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Published on June 9th, 2009 | by Derek Markham

43

15 Year Old Invents Complete Algae Energy System



15 year old Javier Fernández-Han invented a truly innovative solution to meeting the basic needs of many of the world’s poor, and won Ashoka’s Invent Your World Challenge with his algae energy system, called VERSATILE. His holistic approach uses an efficient, modular system to meet multiple needs.

“An invention that is narrowly focused on solving a single problem often inadvertently creates more problems because nature is highly complex and interconnected.” – Javier Fernandez-Han

Javier’s system is made up of 12 technologies in six subsystems, which can treat waste, produce methane and bio-fuel, and is a source of livestock and human food production. If that isn’t enough, it also produces oxygen and sequesters greenhouse gases, and can also be a source of income.

The basis of Javier’s system is salt-water loving algae, and the beauty of VERSATILE is the interconnectedness. The efficiency comes in part from the ability to take waste from one part and use it for nourishment for another, and the modular nature of VERSATILE allows customization to meet individual needs.

The VERSATILE subsystems are:

  • An anaerobic digester, converting sewage and food scraps
  • A bio-gas upgrader, turning the gases from the digester into nourishment for the algae, as well as producing fuel
  • Vented methane burning stoves, a non-polluting and CO2 capturing device
  • Algae bioreactors producing algae biomass and oxygen from sunlight, saltwater, and CO2, and using nutrients from the digester
  • Flush latrines
  • The PlayPump, which uses the energy of children playing to power the system as well as other devices

The benefits of the VERSATILE energy system include better health for villagers due to cleaner burning methane stoves, less deforestation due to wood scavenging for fuel, possible income from the sale of algae biomass for pharmaceutical or nutraceutical products, easier livestock production because of more availability of feed, LED lighting powered by electricity generation from the PlayPump, and a source of fuel for machinery (from algae oil).

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Javier says that the system can be scaled up to provide for populations of 200,000 or more people, or scaled down for small populations. He is currently working to develop a family-sized system that could fit in a small house, with a cost estimated at $300.

Ashoka’s Youth Venture program promotes and invests in teams of young people around the world designing and launching their own lasting social ventures. The program enables youth to have the transformative experience of leading positive social change.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/v/2bMPRluEUI0&hl=en&fs=1&]

[Via Change.org]

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About the Author

lives in southwestern New Mexico and digs bicycles, simple living, organic gardening, sustainable lifestyle design, slacklining, bouldering, and permaculture. He loves good food, with fresh roasted chiles at the top of his list of favorites. Catch up with Derek on Twitter, RebelMouse, Google+, or at his natural parenting site, Natural Papa!



  • Sue in South Africa

    Well done, Javier. You have the mindset to make positive changes in the world, and are using natural systems as your inspiration. May you inspire many others to start thinking differently.

    For Jimmy’s benefit – the playpump is alive and well and has been operating for years in South Africa for pumping borehole water in school grounds and poor communities. Many of the children are from child-headed households, so poor that they don’t even get food before they go to school, but they enjoy playing on the roundabouts that pump up water for them.

  • Sue in South Africa

    Well done, Javier. You have the mindset to make positive changes in the world, and are using natural systems as your inspiration. May you inspire many others to start thinking differently.

    For Jimmy’s benefit – the playpump is alive and well and has been operating for years in South Africa for pumping borehole water in school grounds and poor communities. Many of the children are from child-headed households, so poor that they don’t even get food before they go to school, but they enjoy playing on the roundabouts that pump up water for them.

  • Tom Butler

    This is a great relatively new idea, but it is hardly unique, For the past few years, I have heard of multiple dairy farmers, alternative energy startups, college professors and engineering firms talking about this exact type of system.

    He’s a smart kid to be thinking about this but it dialectics none the less.

  • Tom Butler

    This is a great relatively new idea, but it is hardly unique, For the past few years, I have heard of multiple dairy farmers, alternative energy startups, college professors and engineering firms talking about this exact type of system.

    He’s a smart kid to be thinking about this but it dialectics none the less.

  • http://www.soulhealer.co.za George-Gabriel

    That the system presently works or not is immaterial.

    What is important that we have young and talented people like Javier, who are interested to improve our not so well working societies. The vital part is, that we have continuous new ideas forthcoming. The technical details can be worked out by various experts.

