It could be the most important portable power plant you've never heard of. It's called the "Power Pallet" and it is essentially a combined biomass refinery and generator that fits on a single pallet and can kick out up to 20 kilowatts of electricity.

I came across the shiny yet unassuming contraption that looks like ... well, like a miniature refinery attached to a miniature power plant, while roaming the back lot at the Bay Area Maker Faire where many of the bizarre or vaguely steampunk Burning Man industrial art creations were also on display.

It was an appropriate setting, given that Power Pallet creator Jim Mason is a Berkeley, California-based artist who began developing the portable, flexible power source after the city shut off power to the collective workspace he created for artists working on large scale projects for Burning Man. One of the first concepts he turned to in the quest for an alternative power source was gasification.

"Gasification is fascinating in that it's a process of pulling apart fire into its constituent components and being able to control them," Mason told Fast Company recently. "It should be thought of as the operating system of fire."

More than a decade later, Mason's company, All Power Labs, now has 35 full-time employees and has just rolled out version five of the Power Pallet after installing hundreds of the units in developing nations and as a research tool at universities, among other places.

Amid a diesel shortage, Power Pallets were setup in Liberia

Basically, the Power Pallet works by burning available biomass, but before the fuel is fully combusted, the resulting flammable gases like hydrogen and carbon monoxide are spirited away to be used instead as fuel in a General Motors engine that works as an electrical generator. Walnut shells are among the best sources of biomass fuel that require the least amount of operation and maintenance supervision with a Power Pallet. Wood chips and coconut shells are next best and corn cobs or palm kernel shells are the most difficult to use.

The company estimates that 10 kg (20 lb) of biomass converted to electricity by a Power Pallet is roughly equivalent to the output of burning 4 L (1 gal US) of diesel fuel in a generator, but biomass feedstocks could cost as little as one third the price of diesel per kilowatt hour generated.

The ultimate vision for the Power Pallet is to create a complete, portable and compact power generation solution that can easily be operated by anyone out of the box (or perhaps, off the pallet) without any training. The latest version includes upgrades like automated ash handling, essentially adding an ash disposal chamber that's easy to empty once a day to make sure things don't get clogged up.

According to the latest pricing on the company website, a Power Pallet 20 costs about US$30,000 or just under $40,000 for a unit with a grid tie package that allows any electricity shortfall to be met by the mains grid.

You can check out a walk-around of the latest model in the video below.

Source: All Power Labs