When John Lorenzen retired from farming a few years ago, he
didn't indulge himself in the usual "rewards" associated with
reaching a ripe old age. Instead of moving from Iowa to sunny
Florida — or spending days full of idle hours dangling a
fishing line in some pond — John took the opportunity to
devote himself, full time, to experiments in his backyard
Mr. Lorenzen is the sort of person who is driven to do things
for himself. As a result of that drive, the central Iowa farmer
has over the last 40 years built himself a work
room that would rival many a fully equipped machine shop.
Starting with a few basic components, the resourceful scrounger, self-taught engineer, and energy inventor
has made his own lathe, drill press, forge, steam cleaner, power
hacksaw, press, sheet metal bender, 32-volt welder . . . and on
All Electric Living... Without the REA
The homemade tools have permitted John to maintain his own
farming equipment and to provide for the majority of his family's
energy needs. For example, back in the 1930's — before the
Rural Electrification Administration's project came through his
part of the country — the ingenious Hawkeye Stater already
had electricity produced by a trio of Jacobs windplants.
Consequently, when the REA folks did knock on the Lorenzens'
front door, the response was, "No thanks, don't know what we'd do
with more electricity."
Despite the fact that he didn't need their power,
the arrival of the REA lines did prove to be a great boon to John
. . . since he took the opportunity to follow in the powerline
people's tracks, picking up suddenly "old-fashioned" windplants
at close to giveaway prices. The three Jacobs 2.5-KW units that
now serve the Lorenzen spread were all purchased in the late
thirties for $20 apiece. Plus, there are enough spare parts
— stashed in corners of the barn — for the
ultra-reliable wind spinners to keep them whirling for
Of course, as anyone who's spent any time in the plains states
knows, the generally consistent flatland zephyrs tend to fail
once a year . . . usually during the August hot spell. To get
through such lean energy times, the 32-volt DC power produced by
the wind generators is stored in a bank of batteries. Mr.
Lorenzen has been scavenging used forklift batteries for almost
50 years, and his collection of the Edison cells — which
work on an alkaline principle with an iron anode, a nickelic
oxide cathode, and a potassium hydroxide electrolyte — now
totals over 140 units of sixty-plus amperes apiece. Some of the
batteries are over 80 years old . . . yet it takes nothing more
than regular addition of water and a supplement of potash every
15 years to keep them in good shape.
The "Spark" of Invention
The batteries' total storage capacity of over 10 KW can supply
the Lorenzen household with power through about one week of
windlessness, but during protracted lulls, John was
originally forced to resort to the use of a gasoline-powered
generator ... and such a reliance on nonrenewable fossil fuels
was a frustration to the self-sufficient sensibilities of the
Iowa inventor. However, the idea for a new method of energy
storage came one day while he was filling his batteries.
Because Edison cells produce some hydrogen waste — as do
standard lead/acid batteries — there's always the
possibility of an explosion if proper precautions aren't taken.
On the occasion in question, John was using a copper filler pipe
to add water to the thirsty amp holders, and a spark between the
battery top and the copper tube ignited the explosive gas around
the filler hole. Fortunately, no damage was done . . . and the
experience led him to begin investigating the production of
hydrogen for fuel.
Mr. Lorenzen knew that there was often more electricity
available from his windplants than he had use for. In fact, the
third Jacobs unit spent most of its time standing ready to back
up the other two. So he decided to begin electrolyzing water to
John's backyard workshop is strewn with the examples of his
progressive development of better and better electrolyzing
plates. When MOTHER EARTH NEWS' staff visited the impromptu laboratory,
there was one generator in full operation . . . another very
close to completion . . . and a redesign of the plates in the
early exploratory stages.
The device that's currently in use is fully automatic and
is — to say the least — quite cleverly conceived. Lorenzen has
overcome the classic problem of separating the hydrogen and
oxygen produced from the electrolysis of water by attaching
plexiglass plates, angled in opposite directions, to the anode
and cathode of his generator. Hydrogen (which tends to bubble
near one plate) goes one direction, and oxygen (which is, in
turn, released near the second conductor) rises toward the other
side of the container. A third plate, which divides the
electrolysis chamber in half, isolates the two elements.
As the hydrogen gradually builds up on one side of the
divider, the oxygen on the other side is vented into the
atmosphere outside the shop. Thus the increasing pressure of
hydrogen forces the water level on the oxygen side higher and
higher. A ball float switch eventually kicks on a small
compressor which pumps the H2 into a 100-pounds-per-square-inch
tank. Numerous one-way valves are incorporated in all the hookups
to the hydrogen reservoir to prevent a backfire to the container.
(One such accident — early in John's experimentation
— blew the regulator right off his storage bottle! )
Though the hydrogen is now used to fuel the formerly
gasoline-powered generator (with a little gas to facilitate
start-up), John plans to use his latest "hydrogen battery"
— as he calls it — in an automobile. Along with a
co-inventor named Kenny Green, he hopes to take advantage of the
seldom fully tapped potential of an auto's alternator to produce
hydrogen as a supplementary fuel.
However, such innovative technology has a tendency to eclipse
the other ingenious products of Mr. Lorenzen's apt mind and
skilled hands. For example, the workshop where all the research
takes place is about 90% solar-heated. John built the hot air
collection and storage system from primarily scrounged materials. The collectors themselves employ a rippled
metal heat-gathering surface made of discarded printing plates
(from his local newspaper), which he bent on a handmade
The four collectors on the southern wall of the structure work
by convection alone, but the building-long collector that's set
atop the roof's peak is served by a blower . . . which feeds the
warmed air into a rock storage area in the barn. Furthermore, all
of the collectors and the rock storage area are
insulated with plain old sawdust.
Such elegantly simple solutions to technical problems are, to MOTHER EARTH NEWS' mind at least, the highlights of this
self-taught engineer's efforts. He builds electric drills from
old generators, inverts DC power to AC by inducing a
generator to function as a motor and thus spin an AC alternator, makes a battery charger from a string of light bulbs,
and turns everyday junkyard candidates into useful pieces of
But John Lorenzen's work doesn't stop at his front gate,
either. He's also passing on his invaluable knowledge,
gained through years of direct experience, by working with
local schoolchildren on alternative energy projects. John's sort
of practical know-how may well be the missing link (the one we
all lament the loss of, but are hard pressed to replace), in
today's educational systems.