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.

| March/April 1980

  • 062 john lorenzen - engine
    The internal combustion engine Lorenzen converted to run on hydrogen.
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    LEFT: The forge Lorenzen uses to cast tools. CENTER: Lorenzen examining his collection of over 140 Edison batteries. RIGHT: A homemade power hacksaw.
  • 062 john lorenzen - workshop
    John Lorenzen's workshop, which features wind and solar power applications. 
  • 062 john lorenzen - three small panels
    LEFT: Lorenzen using his 32 volt DC welder. CENTER: Hydrogen batteries. RIGHT: The metal press Lorenzen uses to turn old newspaper plates into solar collectors.

  • 062 john lorenzen - engine
  • 062 john lorenzen - three big panels2
  • 062 john lorenzen - workshop
  • 062 john lorenzen - three small panels

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.

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