Michael's Dispatches

Gobar Gas II

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Temperature

The caloric rollercoaster for the star anaerobes begins at about 15ºC (59ºF).  That’s when they start waking up and going to work.  To kick them out of bed, some farmers pile straw atop the digester.  Decaying straw produces heat.  Busy anaerobes begin to help by producing heat inside the digester.  Some people build greenhouses over top, or barns.  In China, according to Jan Lam, the SNV biogas project manager in Cambodia, “The ‘3 in 1’ approach is popular.  A greenhouse contains a vegetable garden, pig sty and biodigester.  Vegetable waste is fed into the pigs and their waste goes directly into the plant which is often large enough for cooking and a water heater.”

In cold weather, digestion can be prodded with warm water.  As temperature rises, production rises, but the top of the “thermo coaster,” the ideal temperature, is about 35ºC (95ºF).  Good dung, plenty of water, little oxygen, and the anaerobes do their job.  Above that temperature, they slow down, trying to shed some heat.  But if slowing down doesn’t work, if their world gets too hot, they die.

Installing a digester is like adopting a baby elephant.  It can’t get too hot or cold.  It must eat every day, and drink lots of water.  Sometimes it needs a little washing.  If the water source is far, the system is impractical.  Many parts of Nepal and Afghanistan are impractical for baby elephants and biogas.

Mt. Everest: 8,850 meters (29,035 feet): too high for Gobar Gas, and yaks.

Dr. Ram Baran Yadav, President of Nepal.  (Saroj Rai, head of biogas in Nepal, stands on President Yadav’s left.)

Reliability

Plants in Nepal seldom break unless there is an earthquake or calamity, cracking the collector dome.  Concrete is semi-permeable to gas, requiring sealant on the concave side of the dome.  A tiny crack in the sealant allows methane to escape, disabling the unit until it is repaired.  Cracks on the bottom and the wall of the digester can self-seal like scabs.

If too much oxygen gets into the digester, the anaerobes die and the unit must be cleaned out and refilled.  The anaerobes can be killed by too much soap, pesticides, insecticides and other “cides” such as antibiotics.  Experts say hospital installations are headaches because when people take antibiotics, they kill the microbes, but the bigger problem is toilet disinfectants.  On farms, cows on antibiotics can also kill the plant.  Gisella McGuinness, from the International Committee of the Red Cross, said that a prison installation in Nepal is working fine.  This is important, she said, because the prison is only allotted a specific amount for food and cooking gas, and so the Gobar Gas allows more of the budget to go to food.  Asked if antibiotics damage the plant, she answered, “no because prisoners don’t get much medical care.”

President Yadav at biogas conference in Kathmandu

Kanak Mani Dixit, PhD, is a well-known academic and journalist in Nepal, who lived in New York for 10 years and is the publisher and editor of the monthly magazine Himal Southasian.  Dr. Dixit said that his family was one of the first to install Gobar Gas in Nepal, and their plant has been running with no problems for about 30 years.  Jan Lam from SNV says, “All plants are constructed with a guarantee clause.  Usually the guarantee period is 2-3 years.  If a plant functions after a 2 year period, it will function for a 20 year period with normal operation.”

Maintenance costs are trivial.  BSP-Nepal estimates that 94-98% of the plants that were installed since 1992 are still operational.  In Vietnam, the SNV program manager, Jeroen Kruisman, in his Hanoi office, said that about 99% of the about 74,000 plants in Vietnam are operating.  Mr. Kruisman explained that plant failures occur because of socio-economics, not design.  If a farmer moves or sells his pigs, for instance, the plant stops.

Physically, the plants are not indestructible. But for all intents and purposes they only fail due to calamities such as earthquakes and floods, in which cases people have more to worry about than fixing their Gobar Gas.

User Investment and Social Marketing

Financial participation from users is crucial to marketing success.  Experience shows that if users are not investors, they tend to let the units fail, and as Andrew Williamson from SNV said in Laos, “One bad unit equals ten good units.”  Entire programs can suffer heavy damage by installing plants for people who do not care for them.

