is this so?

Whenever I think of 3D worlds my imagination takes me to a place I've only ever seen in a two dimensional landscape -- the Sea of Monsters in the Peter Max designed Beatles cartoon "Yellow Submarine".  There, amidst a host of marvelous beings, a quadrupedal winged clown walks around "speaking" three dimensional objects into existence.  When we first see him he opens his mouth and we see him produce an ice cream cone.  The vacuum monster ambles over and sucks it up. With consternation he then speaks a gas station, an Egyptian pyramid and a colorful tie into existence. Then the marvelous 3D talking clown gets sucked into oblivion ("or even further" as John Lennon quips...).


But while this incredible talent for reifying thought gets annihilated and lost to the sea monster gene pool in Yellow Submarine, that great two dimensional representation of the way the Beatles made people feel in the late 1960s , it may in fact be evolving right here in our own three dimensional world here on Earth in the early two-thousand-teens.

I envision a day not long from now when technology and our facility with it allows us to answer questions by conjuring objects and animated processes into audio-visual existence in real time. We would describe a building or a motor or even an emotion by instantly placing the object or representational graphic in front of the people with whom we are conversing.

On the road to that version of reality we still have a lot of work to do, but in my mind it starts with teaching our children (and ourselves) that it is normal to "speak 3D".  Rather than continuing to operate in linear 2d spaces, painstakingly training ourselves and our youth to put letters together into words and words into sentences and then paragraphs and then pages, all from left-to-right (if you are in the Western tradition) with the proper punctuation and all just for the purpose of describing a room, setting up a scene or describing a vector of motion and emotion, we can start now training them to operate in what my post-modern urban planning professor Ed Soja calls "third-space" -- a non linear environment where the medium truly is McCluhan's massage and our message.

The problem with descriptions of third space (also the title of one of Ed's highly stimulating books) is that they normally are only ever done in second space.  Ed writes about this brave new world using normal textual conventions. In lectures he speaks about it from "left to right", from "beginning to end", following the normal prepared-speech-for-the-lecture-hall format.  "Speech" is still two dimensional. And we need people who can think, and act, in 3D.

So what do we do?

One of my first stabs at training myself to think and speak 3D was to read and study Scott McCloud's mind-opening "Understanding Comics -- The Invisible Art" (and moving on to his equally riveting sequels "Reinventing Comics: How Imagination and Technology Are Revolutionizing an Art Form" and "Making Comics").

Now I am toying with writing reports using the software program "Comic Life" rather than Microsoft Word, and trying to think not only about how to use pictures and graphs to illustrate points better, but how to use layout and space, size and color, and other design principles like gradation, repitition, unity, contrast, and harmony (what my father, animation historian John Culhane, used to call "GRUCH" so I would remember them!).

My next steps are doing all the tutorials I can find and find time for to better my skills in the Gimp, Sketchup, Blender, Unity 3D, Celtx, CamStudio, Suicidator City Generator, MakeHuman, Scribus, Elder Scrolls Construction Set, Sims3 and other animation, game engine, 3d visualization audio and video production software (like many in the NGO/Philanthropy world I can't afford Maya, 3D Studio Max or Cinema 4D so I use what I can find).
And then of course there are the “traditional” (if decidedly post-modern and cutting edge) software programs for data visualization like GIS (Geographical Information Systems) and SSPS (a Statistics package) and Mathematica and a host of GPS oriented programs (Google Maps and Google Earths are the easiest to use).  There are commercial versions of Geographical Information programs  that are industry standards like ArcView GIS, and there are open-source versions like QGIS; all enable human beings to add space and place and dimensionality to our conversations in meaningful ways. And to add an emotional and hence motivational element and enriched context to my speech, audio and music production software abounds (Audacity is a great open source package).  The use of green screens and video editing software that permits chroma-key effects  makes creating a tapestry of landscapes and illustrations  in which to embed our lectures and speeches almost effortless.

Now when I answer questions about our work on solar hot water systems and biogas systems in the real world, I try more and more to answer them using these software resources and the techniques of audio-visual production and graphic representation I'm learning from book's like McClouds.

In effect I am trying to learn to speak 3D. And to carry on a conversation or give an explanation using hypertext, illustrative hyperlinks and some good 2D and moving representations of the three dimensional (really n-dimensional) reality we inhabit.

