John Lorenzen: Self Taught Engineer and Energy Inventor

Retired Iowa farmer and self-taught engineer John Lorenzen was so driven to doing for himself and self-sufficiency he figured out how to power his property with a combination of wind, solar, and hydrogen power.

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The internal combustion engine Lorenzen converted to run on hydrogen.


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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 workshop.

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 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 centuries.

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 produce hydrogen.

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.

Creative Scrounging

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 creaser.

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 equipment.

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.