Highlights from the 2014 LA Auto Show

Could this little-known biomass generator start an energy revolution?

By

May 27, 2014

The Power Pallet is a combination gasification unit and electrical generator

The Power Pallet is a combination gasification unit and electrical generator

Image Gallery (9 images)

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
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

About the Author
Eric Mack Eric Mack has been covering technology and the world since the late 1990s. As well as being a Gizmag regular, he currently contributes to CNET, NPR and other outlets.   All articles by Eric Mack
Tags
26 Comments

Not quite enough to power the DeLorean for time travel then

Ozuzi
27th May, 2014 @ 09:51 pm PDT

That looks like a nicely constructed unit.

It should be pointed out that the byproduct of the biomass conversion process is charcoal that of course has many uses.

Did they test it on dried dung? Electricity and a better cooking fuel.

Slowburn
28th May, 2014 @ 01:06 am PDT

We were building these in Rhodesia in the 70's. There is nothing new under the sun.

Craig King
28th May, 2014 @ 02:07 am PDT

Looks promising, but, but, but... :-) Lacking of information. What is ampere output, and electric frequency? Meaning, will I be able to run 3-phase electric motor, or will I be able just to charge 1000 cell phones....

Looking at the price, I guess they are pointing to B2B sales - business to buisiness, because it is high. And, companies need a lot of ampere power.

Some outsource power need to run this device. So, we have input also. How they are burining biomass? What energy came from?

Dejanc
28th May, 2014 @ 02:20 am PDT

Biomass? What, like kitchen scraps?

Who exactly has that much "biomass" lying around?

Steve Jones
28th May, 2014 @ 02:42 am PDT

I think that is fascinating. Perhaps if it became well known, it would be improved upon? I think it has potential.

BigGoofyGuy
28th May, 2014 @ 06:12 am PDT

Im very pro-gasification.

The only reason why this particular unit is so expensive is beacuase it well designed and mostly automated. Home builts are cheap but there is more risk since carbon monoxide poisoning is a real hazard. But still too expensive in my opinion.

How does a small gasification unit compare to a anearobic bioreactor on efficiency, costs etc?

Bobbert
28th May, 2014 @ 07:07 am PDT

@Steve Jones

You shouldn't think of it as use in households. Areas where they have a lot of dried biomass lying around could use it like in Indonesia with palm kernel shells. Although that is the place where a lot of rainforest is disappearing, because of the activity surrounding planting palm trees.

Fretting Freddy the Ferret pressing the Fret
28th May, 2014 @ 08:51 am PDT

Wood gasification was big in the Scandinavian countries during both world wars. Its like concrete...a really useful technology that keeps getting forgotten and re-invented. A small and efficient GPU (ground power unit) coupled to a simplified wood gas generator would be very useful wherever the power grid is collapsed or non-existent. Cost must come with in reason, though.

Paulinator
28th May, 2014 @ 09:16 am PDT

Who has that much biomass?

Restaurants and farms,

to start with.

There's an easy article to find on

"truck runs on coffee grounds" so that includes

coffee shops&stands ( especially in the Northwest! )

After disasters,

fuel is short and trash is long.

All organic mass is eligible-

millions of trees came down during Katrina.

(So-nurseries&landscapers,too)

The real big problem is emissions-

these units tend to be pretty dirty by EPA standards,etc.

depending on the fuel choice and the design approach of the unit.

Of course,

after a disaster it's understandable,

as well as in extremely underdeveloped places.

However,

if the world tried to run on garbage

(with this concept at its current level)

it would quickly become a HUGE problem.

Griffin
28th May, 2014 @ 09:34 am PDT

I recall many descriptions about mounting wood/bio-mass gasifiers to motor vehicles to fuel their engines during war-time conditions. Many of those descriptions said a significant portion of the resulting combustion products condensed out forming gummy trash which required engine disassembly and rebuilding within a few months. I gather these issues have been addressed with this new configuration. If that is correct, the article should be expanded to include that very important information.

LoveLearn
28th May, 2014 @ 10:14 am PDT

Technology goes back at least to 1901.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wood_gas

Bruce Crosby
28th May, 2014 @ 10:42 am PDT

The most efficient heat extractors (stoves) are gasifiers. A simple one is called the "rocket stove". It can be built cheaply at home, but those are mostly for cooking and heating water or air.