In my line of work it is actually very important to develop these skills now, not in the future, because so many of the people we are trying to reach (in our sustainable development efforts) are separated from us by language barriers and cultural barriers and class barriers and lots and lots of real three dimensional space.

The use of multi-media, of  music and video and gaming and -- let's face it -- FUN -- are paramount in importance if we want to share real solutions for empowering people and preserving or creating healthy environments.  This is a point His Excellency former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo made both publically, when we presented together at the melody-dialouge for civilization conference in Geneva, and privately when I stayed at his home last summer building biogas digestors with his family and community. We are both on the board of the UNESCO sponsored Melody Dialouge organization because we and many others (like Melody Dialouge founder Mehri Madarshahi and 5D founder Tali Krakowsky and I think all of us who participated in the FMX conference) believe that we must act now to use all available channels of communication for the necessary dialogue about real things that humanity must come together on to preserve (and better) civilization.

And so this was the intent of creating this forum on Blending Realities here on facebook -- to create multiplier effects and accelerators, share insights and skills so that we can be part of that evolving generation of human beings who not only thinks, but who eventually, inevitably will speak, in surround sound, melodic and musically intoned, audio-visually enhanced, animated 3D.

Or should we say 5D?

Can you speak 5D?

This module is about training us to do exactly that and discussing what such a skill set would do for Systems Thinking and helping foster Nexus Perspectives?

On Wednesday Dr. Robert Domaingue, who was a foreign affairs officer for the US State Department, spoke to the faculty of Patel College about the importance of this form of digital literacy, combined with hands-on-learning and appropriate technology.

He championed the integration of augmented reality and embedded QR codes for “Quick Response” learning and information sharing.  Here is a clip of him speaking about it:


This module is about training us to do exactly that and discussing what such a skill set would do for Systems Thinking and helping foster Nexus Perspectives?

On Wednesday Dr. Robert Domaingue, who was a foreign affairs officer for the US State Department, spoke to the faculty of Patel College about the importance of this form of digital literacy, combined with hands-on-learning and appropriate technology.

He championed the integration of augmented reality and embedded QR codes for “Quick Response” learning and information sharing.  Here is a clip of him speaking about it:

Dr. Domaingue on digital tools for sustainability education

We live in an era unlike anything humanity has ever experienced outside of fantasy and science fiction, giving us the power of wizards and sorcerers.  Our computers are as oracles were to the Greek gods, giving us instant access to more knowledge than we can even process must less understand.  Algorithms are searching for patterns that make sense of enormous amounts of interconnected data and helping put it in forms that our brains can at least make some sense of.  But we all need to retrain our selves to use the unique properties of the human mind to render our ever changing world meaningful.

The Nexus DEMANDS 5D visualization skills.

All the software I mentioned above is of course rife with possibilities, and the USF Digital Media Library offers most of the programs you need, as well as free training, to get started and go far.  I highly recommend you start teaching yourself how to be a fluent 5D speaker.  But I also recognize that for many of us, once we graduate, gaining access to these powerful tools for systems thinking and self-expression may become difficult or impossible if the career you end up working in doesn’t provide what the University does.  Most of these programs are very expensive and require constant upgrades and retrainings as they evolve.

This is why I champion the use of Blender 3D, which is free and open source and yet amazingly complex and powerful, and which will run on any operating system and will even run off of a thumb drive on computers you don’t have administrative privileges for.

Blender 3D is a paragon of Nexus technologies.  It is a 3D object mesh modeler, an animation program, a game creation tool with a powerful physics engine for modeling reality, a compostior, a video and audio editing program, a text/title generator, a layout program and a rendering software package all in one.  It lets you create your own worlds and play God and show several different alternative realities. This is why it is called ‘Blender’ -- because it blends so many functionalities into a single package and lets you blend realities.  In fact, I am so enthusiastic about Blender 3D that I have created a facebook group called, “Blending Realities: Creating  Eutopia by Blending the Virtual and the Real” which I welcome and encourage you to join.

When you invest your time in learning Blender 3D, which I will argue should be as central to STEAMM education as the real life biodigester technology project is, you not only come away able to translate your ideas into compelling, exciting, dynamic, interactive, colorful presentations, but you increase your capabilities for system thinking because navigating through its diverse menus and node and curve functions literally trains your mind and body (through hand eye coordination) in a hands on minds on way to think deeper more interconnected ways.

Much as I claim biodigesters are the Nexus of real world  Sustainable Development technologies, I claim that Blender 3D can be  the Nexus of virtual world sustainable development technologies.

