Category Archives: Inventors

Yankee ingenuity

Pictured above:  October snow in West Glover, Vermont.  Photo by Bethany M. Dunbar

Inventors do well in Vermont

Timothy Perkins at the Proctor Maple Research Center at the University of Vermont.  Photo by Bethany M. Dunbar

Timothy Perkins at the Proctor Maple Research Center at the University of Vermont. Photo by Bethany M. Dunbar

by Bethany M. Dunbar,  October 23, 2009

Timothy Perkins of Barton has designed a maple spout that is increasing production dramatically by using an incredibly simple concept.  It’s a check valve with a tiny plastic ball inside the spout, and it keeps maple sap from flowing back into the tree.

People have been trying to figure out how to solve this problem for years.  When I heard that a guy who grew up lugging sap buckets through the deep, wet snow in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont was the one to figure out a practical way to solve this problem, I was not surprised.

Even better, what he and his wife do in their spare time is the Odyssey of the Mind, a challenge for kids to exercise their scientific minds.

Maybe it’s the long cold winters, or the ruggedness of the landscape and life here.  Maybe it’s the general lack of funding to go out and hire someone or buy something to fix our everyday problems.  Normally if duct tape and baler twine won’t do it, we have to move to the next level and figure something else out.  I think it’s a combination of all this plus genetic material that equates to a perfect recipe for Vermont inventors.

Posted here are the Chronicle stories of Timothy Perkins and Jason Starr, who invented a cool device to play with that many of us happened to see and even tried out at the Great Parker Pond regatta at the home of our celebrated publisher around Labor Day or so.  I don’t think anyone got pictures of me falling into the water after I tried those things, at least they haven’t shown up on facebook.  Let’s just say the surf skis are not as easy as Jason makes them look, but that doesn’t take away from the coolness of the concept.  In fact a little challenge makes anything like that a little more fun.

I can’t write about inventors without mentioning one of my favorite profiles of all time, Romeo Vezina, whose profile shows up on the Chronicle web site. Romeo is the town constable and sells vacuum cleaners, and he has designed a wooden vacuum cleaner.  He has also done an incredible variety of other things in his life, spelled out in the story.

Also on the Chronicle web site is a profile by Joseph Gresser of Philip Hurley who designed an energy system that you have to check out.

What is it about this place that gives us so many great ideas?  Do you know of an inventor that would be a good story?  Thanks for reading and thanks for all your thoughts and comments.  Stay warm, and keep on thinking.

Barton-born inventor runs UVM maple research facility

The check valve is visible in this close up of the maple spout.  Photo by Bethany M. Dunbar

The check valve is visible in this close up of the maple spout. Photo by Bethany M. Dunbar

by Bethany M. Dunbar      the Chronicle, September 30, 2009

UNDERHILL, Vt. — Timothy Perkins started out studying spruce trees.

He grew up in Barton and graduated from Lake Region Union High School in 1979.  He went to the University of Vermont, where he studied acid rain with Hub Vogelmann.  Studies of vegetation on Camel’s Hump are ongoing since the 1960s.

Mr. Perkins has shifted his attention to maple trees.  He joked that he couldn’t get UVM to change the name of the Proctor Maple Research Center when he started working there, so he figured he’d better do some work that lived up to its name.

He certainly has done so.

In August U.S. Senator Pat Leahy announced that Progressive Plastics in Williamstown will start full-scale production of a maple sap spout designed Mr. Perkins, who is the director of the research center and has been since 1996.

Senator Leahy also announced a new UVM appropriation for maple research at the Proctor center — $188,000 to fund research to further increase sap yields.

Mr. Perkins’ spout has a simple check valve inside it that keeps sap from flowing back into the trees — a little ball that rolls into place and blocks the valve when the sap starts flowing the wrong way.  It’s designed for use in vacuum systems.

“A lot of research has already been done on gravity,” he said.  There are a lot of small producers of maple syrup still using buckets, but 95 percent of the syrup in the world is made with vacuum systems.

“The maple industry is growing, growing very strongly for years,” he said.  He said there are a number of producers in Vermont with more than 50,000 taps, in some cases up to 100,000.

He said that his research has successfully increased production from half a gallon per tap to a gallon of syrup per tap.

“We did it last year,” he said.

People like to spend time in the sugarhouse, he said, “But the place where you make your money is in the woods.”

His focus has been, and continues to be, what can be done to increase yields in a sustainable way.

Mr. Perkins said the spout will increase production for maple sugarmakers by 25 percent to 90 percent.  If a sugarmaker’s tubing is brand new, the gains will be lower because there is no bacteria inside new tubing.

