When the Civil Engineer wears the Hero’s Cape (book review)

“It’s one thing to erroneously tell someone to drive through a lake.  It’s quite another to drive someone through a lake.”  So explains fictional Civil Engineer Jake Bendel when discussing the need for complete accuracy in a fully automated highway system in the “civil engineer thriller” Civil Terror:  Gridlock by J. Luke Bennecke.  Civil Terror

In Gridlock, Bennecke, a civil engineer in real life, describes a near-future in which traffic accidents and heavy commutes are a thing of the past, thanks to a “100% accurate” roadway system of self-driving cars which utilize GPS, cell-phone pings, and a loosely-described “proprietary system” of tracking signals.

Things are going along well until a terrorist devises a scheme to kill thousands of commuters by subverting the computer code and causing massive traffic accidents all up and down the California highway system.  Thanks to planted evidence by the terrorist, the FBI suspects Jake and not the true villain.  What follows is a fun crime-thriller-esque novel in which Jake proves to be the unlikely hero.

In the novel, Bennecke explores the realities of a fully-automated traffic system (versus the current one-car-at-a-time system), and the tremendous benefits that could result.  It is also a fun read, especially for civil engineers and those that love them.  As fictional Jake in the novel points out, “[N]obody wants to read a technical thesis about the gritty details of fully automating cars and trucks on freeways…. Unless they were having a hard time going to sleep, ‘cause that would certainly do the trick.”  Instead, Jake in the novel, and Bennecke in real life, pens a novel where the civil engineer gets to wear the hero’s cape, vanquish the bad guy, and save the day.

This book is not an in-depth discussion of the engineering, legal, and insurance implications of self-driving cars.  Instead, it is a fun, quick read where the engineering concept is simply one of many plot points.  Even so, this might be novel as a gift for the favorite civil engineer in your own life!  (after all, Mother’s/Father’s Day is coming!!]

Have you thought about fully-automated highway systems?  See the promise/problems?  Share in the comment section.

[Editor’s note:  I received a review copy of this book for consideration, but will not receive any benefit if you purchase it].

Lessons from a Diner: Up Front Costs can Save You Money in your Engineering Practice (law note)

greekgrilled.jpgI happen to frequent a place in my hometown called Elmo’s Diner.  A lot.  As in, many of the servers know me by name.  The food is good, yes.  The selection is great.  But there is a much more important reason that I go there over and over again– the service.  Elmo’s seems to always have enough staff on hand, and they also work together to make sure your wait is never very long.

There are some other places in town that skimp on hiring waiters and waitresses.  I guess they figure, the fewer they have working at any one time, the less money they have to pay out.  Even though, of course, waiter minimum wage is much lower than regular minimum wage due to the tip factor.  But some of these other places (who shall remain unnamed) really do seem to have the mindset that they will save money by not hiring enough staff for the number of customers.

Maybe that thinking works for them- in the short run.  Do you know how much money I spend at Elmo’s Diner?  Let’s just put it this way– I really should invest in direct deposit with them!  These other places?  I forget, and go to them every now and again, thinking, it can’t be all bad, right?  And almost always, I remember why I do NOT go to them.

Now, back to construction.  Many professional service firms are like the unmentionable restaurants above– they skimp on things that “cost money”.  Notably, in two areas (1) professional liability insurance (errors & omissions coverage), and (2) getting legal assistance at the beginning of a project.  These architects & engineers are making the same short-sighted mistake, thinking they are “saving money.”  And yet, very often, in the long run they are costing themselves money– in contract disputes, legal wrangling at project end, or in paying out of pocket for large claims.

You should have E&O insurance if you are a working professional.  Period.  You should also have your contracts and proposals reviewed by a lawyer.  Preferably, before any major new undertaking.  The up front costs are small, but the impact can be huge.  Just ask anyone at Elmo’s.

Your turn.  Are there places that you frequent because of their superior service?  Do the extra costs seem to pay for themselves over time?  Share below. 

5 Amazing Ancient Engineering Feats (infographic)

I was cruisin’ around the ‘Net recently and came across this fun info graphic listing their “Top” 5 Ancient Engineering Feats. What say you? Agree? Disagree? Anything they left out that they shouldn’t have? Share in the comment section, below.

Top 5 Most Amazing Feats of Ancient Engineering

Turning Manure into megawatts (Swine Farm Biogas Renewable Energy Project)

As I noted in my last post, Withers & Ravenel’s Swine Farm Biogas Renewable Energy Project, located in Bladensboro, North Carolina, is one of this year’s ACEC Excellence in Engineering Award winners.

I asked the folks at Withers & Ravenel to give share more about their project, how it was conceived, and how it was designed.

