Science

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

The Power Pallet is a combination gasification unit and electrical generator
The Power Pallet is a combination gasification unit and electrical generator
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The Power Pallet is a combination gasification unit and electrical generator
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The Power Pallet is a combination gasification unit and electrical generator
A look at the PP 20 from the engine side
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A look at the PP 20 from the engine side
The rear of the Power Pallet
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The rear of the Power Pallet
The exhaust side
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The exhaust side
The Power Pallet starts at just under $30,000
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The Power Pallet starts at just under $30,000
The PP 20 is available with a grid tie package for $10,000 more
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The PP 20 is available with a grid tie package for $10,000 more
APL's Brad Allen and a PP 20
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APL's Brad Allen and a PP 20
A PP 20 undergoing testing
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A PP 20 undergoing testing
Amid a diesel shortage, Power Pallets were setup in Liberia
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Amid a diesel shortage, Power Pallets were setup in Liberia

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

v5.0 Power Pallet Walk-Around w/Austin Liu - PART 1

27 comments
Ozuzi
Not quite enough to power the DeLorean for time travel then
Slowburn
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.
Craig King
We were building these in Rhodesia in the 70's. There is nothing new under the sun.
Dejanc
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?
Steve Jones
Biomass? What, like kitchen scraps? Who exactly has that much "biomass" lying around?
BigGoofyGuy
I think that is fascinating. Perhaps if it became well known, it would be improved upon? I think it has potential.
Bobbert
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?
Fretting Freddy the Ferret pressing the Fret
@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.
Paulinator
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.
Griffin
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.
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