Hello from the Travel Desk at the Reactor. I am perpetually on the road for work and would like to share some of the ‘engineering’ sights I have seen. While you won’t find many of these sights on a typical “Must-See” list, I think they are interesting and worth a visit if you are in the area.
For example while recently spending some time in Kaohsiung, Taiwan, on the southern end of the island almost opposite Taipei; I visited a sugar refinery that has been turned into a museum of sorts.
The History of Sugar in Taiwan
Sugar was primarily introduced to Taiwan by the Dutch, who influenced the island during the 1630s. Though the Dutch soon were forced off the island, growth in sugar production continued to grow eventually booming in the early 18th century. Taiwan’s sugar farms and mills were small scale operations and continued to be, making it hard to keep up with industry pricing. The southern sugar growing regions lagged behind the northern rice growing regions due to this lack of development. When the Japanese asserted control
[caption id="attachment_1674" align="alignright" width="300" caption="Ciaotou Sugar Refinery"][/caption]
over the island in 1895, they set to modernizing Taiwan’s sugar industry. Centered in the southern sugar growing region, the Ciaotou Sugar Refinery was built in 1901 as Taiwan’s first modern sugar refinery. Without modernization of the supply chain, Taiwanese sugar was still not competitive on the world market and was mostly sold duty-free to Japan. In 1946, with return of sovereignty, all of the various sugar companies in operation were merged to form the Taiwan Sugar Corporation. Sugar regained the top spot as Taiwan’s export in the '50s and '60s but then falling back as Taiwan developed manufacturing industries and became a less agrarian economy, eventually leading to the closure of the Ciaotou Sugar Refinery in 1999. The current incarnation of the Taiwan Sugar Corporation – TaiSugar - is still in business but has diversified into tourism, floriculture, biotechnology, retail, and real estate.
Approach and Ciaotou Refinery Grounds
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The refinery is easily accessible from almost anywhere in Kaohsiung by the MRT – Kaohsiung’s train system. From the Ciaotou Sugar Refinery stop, out of Exit #2 it is a short walk past the old Taiwan Sugar Corporation Kaohsiung Headquarters building, and following the signs, to the refinery entrance. The grounds to the refinery are quite expansive, once housing all the Japanese workers and managers along with all the space needed for operation. The wide entrance avenue is lined with palm trees, on one side are the few manager housing units remaining and the other a few shops selling snacks. Beyond the snack shops is a treat for railroad fans – the retired German Diema locomotives sit on what remains of the narrow gauge track. Beyond this are groomed walkways through the grounds and a collection of artwork made by local artists from machinery collected from the shuttered facility.
Description of the Ciaotou Sugar Refinery
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Finally, the main attraction. There are a couple of steel walkways that lead from the raw material sorting area into the main crushing and processing room then into the storage tank farm. There was little decommissioning work done except to clean out the pipes – there are still some tools lying around and some PPE on the shelves. Heat exchangers and motors can be examined freely. There are some signs explaining the process and what each piece of equipment did in the process, but not all are in English. The administrative office, displaying a timeline of office equipment throughout the years (including air raid siren), and a shrine built for the Japanese workers during construction and operation, round out the site.
I found it this site interesting on a couple levels. One was the reuse and display of this old industrial site into a playground for children and center for local artists. The other was to witness a plant of a different time and culture. The landscaping of the facility was beautiful enough to rival many gardens. While I have seen similar landscaping in some tropical locations, this is definitely different than what a plant looks like in the US. This was a good thing for the workers since this might have been their entire world. The company provided housing (still a common practice in some Asian countries) and for a while under Japanese occupation some workers would have even been very far removed from their families. The shrine is also another notable difference. In the States, our factories are opened by CEOs or presidents but there are still many places where a deity is overseeing production.
More great photos: http://thedailybubbletea.com/2009/06/24/kaohsiung-the-ciaotou-sugar-refinery/
Flick Photo Slideshow of the Ciaotou Sugar Refinery
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Just over a year ago, Deeya Energy, a startup responsible for flow battery backup systems for cell phone towers in India, renamed itself Imergy Power Systems, hired a new CEO and threw out its iron-chromium battery chemistry, replacing it with the more-expensive vanadium. This seemed a little crazy at the time, a Solyndra flameout that should cripple the Fremont, California, company and batter its investors.