Why Swine Farms? What was the genesis of this Project?pig outline

North Carolina is “pork proud”, with approximately 9 million hogs on farms scattered throughout the eastern part of the State. These farms rely on open pit lagoons and land application for the treatment and disposal of animal waste.   However, open-air treatment lagoons have a poor reputation among some lawmakers, residents and environmentalists. They are accused of creating sickening odors, allowing methane to escape into the atmosphere, and contaminating groundwater and streams.

Because of environmental concerns, the State temporarily suspended permitting the construction and operation on any new swine farms utilizing lagoon treatment systems in 1997, and required new farms to meet “environmentally superior technology” (EST) standards.  Since the enactment of the suspension, there have been no new hog farms introduced in North Carolina.

Tax Credits, Legislation, and Funding

In 2007, the State passed Senate Bill 3, which pushes the use and development of renewable energy standards, the State took a big step toward encouraging innovative treatment technologies for swine waste by mandating utilities to purchase Renewable Energy Credits (REC) generated from swine waste. The Bill also provides a 35% State tax credit in addition to the Federal 30% tax credit.

Spurred by the availability of the NC Green Business Fund grants from the 2009 American Resource Recovery Act, Withers & Ravenel conceived the 600kW renewable energy project and assembled the project team, which included developer AgPower Partners LLC, Withers & Ravenel engineers, and Barnhill General Contractors.

The project was able to receive over $2 million dollars in grants and tax credits, including a $500,000 grant from the NC Department of Energy and $1.5 million grant from the US Treasury. The Owner, Billy Storms, was able to finance the balance of the project cost through a loan with the Cape Fear Farm Credit Association.

Storms Farm Digester Site

Storms Farm Digester Site

Engineering a Plan for the System

In North Carolina, swine farms flush the houses with water in a closed system with a lagoon providing storage and treatment of waste which is then applied to crops. With this process, the waste is diluted to around 1-2% solids.  However, in order to reduce the water content for more efficient temperature control of the anaerobic digestion, the waste needs to be between 5-10% solids.

With the implementation of scraper technology, swine waste volume was significantly reduced by eliminating the added liquid from the flushing system.  This made the Storms Farm much less reliant on the volume required in the existing lagoons, reduced the required size of the anaerobic digester, providing benefits to both the waste handling concerns and to energy production.  The scraper system also reduced the amount of ammonia gas in the barns, which is beneficial to animal and human worker health.

Most digester systems for swine manure in North Carolina have relied on ambient covered lagoons. However, at Storms Farm, with the scale of a 600 acre farm and swine houses separated by as much as a mile, it was not cost-effective to build and cover a new lagoon to treat the waste using anaerobic digestion.  The distance between the 23 barn complex made it problematic to pump waste because of build-up in the pipe known to cause maintenance and failure problems.

After review of viable technologies, Withers & Ravenel recommended DVO Anaerobic Digesters to supply the digester technology for Storms Farm. DVO has an extensive tract record using their patented mixed plug-flow digester technology on dairy farms, but there was no comparable swine waste facilities using mesophilic digestion in the US.   Europe has a substantial number of facilities that use swine manure mixed with other substrates, but there was no reliable source of data for the gas yield using solely swine waste substrate.

As a result, Withers & Ravenel took multiple manure samples from local farms and had them tested to help estimate the biogas yield. Even with this data, there was very little information to collaborate the projected biogas yield. After all alternatives were evaluated, the most cost-effective, efficient option was to construct a heated mesophilic digester system with cogeneration and to convert the barns to scraper manure removal systems.

Receiving Pit and Generator Building

Receiving Pit and Generator Building

Construction Issues

Geotechnical borings were done and revealed the need to raise the digester above grade due to a high ground water table. This required sloping the backfill around the tank as insulation to maintain the needed 95 degree temperature in the mesophilic process.  The report also revealed the need to pre-load the site to avoid potential settling of the digester and cogeneration building.  This additional grading and site work was necessary from the original conceptual site plan.

The Digester Operation

The scraper system scraps the waste to a gravity collection system and storage tanks behind each barn. Two vacuum trucks and drivers empty each of the 23 tanks daily to collect the manure collected from each of the barns, drive to the digester facility and empty the manure into the influent pump station.

Manure is pumped into the  1.1 million gallon in-ground concrete digester where the temperatures are maintained above 95 degrees (mesophilic) and the natural occurring anaerobic bacteria destroy the volatile solids, produce the bio-gas containing 65% methane, kill pathogens, and produce a high quality inorganic waste product virtually pathogen and odor free for storage and, eventually, land application as fertilizer. At Storms Farms, about 60,000 gallons of swine waste is processed each day. The biogas is “scrubbed” of corrosive components and combusted in an 845 HP gas driven engine/generator integrated system provided by Martin Machinery, from Latham, Missouri.