Lalit, the Gurkha soldier who first told me about Gobar Gas, said his father installed a biodigester some 25 years ago and it never had a problem.  Lalit’s dad was also a Gurkha who had traveled the world, and when he returned to Nepal and installed biogas, other villagers were skeptical.  Lalit says that today hundreds of families in the immediate area have Gobar Gas.  “It’s monkey see monkey do,” said Lalit.  “If you bring Gobar Gas to Afghanistan, at first they will not believe it works.  Then they see it, and all will want Gobar Gas. And then it’s easy.”

Social marketing likely would be a large dimension of a program for Afghanistan.  This is not as simple as just installing a few hundred thousand plants, but includes the development of an entire business sector.  Though the Chinese and Indians are the undisputed champions of biogas in their home countries, it’s unclear if they would succeed in Afghanistan.  SNV has biogas operations in 14 countries and has developed institutional expertise from bottom to top.  Social marketing is nuanced and would require an “international mindset” to crack that nut in Afghanistan, and even within countries the marketing is complex.  In Nepal, there are arguably 160 ethnicities and 67% of users come from only two of those.  On literacy, in Nepal 83% of members of biogas households are literate while about half the country cannot read.  Higher subsidies are provided to ethnicities that are less involved in biogas.

Bottom line: Social marketing is complex and unit failure nearly always is due to user failure.  The user must participate in costs or there will be a high failure rate.  Program success builds through social marketing as a result of successful units.

The SNV idea is to plant the seed that leaves behind a viable, self-sustaining biogas industry that functions alone and without perpetual outside inputs.  To accomplish this goal, SNV conducts a detailed feasibility study and strategy.  Then comes the nuts and bolts of identifying managers, training trainers to install units, social marketing, subsidies and other details.  The biogas units themselves are different in every country, as is the strategic business model, which must be tailored to cultural values.   A rule of development projects is that the technology is the easy part. The keys to success are in getting people to change what is often age-old traditional behavior.  It’s tricky to convince a farmer that this new technology should be a priority for his family.

In Laos, when SNV opens programs in new districts, they identify social leaders such as teachers or veterinarians, and install biogas at their homes.  Those social leaders become kernels for social marketing.  When a farmer wants biogas, the local government official who has been trained by the SNV project inspects the person’s home for basics such as water availability, dung output, and flooding potential.  If the official signs off, the process can begin.

Carbon Credits

Global warming is a huge political issue, playing out across the planet.  Though third world nations can rarely afford to be as pollution-sensitive as developed nations, biogas is a ticket into the international carbon credit market.  In that market, entities which reduce net emissions of greenhouses gases can sell carbon credits to companies which use more carbon-based fuel.

According to Saroj Rai, Nepal pulled in about $600,000 on the sale of seven years’ worth of carbon credits from 19,396 plants. That represents a small start, since Nepal has 220,000 plants, which BSP-Nepal is working to get certified. Selling these carbon credits will potentially bring tens of millions of dollars into Nepal over the projected life of the plants.  This “carbon revenue” is earmarked by the government for re-investment into biogas and other renewable energy programs.

CDM certification, which is necessary in order to participate in the international carbon market, is painstaking, extremely expensive, and takes up a big part of the return unless the national program is large enough to achieve an economy of scale.

For the farmers on the ground the eco-friendliness is just a byproduct.  In parts of Cambodia and Nepal, biogas is attractive because the wood is gone.  Other countries use biogas plants for agriculture.  China and India view biogas as basic infrastructure.  These programs would exist regardless of trendy carbon credit markets.  Nonetheless, the advent of these credit schemes works for investors and users alike.

On a side note, I attended some carbon financing talks in Kathmandu in relation to biogas.  That part seemed like a scam of global proportion.  The rest of the biogas program seemed incredibly good.

Final Leg: Vietnam

Jeroen Kruisman, SNV Program manager in Vietnam, explains the Vietnamese model at the Hanoi office.

This research began serendipitously in the jungles of Borneo, leapt to Afghanistan, over to Nepal, Cambodia, Laos, back to Nepal, and finally to Vietnam.  Vietnam is set to become SNV’s most important biogas undertaking.  Vietnam biogas likely will overshadow even Nepal’s wildly successful program.

