DIY solar kilns and the promise of ubiquitous resources

[Editor’s note: The helioforge is an example of a self replicating technology, that is, a device that can be used to make further copies of itself. As such, it is a prototype for the sorts of economics and production methods that may become commonplace when 3D printing,  additive manufacturing and various related ideas become available at scale. Correy’s Helioforge recently was awarded the first Post Growth Insitite award. See]

With all the media attention and hype associated with 3-d printing and nano-tech materials it is easy to forget how useful ancient technologies like lost wax casting, solar heating, and glass truly are. For instance borosilicate glass, commercially branded as Pyrex, was invented in 1893. Borosilicate glass is so tough many people still use hand-me-down Pyrex and Corning Ware dishes that have survived decades with no known out-gassing, leaching, or sneakily emulating androgens. Glass goes back a long way for a reason, it is simple and the raw materials have always been available. Metals have less history and this seems to fit with the theory that: the onset of a technology follows from the ubiquity and therefor likelihood of serendipitous discovery.

Sometimes, however, insights must be cross pollinated between mediums. Take for example the property of self replication exhibited by biological organisms. Even though life on this planet is ubiquitous we are scarcely fifty years into designing self replicating devices with any more precision than is exercised during animal husbandry. Engineering cultures as self replicating systems goes further back than Karl Marx’s Buffer State Doctrine but it seems to have taken the clear expression of both the properties of mimetic transfer and self replication, and the Internet to launch the contemporary DIY revolution. Another idea that has taken a long time to percolate is the idea of utilizing ubiquitous or readily available material resources to slip the yoke of commodity markets.

At least one new enterprise seeks to integrate all these ideas: Helioforge is a non-profit open source effort to produce and share the designs for a system of self replicating solar forges and hydrogen cracking devices. The essential idea is that all human manufacturing follows an arc that includes acquiring and shaping materials and that that arc can be subtended to fit in your back yard. If they succeed in their mission it will be possible to manufacture any number of products at home using ubiquitous materials like sand, sun and water, and/or recycled polymers. But the real marvel will be peer to peer sharing of the manufacturing apparatus.

After winning the Post Growth Institute’s first ever Post Growth Challenge with a submission entitled “Self Replication and Ubiquitous Resources” the group began to organize a web infrastructure to capacitate the crowd sourced development of designs. The submission proposed the simplest possible demonstration of the core technology. A commercially purchased polymer co- planar Fresnel lens will be pressed into a bed of clay and that same lens will be used to melt a polymer like polylactic acid (from beverage containers) into the impression. The entire demonstration is supposed to cost less $100 and take only a few hours. Eventually, a public wiki attached to will allow the sharing and improvement of both the core technologies and a series of products designed to be manufactured using the system.

Helioforge does not intend on resting on these accomplishments for long. A follow on demonstration will utilize sand to produce a glass Fresnel lens which should be able to create even more heat by virtue of superior optical efficiency and span rigidity. Eventually their plans include castable designs for sieves, centrifuges, and even an apparatus that will use sunlight and water, in conjunction with a catalyst and mass-charge separator hood to produce hydrogen which can then be used to fuel homes and vehicles. Lofty plans for sure, but human ingenuity has often prevailed. The idea that we can all help one another without profit incentive or fear of scarcity, simply by recasting our present technologies into forms that utilize ubiquitous materials and free manufacturing, seems tantalizing to say the least.

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