There are thousands of great free online tutorials, both written, illustrated and video; I recommend those by Andrew Price in his Nature Academy  as the most useful for those of us in Global Sustainability because he has techniques for using Blender to create the most realistic natural environments possible.

So… how would you use Blender 3D in a class like this?
I encourage each student to basically do the equivalent of a Permaculture Design Certiicate final project landscape, but to do it in interactive 3D/5D space rather than as a static birds eye view document.


Above is a typical final project document from a student in the class of  my Permaculture Instructor, the famed Andrew Faust of the Bioregional Living Center in New York.  The students are asked to take a real place of significance to them -- it can be their home or yard or community or a place they cherish, and transform it using permaculture principles into the place they would like it to be.
Remember, Gandhi said, "Be the change you would like to see in the world".
In Permaculture we want the places we live in to be the change we would like to see in the world, and with a good plan we can transform them.

Blender 3D, of course, lets you transform that landscape into one you can walk through, fly over, look around, experience from different angles, just as if you were in a video game.  And if something you did doesn't feel right experientially, you can then go ahead and change it, at very low transaction costs (your time, reworking objects on the computer.).
It allows alternative realities to be tried out.

What I encourage all of my students to do is, as with a Permaculture design, start with a static map of the landscape you want to see transformed with Nexus Thinking and bring it into Blender and start populating it with 3D objects, first with the existing objects, and then bit by bit with the ones you would like to see, transforming the landscape into your vision for a better reality.
Want to know how to do it?

While getting the hang of Blender does take some time and commitment, you can follow along with my cookbook tutorial showing how I transformed the Rosebud Continuum landscape at Land O Lakes spoken of as one of our case studies last lecture and follow along with me.

Step 1:
Go to Google Maps, find and zoom in on the landscape you want to transform, turn on satellite view and take a screenshot of the area you are going to work with.
For example, this is where we have our student volunteer research site at the Rosebud Continuum in Land O Lakes. 
Step 2: Create a folder for your Nexus project in a designated Blender Folder (I use my Blender Tutorials folder and name my project folder "RosebudContinuum") and save the screenshot in it, then launch Blender and save a project in the same folder.

By keeping your Blender project and your screenshots and all your assets in the same folder you will be able not only to work with them without getting lost but if you choose to work on another computer you can save the whole folder on a flash drive and not worry about losing some media.
Step 3: Add a mesh plane, size it to the scale of your image and texture map the image on to the plain.
The first thing to do is to launch Blender and you will see the default screen with the camera and the cube.  To get started you need to eliminate the cube. You do this by selecting it (right click until an orange line appears around it) and hitting "x". The screen will ask you if you want to delete the object and you click ok.


Your are left with a grid in empty space.  The next thing you want to do is put a plane in that space that will act like your "Flatland" planet (the way some crazy Europeans used to believe the world was, ignoring the mathematical proofs of the ancient Greeks that the earth was round, allegedly until Columbus came back from the Caribbean -- though any sailor could have told you about the curvature of the earth through simple observations of ships' masts receding over the horizon... but that is a different story!)
You add your plane by going to the menu on the bottom left that says "Add" and selecting from the pop up menus "Add:Mesh: Plane".
Once you've added your plane, you will want to make it larger by using the "s" key (for "scale) and dragging the plane out to the size of the grid (you can make it bigger or smaller but this works for me).

The trick to being able to project an image on the plane is to "UV UNWRAP" the mesh of the plane (meaning you are preparing it to be able to work with the dimensions U and V, which are ways of twisting space so that you can work in X, Y and Z dimensions but also map flat images onto curved surfaces.  In this case the plane is not curved but the technique is what let's modelers put "skins" on objects, for example, if you made a cylinder mesh for a coke can and wanted to wrap the coca cola can logo on it.  You would "unwrap" the cylinder mesh in UV and apply a flat image of the coke logo and then wrap it back into a cylinder.  Another example is a  2D map projection of the earth  on a spherical globe. )

To unwrap a mesh object you first should split the screen so you can have two different views simultaneously -- a view of the plane as you or the camera sees it, and the unwrapped plane.  We do our UV unwrapping on the left by convention.

To split the screen grab the 3 faint "grab bars" in the upper right corner of the screen and pull back to reveal a new screen.

