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By Keith Patterson
You've probably heard a lot about solar or wind energy, but the newest invention on the green scene is a gasification system that turns food waste into carbon-neutral energy. A company named All Power Labs (APL) has invented a system that uses biomass to generate clean electricity for less than 10 cents per kilowatt hour.
The idea for a carbon-neutral gasification system came from an unexpected source: a Berkeley California artist. In 2007, Jim Mason ran a popular space for artists in the California town called the Shipyard. His property had 11,000 square feet of outdoor space with 27 shipping containers that were rented by area artists looking for studio space or even sleeping quarters. They were often used for performance art pieces and served as a space for constructing large works of art.
It was a popular destination for Berkeley's artsy scene and even tourists. But one thing led to another, and Mason ran into some issues that caused his power to be shut off by the city. That's when he began looking for alternative ways to power the Shipyard. Mason founded All Power Labs, which took over the space at the Shipyard, and started developing his gasification system.
Tom Price, director of strategic initiatives for APL, says gasification is actually a very old idea. The technology was used by thousands of vehicles during World War II. And evidence of gasification can be traced all the way back to ancient cultures which smoldered food waste to enrich their soil. But over time gasification just sort of disappeared and was never developed further.
Mason was the first to turn the ancient process into a modern day, clean energy generating device. His gasification process utilized food waste products, such as corn husks or walnut shells, to generate energy. The materials are left in a low-oxygen environment where they smolder and are converted into hydrogen gas.
Because the biomass never fully combusts, no carbon dioxide is emitted during gasification. Instead, carbon dioxide is transformed into charcoal which can be put back in the ground and used as a fertilizer. This is a much cleaner process than fossil fuel-generated energy. Combusting oil or coal emits carbon dioxide, which many believe is largely responsible for climate change.
Since its inception just five years ago, APL has sold 500 Power Pallets, generating $5 million in sales. Today, each machine costs about $19,000-$27,000, but can generate power at prices competitive with the electricity market. In some places, the gasification system can provide huge costs savings. For example, several of APL's sales were to developing countries that can see electricity costs rise to more than 60 cents per kilowatt hour. At 10 cents per kilowatt hour, the Power Pallet produces clean power for a fraction of the cost.
APL is currently working on orders for several more developing countries, including Ecuador, Thailand, Nicaragua, Haiti, Mexico and Chile.
The company has two versions of the Power Pallet available today. One has the capacity to generate 10 kilowatts and the other can produce 20 kilowatts. These systems aren't very big, enough to power a small business or someone's home. But APL plans to expand its business to make larger models. The University of Minnesota and the U.S. Department of Energy have each agreed to give APL grants to develop a 100 kilowatt gasification system.
Although the gasification can't match the amount of electricity generated by wind farms or solar arrays, perhaps one day APL can create a system that connects to the electricity grid. With such a connection, owners of gasification systems could sell power to utilities or even electricity suppliers in deregulated areas of the United States.
However, that's a lofty goal. For now, APL plans to focus on enlarging its Power Pallet to a 100 kilowatt capacity model and improving the functionality of its gasification system. Today, the Power Pallet can only convert certain types of biomass into energy. However, APL plans to make a machine that could convert other forms of organic matter, such as trash, into valuable clean 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.