Whereas Nepal has over 200,000 domestic units, SNV-Vietnam program manager Jeroen Kruisman said that since 2003, 74,000 units have been installed in Vietnam.  Annual installations have already passed Nepal.  The program is so successful in Vietnam—the social marketing so strong—that many farmers don’t even spend the time waiting for subsidies; they just buy the plants.  About 22,000 units will be installed in 2010.

Vietnamese plant model.

Most fascinating about the Vietnamese success, is that Vietnamese say they buy the plants for the sake of improved sanitation.  The maximum subsidy is only about 13.5%.

The Vietnamese raise millions of pigs in urban and semi-urban environments.  Imagine a tracthouse neighbor with a backyard full of pigs.  Swine draw flies, mosquitoes, stink to high heaven, and unlike cow dung, pig dung is not safe to use to clean your floors.  It poisons the water.  And so, Vietnamese use the biogas only as an afterthought, though they are happy with the savings.  Many Vietnamese are rich compared to Nepalese.  Vietnamese cook mostly with gas or coal, making Hanoi smell acrid.

Mr. Nguxen Duc Bang, living in a densely packed neighborhood in Hanoi, had just bought a 12m3 plant, which was a couple of days before completion.  I counted only eleven pigs.  Not enough dung for such a big plant.  Mr. Nguxen said that when the plant is finished, he will add ten more pigs.

In Vietnamese, “biogas” is Khi Sinh Hoc, but a lot of Vietnamese don’t know that because they call it biogas.  For Vietnamese, it’s biomoney.  At this rate, biogas may add billions of clean dollars to the Vietnamese economy.  They buy the sanitation systems because the neighbors then permit them to raise more pigs.  At a different household, a Vietnamese woman said she is sending her son through university with money from the extra pigs.  Again, domestic biogas can be a nearly direct link to education.

For governments there is an additional payoff: increased legitimacy.  The incremental improvement in conditions that each plant represents is a more direct route to winning hearts and minds than most big, impersonal development projects.

SNV experts say national leaders like to be associated with the biogas projects, explaining why Nepalese President Yadav came to the Kathmandu biogas conference.

According Mr. Kruisman, SNV expert for Vietnam, there might be a technical potential for 2 million units, and a practical potential of about 1 million units in Vietnam.

This research odyssey on Gobar Gas was sparked by Lalit, a Gurkha whose father installed a plant in Nepal, and a man who grew up eating hot meals cooked on Gobar Gas, and who saw his village, house by house, install Gobar Gas, go to school, start businesses and prosper.  Villages with Gobar Gas are better than villages without.

It could work in Aghanistan. Our troop concentration of efforts and resources happens to be in optimal places for biogas.  The Helmand River Valley, for instance, is ideal. The Dutch have the experience and resources to make it happen.  They are already a crucial partner in Afghanistan.  And it fits into our current strategic, nation-building needs.  Our huge, “save Afghanistan all in one fell swoop” electrification projects have not been as successful as we had hoped.  Domestic biogas grows like a tree, from the bottom up, and the roots occur at the district level, a level we must win at.


Subsequent some matchmaking, SNV has been in contact with the U.S. Army with interest in bringing biogas to Afghanistan.  Unfortunately, since I completed this research in 2009, in an attempt to bring Gobar Gas to Afghanistan and help win the war, the trajectory of the war has taken a nosedive.  I’ve never had confidence that the current U.S. President has the wisdom or personal fire to win this war.  Our President is not a war winner, a reality so obvious that this sentence is already redundant.  My final hope, or nearly final hope, was that General Stanley McChrystal would have the fire and the wisdom.  He has the fire.



Note: An excellent book that covers these topics and more: “BIOGAS, As Renewable Source of Energy in Nepal, Theory and Development.” (ISBN 99946-34-76-3)

 