 On the left screen, go to the toggle button menu on the bottom left and switch from 3D view to UV Editor view and you should see a grid.
You can now load the Google Map you took the screenshot of by opening the file using the drop down menu below the image of the grid (use the folder button to open a folder and select the image). It should appear on the screen.
Now you have to "unwrap" your Plane.  To do that, select the plane, go into Edit mode (either use the mouse to click on the toggle where it says object and that brings up the menu to select edit, or simply hit the TAB key. The Tab key switches you between edit and object mode.  Object mode lets you move objects, Edit lets you edit the mesh. Once you have selected the plane mesh use the drop down menu for "Mesh" and select "UV Unwrap" (or hit "U").  

 You will see the highlighted mesh appear on top of the image as an orange square or rectangle.  You can now manipulate the size and shape and location of that rectangle using "s" for scale, and scale it in the x, y, or z directions, or move it with the "g" key and drag it.  You will want to position it over the region of the image that you want to be mapped onto the plane.  To see how it moves when viewed on the plane, toggle the view button from "solid" or whatever it was on to "texture". The arrow in this picture on the menu below the plane shows where the view button is.


As you will be able to see, as you move the orange box on the UV map of the image on the left, you will see the parts of the map move on the plane on the right.

  Once you have the map where you want it, in order to make it visible to the camera (for rendering later, for example, so you can take pictures or make movies of your landscape) you need to give the plane a material and a texture (in that order.)
The material can be any material of any color, so all you do is select the plane and go to the materials button on the right, click on it and add a new material.

Then you add a texture, using the image of the map you created.

Once you have toggled "New" for texture, you open the folder of the image of your map and select it.

It will appear now on the plane not only when you have "texture" view chosen but also "material" and "render".  

You are almost done placing your map of the place you want to "make green" in Blender so that you can then place objects like solar panels and aquaponics systems and biodigesters in it.   But you will notice that if you render the image the camera sees (by hitting F12 button) there is an awful bright spot glowing on the land (you can see it in the above image in the render view port without rendering).

That is the effect of the default light that you have in your scene.  It is like the sun, but it is too bright.  So you will want to adjust it.  

To do that you need to get out of edit mode and go into object mode and  select (right click) the lamp ball that is in the scene (there should be three objects in the scene, the plane you created, the camera and the lamp object which looks like a ball. 
 Once you have selected it (so that it turns orange) you can look to the menu options on the right and select lamp. Change the "point" light to "sun" and reduce its brightness to around 1.5. You will notice that there is still quite a shine on the map.  To elimate it, turn off the toggle that says "specular".
Now save your file and you are ready to start placing objects on the map.

Step 4: Go into bird’s eye view orthogonal (hit the 5 key and then the 7 key) and start placing objects onto the plane.
You can get most of the objects from 3D warehouse.

These models, which are available for free and cover almost every object known to man (down to the level of pipes and valves and bolts and screws) are made for the Google Sketchup community, but you can download the collada files for use in Blender.

Step 5:  Create a folder of the objects you want in YOUR world (solar panels, windmills, biodigesters, aquaponics systems, IBC tanks, solar heaters etc, animals, trees etc.)



(Note: the files usually come zipped so you will generally find the zipped folder in your downloads folder which you can then extract to your working project folder).


Inside the folder you usually find a file called "model.dae" which is the actual model mesh, and a folder called "model" that has the materials and textures.  You don't technically need these, but then you would have to put your own materials and image textures on the model.  So it helps to have them.  To avoid confusion I rename my "model.dae" file to whatever the object is, like "solarpanel.dae", but keep the model folder called "model" or the files in it won't associate with the mesh.

Once you have downloaded your collada (.dae) model and unzipped it and put the folder in your working directory and changed the name of the .dae file, you are ready to import into Blender.

When you go back into Blender you may need to join the two screens that you had made.  To do this you click on the three light drag bars at the top of the split screen you want to keep and drag the mouse toward the split screen you want to get rid of.  A ghostly arrow appears on the screen you want to keep, pointing to the screen you are going to eliminate.  When you let go you should be left with just the 3D screen. There are beginners tutorial on youtube teaching you how to navigate the screens if you have difficulty.

join screens.JPG

To import the collada file go to File: Import: Collada (.dae) file.

Save it in your project folder.
When it comes in it will usually be giant and very complex, depending on the person who created it. This can be the only tough part of importing models from Google 3D Warehouse. It also will come in on the layer of your map and this can make it hard to work with, so you are best off moving it immediately to a temporary layer to make your modifications.