Even though tubing is completely cleaned out every year, some bacteria remains.  Then when there is a release of suction in the vacuum system, the tree, which has a slight amount of suction inside it, will suck sap back in.  Sap also gets sucked back in from the pipeline when the tree refreezes each night.

“Up to a pint can run back into the tree at night,” he said.

When bacteria gets into the tap hole, the hole’s reaction is to heal up to keep more bacteria from getting in.

Sugarmakers have known this for decades, and other attempts have been made to stop the tap holes from healing over too early.  For years sugarmakers used a tablet made of paraformaldehyde.  The tablet had problems, though, including that the taphole would develop a large wound.

It was also a substance that was not great to have in the maple sap.  Mr. Perkins said it mostly evaporated and wasn’t in the syrup, but it was probably not good for sugarmakers to breathe in during the boiling process.

“It was actually Vermont, the Vermont industry, that first sought to ban paraformaldehyde,” said Mr. Perkins.  He said it has been banned since the 1980s.

Mr. Perkins came up with the idea for the check valve in October of 2007 and ordered a bunch of different types for testing.

The current design has been in use for two years.

“We’ve patented the idea because we knew it was going to be something that was going to be commercially viable,” he said.  UVM is working with Leader Evaporator.  in the spring of 2009, the company gave out 15,000 of the new spouts for their sugarmakers to try.  Mr. Perkins gets a little income from each spout sold as part of the deal with UVM.

Part of the reason the new spout increases production is because it tends to extend the sugaring season.  The tree is not trying to heal its tap hole as quickly, so sap flows out of it for more days.  The spouts can delay the end of the season for a week to three weeks.

“The average season is four weeks,” he said.  “Over 40 years the season has shrunk by three days.”

He said the season averaged 33 days 40 years ago.  It’s also moving earlier into the spring, due to global warming.

Mr. Perkins said it’s extremely difficult to predict the affects of global warming, but it will certainly have an impact.

One of the negative consequences might be a higher prevalence of ice storms.  Other possibilities include diseases and insects moving into Vermont that were not able to live here in past years due to the colder climate.

Among the issues of global warming are changing rainfall patterns.  Perkins said those are even harder to predict than temperature changes, but so far it does not look like Vermont will suffer intense droughts.

Mr. Perkins grew up helping his grandfather, Clifton Perkins of Westmore, and his uncle sugaring.

“Sugaring is a lot of work,” he said, adding that haying is too.  He did the hard work but was always more interested in science.  His parents encouraged him with chemistry sets and in whatever other ways they could imagine.

Mr. Perkins and his wife, Anita Tanguay Perkins, have one daughter, Megen, who graduated from UVM with a degree in early childhood.  She works at the Burlington Children’s Space as a preschool teacher.  A biology minor, Ms. Perkins definitely inherited her father’s scientific curiosity.

When she was a young student at Richmond Elementary School, she came home one day and said, Dad, there’s a cool program I want to do called Odyssey of the Mind.

Megen Perkins made it to the world finals as a fourth grader.

“She is now a head judge at state level,” said her proud father.  She worked as an official at age 16, the youngest person to be trusted with the job.

Timothy Perkins and his wife got deeply involved as well, and now it is what they do in their free time.  They run the state program.

“We both go to world finals every year,” he said.

Odyssey of the Mind is a science competition.  Teams of five to seven students are given problems to solve.  The teams have to work together to solve the problem and create an eight-minute skit demonstrating their solution.

“It’s kind of like a sport for your brain,” he said.  Not only is it a fun competition, it enhances students’ potential job skills.

“More and more employers are looking for people who can work with other people, solve problems, and present.”

In a way, Odyssey of the Mind is similar to Timothy Perkins’ work at the research center as he tries to solve the scientific problems involved in making maple syrup.

Some of the future studies at Proctor are focusing on sap tubing.  Tubing used today is quite different from original types, he said, and the patterns of tubing in the sugarwoods make a huge difference.

Tubing used to be soft and pliable, and these days most of it is made of harder plastic — except the short lines that connect the tap hole in the tree to a bigger line, which need to be flexible.

One question sugarmakers have wondered about is how many taps should ideally be on a lateral line?  The answer to that question is “strive for five” according to Mr. Perkins.  It’s most efficient for sap flow if there is only one tap per lateral line, but that’s too expensive to set up.

