Tuesday, January 20, 2009

More inversion

I've set aside the microindustry project for now. After a friend came over and we made a hobo stove, the weather here turned very cold, and then snowy. Perhaps in a few weeks or a month, I'll venture out to try it out.

That same friend noted that, as big as the knowledge base has grown, turning the whole thing upside-down will take some time. I hate to delay adding new pages and new links, but I'm trying to relax the strict formalism that has made work on the project feel like so unsatisfying so much of the time. I'm working with history both backward from the present and forward from antiquity, because different subjects emphasize different parts of it.

Monday, January 05, 2009


I'm still working on the inversion project for the knowledge base. So far, I've followed this down through science, physics, mechanics, and particle mechanics to improve the content and links of this section; I had last worked on it last February.

As a bit of personal background, I was growing up in the 1960s when the environment was becoming an important topic, and I developed something of an interest in renewable resources that can be done on a small scale, sustainable basis. I'm also interested in innovation and doing things as inexpensively as possible.
So, the wooded hillside that I've mentioned that I live next to (downhill from me, fortunately) is economically entirely unproductive, or it would be if anything were done on a large scale. It's too small for conventional forestry or logging, which would leave nothing but an ugly, barren hillside. It's too steep for agriculture, or building. There isn't much that can be done in the way of conventional forestry or logging, or agriculture; especially since I don't own the area and don't have the rights, or know-how, or equipment. What it does have is brush (including the multiflora rose I mentioned last post), fallen trees and tree branches, and trash (I've seen a vacuum cleaner, a lawnmower, and various tires) . If I can figure out what can be usefully done with this, it should be extensible I've seen a lot of property more or like this around town.
On a small scale, I can do some unobtrusive experiments. I mentioned the bush I've pretty much cut down, but it has many neighbors just like it. I talked a bit about it about that species to a friend who is a professor of agriculture at WVU and runs a farm in his spare time, and confirms my impression of it as a pestiferous species. What do I do with it once I prune it down to the roots? It would seem to be only fit for burning.
The question is, burning how and where? When I was playing around with information from New Mexico, and I came across creosote bushes (a species I'm familiar with from Arizona where I was raised), I was wondering what can be done with them. I was thinking about aromatic oils, and whether they could be extracted, and I came across mention of distillation. Distillation? of wood? so I looked at that a little bit, and moved on, in the process noting that it was once a chief source of methanol, wood alcohol. Well, methanol is one of the simpler organic compounds, so I've been running across it in my studies of organic chemistry.
So, I was doing some study of small woodburning stoves, wood combustion and pyrolysis, and distillation, all of which are more or less related in theory, and after sleeping on this for a few nights, came up with an experiment I want to try.
The ordinary burning of wood doesn't directly burn the wood at first. What it does is force it to give off combustible gases, which in turn heat the wood further, driving off more gases, until at length nothing is left but ash. The temperature depends on the composition of the wood in question, and on the rate of mixture with the oxygen in the air, which would be rapidly depleted
if there were not some kind of air flow. This is usually supplied by a chimney: The burned gases get hot, less dense, rise, and create an airflow. The difficulty is that this combustion is incomplete. The exhaust gas (smoke) contains not only air, somewhat depleted in oxygen, and the end products of water and carbon dioxide, but it also contains carbon monoxide, volatile organic compounds, ranging from the simplest to the heaviest; many of which are somewhat toxic and irritating and unburned particles of fuel. More efficient combustion occurs when there is a better mix of air and fuel, and when combustion takes place at higher temperatures.
Much a similar process occurs when wood is simply heated in the absence of oxygen; it gives off combustible gases, some organic liquids, and leaves charcoal behind. Producer gas, wood alcohol, and charcoal have been produced for centuries. Charcoal is interesting, because it's a renewable resource, and something of a substitute for coal. However, producing it is an old technology and rather wasteful of wood.
So, in the interest of efficiency, I've decided to experiment with a device in two parts: one a stove, where the primary interest is in combustion, efficient burning, and heat, which drives the other part, the oxygen-free destructive distillation of wood. This should yield combustible gases, which in the absence of good gas handling material, I can feed back into the stove. However, before burning these gases, I want to extract some of the volatile organic compounds, at least those which are liquid at normal atmospheric temperatures, and range from tars to alcohols. The solid should be charcoal, which can in theory be used to experiment with glassworking and metalworking.
However, all this is theoretical, and to make an idea like this work, I need to do some experiments and observations. I've asked another friend if he would be willing to help me make a hobo stove, as the first stage of this experiment, so I can get started.

Friday, January 02, 2009


Partly as a result of the alternative approach to study I mentioned in my last post, I decided I needed to invert the knowledge base, or turn it upside down. That means, in this case, going from more complex to simpler. In the various breakdowns I've used for working on it, things seem to go more easily if I do it that way. However, I'm beginning at the science end, so it's something of a hybrid.

In informal explorations of the local neighborhood, I've taken an interest in the local biology. It's the middle of the winter, so what I see most deals with biology, and particularly plants. I started attacking a bush with pruning clippers in order to clear a path down the hill so I can follow the runoff from my apartment's parking lot. This had the thorns (technically prickles) of a rose, so I spent a few hours searching the internet, and came up with a probable identification, Rosa multiflora. This bush had the high, arching branches associated with this species, abundant prickles (although some of its neighbors are more so). I couldn't find the clusters of tiny rose hips associated with this species at first, but found some the next time I attacked it.
Since the multiflora rose is now regarded as a pestiferous intrusive species ( it was intentional introduced some 80 years ago) , I figure no one's going to complain if I cut a few of them to pieces. I've been wanting to make contact with someone to give me help in plant identification, so I finally tracked down one of the county extension agents (by phone), and luckily got hold of one. Based on my description of the plant and where it was growing, he agreed with me that that's probably what it is, but a definite confirmation will have to wait a couple of weeks until everyone is back from vacation.

As part of my look at small scale, inexpensive industry, I started looking at stoves for heating. I'm not interested in the home scale, I'm interested for now in experimental, small scale heaters. There are some varieties that run on small branches and twigs, but since I rent and don't have property or much of a budget for tools and supplies, these aren't much use to me. This led me into what is called the pyrolysis, or destructive distillation of wood, and I got a quick review of the chemistry and physics of wood combustion. This interests me for several reasons, from both theoretical and applied points of view.

I'm taking a number of passes through science history, and started with modern history, concentrating on the 16th century. I expanded this century into 20 year periods, and so far have Copernicus and Kepler as major figures. I've looked briefly at the application of Sociology and institutions. I'm also taking a look at expanding other areas of science.

Part of the motivation came from a renewed interest in chemistry. My version of the periodic table is now filled out, and I'm in the revising the appearance of the alphabetical list of elements.
I've also created a few more compound pages, including the simplest organic compounds, those with only one carbon atom, although I have notes on those with two carbon atoms. Organic chemistry gets very complicated, very fast, as the size of the carbon skeleton goes up.

In the process of filling out more details for the particular compounds, I found myself looking for physical properties, which suggests a review of physics, and thus led round about to deciding to invert the whole knowledge base. I started this with mechanics, particle mechanics in particular, but I will want to consider this in more detail.