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PowerTainer demonstrates future of small-scale biomass

All Power Labs Founder and Director Jim Mason shows off the inside of the PowerTainer, a diesel engine generator powered by biomass. The PowerTainer contains a gasifier, gas cleanup, fuel hopper, fuel handling system, diesel genset and control system inside a shipping container.

The University of Minnesota, Morris is gearing up research on sustainable energy by partnering on a scaled-down version of the campus' biomass facility that could be used to provide electricity in disaster areas.

Last Thursday, campus researchers and their national partners demonstrated the PowerTainer, a transportable diesel engine generator (genset) powered by biomass developed with a grant from the U.S. Department of Energy.

"We wondered about the possibilities for doing distributed generation on the small-scale," said Lowell Rasmussen, UMM vice chancellor for finance and facilities.

The unit, completely housed in a standard 20 foot shipping container, is the result of a partnership among UMM, Cummins Power Generation, and the University of Minnesota Center for Diesel Research. The unit was built by All Power Labs in Berkeley, Calif.

The unit comprises a gasifier, gas cleanup, fuel hopper, fuel handling system, diesel genset and control system. The project focuses on the integration of a biomass gasifier with a commercially available diesel powered genset.

One of the challenges to working with a gasification system with a diesel engine is "getting it tamed enough, usable enough that regular mortals can use it in the world is a whole other problem," said Jim Mason, founder and director of All Power Labs.

Historically, small-scale gasification projects have broken down at the product stage - developing a package and interface that are usable, said Mason. All Power Labs works exclusively on these small-scale projects in appliance form - "Our ultimate goal is to build something like the washing machine of energy," said Mason.

The PowerTainer project aims to distinguish the characteristics of producer gas that may be useful or harmful to the system. The anticipated outcome of the research is a new transportable generation platform capable of displacing fossil fuel use in diesel generators. The system is also designed to help diesel engines run at lower temperatures, which makes "diesel engines look a lot cleaner to the environment," said Rasmussen.

The genset, when run on diesel, can generate up to 100 kilowatts of electricity. A target for the genset when run on producer gas is 80 kW. One key benefit of this technology will be a 90 percent or greater potential decrease in greenhouse gas emissions by substituting renewable fuel sources for diesel fuel.

The operating efficiency of this prototype system will be compared with the efficiency of the biomass gasification combined heat and power plant already in service on the Morris campus.

The PowerTainer has several potential applications. On farms, the shaft power can be used to run farm machinery, and the producer gas can be used to fuel grain dryers in addition to powering the generator. In disaster areas, wood and debris can be used to fuel the generator and provide electricity or mechanical power. Other potential applications include military and small industry use.