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  • This commment is unpublished.
    Eddy · 11 years ago
    I love your articles about this excellent technology, Michael. I recently read an article in my local newspaper about an entrepreneur here in Georgia (USA) trying to make a large-scale gobar gas plant running off cow crap from all the farms, I got so excited after learning so much about it from you.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    paul conway · 11 years ago
    Mr Yon;
    Very interesting article. Gobar gas would seem to have potential in Afghanistan unless lack of water makes it impractical. I'm a farmer so I have a different perspective on manure. I suspect that farms in Afghanistan need all the manure they can get given the low organic matter of soils in a dry climate. The easiest way to apply manure is to graze either crop residues or crops grown for grazing; the problem in Afghanistan is enough water to support both. Ideally you grow a grazing crop after harvesting a grain or other cash crop using rainfall during the "wet" season usually the winter in desert areas(snow counts as rain). Wheat and barley can be grazed when young but animals must be removed when the grain crops starts to grow rapidly. Manure can also be applied by collecting it from pens and spreading it by hand. I doubt that there is a labor shortage in rural Afghanistan.
    Soil organic matter is the single most important factor in maintaining productive erosion resitant soils. Fertilizers have a place but will not maintain soil organic matter levels by themselves. Manures and good crop rotations are vital, a fact lost to most US farmers. The PRTs could use some organic farmers who know how to build healthy soils. Besides fertilizer cost money, maunure does not. The answer to developing Afghan arigulture is not the wholesale blind adoption of modern technology but adapting methods to facts on the ground. For example, improving animal drawn implements can improve crop yields just as much as mechanization without the cost of equipment,fuel and parts. Again there is no shortage of farm labor so why bother to mechanize.
    Several NGOs have developed portable solar cookers in Africa which cook meals with no wood. This approach might be more adaptable to Afghanistan than gobar gas.
    Paul Conway
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Jerry · 11 years ago
    In your article you eluded to the difference between Afghanistan and Nepal where in Nepal there is unity between the ethnic groups, whereas in Afghanistan much less. What do you consider to be the reasons for success in the one county and failure in the other?
    Thank you so much for your writings and photos. You help me understand so much better the complexities of the conflicts.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Gregg · 11 years ago
    Michael,
    I love your articles, however, it’s obvious that you are just spinning your wheels. With all of the time you spent in Iraq reporting the truth about the war it pains me to see the military deliberately sidelining you when they could using you to win the hearts and minds of the people here at home.
    Every time I see a report on the evening news with an ”In Depth Report From Afghanistan” it is quite obvious to read between the lines and watch those in-experienced “war journalist” scared witless when a shot is heard in the distance and far out of range. Their focus on the report is so scripted it sounds like it was written by a PsyOps officer and censored extensively.
    The quality of those reports is completely lacking and always reminds me of the Russian propaganda machine when the Russians occupied Afghanistan.
    All I see from the reporters today is a whitewash of the reality of the war and the Big Brass patting themselves on the back for the failures they claim as victories.
    When you were there reporting we could trust that we were really getting the truth. Now, every word out of Gen McCrystal’s mouth sounds just like the bumbling Russian Generals all over again.
    We no longer get to see and hear about our sons and daughters and the sons and daughters of Great Britain and other countries. Even though a report may have been of someone else’s son or daughter those reports from you were our lifeline to them.
    It’s quite obvious that your boot from the war zone is retribution for exposing the failures and to cover up their continued failure in handling the war. Frankly, I believe that McCrystal and his whole command needs to be fired for lying to the American people.
    McCrystal is a joke in the eyes of many people here at home. I don’t care how many people speak up for him. He’s still a joke to me.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Justin Smith · 11 years ago
    Michael -

    Excellent articles. My wife and I got turned on to an orphanage in Cambodia that saves kids from a life in the Steung Meanchey dump, among other things. A buddy of ours took some incredible pictures there, his style reminds me somewhat of yours... check www.anthonysloan.com if you have a chance. That said, it would seem to make sense to get in good with these orphanages... they are taking these incredibly disadvantaged kids and turning them into savy little business people. This one in particular, Cambodian Childrens Fund www.cambodianchildrensfund.org seems to do good work (and no, I'm not affiliated with it in any way). It might make sense for some of these Gobar Gas folks were to install gas facilities at the orphanages. The kids grow up understanding the benefits of the technology without having the cultural baggage that may otherwise be attached. Of course, I'm not sure if they have enough little kids or chickens to run the thing... :-) I'll forward your articles to them... if it makes sense for them I'd sure kick in a few $$$.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Scott Klimczak · 10 years ago
    Michael,

    I was completely engrossed. I would expect to see full-issue articles of this caliber in NatGeo or The Economist. Have you submitted? Looking at the relatively low cost for residential installation, I almost want to give directly to subsidize these myself. Is there a charitable fund (with high flow-through percentage) dedicated to helping this international effort? All the money we pay in taxes and fees, yet a direct contribution would have such a longer-lasting and immediate impact.