Even though vanadium provides more power and energy than other electrolyte metals (zinc bromine, iron chromium), if you're a vanadium flow battery CEO, you'll ruin your day just by checking the metal's volatile price, which makes up about 40% of each battery's cost. It's a tiny niche in a market dominated by the global steel industry, which sucks up 90% of demand by adding a small amount of vanadium to strengthen every piece of steel rebar used in concrete for buildings, bridges, and roads.
Despite vanadium's price, Bill Watkins, Imergy's new CEO, has a rational explanation for this apparent craziness. The tech veteran explained about a defect inside its original iron-chromium battery: hydrogen bubbles formed in the electrolyte, restricting flow and reducing the current. The company spent years trying to solve this problem, but found a better solution "going out of house."
Imergy licensed a new and more efficient second-generation vanadium electrolyte developed by the DOE’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL), one that increased the battery's energy storage capacity, operating temperature range, and lifespan.
Since a battery's capacity to generate electricity is limited by how many ions it can pack into the electrolyte, PNNL researchers realized that traditional vanadium batteries were stunted by using pure sulfuric acid, and absorbed fewer ions. After a series of trials, they ended up blending 6 parts hydrochloric acid with 2.5 parts sulfuric acid. Follow-up tests found that this simple alteration caused the battery's capacity to jump 70 percent.
The new electrolyte solved another bottleneck: the old battery worked optimally between a narrow range of 10 to 40 Celsius. Colder, the electrolyte crystallized. Overheating rendered the battery useless. Now the battery worked at temperatures between -40 degrees and more than 50 degrees Celsius, making it reliable around most of the world. Air conditioners could be now junked, which trimmed a 20 percent energy loss.
"When you eliminate both the hydrogen bubbling and the expensive cooling system, we can (more cheaply) operate in places like India,” says Watkins. “There is no other flow battery that can do that.” About 50 of the new units have already been successfully tested in India's hot, dry climate.
There was a carry-over drawback with the new PNNL electrolyte. It still required pure vanadium, making the batteries 50 percent more expensive than iron-chromium. But Imergy completely remade the playing field when co-founder and chief technology officer Majid Keshavarz altered the electrolyte to accept lower-grade vanadium extracted from iron ore waste, oil sludge, or fly ash from coal-powered power plants.
Any company using pure vanadium must process it to an exacting 99% level of purity, but Keshavarz's new electrolyte requires only a 98% purity level. That single percentage point moves the cost spread between pure vanadium and Imergy's scavenged metal about 30%, giving it a stronger competitive advantage.
Imergy now says it will be able to lower the cost of its flow batteries from $500 a kilowatt hour to about $300 per kilowatt hour and hopes to have new batteries on the market by 2015. New factories in California and India should drop the costs even further. “We think we can go commercial for under $300 per kilowatt-hour,” Watkins says.
Since Watkins was brought in to rapidly scale up the company, he plans to take the new technology beyond the current Indian cell tower installations and conquer larger and much more profitable markets.
Let the battle begin
Imergy wasn't the only vanadium battery maker to take advantage of the new PNNL electrolyte. UniEnergy, a younger startup based near Seattle Washington, also licensed it. And it shouldn't be a surprise that its co-founders, CEO Z. Gary Yang and CTO Liyu Li, are the same PNNL scientists who developed the new electrolyte and jumped on a good thing when they created it. Eventually, they'll be competing head-to-head with Imergy and against their own ingenuity.
While Imergy is still working with contract manufacturer Flextronics on its prototype, two-year-old UniEnergy is already bringing its vanadium flow battery to market. One of its main investors, Dalian Bolong Holding Co of China, which owns a large vanadium miner and Rongke, a company that’s made vanadium flow batteries for eight years, knew about Yang and Li's work. Dalian executives were eager to help the two researchers spin off their disruptive idea.
Assured of a steady and inexpensive supply of vanadium, UniEnergy also mined Rongke’s experience to design the 600-kilowatt, 2-megawatt-hour energy storage system it’s now sending into the field. The startup also got a boost stateside when it won two installations from local Washington utilities, as the state brands itself as a center for new energy storage technologies.
In fact, the startup plans to install a total of 3.5 megawatts of batteries this year, which includes 2 megawatts for the home-state Snohomish utility, 1 megawatt at another Pacific Northwest utility, and an additional 500-kilowatt system in California. With its spacious 67,000-square-foot factory, the startup plans to manufacture 18 megawatts next year and could produce up to 100 megawatts a year.In the end, Imergy's Watson spoke for both companies when he told Greentech Media, "At the end of the day, it’s all about hitting cost points and whether you have a technology platform that allows you to scale. We can take the chemistry and technology within the flow battery and extend it." Let the battle begin.
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