To move the object select it (in this case it comes in selected so don't touch anything) and hit "m". This brings up the move grid button. The buttons will be dark grey where this an object and light grey where there are no objects.  

You click on the box where you want the object that has been selected to go and it will appear there.

Since this layer has no other objects, no camera, no lights, it is easy to focus on just the object you imported.  One of the first things you may have to do is join all the pieces of the model because many mesh artists create objects made of multiple complex pieces and they will be tough to move around.  To join all the mesh pieces you use the keyboard ctl-J to join.  Most of the time it works, sometimes it doesn't. If it works the object will change from dark orange to light orange.  If it doesn't work you may have to select different parts of the model two or three or four at a time and try to join them and keep joining until you have them all joined.  Sometimes, if a model is very complex and I want to be able to animate different parts later, I make a duplicate of the object while it is all selected, using Shift-D, and then work on the duplicate copy. You can even hit "m" again and move the duplicate to another layer.


Often when you join the meshes in a complex model the object suddenly becomes HUGE. That is usually because by joining you eliminated many control points that affected the model's scale. In any event you will have to scale the model to fit into your landscape, but sometimes it is so huge that it helps first to hit the plus sign on the top right of your 3d window to open the object parameters window and play with numbers in the scale area.  I found that I had to bring this model down to about .004 in order to even begin finer scaling for the landscape -- it had gotten so huge that it made the grid almost invisibly tiny.

Once I've scaled it down so it once again fits somewhere on the grid, I move it with the "M" key back to my map and camera and light layer (where I do my animations and renderings). You could, of course, simply keep it in another layer (here it is in layer 2) and toggle both layers on (by shift clicking them in the bottom layer selector under the screen ) 


Now you can start fitting the object into your landscape, using R to rotate, S to scale and G to move around.  You may find it useful to split the screen into several 3D views if you aren't good at navigating objects around the screen.

Rotate and Scale.JPG

When you have the object where you want it, you may want to lock it in place using the little lock symbols that appear in the parameters window to the right where it gives the x, y and z locations. Then you won't accidentally move your painstakingly placed object once you start working with the camera positions. It is a good idea to lock down the plane too.

Once you have things in position you can set camera angles and then hit "0" to see what the camera sees. From here you can hit F12 and render your first shot of the new improved landscape.

Step 6: Start populating your world with the objects you would like to have there.

It may take a while to massage all the objects you import from 3D warehouse into Blender so they can be placed, but once you have them you can move them anywhere.  Spend some time working on importing objects.  Or build your own meshes in Blender.  Anything is possible. The idea is to start creating a landscape that has the components of sustainability built in for Food Energy and Water.

Here are some of the images I rendered from my work on Rosebud Continuum's site:




You can put in fences and roads and trees and  animals and raised beds and greenhouses, ibc tanks and even Puxin biodigesters which you can see here in three different configurations. 
 The possibilities are endless as you learn to "speak 5D" and Blender is a great program to gain fluency in.
This is the simplest way to get started.  Later on you can start making your own mesh models, you can tranform the terrain, you can animate possible futures, add layers of data and other information… You can even do physical modeling of fluids (water) and gases (smoke and particle effects) and collisions and add gravity and friction etc.    but this is the easiest way into this exciting way of visualizing the nexus.  
Now I don’t want to mislead you… getting objects off of 3d warehouse and into your Blender project sometimes isn’t so straightforward, and some models simply don’t work,  but once you get the hang of the procedures you should be able to do it fairly reliably. And when we all share our discoveries in this new way of visualizing the Nexus the learning curve should be climbable by everybody because no matter how steep it seems, we will all be there to give a helping hand up and we all work together to express ourselves in 5D!

There are many many video tutorials on Blender use on the internet, so don't get discouraged.
Here is a video tutorial I have created to get you going:
 Video tutorial on placing a solar panel (or other object) into a landscape made from a Google map in Blender.

As you work I encourage you to make your own video tutorials to share with the class so we can all progress in sophisitication together. Speaking 5D is an ever evolving process and as new tools and technologies and techniques are discovered or created we can all gain in fluency by sharing. That interactivity is part of the 5D process!

Onward and upward!