    Mr. John Thomas (first comment above), I hope that your name is not an indication of what you might be, but hopefully I am wrong (no intention to hurt, only to nudge). Please tuck your ego away, and if you have some expertise on the matter (as you imply), rather share it with others who could use your help.

  • http://www.soulhealer.co.za George-Gabriel

    That the system presently works or not is immaterial.

    What is important that we have young and talented people like Javier, who are interested to improve our not so well working societies. The vital part is, that we have continuous new ideas forthcoming. The technical details can be worked out by various experts.

    Mr. John Thomas (first comment above), I hope that your name is not an indication of what you might be, but hopefully I am wrong (no intention to hurt, only to nudge). Please tuck your ego away, and if you have some expertise on the matter (as you imply), rather share it with others who could use your help.

  • Markus

    Are any of you guys actually involved in energy projects of any sort or grads of an curriculums?

    Do you keep up with any technologies outside of the power of negativity?

    I am not an energy or power plant engineer or designer, just a Florida Contractor.

    However, I was lucky enough to have a Talented father that I traveled with extensively around the world who was involved in power plant design and construction beginning in the late 60′s, both your “standard” and alternative designs, and one of the problems they had beginning in the 70′s was how to deal with the emissions leaving the stacks, of course in 3rd world countries, this wasn’t a problem, just let it go,unless,, it there was a means to make money from it, or make them think it was profitable in some way. My piont being they were using anerobic digesters in the 70′s and 80′s(they had the process set up on only 4 acres of land that processed the same amount as 20acres in previous trials, that was all they’d give them) that they passed only a portion of the stack gases thru (what I can only call algae regenerators or growth promoters as I dont know the technical terms) that reduced NOx And CO2 reductions and in the process generated HUGE amounts of the algae that had to be drained off almost daily that was processed used to make a fuel oil(albeit green-ish in color) that they used in the fleet vehicles in projects from Saudia Arabia, Greece, areas of the U.S. and where I finally settled on one of his final Projects which was the Big bend Power plant near Tampa Florida. He was also one of the key team members that came up with the wet coal bed theory of burning fuel that allowed coal to be substituted for Oil with out major retooling. Riley Stoker’s Main mission was to reduce emissions from convestional power plants while making them more efficient, culminating in the development of a process that led to the effieciency of coal gasification reaching a piont that only passing it thru Biofilters such as the Anerobic Algae filters produced enough biodeisel to run a couple peaking generators that produced 25MW on a weekly basis.

    Keep in mind your getting this 2nd hand from the son of one of the people that designed the above described, and I’m only repeating what was excplained to me during years of travel.

    but for Someone to say to a 15 year old that continuous anerobic generation is a nearly impossible pain in the ass all I can do is quote my father “We just keep dumping the S–t (I assume he meant CO2 and NOx gases) in there and it grows so fast we had to figure out something worthwhile to do with it other than dump it on the ground before it clogged the outlet filters and started running all over”, He was somewhat of a wanna be comedian.

    Maybe the Kid read a paper somewhere everyone else thought was a waste of time?

    Wasn’t Einstien considered a crackpot and a dropout, He failed math for crying out loud.

    100 years ago we were trying to get off the ground.

    “640k ought to be enough for anybody.” – Bill Gates, Co–Founder and CEO of Microsoft, 1981

    One note I wanted to make, I seem to remember that they also recirculated gas emitted from the algae tanks (or tubes was a more accurate description) into the firing section of the steam generators as this also reduced the final NOx and Sulphur emissions? just from that process alone, amazing algae

  • Markus

    Are any of you guys actually involved in energy projects of any sort or grads of an curriculums?

    Do you keep up with any technologies outside of the power of negativity?

    I am not an energy or power plant engineer or designer, just a Florida Contractor.

