Thursday, February 16, 2012

The Hammer Falls. The End is Nigh!

This week the hammer falls. This week the first devastating blow will be struck. This week, months of meticulous preparation and planning will come to fruition. This week the genocide begins. Now is the time for the student’s of Sielmat Christian Higher Secondary School (SCHSS) to finally take back what’s theirs!

Our forces are marshaled. Elite units of teachers, administrators, nurses and volunteers await but a one day training course from their balding American commander. After that nothing can stop us. The hounds of the void will be unleashed and a deadly flood of 400mg Albendazole chewable tablets will fall upon the unsuspecting Helminths. These intestinal parasites have no idea the ungodly firestorm that is about to be rained down upon them.

The assault will take place at day break, before classes begin. The pills simply need to be chewed and swallowed, with a little water, before an unstoppable force of modern pharmacology is set in motion as the Albendazole begins its grim task of starving these disgusting leeches of the glucose that fuels them. As the worms weaken and die they will be excreted by the students and their passing will mark the dawn of a new intellectual renaissance in the soon-to-be legendary hamlet of Sielmat. A dawn which will leave these students free to achieve their full potential. Liberated, because their young bodies can finally absorb the full nutritional value of the food that they consume. Precious calories, vitamins and minerals that had previously been siphoned off by the demonic passengers that these unwitting children carried. And this is just the beginning.

I’m excited about this. Apart from one other idea, I have spent more time and effort putting together this deworming campaign than any other project I have worked on here. From research, to program development, to buying and distributing the 17,000 deworming pills, I was there every step of the way, leading the charge. And I’m proud of that.

Though saying that this first deworming day will lead to an intellectual renaissance might be a slight over-statement, it will, at least hopefully, make a noticeable difference in both school absenteeism and student performance. However, the effects of deworming here in Sielmat will, almost undoubtedly, pale in comparison to the response of the students in the village schools.

Sielmat is a neighborhood in Churanchandpur, which is the second biggest city in the northeastern Indian state of Manipur. As such, knowledge of and access to medical treatment is greater here than almost anywhere else in this underdeveloped region. Residents of the remote villages, by contrast, are lucky if they have seen a doctor in their lifetime.

These other deworming days, however, will have to come later and unfortunately, as my visa expires next week, I will not be around for them. So as SCHSS, at roughly 2,600 students, is by far the biggest of Partnership Ministries Society‘s (PMS) 42 schools, has the best educated teachers and is the most accessible, we have decided to start here and deliver their treatment while I, the worm ‘expert,’ am still here.

That's the big project that worked out. There have been many other smaller projects that I have worked on here that have either succeeded or failed, but the only other big idea that I’ve invested as much or more time and effort into as deworming, looks like it will remain just that: an idea.

My regular readers will remember the post that I wrote a few months ago detailing my idea for a Spirulina tank that uses excess heat from a 35 Kw generator to heat its water so the algae can grow here year round. The generator’s exhaust would be bubbled through the water to both trap the CO2 in a usable form within the Spirulina, and to increase the algae's growth rate.

(Quick note for the newcomers: Spirulina is a blue-green algae that, under optimal conditions, doubles its biomass every two to five days. It has been called the Super, super food and the food of the future. NASA, before it got castrated, did a lot research and testing with it for use in space travel and for terraforming other planets because of how much sustenance and O2 it produces. It is a complete protein with large amounts of just about every vitamin and mineral around, particularly Vitamin A, which is great at keeping malnourished kids from going blind. It also produces 400x as much protein per square acre as beef and 40x more than soybeans. Because Spirulina can grow in alkali lakes and brine, where almost nothing else can, invasive species aren’t a real problem and it doesn’t need to take up any arable land that could be used for something else.)

Thanks to the responses from several friends to my posting, I soon realized that my original idea wasn’t going to be feasible; not enough sunlight got to the generator, and to separate all the harmful stuff from the CO2 in the exhaust would take a gas separator that would have cost more than the project was worth.

So I went back to the drawing board and, over the course of many hours of research, email correspondence with friends, physics professors, Spirulina growers and development NGOs, along with solving equations, whose variables I didn’t quite understand, on thermal mass, algae reproduction and water chemistry, I came up with a new design.

Instead of using the exhaust and excess heat from the generator to keep the water between the 25C and 40C that Spirulina needs to grow, I would use the heat generated by the respiration of the bacteria that are present in compost. Heat which, when the right ingredients are combined and properly aerated on a large enough scale, can reach up to 55C.