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Preliminary Research Results for first six months use of early beta test model of Home Biogas donated to USFs Patel College

At the The International Ecotourism Society (TIES)  conference at the Patel College of Global Sustainability at USF Tampa in January of 2016, as part of a hands on sustainability workshop, Dr. T.H. Culhane and students from the Patel assembled an early version of the Israeli HomeBiogas system that had been donated to the college  through Dr. Culhane for research and education.
The system was an early version of the biodigester with a very heavy steel frame and experimental woven/sewn mesh bags connecting the rubberized digester tank to the exoskeleton frame. The company was exploring more durable and lightweight materials for subsequent models that would help lower manufacture and shipping costs substantially.

The system was displayed empty on stage in the auditorium for the delegates and guests during Culhane's keynote and then the students placed it outside the Patel Building behind the kitchen  for photography to show a possible location for the small household scale digester.
The HomeBiogas system was then moved into the elevator and taken to the Patel College reception area on the second floor and put on display as a floor model  from January to August of 2016 with literature and brochures explaining its operation.

In mid August of 2016 when Culhane arrived from Germany to begin working at the Patel College he was asked to find a location for the digester where it could be "commissioned", i.e.  filled with water and horse manure and  put into active use for research and education.  Because there were few people familiar with the system and no institutions at that time interested or willing to provide a location, it was determined that the best immediate place for the HomeBiogas system was in the backyard of the home that Culhane was renting, belonging to former Patel student Ryan Whitson, who had been at the TIES conference assembling the system and had accompanied Culhane to West Virginia in March of 2016 to build basement biodigesters in an eco-lodge and had familiarity with the systems and their operation and understood their safety and effectiveness.

Eric Weaver, a Ph.D. student at USF who works at Patel, and his son Chris Weaver , who teaches architecture at USF, transported the system in their pick up truck from the Patel College to the Whitson residence at 3411 West Abdella St. Tampa 33607 and over the next couple of days Culhane began experimentation with the digester.

Innoculant and gas production results with digester:

The first experiment that Culhane ran with the digester was to see if it could begin operation without needing to be innoculated with animal manures.  Because Culhane did not have a car and was dedicated to spending the first semester riding bicycles and public transit buses as part of his commitment to sustainability, he wanted to show that the digester could be started using a powdered innoculant that was lightweight and easy to obtain, instead of needing to gather 100 kg or more of fresh horse or cow manure, as is the usual custom. This would enable people in developing countries and poor regions of advanced economies who cannot access or afford pick up trucks get their digesters going with something that can be carried in a hand-bag, substantially lowering the material and labor costs associated with setting up digesters.

Culhane began by obtaining different commercial septic powder preparations: RidX,  and SeptiPak. The use of two powders was done to increase the odds of success since there was only one digester and it takes many weeks to see results. There was worry that if a single preparation was used and it didn't work we would lose time before the winter cold set in.   In future it would be of interest to try out each different commercial septic powder individually to see which works and which doesn't (they might all work!) and which produces the most immediate and best results for the price.

Culhane then filled the digester tank with water and septic powder and waited.  It took 5 weeks before the first flammable gas was produced and Culhane began feeding the digester food waste and grass clippings.

Unfortunately, as can easily happen with small scale biodigesters that are started without the benefit of the fibrous material found in raw animal manures, the methanogens growth rate couldn't keep up with the rate of acidogenic bacteria growth and the system went acid.  Soon all it was making was carbon dioxide gas and the effluent began to smell acrid.

On September 11th Culhane found the pH to be as low as 5 and had to remediate the biodigester with 11 Kg of sodium bicarbonate (baking soda) purchased at HomeDepot from the pool section.  After balancing the pH to near neutral (7), Culhane reinnoculated the system with more septic solutions:

Once the system had recovered, which took another couple of weeks,   the digester worked reliably. By September 28th, fed on food waste and grass clippings, it began to produce enough gas to cook on.

Culhane then purchased a commercial backyard barbecue and grill from HomeDepot on September 30th , one of the less expensive models for under $125 dollars, and Eric Weaver and Eric's wife Kim, who works with the Tampa city planning office helped Culhane transport it to the house.   He showed the Weaver's the successful gas production that night:

This was important because Kim is helping demonstrate to the city the safety of homebiogas so that appropriate code can be written that will obviate the unreasonable fears that people have about the system and help us move forward in getting it approved for institutions (it is already CE and ISO 9001/9004 listed and approved for households, but some institutions in the US still seem to have concerns that need to be allayed through demonstration.)

