When the city of Berkeley kept shutting off power to Jim Mason’s unconventionally-zoned artists’ compound, he took matters into his own hands; he built a gasifier to turn plant waste into a source of off-grid sustainable energy. Seven years later, as Katie Fehrenbacher at GigaOm reports, Mason’s project has grown into a start up—All Power Labs—which has shipped hundreds of small-scale gasifiers to clients all over the world.
Gasification technology has been around for decades—during World War II there were industrial-scale facilities dedicated to the energy production technique as gasoline supplies slumped. In short, gasification works by exposing biodegradable plant waste—or pretty much any other material that contains carbon—to temperatures upwards of 1,400°F without combustion.
As the waste materials heat up, char is produced along with synthesis gas (syngas) and/or liquids. These substances are then exposed to controlled quantities of oxygen and steam at temperatures between 900-3,000°F. At these higher temperatures the volatile components of the carbon material decompose, while the non-volatile components form additional syngas. This syngas can then be used to create electricity, liquid fuels, or hydrogen.
Now, seven years after Mason began his DIY experiments with making personal-scale gasifiers, All Power Labs employs 40 people; a diverse team of junkyard fabricators, university-trained engineers and solar industry execs. They have sold over 500 gasifiers in over 40 countries, largely in developing nations where cheap off-grid power is in high demand.
Of the company’s three products, the Power Pallet has become their staple. This gasifier produces 15 kW to 18 kW of power, fits in the bed of a truck and costs just $30,000 or $1.50 per watt, And given the range of biodegradable plant materials that can be used, it suits most locations. As GigaOm reports the Power Pallets are in operation in “Liberia using old rubber trees, the Philippines using coconut shells, and in Haiti, gasifying corn cobs.”
All Power Labs has gained attention domestically too: the company recently won a grant for $2 million by the California Energy Commission. With this, they are working to develop a shipping container-housed 100 kW gasifier that would generate energy from the woodchips that are created when sections of woodland are cleared to prevent forest fires in the region.
The technology does have significant advantages over solar power. For one thing, gasifiers can operate around the clock. Additionally at $1.50/watt they come in notably cheaper than the cost of installing solar panels (around $3.60/watt for residential systems). For those using gasifiers in place of a generator and diesel fuel, the cost of purchasing a Power Pallet can be recouped in about 15 months. And even the byproduct of gasification is useful; the biochar can be used as a fertilizer.