    However, I was lucky enough to have a Talented father that I traveled with extensively around the world who was involved in power plant design and construction beginning in the late 60′s, both your “standard” and alternative designs, and one of the problems they had beginning in the 70′s was how to deal with the emissions leaving the stacks, of course in 3rd world countries, this wasn’t a problem, just let it go,unless,, it there was a means to make money from it, or make them think it was profitable in some way. My piont being they were using anerobic digesters in the 70′s and 80′s(they had the process set up on only 4 acres of land that processed the same amount as 20acres in previous trials, that was all they’d give them) that they passed only a portion of the stack gases thru (what I can only call algae regenerators or growth promoters as I dont know the technical terms) that reduced NOx And CO2 reductions and in the process generated HUGE amounts of the algae that had to be drained off almost daily that was processed used to make a fuel oil(albeit green-ish in color) that they used in the fleet vehicles in projects from Saudia Arabia, Greece, areas of the U.S. and where I finally settled on one of his final Projects which was the Big bend Power plant near Tampa Florida. He was also one of the key team members that came up with the wet coal bed theory of burning fuel that allowed coal to be substituted for Oil with out major retooling. Riley Stoker’s Main mission was to reduce emissions from convestional power plants while making them more efficient, culminating in the development of a process that led to the effieciency of coal gasification reaching a piont that only passing it thru Biofilters such as the Anerobic Algae filters produced enough biodeisel to run a couple peaking generators that produced 25MW on a weekly basis.

    Keep in mind your getting this 2nd hand from the son of one of the people that designed the above described, and I’m only repeating what was excplained to me during years of travel.

    but for Someone to say to a 15 year old that continuous anerobic generation is a nearly impossible pain in the ass all I can do is quote my father “We just keep dumping the S–t (I assume he meant CO2 and NOx gases) in there and it grows so fast we had to figure out something worthwhile to do with it other than dump it on the ground before it clogged the outlet filters and started running all over”, He was somewhat of a wanna be comedian.

    Maybe the Kid read a paper somewhere everyone else thought was a waste of time?

    Wasn’t Einstien considered a crackpot and a dropout, He failed math for crying out loud.

    100 years ago we were trying to get off the ground.

    “640k ought to be enough for anybody.” – Bill Gates, Co–Founder and CEO of Microsoft, 1981

    One note I wanted to make, I seem to remember that they also recirculated gas emitted from the algae tanks (or tubes was a more accurate description) into the firing section of the steam generators as this also reduced the final NOx and Sulphur emissions? just from that process alone, amazing algae

  • Hutch

    Hmm, zeitgeist, if you find this interesting. why not check it out online. ZeitgeistMovement. We are awake ;)

  • Hutch

    Hmm, zeitgeist, if you find this interesting. why not check it out online. ZeitgeistMovement. We are awake ;)

  • Jeremy

    Combining existing technology in an obvious way is not innovation

  • Jeremy

    Combining existing technology in an obvious way is not innovation

  • Pingback: Clean Energy System Invented - By 15-Year-Old | Newssup

  • Todd

    I would have to side with the critics (cynics) on this one. Why is it that someone gets big news and credit for “inventing” something that’s all around us, just because he’s younger than college graduate age? People go gaga after the age deal without ever knowing that hundreds (possibly thousands) of other non-youngster-aged people have designed extremely similar systems. The problem is they don’t get the publicity because of their drive to actually put the system into practice. Allow me to explain.

    To put it to use, one needs to build it which takes money, which takes someone staking prototypes on high risk and that takes lawyers, accountants, paid “professional” business managers and many guarantees (these days anyway). To do all this, it takes proprietary security on anything truly new and “hit the market first and hard” for anything not patentable. This takes secrecy which precludes publicity. The whole system is very tough to get into so the usual path becomes create a different business to fund the development in-house at cost. This is why you frequently find these developments from people that self-taught themselves all the other disciplines (mostly engineering – to solve their own problems). Unfortunately, the investment community rarely lables these guys anything but crack-pots. Maybe the problem isn’t technical because most of history’s really big achievements came from these same type of people. Try looking at the history of the airplane, telephone, PC and even companies like Google.

    On a slight tangent, too many times for me to count, I’ve been told I can’t get a “stake” of a certain amount for some development (without the guarantees and exorbinant ownership) and then find out the other party’s philanthropic donation “to society’s better good” was much higher that year! Talk about a screwed up world.

  • Todd

    I would have to side with the critics (cynics) on this one. Why is it that someone gets big news and credit for “inventing” something that’s all around us, just because he’s younger than college graduate age? People go gaga after the age deal without ever knowing that hundreds (possibly thousands) of other non-youngster-aged people have designed extremely similar systems. The problem is they don’t get the publicity because of their drive to actually put the system into practice. Allow me to explain.

