Hi tech ideas from a low-tech couple
by Joseph Gresser
copyright September 27, 2006
WHEELOCK — Energy researchers are busy in unlikely looking houses along many of the Northeast Kingdom’s back roads. Most favor low-tech solutions to fueling cars, heating homes or generating electricity.
Not so Phillip and Leigh Hurley. From their South Wheelock home they work to put the latest hydrogen fuel cell technology in the hands of average people.
Their business, Good Ideas Creative Services, publishes electronic books under the Wheelock Mountain Publications imprint. Five of them, written by Mr. Hurley, instruct the home experimenter on topics ranging from building your own solar panel to constructing a solar hydrogen fuel cell system.
“If we can do it, anyone can do it,” Mr. Hurley said during a conversation Saturday afternoon. Certainly there is nothing about his or Ms. Hurley’s background that would suggest they might be energy gurus.
He has a bachelor’s degree in human services, she majored in music. They both have masters degrees in theology.
While he lacks formal training, Mr. Hurley said he has “years of experience with avocational electrical experimentation.”
If he had guidance at an early age, he said, he might have pursued a more traditional path in the field of science. As it is, Mr. Hurley said, his work has interested many people who can boast the formal credentials he lacks.
While working on building hydrogen fuel cells, Mr. Hurley said, he needed to find an economical way to create a platinum-coated membrane. He hit on the idea of copying the process photographers use to make paper sensitive to light. Mr. Hurley said he was surprised when scientists termed his idea a stroke of genius.
“I’m not a genius,” he said.
The Hurleys’ research is directed at producing electronic books to help others pursue their backyard or basement research. They have discovered, though, that universities and schools find their books helpful as textbooks.
Mr. Hurley said that some scientists working for large laboratories in the field of fuel cell technology can be so focused on their small portion of the project that they don’t have a clear picture of the way the entire system works. He said he has received calls from such researchers thanking him for his work.
Mr. Hurley is the team’s writer, Ms. Hurley creates the e-books, that are their stock in trade. E-books are electronic books designed to be read on a computer screen.
The couple’s distribution of tasks seems quite flexible. Both are fully conversant with the science and the mechanics of the business. The only place where a firm line exists is customer service. Ms. Hurley handles that.
“He is of the Basil Fawlty school of customer service,” she said of Mr. Hurley.
A person seeking one of the couple’s books goes online to their web site, www.goodideacreative.com, where she can order and pay for it. The customer then downloads her copy.
“It’s instant gratification,” Mr. Hurley said.
Ms. Hurley said when the couple first started publishing most people didn’t understand the idea of e-books. “People would call up and ask for a copy of the actual book, and we would explain this is the book,” she said.
Mr. Hurley said young people are, in general, more comfortable than older people with reading books on a computer screen. He said the style of publishing has advantages both for the reader and the publisher.
The buyer, Mr. Hurley said, will find far more color photographic illustrations than could be economically included in a printed book. He estimated that an equivalent traditional book would have to be priced at $160. Mr. Hurley’s books cost between $8 and $17 to download.
Mr. Hurley said a person living in Botswana, in Africa, would once have had limited access to the kind of information he is offering. Even if a person could afford the book, he would have to order it and wait weeks for delivery.
Ms. Hurley said the couple had heard from a person in Brazil who built a business using information from their book on building solar panels.
The couple’s business benefits from not having to risk more than time and energy in publishing their books. They have no inventory, they depend on few suppliers other than the company that hosts their web site.
Their current business is not their first joint enterprise. For a while they sold and installed solar electric systems.
They also put on fireworks displays and made supplies for pyrotechnic shows.
“We put on the Burlington fireworks show for two years,” Mr. Hurley said. “From where I ran the controls I couldn’t see the fireworks, but I could hear people on boats oohing and aahing. I used their responses to time the show.”
The Hurleys also made the very pure type of charcoal used by fireworks makers. “We figured out a process that used the gases that came off the wood to further purify the charcoal,” Mr. Hurley said. “When we started it up it sounded like a jet engine.”
