Sunday, August 05, 2012

California Dreaming...

                You certainly won't fail when you are the nearest restaurant to Pixar Inc.

It's been a while since my last post, and perhaps some readers might want to know what I've been doing for the last 7 months.

Last Autumn, I was invited to join a startup in Berkeley, California and be involved with biomass energy conversion  - notably wood gasification.

Shortly after Christmas, I left the UK to visit the organisation, and apart from a couple of brief returns to the UK, I have been out in California for most of the last 7 months.

My involvement with All Power Labs  goes back to February 2010 when I attended a wood gasification workshop, and got involved with a project to convert a Lister diesel engine to spark ignition such that it could be fuelled with woodgas.

In the last 2 years, APL has further developed their Power Pallet - a generator set that is fuelled from waste wood  - such as woodchips or nut shells etc, and are now manufacturing them at a rate of approximately 10 per month.  The Power Pallets are shipped all over the world, to provide personal and village scale biomass power production, and to communities that live off grid.

                                    Leaving the San Francisco Ferry Terminal

Gasification 101

Wood gasification is not a new technology, it's been known about since the early 1800s, and exploited in the early 20th century for providing motive power, by way of reciprocating gas engines, gasifying a range of carbon based fuels.  This reproduction of an early Paxman catalogue of 1913, shows the extent of the technology even 100 years ago. Below is a Paxman gas producer on the left, with the gas engine and scrubber. The engine is a type K - producing about 30hp.  The ladder on the left on the producer gives some idea of scale.

Gasification involves the thermal decomposition of biomass into a gaseous fuel, which consists of a mixture of the flammable gases hydrogen and carbon monoxide.  Air normally drawn in by the engine passes through the gasifier, where it gets converted to wood gas. This is then cleaned, cooled and mixed with further atmospheric air to form an explosive mixture which will run a spark ignition engine.

Converting wood to a gaseous mixture and running an IC engine in this way is far more efficient that running a steam engine directly on wood.  For a given amount of wood, you can generate approximately four times the electricity.  It also scales down to relatively small power outputs - and it is this small scale energy conversion that APL is currently involved with.

The "modern" gasifier was developed just around World War II, as a means of vehicle propulsion not reliant on petroleum fuel - and it is this modern, lightweight gasifier to which the APL design owes a lot of its heritage.

As a person with an interest in alternative energy and appropriate technology, the opportunity to work with one of the world's few gasifier companies, was one that I could not turn down - and so whatever else was going on in my life in the UK, had to be put on hold, as I pursued my Californian Dream.

In the next few posts, I'll try to give a perspective of life in today's California, and the ups and downs of  working with a startup 8500 miles from home.

1 comment:

Kirsten said...

Wow, this sounds really interesting, I've never heard of it before (despite it being around 200 years old!).

Obviously being four times as efficient as using wood directly in steam engines is a good thing - as is the simple fact that it doesn't rely on petroleum and *does* rely on a renewable resource. So the remaining question is, how clean is it? Does it contribute to global warming? I can't really see how using wood could fail too, but I guess a big part of whether that works is managing forestry so that there's always more being planted to take the carbon back out of the air as quick as they are burned up.

I'll go ahead and read your later posts now, maybe you've answered this already.

(Hi, BTW, I should introduce myself - I just surfed on in, this is my first visit here (I think)).