Working for a better world
EAST CALAIS – Mention the word technology and most people immediately think of computers, cell phones, and the shift toward an increasingly digitalized world. Not so for inventor Carl Bielenberg. In his mind, a technological advance is just a better, more efficient way of achieving a goal.
Working out of a small shop in East Calais, Bielenberg has spent the better half of his life inventing and modifying tools to promote economic development. And while many of the creations from his Better World Workshop have been put to use in Vermont, they've also proven useful in other areas of the world.
Crammed into every nook and cranny of the barn-sized workshop next to his home are large metal machines, chains, pulleys, and a myriad of hand tools. As Bielenberg maneuvered his tall frame through a narrow path of pipes and engine components, he described some of his more recent projects.
"Since about 1994, I've been doing experiments on vegetable oil as a substitute for diesel fuel, and that's beginning to have a real groundswell of interest," Bielenberg said while pointing to a small diesel engine at the far end of the shop.
But the real pride of Better World Workshop is the biomass gasifier, which is under development. When completed, the machine will burn wood and other biomass solids to create a gas useful for generating electricity. The end result: enough juice to power approximately 50 to 75 typical American homes.
"There's a nucleus of interest present in the public services department of the state of Vermont," Bielenberg said. "But also now most of the states have funds for promoting renewable electric power generation. And of course biomass is a renewable fuel, and it's also a carbon neutral fuel, meaning the trees assimilate carbon dioxide from the atmosphere in the same quantity that's released when they're burned, and so it's very advantageous from the standpoint of global warming."
Bielenberg's work in the field of biomass gasification has the potential to drastically reshape the way in which communities acquire energy. On a smaller scale, he has already produced a high-pressure biomass steam boiler that generates approximately 3 kilowatts of electricity, or, enough to power a small African village. If things go as Bielenberg hopes, his full-size biomass gasifier will find a place in cities and towns around Vermont – and the globe.
After graduating from Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1975, Bielenberg set off for Africa. Within months, he met Peace Corp volunteers working in the eastern provinces of Cameroon.
"They were inland fisheries volunteers," Bielenberg said. "Their job was to encourage farmers to dig small fish ponds and raise tilapia fish to supplement their protein. Now this was pretty ambitious, because digging a fishpond by hand is no easy thing. So they were wondering if I could design a machine that could either dig fishponds, or assist in the digging and dredging of fishponds."
Bielenberg spent the last of his traveling money to purchase the materials he needed to build a "prototype fishpond digger."
After returning to the United States, Bielenberg, who was raised in New York's Hudson Valley, set up shop in East Calais.
"All I knew was that I wanted to be an inventor, and I almost worshipped the inventors of the past … like Edison and Tesla," Bielenberg says.
Before long he'd found funding and began inventing. In 1986, Enterprise Works Worldwide hired Bielenberg to travel the world in search of technologies that could be exported to developing countries. In Bangladesh, he found a foot-operated water pump that he adapted for use in sub-Saharan Africa for small-scale irrigation projects.
The Bielenberg Suction-Pressure Pump is widely used across the African continent. A small wood and metal contraption, the pump resembles a Stairmaster, with two, long wooden planks that operate a piston-suction system that can draw water directly from a river or pond. Although simple in design and construction, the Bielenberg pump draws water six times faster than traditional methods and increases agricultural productivity.
Although many of Bielenberg's tools are designed specifically for export to foreign countries, he has also worked on technologies for the local market. His main source of income, he says, comes from the installation maintenance woodchip furnaces, many of which are in use in public schools throughout the region.
In 1985, Bielenberg and Calais resident Barry Bernstein proposed that Calais Elementary School convert its electric heating system to a woodchip-fired heating system. The proposal was approved at town meeting. Bielenberg laughed, "We then had to find someone who actually made such a thing." He found one at Messersmith Manufacturing of Bark River, Mich.
Shortly after Bielenberg and Bernstein installed Calais Elementary School's system, they received requests to set up woodchip furnaces at other schools, and as Bielenberg said, "I was sort of unofficially made the service rep." Currently, he maintains 15 woodchip heating systems in the New England region, most of which are located in schools.
Although the inventing is fulfilling work it can also be frustrating, Bielenberg said. Mistakes are common. Worse still, locating funding to support research and development is a difficult.
"In this period of our history, when we hear the word technology, we think immediately of computers, and obviously information technology has a major role to play in development, but it's only one part of the puzzle. All of these other things that are very essential as tools for improving the use of natural resources and creating new job opportunities are considered to be mere curiosities. It's very strange," Bielenberg said.
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