He said most fireworks makers want willow charcoal, but Mr. Hurley said poplar charcoal has superior qualities.
The couple got out of the charcoal business because it was too dangerous, he said. Even though they ground the material outdoors, the cloud of charcoal dust produced by the process was potentially highly explosive.
“We still get calls for the charcoal,” Ms. Hurley said.
The couple created Good Ideas Creative Services to offer design services to corporations. When the Internet bubble burst, their main client went with it. They suffered as well.
When they were considering what to do next, Ms. Hurley suggested they try to make an electronic book out of a short book he wrote to teach people how to set up the solar panels they once sold.
Mr. Hurley said he was dubious about the project, but Ms. Hurley persuaded him to try. She used the experience she gained from the design service to put the book together and design a web site. The response wasn’t enough to support the couple, but enough to permit the site to pay for itself.
Mr. and Ms. Hurley went on to study and write about hydrogen fuel cells. The cells produce electricity by combining hydrogen and oxygen. The only byproduct besides the energy is a small amount of water and water vapor.
While an individual fuel cell produces only a small amount of energy, the cells can be stacked in a manner that boosts the flow of current.
The Hurleys’ books are designed to teach people to construct experimental systems with simple tools and techniques. Mr. Hurley said he looks hard for useful techniques.
One portion of their process is based on Ben Franklin’s method of making silhouettes, he said. To make their membranes, the pair had to find a substitute for the huge presses used by manufacturers.
“We came up with taking two brass plates held together with c-clamps,” Ms. Hurley said. “We heated them in the oven.”
A supplier catering to amateur experimenters now offers a kit based on their method, Mr. Hurley said.
One of the problems of fuel cell technology is getting pure hydrogen. Using electricity off the grid to separate water into its constituent parts serves no purpose, as a great deal of energy is lost in the process.
The Hurleys came up with the idea of using the sun to power the reaction. Mr. Hurley said one drawback of solar power is storage. Batteries must be continually charged and discharged. A battery charged in the summer will no longer have a charge when winter rolls around, he said.
Hydrogen, on the other hand, can be stored in pressurized tanks or in metallic compounds called hydrides. This hydrogen can be run through fuel cells whenever electricity is needed to recharge a system’s batteries.
Mr. Hurley said that on a bright summer day, solar panels can recharge batteries in a matter of a few hours. The rest of the day’s electricity can be used to create hydrogen.
Hydrogen is not something to be trifled with. One of Mr. Hurley’s books says it contains more energy than any other fuel known. If enough hydrogen and oxygen come together a small spark is enough to set off a large explosion.
For this reason the couple’s books are larded with safety instructions. Their designs also call for numerous features intended to minimize the inherent dangers of experimental systems.
Mr. Hurley doesn’t necessarily see his solar system as a way to get off the grid completely. Rather he said, people can “use it in an intelligent way to add to the green.”
He is not a fan of net metering, selling home-generated power back to the electric grid. Mr. Hurley said it is very difficult for a home system to create enough electricity to provide for one’s own needs and extra to sell.
The Hurleys’ home has two separate sets of wiring, one for commercial power, one for home-generated electricity. They also have two solar systems, one connected to directly to the power system, the other specially designed for hydrogen production.
Mr. Hurley calls his solar array “an electronic Stonehenge.” That idea, he said, is his philosophy of life.
Now that the couple has five books out on hydrogen production and solar power, Mr. Hurley thinks he might turn his attention to nanotechnology. He’s thinking of trying to build a microscope able to examine atomic structure.
As Ms. Hurley said, “We’re both easily amused.”
Mr. Hurley proved the point by telling of the time the two built a million-volt Tesla coil in their dorm room in divinity school. The device is a spark generating device familiar to anyone who ever has seen a mad scientist’s laboratory in a horror movie.
“When we built it we didn’t know how far the sparks would fly,” he said, “so we were hiding behind the bed.”