For cooking I found the best design focuses on heat delivery, e.g., putting the most heat in contact with food/water. This is shown by a standardized test that boils water over time.

Almost all the designs are attempts to increase burn efficiency with little thought to heat delivery. This is a mistake. A better heat transfer can make a simpler, cheaper stove more efficient.

Don Duncan
28th May, 2014 @ 10:48 am PDT

As I, Fla has tons of waste biomass I looked into gasification, in this case producer gas. The problem is cleaning the silica crystals from it that wear out the engine very fast.

Nor is it new as been used for over 100 yrs.

The solution is a steam or other Rankine/heat motor like an A/C motor/compressor/pump run in reverse as a motor.

The beauty of them is they produce heat and can run on any heat, fuel like solar, biomass, wastes, etc as external combustion/heat source.

jerryd
28th May, 2014 @ 10:59 am PDT

the idea seems attractive however for every large refinery you would have thousands little ones.its easy to control the single one,how are you going to control the countless little ones?.

Salvatore Cento
28th May, 2014 @ 11:45 am PDT

I've been involved with R&D of thermal biomass conversion technology for 14 years - what I've found is, just like the ice cream shop, there is not only vanilla (gasification), but there are many flavors to choose from: pyrolysis, gasification, torrefaction, etc. Gasification works at relatively high temperatures and is focused on "gases" produced to fuel combustion engines or produce electricity. Its other byproduct is high ash content and some char (a useful product that you can read about at www.biochar-international.org) but high temps sacrifice quality of this byproduct.

All are thermal conversion methods on the same bandwidth, so to speak, however what differentiates them is that they occur at different temperature points, processing times, energy intensity/efficiency, secondary process steps; and the type and quality of byproducts they produce. There are upsides/downsides to each, too complex to go on about here.

The technology I've chosen to license to commercialize in the US and hopefully spark the biomass conversion revolution Gizmag suggests is an optimized form of pyrolysis that will hit the sweet spot of these techniques.

We don't want to combust to create fuels (current technological approach) other than to self-fuel the unit, rather we will utilize waste heat to generate electricity, run heater/chillers, or produce hot water. We can also utilize the waste heat to dry food products/food waste for use in human and animal feed using smaller, mobile units that go to the location of the feedstock, thus reducing the carbon footprint and processing inefficiency. This is a huge waste stream with untapped value.

Creating successful, functional, profitable equipment that produces the most useful and right quality byproducts for market has indeed been the greatest challenge to progressing and fulfilling the potential of biomass conversion. It can be applied in so many ways and replace current unsustainable methods of energy production and resource management.

Someone asked where is there that much biomass...the answer is everywhere...all those devastating wildfires in the US are being fueled by vast amounts of poorly managed forests containing huge amounts forest slash, and die-off from disease/insect infestation. Food and certain waste streams from towns, cities, industries, shopping centers, airports, buildings, arenas, agriculture are all acceptable feedstock. This could be set up at landfills to divert waste from merely being put in a big hole in the ground. Buckminster Fuller said that waste is an indication of inefficiency of process... we want to change that.

There are small biochar stoves being sold to replace the use of open fires in village huts/developing countries to reduce respiratory disease/death and carbon emissions; there are large refineries being created to produce gasoline from biomass, and all kinds of applications and scales of unit in between. The Power Pallet fulfills a certain niche and is a beautiful little system.

The type of system one would use residentially is different than the one used in research, which is different from commercial units at the community or small industrial, mobile scale (the system my company Sustainable Systems Design/Development - S2D2 will be producing).

The coming of age of this technology isn't an "if" proposition, it's a "when". After exhaustive evaluation I've chose a technology that has been in successful, effective use for four years in Japan and what distinguishes it from others is the versatility of application and outputs and the ability to make it mobile and scalable.

I hope to be the Henry Ford of biomass conversion equipment, providing communities, industries and owner/operators with equipment that produces jobs, converts waste to valuable resources that create spinoff localized enterprise; these units can be deployed for emergency and post-disaster response to clear debris, produce heat, hot water and electricity.