    To put it to use, one needs to build it which takes money, which takes someone staking prototypes on high risk and that takes lawyers, accountants, paid “professional” business managers and many guarantees (these days anyway). To do all this, it takes proprietary security on anything truly new and “hit the market first and hard” for anything not patentable. This takes secrecy which precludes publicity. The whole system is very tough to get into so the usual path becomes create a different business to fund the development in-house at cost. This is why you frequently find these developments from people that self-taught themselves all the other disciplines (mostly engineering – to solve their own problems). Unfortunately, the investment community rarely lables these guys anything but crack-pots. Maybe the problem isn’t technical because most of history’s really big achievements came from these same type of people. Try looking at the history of the airplane, telephone, PC and even companies like Google.

    On a slight tangent, too many times for me to count, I’ve been told I can’t get a “stake” of a certain amount for some development (without the guarantees and exorbinant ownership) and then find out the other party’s philanthropic donation “to society’s better good” was much higher that year! Talk about a screwed up world.

  • Pingback: Teenager invents ‘Versatile’ algae energy system : Green Resouces

  • Lees

    Hmmm…interesting project. It could yield some results and for 15 years old, this kid is quite advanced in actually getting to this point. The major problem, that I could see is the efficiency of the program as a whole. I don’t quite think that a “childrens’ play pump” could supply enough energy to the facility, nor would the algae perform well enough for the project to work. We may need some technical advances in the area of electrical/mechanical engineering before anything could come of it, and it certainly won’t come cheaply.

  • big feller

    OK, I’m confused. Did he just design a system, or build some kind of prototype? If he designed the system, I would ask has there been any *actual* innovation, or has he merely assembled known technologies in a previously-unknown way? Or did this kid just make up a bunch of technologies that don’t exist, and say “if only we had a anti-matter containment unit powered by dilithium crystals outputting 1.21 jigawatts of power per second, then this whole thing would totally work”?

    I apologize, Mr. Markham, but your story is vague on some of these key issues. I would ask for clarification of the nature of the “invention” here.

  • big feller

    OK, I’m confused. Did he just design a system, or build some kind of prototype? If he designed the system, I would ask has there been any *actual* innovation, or has he merely assembled known technologies in a previously-unknown way? Or did this kid just make up a bunch of technologies that don’t exist, and say “if only we had a anti-matter containment unit powered by dilithium crystals outputting 1.21 jigawatts of power per second, then this whole thing would totally work”?

    I apologize, Mr. Markham, but your story is vague on some of these key issues. I would ask for clarification of the nature of the “invention” here.

  • Mathews

    I totally agree with John Thomas. When I was in school, everyone drew up fantastical plans to reduce pollution, build perpetual machines, better cars, etc.

    Of course, none of these would work in the real world. The title says it all, not that someone found a better Algae energy system, but specifically a 15 year old found it. And we are all supposed to go ‘Awwww…. but a bright lad’ without doubting for a moment whether all this is feasible.

    Added to that, some of the above commentators criticize John for his frank opinion, whereas they themselves dont realize what hypocrites they are that they respect the discovery just coz its a kid that did it.

    If Javier wants to really make a difference, tell him to go to college, grad school, and publish some peer reviewed papers and then, he might get my respect.

    And Frank Baker, accusing John of not trying to make the world a better place… ? Seriously, are you kidding ? He just tried to do that by enlightening your ignorance. Sorry it went over your head.

  • Mathews

    I totally agree with John Thomas. When I was in school, everyone drew up fantastical plans to reduce pollution, build perpetual machines, better cars, etc.

    Of course, none of these would work in the real world. The title says it all, not that someone found a better Algae energy system, but specifically a 15 year old found it. And we are all supposed to go ‘Awwww…. but a bright lad’ without doubting for a moment whether all this is feasible.

    Added to that, some of the above commentators criticize John for his frank opinion, whereas they themselves dont realize what hypocrites they are that they respect the discovery just coz its a kid that did it.

    If Javier wants to really make a difference, tell him to go to college, grad school, and publish some peer reviewed papers and then, he might get my respect.

    And Frank Baker, accusing John of not trying to make the world a better place… ? Seriously, are you kidding ? He just tried to do that by enlightening your ignorance. Sorry it went over your head.

  • PJ

    Close. He left out the flux capacitor between the infinite improbability drive engine and the sonic screwdriver…

  • PJ

    Close. He left out the flux capacitor between the infinite improbability drive engine and the sonic screwdriver…

  • JOhnny Cash

    Wow, that is amazing. One VERY smart kid there!

