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Book Review: Solar Energy Projects for the Evil Genius and Fuel Cell Projects for the Evil Genius by Gavin D. Harper

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Alternative energy sources are here to stay, and as traditional fuels continue to climb in price, are becoming increasingly accessible to average consumers. Likewise, new titles targeting curious do-it-yourselfers, such as Solar Projects for the Evil Genius and Fuel Cell Projects for the Evil Genius are bound to pop up in increasing numbers.

Having lived off-grid for over three years, and with a husband obsessed with ‘free energy’ devices of various types for eight years, I was curious to see what kinds of off-beat projects young author Gavin D. Harper would come up with in these two titles. Opening with standard introductory texts relating to the problems commonly associated with fossil fuels, and the potential new technologies offer, Harper does a decent job of examining the technologies presented, their shortcomings, and the areas for potential improvement.

Written in a breezy, tongue-in-cheek style, Harper’s writing is lighthearted, though at times it seems as though he’s forcing a sense of jocularity into the text. Penned to appeal to a youthful generation, his writing is likely to appeal only to hipster-geeks of high school and college age.

Digging into Fuel Cell Projects found me blowing the dust off my high-school courses in organic chemistry with Harper’s help with chemical equations. While a background in chemistry isn’t necessary (Harper provides helpful notes), I’d strongly advise it if you’re going to take on his work. It didn’t take long to see that Harper is writing from a sloppy scientific standpoint.

Amongst the earliest experiments he advises reacting an unknown amount of an unspecified metal with an unknown amount of an unspecified acid and recording the results. He never recommends keeping proper records – as in recording the acid and metal used, or quantity – but advises the amounts of gas produced be tracked. In a later experiment he advises against combining certain acids and metals for safety reasons. Hmm… perhaps this should have been mentioned earlier?

As Harper demonstrates very little concern for proper scientific controls and procedures, I’m not so sure I’d call him an evil genius — perhaps a lethally careless one would be more accurate. Those with a background in science will be tempted to tear hair out and bang their heads against walls. My husband watched in amazement as I waved the book in the air and ranted about the dangers inherent in putting uncontrolled scientific experiments in the hands of amateurs.

Aside from the potentially dangerous lack of instructions, improper photographs of ingredients are included, such as pictures of baking powder when baking soda is called for. I’m surprised by the lack of editorial oversight on this title, where was the scientific or technical editor?

McGraw Hill has an excellent reputation as a publisher of textbooks, and educational manuals, but this one really got away on them. With those familiar with science sure to abandon the book in disgust, and those without a firm understanding of scientific procedures placing themselves in potentially dangerous situations, I’m afraid I couldn’t ever recommend this book to readers wanting to dig in to some hands-on fuel cell projects.

Harper’s Solar Energy Projects is, in all honesty, much better. Without the chemistry involved, Harper does manage to avoid dangerous errors and omissions in this title. Some familiarity with wiring schematics will come in handy for the diagrams included with the projects. A do-it-yourself mindset is also highly recommended, as Harper does not provide step-by-step instructions. A supply list, diagram, photographs, and some general instructions are provided, but you’ll have to figure a lot out as you go. With some existing knowledge, some cute science fair projects can be found here.

I’ll admit that my working knowledge of fuel cells has increased, and that there are some neat projects that have piqued our family’s interest in Solar Energy Projects. In general though, I’m left with a bad taste for the Evil Genius series after reading these two titles.

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