    Fantastic work. Thanks for the full-dispatch 'fix'. Looking forward to more.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Yeo Jia Tian · 10 years ago
    Great job on this find. I stumbled across Gobar gas two years ago for my public policy course when searching for ways to reduce CO2 output while improving agricultural output (a next to impossible assignment given to me by my lecturers). It was the near-perfect solution with few drawbacks, great for farmers and also for appeasing the greens. My lecturers, alas, did not quite appreciate a technical solution, and were looking more for a political strategy to solve the problem.

    As a political animal, Obama is likely the same. In addition, he is either too stupid or too traitorous to even consider this approach as part of a nation-building initiative.

    PS. I'm not even an american!
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Stephan Fassmann · 10 years ago
    This would dovetail nicely with permaculture, a gardening-lifestyle schema that makes incredible use of rainwater and mulch and native perennial plants. Permaculture is also a bottom-up type thing, which is never sexy so it never gets talked about.
    If these two ideas made love I am pretty sure that we can solve the base problems of the world.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Brian in Australia · 10 years ago
    Great article mate! As one of the co-respondents mentioned above, the use of animal dung may be limited but depending on social standards, human waste may be substituted. Whatever the case, this is such a great idea to adopt! The Ghurkas and Afghans have a natural affinity for one another and I would encourage the parties that be to adopt this as a urgent development approach.................utilise the Ghurkas as an acceptable means fo getting this started with the local population in Helmand province at least.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Scott Dudley · 10 years ago
    Did you ever have a chance to utilize those skills? Would seem useful to backtrack from a buried IED.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Bob · 10 years ago
    I believe by having some of the Nepalese representatives and the Gurkha soldiers leading this idea for a Gobar Gas system would be brilliant. Since both the Nepalese/Gurkha and the Afghans share so many similarities...what better way to bring in modernization to the Afghan people than by having a representative force/group that can teach them and mentor them in producing biogas collection systems. Not only would it help the economy and the Afghan population but it would also deplete the very frustrations of lack of electricity, gas/fuel, work, and oppotunities that the Taliban and insurgent groups have been feeding off of.

    If the Coalition and the governments that are part of it are truly seeking a way to get of Afghanistan and help in its reconstruction and build up...than using the simplest methods is probably the easiest and in the long run the best. Provide the Afghans with renewable resources and as seen by the example of how Gobar Gas allowed kids to attend schools will help develop a generation of educated people who can lead their country to better things. Deprive the Taliban their greatest resources: frustrated civilians (due to shady government and police forces), lack of jobs (gives the farmers and villages if they use this Biogas system more time to grow crops or learn trades), lack of money (sell your part of the biogas to others or vice versa teach and build systems for others), lack of security (by building a stable economy and a renewable resource for energy and such a village or city like Kabul can train better soldiers and police officers who will be paid decently).

    There is so much potential from this idea. Please Michael if you can gather a group of Nepalese businessmen, soldiers, mentors and so forth and do a test program in a village where you can see if indeed setting up a biogas system for the villagers for each house would do the trick in modernizing and helping the Afghan people in the long run!

    Plus, if there is a donation system I would love to know about this too. A microfinancing system would work great or even simply a charitable donation would do the trick.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Karl Krahmer · 10 years ago
    Hello Michael,
    Another fantastic and informative dispatch. Thanks. I have 2 questions about the viability of gobar gas in Afghanistan:
    1- is there enough water in most areas to make it feasible? Areas like the "green zone" seem like they would, but much of the rest of the country seems like it would not. But perhaps their wells would be able to sustain the units.
    2- I read recently (I think it was from a link from your site regarding the "new" mineral deposits in country) that Afghanistan has a pathetic, almost non-existent, concrete industry. Something like less than 2 kg/person per year. Due to that scarcity of concrete, are there other materials that could be used to make the units? Or are there plans to ramp up concrete capacity (outside of the mining industries)?