Vermont sugarmakers have been extremely helpful to the UVM studies, Mr. Perkins mentioned.  They have really good questions and often have great suggestions for solutions or new studies to be done.  In many cases, it’s too expensive for a maple producer to try out an idea in his or her own sugarbush — especially if the outcome might be that he or she doesn’t make enough to cover the extra cost.

For example, Mr. Perkins might set up a study of 600 trees and that study might cost $150,000.

Even though the cost is high, the production increases at Proctor have been so dramatic that it has been worth the expense.

One of the studies the team at Proctor has been looking at is whether or not the color of the syrup is directly related to the flavor.  The reason some syrup is darker is that it has a higher percentage of invert sugar from microorganisms, Perkins said.

Air injection can create very light colored syrup, but it does not have invert sugar.

“You can’t make candy out of it,” he said.  “It’s a different composition of sugar.”

The air-injected syrup tends not to solidify, which is needed in candy making.

The Proctor Center Maple Processing Research Facility is a separate building on the site with four brand new shiny evaporators.  The roof has solar panels which creates enough electricity, on an annual basis, to run the building.

Mr. Perkins said they considered wind towers but thought they might be controversial at their site in Underhill, on the shoulder of Mount Mansfield.

The center does have a high tower, just above the tree line.  It is called a canopy research tower and measures wind speed, temperature, humidity, and gives data related to photosynthesis and air pollution at several points from the ground to above the tree canopy.

Another study at Proctor is about changing the plumbing of an evaporator so that the heat from the steam that normally floats away into the air is redirected into preheating the sap.  Fuel efficiency can be increased by 7 to 12 percent with this one improvement, Mr. Perkins said.

Surf skis aim to carve a turn on waves

Jason Starr shows one of a pair of surf skis he invented.  Photo by Chris Braithwaite

Jason Starr shows one of a pair of surf skis he invented. Photo by Chris Braithwaite

by Chris Braithwaite, the Chronicle, September 9, 2009

WEST GLOVER — Jason Starr of Colchester grew up skiing, but didn’t try surfing until the year he graduated from college, about 20 years ago.

The idea struck almost immediately, and he’s never been able to let it go.

“The idea was to use waves as a slope to ski on,” Mr. Starr said Monday during an interview on the shores of Parker Pond, where the waves are very small.

On the surfboard, he recalled, “I was making that heel-toe snowboard-style turn.”  The question that came to mind:  “Why can’t I be making that ski turn?”

The answer, after five years of work on the Starr Surf Ski, is that he can.  The day after Hurricane Bill did its worst on the east coast in August, Mr. Starr took his set of prototype skis into the surf off Maine.

“They work pretty well,” Mr. Starr reported.  “They carve a turn — which is a pretty big thing.”

To support a skier who weighs up to 150 pounds, the surf skis are pretty big, much longer than Mr. Starr is tall.  He’s developed a second design, a much lighter ski that can’t support a person who isn’t moving, but can be towed into big waves by a Jet Ski, then released.

Mr. Starr said he’s also ridden his skis on the wake of a motor boat, powered by the wave itself.

“Any wave anyone is surfing, I’m trying to ski.”

As he demonstrated on Parker Pond, the skis can also be used to stride across flat water with the aid of a long paddle, using a leg motion much like that of a cross-country skier.

But Mr. Starr doesn’t believe his invention’s future is on flat water.  That’s a better medium for the stand up paddlesurf boards he demonstrates and sells on Lake Champlain.  These look like big, stable sail boards without the sail, powered by a long paddle.

Mr. Starr’s imagination is clearly captured by the idea of carving ski turns across the face of waves.  Much of his time has gone into the study of the patent process, he said, and he’s obtained a “method patent” on the idea of towing athletes into waves on skis.

Mr. Starr relies on others to produce the prototypes he’s designed.  “Because I’m not that adept at building things with my hands,” he said, “I’ve had to work with people who are.”

Among companies he’s found who are willing to experiment with his designs is one that makes water skiing equipment for people who are disabled.

Meanwhile, Mr. Starr supports himself as a journalist on the Essex Reporter and Colchester Sun, two Chittenden County weekly newspapers.

The pace of his development efforts, he said with a smile, reflects that income source.

He acknowledges politely that he does, indeed, have an idea how much money he’s invested in his surf ski, but would prefer not to share that information.

“I know there’s this desire to ski waves,” he said.  “I hope to get someone else involved.”

That someone, he said, would have the means to see the idea through to a product that could be produced in quantity and marketed.

“I’m trying to prove there’s a market right now, that the concept works,” he said.  “Beyond that I don’t have any concrete plans.”