Culhane then used the weekend to modify the grill for use with biogas as documented in the following video:

Culhane demonstrated the success of this easily modified grill to Maryann Bishop from the non-profit organization "Rosebud Continuum" in Land O Lakes, where the family was working with Solar CITIES, Culhane's 501C3, to build a much larger cement Puxin digester (10m3)   later that week, to give the family confidence and experience in home scale biogas before they invested in a much larger and more expensive and permanent system built out of concrete:

Having successfully demonstrated that one can start a HomeBiogas system in the fall in Florida on a couple of packages of HomeDepot purchased septic powders, fed on yard waste and food scraps, and run an easily modified grill on the biogas, Culhane then set about providing a cooking solution for low income families in Haiti, where he visited after the Hurricane to provide relief.  Haitian families can not afford a 125 dollar barbecue, so Culhane made a stove out of a coffee can for use in his own home, fed by a clear plastic tube from the back yard. The coffee can biogas stove is something Culhane learned in Kenya from Dominic Wanjahia Kahumbu  from Simply Logic biogas and has subsequently built out of paint cans and powdered milk cans.  By using such a simple system at home Culhane demonstrates that this low cost alternative is perfectly appropriate for both impoverished and wealthier communities since there is no smoke or soot or toxins and it is a great way to introduce recycling to people concerned about our environment.

Durability results for early model of digester:

With  continued use of the digester on a daily basis at the residence where Culhane was testing the beta model of HomeBiogas it was noticed that the expansion of the digester bladder over time was causing the hanging bag that attaches it to the frame of the digester to tear:

Each week Culhane noticed the tear progressing further and further until the bag looked like it was going to burst.  To save the situation, Culhane wrapped the digester with $100 worth of ratchet straps as a temporary fix, and reported the situation to the company.

The unit had been a beta testing demo unit, with a heavy steel frame and hanging bags that were still under test and Solar CITIES has been given the honor of field testing units as they evolve.  Since the time that this unit was developed and sent to USF, the company has learned many things and completely changed the materials used to make the digesters.  The most recent units are made from different plastics and the heavy steel frame has been replaced with light weight aluminum among other substantial changes.

From a research perspective we learned a lot from this "early adopter" use of the system here in Florida.

Expansion to other Locations before Christmas

By November of 2016, despite the expected slow down in gas production caused by low winter temperatures, Culhane had demonstrated to many Patel students and community visitors the promise of small biogas and got permission to build hand-made Solar CITIES IBC tank varieties of household scale biodigesters in several locations.  Working with teachers and students from Blake High School, where Maryann Bishop's daughter is a coach, with funding from the Bishop's for materials, Solar CITIES and Patel students built two IBC tank biodigesters, one for the High School and another for the Faith Lutheran Evangelical Church.

In these locations we experimented with a new design using the lid of the digester as the feeding inlet pipe, finding that it creates more rigidity but that the uniseal needs better sealant.

New Year Location Change and New Experimental Locations

When Culhane returned from the Arava Institute and the Clinton Global Initiative Volunteer Solar CITIES projects in Israel, Palestine and Jordan in January he found that he and Ryan had to move out of the house on Abdella immediately as the house needed renovation.

 Culhane was invited to move into the Bishop residence at 22843 Hale Road, Land O Lakes Florida, 34639, on the farm property where the Bishops are building the Rosebud Continuum Educational Center 501C3 that was co-created by former Patel Student Michael Kuras with other graduates of the program (among them Eve Spengler, who runs a composting company, and Ericka McThenia and Mary Bishop) and with Professor Joseph Dorsey.  The center has been proposed as a site where the Food Energy Water Nexus can be put into real-time practice where students from High School through Graduate School can come and do research and implement ideas and experiment.
We had already built a Puxin digester there:

Because it was imperative that all of Culhane's belongings be moved  out of the residence at Abdella and there was still no location at the college to house the digester, which was by now falling apart,

A decision had to be made about whether it was worth it to continue to try and work with the digester with the worn out materials or retire it (i.e. dispose ot it).  Culhane decided it would be within the spirit of the original intent of research and education to see if the system could be repaired.

Eric Weaver came with his truck and we decided to move the digester to the new residence where Culhane would be living in Land O Lakes and try to fix it there and see if we could get more life out of it.  We drained the system of all of its biodigestate and lifted it onto the truck.

