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Innovative gasification system promises cheap carbon neutral energy

01 November 2013
Innovative gasification system promises cheap carbon neutral energy

Keith Patterson writes: 

Jim Mason was just an artist in Berkeley, California. He owned a space called the Shipyard, where he built an art facility, complete with 11,000 square feet of outdoor space and 27 shipping containers, which were often rented for studios, performance art, welding and sometimes even living quarters. But in 2007, Mason ran into some issues that resulted in his power being shut off.

That's when he started looking for new ways to power the Shipyard. Mason turned to an ancient process called gasification and soon established a company, All Purpose Labs (APL), to start experimenting and building a gasification system to power the Shipyard.

Gasification utilizes biomass, such as walnut shells or corn husks, to create energy.  The dense materials are left smoldering in a low-oxygen environment and are then converted to hydrogen gas.

Mason's process is a much cleaner way to generate energy than burning fossil fuels. Burning oil or coal releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, polluting the environment and leaving the planet vulnerable to climate change. But because gasification involves a smoldering process and materials don't combust, there is no carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere. Instead the process turns carbon dioxide into charcoal, which can be placed back in the ground as a fertilizer for plants.

Tom Price, the director of strategic initiatives for All Purpose Labs, says the process is nothing new. In fact, it's been around for centuries. Ancient cultures used the process to enrich their soil and thousands of vehicles used the technology in World War II. For some reason, gasification just disappeared after the war. That is until Mason introduced his gasification machine, the PowerPallet.

APL has already sold more than 500 PowerPallets, which cost about US$27,000 each but generate carbon-neutral energy for as little as 10 cents per kilowatt hour. Several of these sales were to developing nations, which Price says can sometimes see electricity costs rise to 60 cents per kilowatt hour. The PowerPallet can help people in these countries produce power for just a fraction of the cost. APL has additional orders pending for Haiti, Thailand, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Mexico, Chile and the Dominican Republic.

Though it was founded just five years ago, APL is generating US$5 million in sales. It has also gotten several patents for its technology, mostly for the PowerPallet's configuration and the company's innovations in system control.

For now, the organization only makes 10 kilowatt and 20 kilowatt PowerPallets, which can produce energy for personal use or perhaps a small business. The company has not yet built a version that could be used at a larger scale. However, the U.S. Department of Energy and the University of Minnesota has given APL grants to develop a 100 kilowatt version of its gasification system.

Perhaps one day, APL can build a system large enough to rival alternative energy sources such as wind or solar energy and connect to the power grid. If the low-cost, carbon-neutral resource could connect with the grid, the energy could eventually be sold to retail electricity suppliers in deregulated energy markets which can readily sell renewable energy to consumers.

In addition to constructing a bigger model, APL hopes to further improve on its ideas in the future. Right now, the PowerPallet converts energy from certain types of biomass, but in the next five years the company plans to make a machine that could convert any organic matter, such as garbage, into energy.

Keith Patterson is a freelance writer and designer for all things green. His work promotes responsible energy production and consumption while continually looking to better the balance between man, machine, and our environment. Follow him on twitter @kcpatterson711.

Image by GreenRon

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