Inspiration on Display at San Jose Tech Museum’s Annual Awards Gala

The Tech Awards Laureates of 2009 and displays that showcased their projects were available to attendees at the annual gala (Nov. 19 at the San Jose Convention Center). Photovoltaics World was on hand and interviewed several of the special cash-award recipients (selected laureates’ organizations received $50,000) at the event.

Joseph Adelegan, representing Cows to Kilowatts, received the Intel Environment Award. Slaughterhouse waste is one of the most significant sources of water pollution and greenhouse gases emissions in most developing economies. The anaerobic fixed film reactor (Figure 1) used in the Cows to Kilowatts project decontaminates the waste stream from slaughterhouses and turns this organic waste into methane that can be used to generate electricity or as inexpensive cooking gas. The use of this technology not only assists with energy production, it also “reduces the pollution load so that it can meet national effluent thresholds,” Adelegan told PV World. “When compressed, the gas can be used for cooking or to drive microturbines to generate electricity; and sludge from the reactor, which is rich in nitrogen and phosphorus, is used as fertilizer.” Thus, a problematic waste stream is converted to something very useful.

Figure 1. Anaerobic fixed-film reactor. (Source: Cows to Kilowatts)

Rolf Papsdorf, CEO representing Alternative Energy Development Corp. (AEDC), received the BD Biosciences Economic Development award on behalf of his organization. Another example targeting the need for energy in developing countries is the use of inexpensive, zinc-air fuel cells that can be used in poor communities lacking access to grid power. Fuel cell anodes can be removed manually in about 15 minutes and zinc oxide waste recycled as fertilizer. According to Papsdorf, these fuel cells create 80W of energy (i.e., 4000W-hrs) that “is available 24/7,” and the lead-acid waste of solar or wind installation batteries can largely be avoided.

“Our main aim is to create disposable income in rural areas that have high unemployment,” Papsdorf told PV World. “By having electricity available, people can work in the evenings (e.g., operating sewing machines, computers, cell phone charging, electric air cutters, etc.).” Furthermore, the energy is totally portable, which is key because people are highly migrant in Africa, he pointed out. “We look at the whole thing holistically. The operating cost is about $8/month, which is less than what would be spent on candles.” Papsdorf also noted that, while he very much likes solar power, it’s not practical in rural Africa where issues of proper maintenance and proper disposal (to avoid environmental disasters) are challenging.

Observing that “technology has been placed in the hands of people throughout the world with good intentions but with unanticipated side effects,” former Vice President Al Gore — recipient of the 2009 James C. Morgan Applied Materials Global Humanitarian Award — said that at times, mankind has been blind to “the consequences that are sometimes distributed so widely and globally that they masquerade as an abstraction (…) And the length of time between the cause and the consequences extends over a longer period than we are used to thinking about, much less responding to, because the way we think has been shaped by the challenges that our ancestors survived.”

Gore reminded the audience that although we are connected to those who come after us, “we are also connected to those who came before us,” and each of us “has benefited in untold measure” from previous generations’ hard work and sacrifices. “If we decided consciously or unconsciously to simply fully exploit all the benefits of their labors and then give the back of our hand to those who come after us, that would be the single most immoral act of any generation that has ever lived on this planet,” he asserted. “I do not believe that that is who we are as human beings. And my passion comes from my deep belief that we are not like that. I believe we do care; I believe we are capable of changing.”

Future generations will look back at those of us today and reflect on what we either did or did not do, Gore added. “If they look around them and see a world in renewal with new technologies that are bringing about a shift from dirty, expensive, vulnerable, dangerous, volatile carbon-based fuels to new fuels that are free forever, and if they see a world that has a sense of shared purpose and a feeling of hope that each new generation has a better prospect for the future, I want them to look back at us and ask, how did you find the moral courage to shake off the lethargy, to break the trance, to see the responsibility and act in time to solve a crisis that so many said was impossible to solve? We have everything we need with the possible exception of political will — but political will, especially in the US, is a renewable resource.”

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