The picture below shows the torn hanging bag very clearly:

 To get the system working again, Culhane went to Loewe's Hardware and had a 1/2 inch wood sheets for a custom plywood box cut and designed a way to keep the failing digester bag contained.


The system was re-installed for Culhane to continue researching behind the kitchen at the house where Culhane is now living and connected to his modified grill so he can monitor it on a daily basis.  It had been drained but slurry had been saved and there was additional slurry obtained from the larger Puxin digester.

 Students from Patel college came to help construct the box:

 Once the box was built the system was refilled with innoculant, which Culhane had saved from the draining, and with new innoculant from the Puxin system, to see how quickly it the "dragon" would come back to life.

The weather was cold so it took  a couple of weeks to begin producing gas again, but the repairs Culhane and students made were a success.

After his Keynote speech to the Recycle Florida Conference, visitors from the Recycle Florida group, organized by Key West City Planner Dee Dee Green, who had met with Patel professors and students to discuss Biogas potential at Key West City Hall, when Dr. David Randle and Louis Zunguze and Culhane conducted their Keys Marine Lab field trip,  were invited to come see the digester in operation.

Through its new location at the residence/farm of the Bishops,  the Patel HomeBiogas system is now being actively used to demonstrate the vibrancy of this appropriate technology to visitors on a weekly basis, like Alice, the woman from a development agency working in Cameroon shown below:

Extending the Project based on lessons learned:

In late January, seeing the enthusiastic response of the students in the new Navigating the Food/Energy/Water Nexus class at the Patel for getting involved with hands-on research on small biodigesters, Culhane  funded his own Solar CITIES 3 IBC biodigester system to be placed at the Veteran's Garden at the Sustainability Living Center by the Salvation Army across from the Lowry Park Zoo and invited students to come on the weekend and build with the other community volunteers to gain the "biogas bricolage" experience.

In addition to this, following a presentation and meetings Culhane had made in November and December at the Museum of Science and Industry for/with  STEM/STEAM Science educators, the class was invited in the new year to share their expertise at the Butterfly Garden.  The plan was to build a Solar CITIES hand-made system which the students had experience with, and Culhane donated one of the new and improved and more robust HomeBiogas systems he had purchased  to MOSI so that they and the MOSI community could get hands on experience building/assembling digesters and have an active system within easy walking distance of the Patel College that they can begin doing research on.

 Culhane is equipping the system with Arduino microcontrollers and temperature sensors and the students will begin to gather and log real-time data that correlates feeding rate and feedstock with temperature and pH and gas production.

The students of the Patel College FEW Nexus Class also got the opportunity to come on a weekend and participate in the build of Florida's second Puxin digester:

These local biogas building parties are essential to be a culture of biogas innoventors and practitioners who can make this simple technology the most effective go-to solution for transforming food wastes from a huge problem into a hope inspiring solution.

As of this writing, February 23, 2017, Patel Students and other students and community members from the Tampa region now have 5 locations where there are active small scale biodigesters to learn from and about and conduct research into how they can fit into a diverse array of living situations, from residential homes to churches, community gardens, high schools and science museums. 
Florida visitors thinking about replicating biogas systems now can see three different styles operating:
1) The commercial Home Biogas system, ideal for a small family, attractive, CE and ISO listed and now field proven in over 60 countries.
2) The Solar CITIES modular and low cost DIY IBC system, invented by Dr. T.H. Culhane,  which can be built by anyone anywhere and expanded to accomodate larger amounts of food waste and is great for education 
3) The Puxin 10m3 cement community system, two of which are now operating at the Rosebud Continuum, one above ground, one half buried, using barrels of food waste provided by Beef O'Brady's restaurant, with a third planned soon built underground for toilet waste.

With the generous donation of several IBC tote tanks by the Vigo and Alessi families from Alessi Foods/Vigo Importing in Tampa (such as the two shown here being added as gas holders to the Veteran's garden system)  we are now on our way toward being able to make small scale biodigestion technology an integral part of core STEM/STEAM science instruction curricula. 

It is hoped that these active "domestic dragons" will give the Tampa community the expertise and stimulated interest to become leaders in the small biogas (r)evolution now occuring in the world.

Future projects being planned through the Patel College are to extend this work to the city of St. Petersburg, starting with USF project sites at the St. Petersberg Eco-hostel, the Marina, the Yacht Club and even the Amara Zee caravan boat, which can spread the knowledge around the world.

Come join our movement! Yes, you can do this at home!

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