    RT

    http://www.anonymity.2ya.com

  • JOhnny Cash

    Wow, that is amazing. One VERY smart kid there!

    RT

    http://www.anonymity.2ya.com

  • Frank Baker

    Well John Thomas, what have you done lately to make this world a better place? Or have you even tried?

    The article says he’s in the process. Good Luck and more power to you Javier!

  • Frank Baker

    Well John Thomas, what have you done lately to make this world a better place? Or have you even tried?

    The article says he’s in the process. Good Luck and more power to you Javier!

  • Jimmy

    I have to agree with the first comment, designing an algae cultivation system and actually building one are two very different things. What species will you use to get the best balance between growth and bio-oil content? How do you plan on harvesting the algae and extracting the oil? And the PlayPump idea is rather vague…you might as well just save the energy by not

    feeding the children the extra food they would need from working so hard on the pump.

  • Jimmy

    I have to agree with the first comment, designing an algae cultivation system and actually building one are two very different things. What species will you use to get the best balance between growth and bio-oil content? How do you plan on harvesting the algae and extracting the oil? And the PlayPump idea is rather vague…you might as well just save the energy by not

    feeding the children the extra food they would need from working so hard on the pump.

  • Able

    aren’t their a bunch of giant ponds in Texas creating this algae energy…and I don’t care if it’s fantasy or not, if he can get Obama to believe it, maybe he won’t tax cows for farting.

  • Able

    aren’t their a bunch of giant ponds in Texas creating this algae energy…and I don’t care if it’s fantasy or not, if he can get Obama to believe it, maybe he won’t tax cows for farting.

  • Jess

    I agree with Terrence. Let the child dream big. He’s doing what most of us complain about not being done. We should listen to all ideas people have that cut down on waste and are beneficial to the population and environment alike.

  • Jess

    I agree with Terrence. Let the child dream big. He’s doing what most of us complain about not being done. We should listen to all ideas people have that cut down on waste and are beneficial to the population and environment alike.

  • Terrence

    Hi Haters, how many complete algae energy systems have you taken a crack at designing lately? I hope this is the first of many steps for this young person in doing something good for the world. Good luck, Javier.

  • Terrence

    Hi Haters, how many complete algae energy systems have you taken a crack at designing lately? I hope this is the first of many steps for this young person in doing something good for the world. Good luck, Javier.

  • Micskill

    Well the article indicates that Javier is in the process of developing a “family sized system”, so hopefully Derek Markham will keep tabs on this story and update us if/when this project comes to fruition.

  • Micskill

    Well the article indicates that Javier is in the process of developing a “family sized system”, so hopefully Derek Markham will keep tabs on this story and update us if/when this project comes to fruition.

  • http://extremegreenvillage.com Bob

    The comment above is dissappointing. Is this a real idea or is the writer for this article trying to mislead everyone?

    Does the writer of this article have any idea whether this makes sense or not?

    This is “CleanTechnica.Com” not “Big Foot sightings in the deep woods!!”

  • http://extremegreenvillage.com Bob

    The comment above is dissappointing. Is this a real idea or is the writer for this article trying to mislead everyone?

    Does the writer of this article have any idea whether this makes sense or not?

    This is “CleanTechnica.Com” not “Big Foot sightings in the deep woods!!”

  • Joe Smith

    Well John, you can cross crushing a 15 year olds dreams off your list.

  • Joe Smith

    Well John, you can cross crushing a 15 year olds dreams off your list.

  • John Thomas

    There’s no innovation there…

    You need to change the title to “15 Year Old Invents Complete Fantasy”- most of that diagram is just “Then a miracle happens”, especially the algae culture part.

    Anyone who has any experience in continuous culture would either look at that diagram and laugh themselves to death or run away screaming.

    Even the simple looking parts in that diagram are fraught with peril- just google DisneyWorld’s experiment with moving CH4/CO2 from cattle feedlots in Gainesville for a little education in what’s involved.

  • John Thomas

    There’s no innovation there…

    You need to change the title to “15 Year Old Invents Complete Fantasy”- most of that diagram is just “Then a miracle happens”, especially the algae culture part.

    Anyone who has any experience in continuous culture would either look at that diagram and laugh themselves to death or run away screaming.

    Even the simple looking parts in that diagram are fraught with peril- just google DisneyWorld’s experiment with moving CH4/CO2 from cattle feedlots in Gainesville for a little education in what’s involved.

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