Like Lego, but for energy

The way microgrids are built [in Africa] is impractical, everyone is thinking solar [instead of asking] what are the resources in the community?”

Desmond Koney’s ethos is spelt out quite simply with that statement.

As a mechanical engineer, he has been developing engineering designs for clients which tended to focus on energy production. But his thinking has always focused on the resources available to a community developing a micro-grid. In many parts of the developing world, solar cells are still prohibitively expensive. Even though one can buy a 0.65W cell off eBay for about $10, the cumulative cost of an inverter, batteries and charge controllers could amount to a tidy sum compared to the funds available in the same communities.

Desmond’s solution was to design an interoperable energy system that can interface a biodigester, a hydro power kit and an axial turbine, either sold together or individually. His Ghanaian outfit, Cibus Technologies, continues to work with communities to develop these solutions. One of their signature installations was funded by the World Bank.

[Compared to solar,] hydro power generates more energy than it costs”

Their biggest collaborator, however, has been Siemens — the German engine manufacturer. On a visit by Angela Merkel to Ghana in the summer of 2018, she met the Cibus team and a working relationship with Siemens started.

The team showing their design to Angela Merkel on the latter’s visit to Ghana. Cibus Technologies

Working with Siemens helps Cibus develop their product knowing the best gas turbines for their biodigester solution. They have been able to install a 1.5KW unit for a rural community in Ghana, collecting the community’s waste centrally and connecting the whole community to a micro-grid.

Generating power from biodigesters has gotten more efficient, since the elimination of carburetors for the [gas] combustion”

As biodigestion is a chemical reaction, it produces some impurities such as Carbon IV Oxide and Hydrogen Sulphide in producing the main gas: Methane. Hence, the system is designed to generate 85% methane after purifying the impurities in the output gas.

For a 500L system — a solution that can store 500 litres of waste — only 100L is required to activate the digesting process which can produce methane in about a week, from then on any new waste input simply keeps the system going. While 100L can provide gas for up to 3 weeks for the gas turbine, it can also produce organic fertilizer as a by product — a useful material for farming communities.

The digester concept as designed, showing its parts. Cibus Technologies

Cibus Technologies’ products are currently undergoing the patent review process and are being manufactured in small quantities by a Shenzhen manufacturing partner.

We used only elbows so that the system is easy to assemble using only Allen Keys”

Knowing that the clients who purchase the systems may not be very technical, the systems are designed to be easy to assemble, almost like a plug-and-play.

When asked about the future and expanding his technology, Desmond remarks that while funding has been difficult to access his outfit stays afloat by providing engineering design services for communities interested in building unique solutions. One of these solutions is a Fog Catcher installed in the Kwahu Mountains in Southern Ghana. As the community is based on top a mountain, they found it difficult to access clean water; with his solution, the community can generate 6 gallons of water overnight.

His unique skill is to work with rural communities to develop the best energy or engineering solution for their needs, a skill set that is mostly advertised by product design firms such as Catapult. When he thinks of the future of energy in Africa, he questions what the future of decentralized power might be: will communities generate more power than they need and sell back to the grid or will governments take on the challenge of providing constant power?

Until then he’s building his units like Lego, but for energy.

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