Rocket City Rednecks

I discovered this show by reading one of Travis Talyor’s non-fiction books, A New American Space Plan.   While this post is about the TV show, pick up this book as well.  It’s a well laid out case of why American should be serious about getting into space again and how to do it.

Also take the time to watch the show, Rocket City Rednecks, either by streaming or on optical disk.   This show is about five self-identified Rednecks from Huntsville, AL, two of which are actual rocket scientists from NASA who actually build working gear.  Really cool gear that works.  OK, it works most of the time, but even when they fail, they learn from their mistakes so then can do it better the next time.  That is really one of the important lessons.  It’s OK to fail, as long as you learn from it.   Most of the gear is built in Travis’ father’s garage.   Charles Travis is a retired NASA machinist who worked on the Apollo program, and one of the five Rednecks who star in the show.

I’ve watched about a third of the first season so far, and they have built some really nifty gear so far.  These include a still in order to build a moonshine fueled rocket, the actual rocket, a balloon based observation platform, a working submarine, a radio telescope array using 18″ satellite dishes, under vehicle armor capable of withstanding an IED blast (they drove the pickup truck away afterwards), and a working “Iron Man” suit, that had armor capable of  stopping 9mm handgun rounds, lifting over 100 pounds with a single arm and fired rockets!

Just to add to the overall coolness of this, most of their projects are done over a single weekend with a budget of about $1000.  Keep in mind that three of these Rednecks are current or former NASA employees.  The two active ones have eight advanced degrees in science between them (Travis has five post-graduate degrees.  For those of you who know me, yes, that is one more than Amy currently has).  Rog (Rednect #4) doesn’t have any advanced degrees, but he does have a genius level IQ, and Michael (Travis’ nephew) is mechanically inclined and studying to be a machinist.   Still, if you know basic work working, basic welding, how to solder two wire together, and some basic programming, you and your friends could try some of this stuff.

Which is kinda the whole idea of the show.  To get kids off the XBox and out there building go carts, rockets, radio sets and other cool gear.

This is the kind of show my dad would have loved.  He was 22 year veteran of the Army Corps of Engineers, and would have been out teaching kids how to to build the things the Rednecks are building.

Double hit of good news on the alternate fuel front.

First United Environment and Energy LLC has announced they have developed a method to produce biofuel from algae oil that is 40% cheaper than other methods currently used.

They claim that algae is at least twice as efficient as soy for producing biofuel. I want to know how it compares to switch grass.  A pilot program is in place with a production capacity of nearly 1 million gallons of algae biodiesel per year.  Their estimates are that they could produce  50 million gallons of algae biodiesel annually.

The other source of alternate fuel is coal, which the US has in abundance. Wired isn’t happy with this, but I am.  Internal Combustion engines are too efficient to go away anytime soon and there isn’t a “clean energy” source available in the quantities needed to make widespread use of electric vehicles practical.

Biofuel from Coffee grounds

Amazing stuff coffee. In addtion to it’s other amazing properties, including being good for the roses, the grounds can be used to produce biofuel.

The estimates are the coffee ground biodiesel industry could generate as much as $8,000,000 in profits annually using waste from Starbucks stores here in the United States  alone.  Ok, probably less given falling crude oil prices, but I’m still a big fan of any domestic fuel souces. 

To add to the overall awesomeness of coffee, at the end of the biodiesel extraction and conversion process, the leftover grounds can be turned into fuel pellets for wood stoves and boilers.

Not only does coffee keep you moving, it can keep your car moving and heats your home!

A Weed-Powered Passenger Jet

No! Not that weed, jatropha, a plant that is not a food crop and can be grown in marginal agricultural land.

Air New Zealand is planning on flying a Boeing 747 with a mixture of equal parts biofuel made from jatropha  and conventional fuel running in one of the engines.

Unlike many other biofuels, UOP’s jatropha jet fuel can replace conventional fuel without requiring changes to existing engines. Indeed, by several measures, the fuel is better than conventional jet fuel. It has a lower freezing point and can be exposed to higher temperatures onboard a plane without degrading. It also contains slightly more energy than conventional jet fuel, so a plane powered by jatropha could travel farther. 

Green Crude

Sapphire Energy, a San Diego based startup, has a process they claim can produce 91octane gasoline from “algae microorganisms, salt water, carbon dioxide and the power of the sun.”

The interesting twist to their technology is that method doesn’t use a plant that people typically use for food (like corn, sugarcane or sugar beats).  So not only doesn’t this solution use food products, it doesn’t require actual farm land (i.e. land used to grow food) to produce the fuel. 

Sapphire claims that they can set up a production facility in the desert.  The steady sunlight is an important factor in their production, and the salt water can be shipped in.

Their stated goal is to product 10,000 barrels a day, which in the national economy isn’t that much.  It is however, 10,000 barrels a day that isn’t pumped out of the ground, and will be produced domestically.

Hydrocarbon biofuels

The MIT Tech Review has a story about a new process for turning plant sugars into gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel.

Another interesting aspect of this story that the byproducts of the process can be used to create other industrial chemicals and plastics.  This further reduces independence on fossil based oil products.

The process under development will “employ chemical reactions instead of microbial fermentation. They use catalysts at high temperatures to convert glucose into hydrocarbon biofuels. The process works thousands of times faster than microbes do because of the higher temperatures, so it requires smaller, cheaper reactors, Dumesic says. The catalysts and reformer systems that they use are similar to those used in oil refineries, which would also make the process simpler.”

Simple is good.