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Hacking The Auto X-Prize
Jeremy Faludi, 6 Apr 09
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The Progressive Automotive X-Prize is the latest high-profile contest from the folks who kick-started space tourism with the original X Prize. The goal of the Auto X Prize is "To inspire a new generation of viable, super-efficient vehicles that help break our addiction to oil and stem the effects of climate change." Most entries to the contest are hybrids, electric cars, super-efficient combustion engines, and the like. But Jim Mason of All Power Labs, a homebrew gasification-and-biochar startup, is trying to make a bold statement by entering the contest with a vehicle that runs entirely on the contest's own waste.

Cheeky as that is, it's not even the best part -- the best part is, their system should automatically win the emissions part of the competition, beating million-dollar R&D programs of major automakers with a DIY hack on an old pickup truck. (Their entry won't be the vehicle shown above.)

How could it win? Because gasification with biochar is, in theory, a carbon-negative process. Gasifiers can turn any organic matter (peanut shells, wood chips, unused copies of the X-Prize's own 68-page-long competition guidelines) into fuel through a process of pyrolysis that gives off "syngas," a combination of hydrogen and carbon monoxide gases. Those gases can then be burned very cleanly in an engine, producing water and CO2 exhaust. Of course, depending what the original organic matter is, and how well-tuned to it the gasifier is, there can be other impurities as well; but there is a large benefit that most combustion processes don't have: the leftovers of the pyrolysis process are biochar, which is good fertilizer for gardens or fields, and which also happens to sequester more carbon than burning the syngas gives off. Hence the carbon-negative process.

Mason says:

The result is the very odd and somewhat dangerous notion that "the more we drive the car, the more we scrub greenhouse gases from the atmosphere" ...

I have no idea if and how the Auto X Prize will deal with this entry. It causes lots of issues/problems for how they have structured their rules. They can't just agree to calc the GHG equivalents like the biochar enthusiasts would do, or we win that category by default. But they also can't just ignore it. Hopefully it will at least provoke an interesting conversation.

The truck may have a hard time achieving the X-Prize's desired 100mpg equivalent -- would they allow the leftover biochar to be subtracted from the mass of input fuel, because it's a useful product? The actual fuel burned by the truck's engine will be the syngas given off by pyrolysis, which is a tiny fraction of the total mass of fuel put into the gasifier. The majority of the fuel turns into char.

Hopefully the Auto X-Prize will accept their entry and let them race. Allowing them into the competition certainly furthers many of the competition's goals: Offering a "level playing field" that newcomers can participate in, educating the public on the possibility of carbon-negative fuel processes (which sounds like science fiction, and most people would never believe), and benefiting the world. If today All Power labs can make a pickup truck named 88MPH that runs on shredded contest pamphlets, maybe tomorrow we can have Deloreans running on banana peels and other household scraps. Who knows?

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Uhh, I don't get it. If it emits CO2 and H2O then how is it a carbon negative process.

Unless it has some sort of solid carbon waste, there's no scientific way it can be carbon negative.

Posted by: scwizard on 7 Apr 09

The thinking goes, the pamphlets would be decomposing within a few years, releasing CO2. Here, they are being converted to pure carbon at 30-50% efficiency. If the carbon is buried in the ground, the net is negative.

Posted by: tom G on 8 Apr 09

Nonono, they're being converted into pure CO2 which is then being immediately released into the atmosphere, unless this motor vehicle has some sort of carbon trapped attached to

So these pamphlets instead of leaking CO2 into the atmosphere slowly are quickly being releasing their CO2 into the atmosphere.

Posted by: scwizard on 9 Apr 09

Oh I see what you're saying. That there is a degree of solid carbon waste that would result that wouldn't decompose.

Posted by: scwizard on 9 Apr 09

The half time of biochar in soil is hard to calculate because of its recalcitrance. However, it has been calculated to figures between 2000 and 7000 years (HALF-TIME!)
That means that the burying if biochar as a by-product of the engine is the closest we can come to a carbon-negative transport system. However the production of the steel in the care emits about 1 kg carbon dioxide per kg steel, so it has to travel a rather long time in order to reach the point of carbon-negativeness. However, an ordinary car NEVER reach that point, however long mileage it has.
Burying biomass is not at good idea. In access of oxygen (in soils) it has a half-time far less than 40 years. Withotut oxygen, it is devoured by mathanogenic bacteria, releasing methane, a 13 times worse GHG than carbon dioxide

Posted by: Folke G√ľnther on 10 Apr 09

The thing that the story doesn't mention about the carbon-negative aspect is that if the biochar (also called terra prieta) is applied to soil in an organic setting, fertility and productivity goes up. Also, the lattice structure that is innate in the biochar fosters the growth of all sorts of good biomass that further increases fertility AND sequesters ADDITIONAL carbon. So, in theory, if the biochar from vehicles like these were used as soil amendment in agricultural or managed forestry systems, more carbon would be sucked down into the soil than would be emitted. And I think that we are not even adding in the biomass that would grow above ground (I think).

Please let us step out of our reductionist boxes, folks. It's all about the systems and interactions!

Posted by: Brent on 10 Apr 09

The thing with carbon-sequestration in soil or crops is WATER. If you don't have water (Rain/ rivers) available nothing will grow (as in the Israel-region). So back to square one: how to avoid waterlevels rising because of GHG-emissions etc..

Nevertheless really looking forward for these innovators on mobility like Jim Mason!

Posted by: Hans Scholte on 14 Apr 09

Carbon Cycle.

Trees absorb CO2 while growing. Humans make paper from said trees. Xprize prints rules on paper. Jim Mason burns it in his gassifier car. A large portion becomes char that can amend soil and be effectively sequestered for generations. The CO2 that is released into the air is a fraction of the CO2 absorbed by the biomass at the start of the cycle.

Thus it is a carbon negative cycle.

Posted by: RustyLugNut on 22 Apr 09

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