We can take what is now regarded as "waste" and replace/optimize currently polluting, hazardous industrial processes that create materials for the goods you've come to rely on... the biochar we produce will be sustainably converted into advanced carbon materials in cars/electric batteries, electronics, and so much more... Stay tuned!

elle green
28th May, 2014 @ 12:20 pm PDT

I've known Jim Mason for about ten years, before he began this project and company, and I have visited All Power Labs on many many occasions. I live four miles away from All Power Labs.

The stories they relate can be mind-boggling to us folk so used to 11-cent per KwHr electricity that is so readily available. In Africa and India, little diesels provide power in the most unusual situations, regardless of the high cost of fuel. Often, places such as isolated cell towers in Liberia can install one of these pallets, and pay it off in fuel cost savings in less than two years.

People ask if it will burn "dung" and other such material. All Power Labs is attempting to make their units indifferent to fuel sources, but it is rather problematic, and requires much fine tuning by an operator, because of water content, etc.

Folks at All Power Labs have described to me the scope of the isolated power generation problem in Asia and Africa and South America. Even expensive as these units are, they replace unbelievably inefficient setups that use fossil fuels, everywhere on the planet. It is fascinating to hear about it.

Scott in California
28th May, 2014 @ 02:00 pm PDT

This is an attractive refinement of an old system that was used extensively after WW2.

Cars trucks and buses with big gas producers on the roof etc were common.

The government even supplied instructions on how to make one.

All that stainless steel is pretty but is that expense really necessary?

I might get one.... ..

nutcase
28th May, 2014 @ 03:24 pm PDT

Mass produce this, awesome

ship to Africa & Asia & for backup for US firms alone for power post quake etc.

Get plants to produce worldwide.

Stephen N Russell
28th May, 2014 @ 03:27 pm PDT

In my research on wood gasifier fueled ICE vehicles you have to cool the gas before introducing it to the engine; this would be a good place for a Stirling cycle engine.

@ Bobbert

The problem is that you see the biomass gasifier as a competitor to an anaerobic digester. The gasifier eats slowly digesting/decomposing waste such as woody yard waste producing gaseous fuel/chemical feedstock and Charcoal.

The anaerobic digester takes quickly digesting/decomposing waste such as kitchen scrapes and grass clippings producing gaseous fuel/chemical feedstock and soil.

The chose of which is more efficient depends on what you are going to be feeding it.

Slowburn
29th May, 2014 @ 03:44 am PDT

@ nutcase

The the biomass converters you see after WWII are leftovers from WWII Germany, occupied Europe, and a few other isolated nations such as Sweden were drastically short on gasoline but after the war the gasoline shortage disappeared. German trucks built during the later half of the war came factory equipped with wood gasifiers.

Slowburn
30th May, 2014 @ 04:35 am PDT

They should market these to yard maintenance companies it could greatly reduce the volume of stuff they have to dispose of.

Slowburn
1st June, 2014 @ 09:57 am PDT

You are well informed, slowburn. And I agree completely.

kellory
2nd June, 2014 @ 04:08 pm PDT

Slowburn- good comments, all. We're able to get the gas cool enough to use in an unmodified GM Vortec 4 cylinder engine. Most users end up being in the developing world, where the hassle of converting solid material to a vapor is well worth it considering we can make electricity for about 1/4 the cost of off grid diesel/solar power. AMA if you have other questions.

TomatAPL
2nd June, 2014 @ 09:04 pm PDT

@Slowburn:

You don’t HAVE to cool the gas, but cooler is denser and therefore more powerful.

I really love the idea of using a Stirling Cycle engine to steal heat from the producer gas.

Tricky.

As I recall, they used to route the gas to a rubber bladder where it cooled before being fed to the engine.

I’ve followed the technology for about four years and this is the most compact, professional design I’ve ever seen.

I wish the University of Michigan would release that radial engine design they came up with, it would be perfect to combust producer gas.

William Carr
7th June, 2014 @ 02:27 pm PDT

They got plans online too so you can geek out and DIY

http://wiki.gekgasifier.com/w/page/6123718/FrontPage

Trapezoidal
10th June, 2014 @ 07:48 pm PDT
Post a Comment

Login with your gizmag account:

Or Login with Facebook:


Related Articles
Looking for something? Search our 29,570 articles
Recent popular articles in Science
Product Comparisons