Our Technical Director Marty Pool has been hard at work.

By Marty Pool Technical Director:

Mark has been busy for months preparing for his journey: training, researching, planning, contacting, scheduling, and shooting. Unfortunately there’s one thing he hasn’t been preparing for: one big spoonful of irony. It turns out, that one of the biggest challenges Mark will face while making a documentary about energy is, well, energy. More specifically, Mark is struggling to find the energy to power his camera equipment during his expedition. There are parts of the journey that will stretch for days without access to any electrical outlets, you know, those lovely and convenient little holes in the wall that seem like magic when you plug something into them. Though the problem is pretty major, it has been a pretty easy one to overlook until now as we are getting to the logistics of his journey.  Mark is familiar with the ideas of battery limitations and his standard camera battery can last for about 3 to 4 hours of film time. Usually, he can come home from a day of filming, plug in the batteries, and walk away to enjoy the evening and get a good night’s sleep. In the morning the battery is as good to go as he is. Unfortunately that’s just not going to happen when the only energy you have is a campfire.


Mark is pretty overloaded already. Yes mentally, but also literally in terms of his bike trailer. He estimates that he can carry possibly ten more pounds, and there isn’t much space to spare. So we’ve been brainstorming some energy solutions. In the spirit of the film we tried to think of interesting and creative ways that Mark could use each energy source featured in the film to charge his camera. The following is a summary of our ideas (warning: it gets a little technical, and some might say downright nerdy, but hey, that’s my job on the crew).


Coal: The only way I know of to charge a battery with coal is to burn it to boil water and make steam, and then have that steam turn a turbine to create electricity, and then regulate that electricity so that Mark’s battery charger won’t blow a fuse. Sounds complicated… and heavy. On the other hand, if Mark plugs his standard charger into a wall somewhere along his journey there’s a 45% chance that the electricity came from a coal-fired power plant. So as long as Mark is near an outlet, coal is failsafe.


Natural Gas: We could get a natural gas fired electrical generator. Unfortunately these are not very common for consumers to buy, and certainly not in small compact sizes like we’re looking for. Besides, a pressurized tank of natural gas would also be a hassle to haul along, but it could make campfires interesting…


Hydro: It’s actually possible to make (or buy) a mini electric generator that runs off of a faucet. This would actually be pretty handy, if it weren’t for the fact that where there’s a faucet, there’s usually an outlet.


Nuclear: I’ve been working all weekend on my tiny nuclear reactor, but the main issue is that the uranium I ordered keeps getting flagged by the post office.


Wind: I actually thought about ways to rig a small wind turbine on Mark’s bike, or head, but physics had to go and spoil my fun. For the most part, when riding a bike, the “wind” blowing over the turbine is caused by the forward motion of the bike. Unfortunately this would create a drag force; something Mark doesn’t feel like dealing with. Now, a heavy cross-wind would actually provide its own energy to the turbine. And even though they are very likely all through Wyoming, Mark definitely doesn’t want to be hoping for cross winds, especially after getting blown off the road last week training.


Mechanical: This is sort of energy production is similar to a wind turbine where the idea is to tap into Mark’s forward motion, using his pedaling to power a generator. But just like the wind turbine, that energy comes at a price, even more directly in this case. If the generator was tied into his wheel rotation, he would have to pedal with enough extra energy to run the generator. And while it wouldn’t require that much extra work, adding any extra work to a full day of riding just doesn’t sound that great to Mark. I don’t know why. (We also talked about a stationary generator that he could ride when he got to camp at night, and it would only take and extra two to four hours of pedaling. Again, shot down. I don’t know why.)


Solar: Hands down the lightest and easiest option. Mark could have a three-pound foldable solar array that he could simply strap to his trailer and charge his battery while he rides. However, the battery could take up to a day to fully charge, and if the sun doesn’t shine, the battery won’t get charged.


Batteries and Storage: Though not technically an energy “source” batteries offer a good way for Mark to store energy and for all intensive purposes they will act as a source when nothing else is around. Comparing watt-hours of electrical energy, there’s about as much energy in four AA batteries as his main camera battery. By far the easiest option: buy a pack of 100 AA’s and a charger that can run off of AA batteries to charge the AA’s and just buy more AA’s to charge the AA’s (if you didn’t get it, read it again, it’s okay).   But to be fair, that’s a lot of dead batteries at the end of the trip. Eight pounds of dead batteries actually. Twenty pounds for a car battery didn’t seem like a good idea either. And as for just buying a few more camera batteries? Well, they would be about as heavy as the AAs and about twenty times as expensive.


So there you have it. In the end I think it’s major issue that remains unsolved.  We are scrambling to come up with a solution. One thing is for sure; Mark isn’t going to let a battery issue stand between him and his film.  He has given me the green light to do what ever it takes to make sure he has power for his cameras.  For the next few weeks I’ll be running some numbers on battery storage and a solar array.  Each of the above methods has its benefits and drawbacks, just like the large-scale energy resources that Mark will be investigating in the film. What will he decide? What’s the best energy?



5 responses to “Our Technical Director Marty Pool has been hard at work.

  1. Go Brunton, they’ve got the best solar and battery options; plus they’re based out of Wyoming so you might be able to finagle a discount

  2. A couple of nuclear suggestions:

    1 – It isn’t a cheap option for legal reasons, but you could look into radioisotope thermal-to-electric generators – or at least mention them. They’re what we use to power spacecraft that can’t use solar – the RTGs on the Voyager spacecraft were launched nearly 40 years ago and are still producing power. The Mars Science Laboratory will carry a modern RTG to Mars when it launches early next year. In the early days of nuclear energy, there were a number of terrestrial RTG applications, including pacemakers. Today, they are mainly limited to space applications, owing to cost considerations.

    2 – You can’t power a camera with it, but you get a tritium powered light source that is always on and could be used to make it easy to find important things at night. The web site is here: http://www.niteglowrings.com/index.php. They look to be in the UK, so no idea how long it will take to get some. I have one in my office you could promise to talk me out of, if you promise to include it as an example of nuclear technology on the trip.

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