by Adrian Biffen, Technology Manager (Founding Partner)
Our mission, simply stated, is to make strong, affordable structures that take advantage of the sun's direct energy to power a 'smart' all season growing environment, with the goal of minimizing dependency on fossil fuels and centralized power sources. Our web enabled wifi remote control greenhouses are designed to be modular and scalable, easy to assemble for DIY, and installed at a reasonable cost for those requiring a turnkey solution.
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Background: War Creates an Energy Crisis
The year was 1973, and Arab oil producers had imposed an embargo to punish the west in response for supporting Israel in the Yom Kippur war against Egypt. The cost of crude rose from $3 per barrel to nearly $12 by the end of the year, and the price of gasoline, jet fuel and heating oil skyrocketed, making all transport and oil related energy costs much more expensive.
In response to the crisis, numerous programs aimed at developing alternate energy systems were sponsored by the Federal Government, and our little environmental group on Vancouver Island (CASE - Citizen's Association to Save the Environment) took up the challenge to create several demonstration projects utilizing solar and wind technology.
The team was headed up by Gwen & Derrick Mallard (both now sadly deceased), a couple that had played a major role in the founding of such organizations as Greenpeace and SPEC.
Solar Powered Steam Generator
Having a background in electronics, I was tasked with the design and construction of a solar tracking concentrator, under Derrick's guidance (he was a professional electrical engineer, with years of experience in the hydro-electric industry).
It was a large parabolic shaped device that could track the sun's arc throughout the day, and reset itself to start again for the following morning. The challenge was to do it using mostly ordinary junkyard parts, with very little reliance on any high technology components. The goal was to produce steam that could operate a turbine to produce electricity.
So off I went, scavenging reversible DC window opener motors and alternators from auto wreckers, throwing in a few bicycle chains and sprockets I had lying around in my yard.
We used a photo-transistor circuit with a metal 'shadow-caster' with the then new 555 integrated circuit to trigger the movement of the motor, and we made the parabolic shape (single plane dish) out of wood, attaching a highly polished stainless steel reflector surface.
The only piece of high-tech in the whole thing was an evacuated glass tube collector positioned at the linear focal point. A friend of mine had started up a TV picture tube repair depot, and he had all the necessary vacuum pumps and glass blowing equipment. As I remember, I think we built the whole thing for under $400.
The Tremendous Power of The Sun
The long and the short of it was that it worked very well, beyond our expectations, and perhaps a little too well - from a cold start, it generated a head of steam in 12 seconds and actually blew the safety valve off for a distance of 5 yards. I don't mean 15 feet, I mean 5 neighbour's yards!
We had to be very careful not to get our hands anywhere near the linear focal point (it could flash a wood log on fire in a second).
That crowning moment 40 years ago made me realize just how much energy is generated by the sun, and it set in motion for me a long career of working with that nuclear reactor in the sky. The technology we are using in the Photon Modular Greenhouse system is simply an extension of that original work we carried out, back in the seventies.
Where Are We Today?
Things are much better now, in terms of photo-voltaic (PV) electrical power generation efficiency and electronic control efficiency, and the cost of these energy systems is now directly competitive with fossil fuels (don't forget to factor in the cost of war).
But the energy available from concentrating the sun's rays directly hasn't changed much at all; it is still very powerful, except it is now less due to atmospheric pollution. Sadly, many of the programs started in the 70's were later abandoned when the oil embargo ended, and we are now paying for it dearly with severe degradation of our environment due to fossil fuel use.
You would think the oil industry would be the last industry needing Federal subsidies, but that's the current state of affairs. It seems we have very little political will to change anything related to our energy future, even when the solution is staring us in the face.
A few smart countries such as Brazil continued with their alternative programs, and today they are reaping the benefits of being energy self-sufficient (biofuel), and net exporters of oil and gas.
Hope For the Future
Our greenhouse project is intended to hopefully help promote interest in energy alternatives and independence, while making the cost of growing your food, flowers or what-have-you a very economical, affordable pursuit. Build your own solar powered wifi enabled greenhouse and make a contribution to the future!