The digester produces wastewater that is free of pathogens and odors and removes 90% of the phosphorus and 75%  of ammonia nitrogen.  The electricity – enough to power over 300 homes – is sold to North Carolina Electric Membership Corp.’s grid network.

Through this design, Withers & Ravenel was able to develop Storms Farm into the largest swine biogas renewable facility in North Carolina, generating 600kW of power with an operating capacity of 95%.

Generator Room

Generator Room

The volume reduction due to the implementation of the scraper system and digestion process has allowed the treated effluent to be returned to one of the existing lagoons, reducing the dependence on the original six lagoons on the site.

Future projects to remove the inorganic solids remaining in the effluent by dewatering and to treat for additional phosphorous and ammonia nitrogen removal are in the planning stages in order to meet the additional requirements of an EST standard farm.

What was the Owner’s involvement?

Billy Storms, owner of Storms Farms was instrumental in getting the Project off the ground, through financing the project, through the willingness to change the method of manure management and by accepting the technological challenge of running what is, essentially, a small wastewater treatment and power plant. He was a true partner in the project and was directly responsible for the selection and installation of the manure scraper system in all of the barns, implementing the operations of the truck collection system, the digester and generator systems as part of the farm operations.

Storms Swine Waste Ribbon Cutting

Billy Storms cuts ribbon at Opening Ceremony; team members look on

What can we learn from this project?

This project demonstrates a method to economically build new swine farms without total dependence on the historical open air lagoon treatment system, and flushing system collection methods, a conversion that is necessary to meet the State EST standards. The system also develops renewable energy meeting the goals in Senate Bill 3 requiring swine waste to be utilized in a percent of the production of renewable energy.

However, because of the cost, risk, and complexity of the project, its applicability may be limited to a handful of existing farms in North Carolina.  Larger farms, preferably more than 50,000 animals, are required in order to have the scale to produce the amount of energy to have an economical rate of return on investment.

Thanks, Withers & Ravenel, for the detailed project description. Your turn: Thoughts? Comments? Questions for the team?  Shoot me an email or post in the comments below.

Photos (c) Withers & Ravenel; Pig outline courtesy Pixabay.

Of Bridges, Biofuels, and Buildings (Engineering Excellence Awards)

As I noted earlier this week, the ACEC of North Carolina’s Engineering Excellence Awards gala was held last month. 13 amazing projects were awarded recognition, including projects involving environmental and coastal issues, higher education facilities, and government projects.

Each project was important, unique, or challenging in some manner. In my next post, I will highlight one of the most unusual– the Swine Farm Biogas project by Withers & Ravenel.  In the meantime, here are all of the winners, which I’ve loosely sorted into categories:

Mingo Creek Trail Bridge

Mingo Creek Trail Bridge

Coastal & Environmental projects

The Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center, Surf City, NC (Cavanaugh & Associates)

Sea Bright to Manasquan Profile Survey, NJ (McKim & Creed)

American Tobacco Trail Pedestrian Bridge, Durham, NC (Parsons Brinckerhoff)

Mingo Creek Trail, Knightdale, NC (Stewart)

Town of Hillsborough Riverwalk, Hillsborough, NC (Summit Design and Engineering Services)

Swine Farms Biogas Renewable Energy Project, Bladenboro, NC (Withers & Ravenel)

 

Marsico Hall at UNC

Marsico Hall at UNC

Campus & Higher Education projects

South Halls Renovation, Penn State, University Park, PA (Clark Nexsen)

Science & Technology Building, Fayetteville State University, Fayetteville, NC (McKim & Creed)

Marsico Hall, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, NC (Mulkey Engineers & Consultants)

Military, Municipal, & Highway projects

Infantry Squad Battle Course, Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, Jacksonville, NC (Catlin Engineers and Scientists)

Carolina Field of Honor War Memorial, Kernersville, NC (Woolpert)

Broad Avenue Bus Terminal, High Point, NC (Mulkey Engineers & Consultants)

NC DOT Land Application of Concrete Byproducts, NC (S&ME)

The diversity of the award-winning projects was very clear, as even a cursory review of the projects demonstrates.  I recommend you follow the links to the specific projects to see some great photos and hear more about the projects in detail.

In the meantime, tell me what project you would have given the “best in show” award to if you were the judge.  Or, was a project left out of the awards that you thought superior to some of these?  Share your thoughts about both these projects, and any others that you think should have made the cut, in the comments section.

Photo credits:  Mingo Creek Bridge by James Willamor; Marsico Hall by Bbfd

Copyright © All Rights Reserved · Green Hope Theme by Sivan & schiy · Proudly powered by WordPress