My plan is this: dig out a section of the slight hill behind the kitchen of the bungalow I’m staying in, build a brick and concrete compost container 9 feet long, 33 feet wide and 4 feet high, then put the Spiruilna tank on top of it. The algae tank will have the same length and width as the compost bin and will be 2 feet deep. The compost bin and the algae tank are going to be separated by a metal sheet, allowing maximum heat transfer. The hot air from the compost bins will be bubbled through air tubes at the bottom of the tank then blown back through the bins, where it will reheat and then the whole cycle will be repeated.

The entire structure is to be buried at ground level for an extra layer of insulation, with 6 inches of Styrofoam covered by plastic on the inside of the bricks providing the first layer. The top of the tank will be covered with a clear plastic sheet to let in sunlight during the day and will then be covered by an insulating top at night. I am even going to go high tech and make glow panels by putting red LEDs in plastic sheets, then uniformly scuffing the outside of it to maximize light distribution. Two science papers that I have read showed that this was an efficient way to boost photosynthesis.

I had a physics professor check my plans at several stages too. By the 3rd draft he said he couldn’t prove that it wouldn’t work. I was thrilled.

The idea is to start with this small pilot-project, produce the Spirulina for use in animal feed, then use the money from the sale of the algae to scale up production and move to human consumption-quality. I did some more research and ran the numbers.

If we do everything wrong, but not quite wrong enough for the Spirulina to die, the tank will make PMS around $300 a month. If, on the other hand, we get everything right, which admittedly would probably have taken a few months of tweaking, the tank will make around $1,575 a month. Building the tank will cost, very roughly, around $5,000 and though the tank would does need at least a part-time care taker, hiring one will only be a few dollars a day.

But, alas, it is not to be. My time here has run out, and my boss is so busy with other programs and projects that are already proven and up and running that I doubt my tank will ever see the light of the Manipuri sun. Not in the immediate future anyway.

In a way it is sad, but I had so much fun putting the design together, and the feedback that I got was so valuable, that I’m not too upset. And who knows? I’m not dead yet and there are a lot of places this thing could work. Maybe someday NASA will get funding, realize my brilliance, and send me to terraform Mars. But I’m not holding my breath on that one.

Other things that fell apart…
-Creating positions, listing and training material for year-long volunteer English teacher positions. Why it didn’t work out: Hopefully it still will. I had to move on to more pressing projects but all the material is there and ready. The listings just need to be posted.
-Working a system to distribute the extra power generated by the Bungalow’s generator to the surrounding community using pre-paid meters. Why it didn't work: Despite quite a bit of searching, I couldn’t find a good, reliable company in India to sell us the meters
-Researching the feasibility of creating an Agrawood or Mangostein plantation. Why it didn’t work: There is a reason both Agrawood oil and Mangostein are so expensive; they are ridiculously hard to cultivate and it takes forever

Other things that came together…
-Organizing and calculating the drug bill for a week long medical camp that treated 6,500 people
-Adapting and improving Sielmat Christian Hospital’s administrative system
-Creating an inventory for the entire hospital pharmacy
-Teaching a class for Theology grad students on how to write a good research paper
-Editing the 15 final research papers of PMS’s Theology grad students
-Making the PMS sponsorship department more efficient
-Working on the hospital construction crew
-Making school profiles for the 25 schools run directly through PMS
-Creating, administering and analyzing a survey on the experiences of the Indian Children’s Choir
-Compiling, graphing and analyzing hospital performance records

Preparing to ascend from India into Nepal and China has, like any departure, made me step back and take stock of my time here. And it seems that in many ways the success of my deworming project and the failure of my Spirulina tank are microcosms of that time.

Like the deworming campaign, several of the other projects I worked on ended up coming together quite well, though that is as much to the credit of PMS and its employees as it is to the work that I did. And like the Spirulina tank, many of the things I worked really hard on and wanted to do here, both work-related and social, I didn’t have the time to see through to completion. But I have learned so much from just about every experience, both positive and negative, that it would be hard for me to call any one of them a failure.

I got a great deal out of northeast India, and hopefully I was able to give as much as I got. But now it’s time for the real adventure. There are Yetis to slay, entrances to the esoteric, subterranean city of Agartha to find and authoritarian governments to overthrow. And whether I’m ready for it or not, it’s time to move on.

Though the original goal of this blog was to chronicle the work I did and the experiences I had working for PMS here in India, I have enjoyed writing it so much, and received enough positive feedback, that I’m going to keep it going as I continue on and ascend up through the Nepali Himalayas and into China. So stay tuned!

I also want to take a second and thank both Mary Keating and Kevin Link for helping to edit the ramblings that I sent them into something a little more coherent. Were it not for their help this blog would have been far worse.

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