Want to make your own carbon-negative fuel at home? You may soon be able to. We wrote last fall about gasification and biochar being a way to burn agricultural waste or other organic matter in a special way that (theoretically) sequesters more carbon in the resulting charcoal than it emits into the atmosphere while burning. The charcoal then makes good fertilizer, like the terra preta soils of South America. It helps soil fix nitrogen and minerals while also providing a latticework that soil microorganisms thrive in; the resulting boost in plant growth sequesters still more carbon while reducing the need for petrochemical fertilizers. What's more, controlled burning of agricultural waste can put less greenhouse gas into the atmosphere than the uncontrolled burning that is commonly done, or the landfill and resulting methane that is the other common option. Reliable research on this is hard to find, but a paper by the Pacific Institute claims that the greenhouse gas burden from burning waste for bioenergy is actually lower than from composting it, even without the biochar fertilizer. (see graph below.)
Burning things to sequester carbon seems counterintuitive, to say the least. It would be great to see more researchers run the numbers on it. So why not fire up your own gasifier and see for yourself if it measures up? Traditionally, this has been hard to do. Not anymore.
The Gasifier Experimenter's Kit
Jim Mason (creator of the Rosetta Project for the Long Now, among other things), has developed an experimenter's kit for gasification. It is an open-source modular platform which a researcher or hobbyist can use to try the different reactor types that have been developed over the years, different fuels, different air mixes and temperatures, etc. Power hackers can make their own new kinds of reactors as well, add instrumentation, or attach their reactor to whatever other systems they want upstream or downstream. As Mason described it in emails:
What could you power with one of these in your garage? "small Home Depot type generators, art cars on the playa, steam engines around town, your fire art project, as well as other engines on the smaller side... The current kit is sized to run engines in the 5-50hp range. Larger versions will be available later, but for now, small is better." The point of the device is not to be a viable new power source for your home or vehicle, the point is experimentation. As Mason put it, "it is the Altair 8800 of gasification".
"It is not a turnkey system. It does not solve the historic problems of gasification... This is to learn and compare and ultimately allow the industry much less fudge on claims for these old designs. It allows all the old designs to be run over one base."
...it has elaborated into somewhat of a "lego system" of downdraft gasification: a modular and flexible base and collection of parts that allows one to easily switch out and compare most all of the major types and configurations. (stratified downdraft, imbert, inverted V hearth, fluidyne reduction tube, mukunda multi point air open core, varied air dimensions, varied air preheating, varied air recycling, varied tar recycling, etc etc.). Other inserts are anticipated to support biochar making, the kalle, fluidized bed, cyclonic, etc...
I'm hoping this will be somewhat relevant for educators, comparative reasearch, and enabling DIYers to get started in the biomass thermal conversion arts. No more immaculate building to test out a new scheme (or just to get started). And no more comparing apples to oranges across completely different foundations. Hopefully add ons and interchangeable customizations will propagate over the proposed hardware "metadata".
...The fabrication has now been reduced to standard tubes, plates and black pipe plumbing parts. the tubes all correspond to common North American tank types (of 14" 12" and 10"). All dimensions throughout are nice easy integers or nice divisions thereof. The plates are circular cut with a plasma cutter [or] by hand with a protractor. The plumbing is NPT black pipe and cast iron sewer connectors for the reduction zone bells. The insulation is an ash in fill arrangement. Bungs, TC inserts and other access is provided for measurement of temp and vacuum at all relevant points across the system. The dimensional range is derived from a full review the historic Imbert and Swedish literature, as well as relevant contemporary downdraft literature.
The result is a flexible and architecturally diverse gasifier that can be built from easy commodity parts, with a full range of configuration and data measurement potentials. DIY'ers can build on their own from local obtainium [i.e. scavenged scrap], or "full parts assemble yourself" kits are easily manufacturable to easy dimensions from rolled tubes and CNC plasma cut plates. We will soon be offering kits and complete units for sale. Or make your own from plans...
more photos of the Gasifier Experimenter's Kit here.
Power Hacker Culture
Mason's goal is not necessarily to start a power company to be the Next Big Thing in alternative fuels. His primary goal is both bigger and more subversive: he wants to build a power hacker culture. The personal computer revolution and the internet boom were not the result of any one individual company, they were the result of a computer hacker culture and community that incubated scores of companies and public projects, each building on each other. The aggregated sum of companies and projects created two revolutions which changed (and still are changing) the world. Could the same be done for green energy too?