    Keep up the great work!
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Marius · 10 years ago
    hello Michael.
    It's nice to get more info about Gobar gas. As you said during your visit in Ghor in 2009, these people might use Gobar gas if they know how to do this. let's hope that one day they will discover what kind of benefits Gobar gas might give them
    good luck in your future dispatches!
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Daniel Welborn · 10 years ago
    Thanks for this informative article, really good stuff. Now I feel guilty about a comment I put on the Bangkok dispatch trying to give constructive criticism. This post about Gobar Gas is what I consider "classic Yon", an excellent in-depth coverage of a topic, with great photos, such that from my chair in Florida, I feel like I just took a pleasant trip and met interesting people and got an intimate knowledge of a specific thing. Previous dispatches in Afghanistan about the artillery units, the Pedros (did I remember that right? I mean the medivac helicopters), or accompanying Brits as they patrol on foot, are similar examples of what I'll call "classic Yon". Anyways, enough scrutiny of your style and content. Great article, and great idea (that Gobar Gas could be good for Afghanistan). Thanks.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    David · 10 years ago
    "Manure Digester" that will produce 750kW of electrical being installed.

    http://www.bizjournals.com/seattle/stories/2010/06/28/daily1.html?ana=e_du_pap#disqus_thread
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Lewis in Orlando · 10 years ago
    Note: Mr. Welborn - you had it right, Mr. Yon wrote an excellent article on the Pedros in Helmand Province. Those guys are still there and the Pedros actually suffered many casualties very recently when their bird was shot down. Let's all pray that there are no more casualties.

    Regarding this article:
    As a Master's student at UF's Ecological Engineering program, it's really great to hear about ecological engineering from a predominantly war-focused correspondent in an article that describes the benefits of the technology. In order to solve the energy, economic, and social problems of the world, we have to look to old-fashioned technologies that maximize the efficiency of natural processes (processes such as decomposition, described here). Nature provides all that we need, we just need to figure out how to use it efficiently and not wastefully. Your description of the villagers having to travel for more than 4 hours to find enough wood to cook is akin to the fall of the Roman empire due to deforestation and the near extinction of Easter Island residents due to the same reason. These modern-day villagers will continue to have to travel farther and farther to find wood, until it is completely unsustainable. An unsustainable lifestyle, whether it is McMansions and Hummers [already failed] in the US or wood-burning cook stoves in the deserts of Afghanistan, will eventually lead to more poverty and the social problems that come along with it (like joining the Taliban for some cash).

    Mr. Yon, you have an excellent view of the world and I hope that more people will realize that it will take just as much social investment in MEANINGFUL programs as it takes in military investment to defeat the Taliban.

    How about some comments on the "recent discovery" in Afghanistan of a trillion dollar's worth of gold, silver, copper, iron, and lithium? My first thought was, "yeah right, this was known all along because the Soviets knew about it in the 70's and 80's." And it all made sense to me, Afghanistan doesn't have oil, but heck, they have natural resources that might end up being just as good if not better, especially if lithium for batteries turns out to be a "gold mine" for modern technology.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Janet · 10 years ago
    Hi Michael,

    This is fascinating. I am going to Tanzania on Saturday to work on a development project and I will be thinking of this work while there. Can you tell me how I can get my hands on the book recommended above, please?

    In addition, I am working on an anerobic digestion project currently so I am very excited at the prospects of this.

    Thank you for this enlightening article.

    Janet.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Ed Mears · 10 years ago
    Michael,
    Great work for our troops! We are working closely with Ministry of Energy and Water to build and design biogas systems for communities and Afghan facilities. We can, we will! Best, Ed Mears, Major, US Forces-Afghanistan.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Bishal prasad · 9 years ago
    hii
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    Frank · 7 years ago
    Hello here is a great article
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    hemen parekh · 7 years ago
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    Will that generate electricity ?


    I think so

    With international co-operation such a project would take less time - and possibly money too - than the already successful international projects of the International Space Station or the Large Hadron Collider of CERN

    It may be exciting to discover the God Particle and understand what makes up mass but I think , it is far more useful to find a permanent / clean source of energy to prevent the extinction of all life on earth by burning fossil fuels


    * hemen parekh ( 25 March 2014 / Mumbai )
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