His workshop, newly named All Power Labs, hosts not just gasification, but has people growing algae for biofuel, previously did solar power, and is open to any number of other methods of generating renewable energy. They also encourage others to do their own hacking and talk about the results.
The first event they are hosting to bring together alternative energy hackers is a road race: Escape from Berkeley (by any non-petroleum means necessary). It will be a road rally from Berkeley to Las Vegas, that any vehicle can enter as long as it scavenges all its fuel along the way. That could mean solar panels harvesting sunlight, bio-buses pulling used veggie oil from restaurants, gasifiers gathering sticks and grass off the side of the highway, anything that isn't petroleum. It will be a fun ride, bringing together junkyard motorheads and NASA eco-geeks, hippies and hot-rodders, one from as far from Berkeley as Alabama. Entries are still open; you're welcome to build a vehicle and race. Why not become a power hacker yourself?
images courtesy Jim Mason and the Pacific Institute
What I envision as a dream product of both this particular technology, and also of this hacker culture working at the opposite of the utility scale, is thus:
A landscaping machine, a sort of mower or mulcher. It starts with an electric motor and the hopper feeds into the gasifier. Once enough biogas has been produced, the combustion engine fires up and the electric motor switches off. Any surplus power then produced is used to run the electric motor in reverse and charge a large battery.
In a rural third world setting, such a machine could be a source of employment, where the modest electricity generation and terra preta fertilizer production would provide locally valuable services. Another significant benefit, not so readily monetized and therefore with only a weak incentive by itself, would be management of the disease bearing brush and grasslands which would effectively be made farmable by such a machine.
I'm pretty damn incompetent myself, so who wants to help?
This is so damn cool! I've been wanting to start biochar experiments and now, it just got a little easier.
I'm also a bit skeptical about the GHG graph. It depends on too many variables to really lay it out like that. A fresh banana peel is not the same as a poplar branch. Composting can be done in place, whereas some of the biofuel methods are going to use biomass that's been transported to the site. Also, this sort of thing promotes GHG myopia--we need compost, we need wood and other carbonaceous material to grow mushrooms (for food, medicine, mycoremediation, resulting compost), we can use biochar (in addition to compost) to rebuild our depleted soils, we can use syn-fuels from pyrolysis, etc.
Basically, we need to explore what the best use is for a particular type of biomass in a particular location in a particular situation. Is it dry? Is it wet? Is it tough and fibrous or soft and slimy? What are the needs of the local community?
The great thing is, biomass is everywhere and the approach described in this article helps us ensure a decentralized, democratic resource base.
It's true, we do need compost for soil fertility, and the complexity of analyzing its benefits vs. biochar are way past my areas of competency. That's why I hope things like this encourage more research. Gasification has been around for over a hundred years, but the benefits of biochar are only newly being discovered, it's a wide-open field.
Bamboo irrigated by treated sewage, animal bedding and feces, manure from feedlots, storm debris, restaurant waste. On- site treatment of these and other carboniferous wastes would reduce hauling costs, if nothing else. At home, a nice furnace that produces high quality soil amendments. The first automakers could have been described as "buggy hackers"! The first motorcycles were hacked bicycles. Who will be the next Soichiro Honda?
Energy hacking ! Let's go. I would love to see a disconnect between waste and water facilitated. It's simply absurd the amount of precious water we abuse by mixing it with wastes and then challenging the ecosystem to clean it again while millions suffer from poor access to safe drinking water. As a starter, I am imagining small biochar units that would connect to dry toilet systems on a home or apartment block scale. Particularly in more arid parts of the world, this could significantly improve quality of life, reduce urban footprints, and make cleaning the water we must use for sanitation an easier task. Maybe more work can be done using the char in filtering that "other" water...
this is brilliant, and definitely a bottom-up idea, which we need lots more of.
it reminds me of the $100 biogas digesters rural farmers use in india, which take the shit from 4 pigs and supplies cooking gas for a whole family.
it also reminds me of an excellent energy hack i saw once back in '75, where a fella stuck a recycled hot water tank (painted black) into a recycled refrigerator, tilted it up towards the sun, laid glass over it during the day, and at night shut the fridge door, using the insulated 'box' to keep the water hot through the night.
considering the ridiculous amounts of energy consumed to keep water hot, and the stupefying amount of old water tanks and fridges in landfills, this too was energy hacking at its tinkery finest.
open source, it's the future.
i hope someone photoblogs the 'get out of bezerkely breathing' race, i bet it will be hilarious.