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Power Science Technology

Carbon-Negative Energy Machines Catching On 228

An anonymous reader writes "All Power Labs in Berkeley, California has produced and sold over 500 machines that take in dense biomass and put out energy. What makes the machines special is that instead of releasing carbon back into the atmosphere, it's concentrated into a lump charcoal that makes excellent fertilizer. The energy is produced cheaply, too; many of the machines went to poor nations who normally pay much more per kilowatt. '[T]he PowerPallets are still relatively simple, at least as far as their users are concerned. For one, thing Price explained, much of the machine is made with plumbing fixtures that are the same everywhere in the world. That means they're easy to repair. At the same time, while researchers at the 50 or so institutions that have bought the machines are excited by opening up the computer control system and poking around inside, a guy running a corn mill in Uganda with a PowerPallet "will never need to open that door and never will," Price said.'"
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Carbon-Negative Energy Machines Catching On

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  • Fertilizer? (Score:2, Interesting)

    by jcr ( 53032 )

    Since when has charcoal been something to bury instead of burn? Plants get carbon out of the air, they don't need to absorb it through their roots.


    • Re:Fertilizer? (Score:5, Informative)

      by lxs ( 131946 ) on Sunday October 20, 2013 @06:05AM (#45179587)

      Charcoal appears to be a very useful soil addition.
      For further reading look into terra preta [] and its modern incarnation biochar [].

    • Re:Fertilizer? (Score:4, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward on Sunday October 20, 2013 @06:06AM (#45179591)

      Its not pure carbon, you get all the useful trace elements and minerals as well trapped in the carbon matrix and the ash.

    • Re:Fertilizer? (Score:5, Informative)

      by burni2 ( 1643061 ) on Sunday October 20, 2013 @06:07AM (#45179595)

      interesting point:

      but it is indeed so that in the agriculture you burn plants on a field to fertilize the new crops, if you want to reduce your fertilizer-costs.

      However this technique is used to increase the nitrogen, and other things level in the field.

    • by gl4ss ( 559668 )

      I guess since slash-and-burn growing was discovered.

      which is like.. I don't know. couple of thousands of years at least..

      • by jcr ( 53032 )

        Slash and burn is more about clearing forest for cropland.


        • by gl4ss ( 559668 )

          maybe in amazon now, but that's not the general idea.

          it's done for planting new forests too, after the sellable trees have been cut. but just clearing wasn't the point in many cultures.

      • Slash and burn will enrich the soil with nitrogen(fertilizer) and pottasium(fertilizer).
        The CO2 will go directly into the atmosphere.

      • Too bad slash and burn tends to destroy the soil after some five or six cycles.

    • Re:Fertilizer? (Score:5, Informative)

      by vikingpower ( 768921 ) on Sunday October 20, 2013 @07:22AM (#45179775) Homepage Journal
      See my comment above. Plants, indeed, can not absorb it through their roots. But the bacteria they live in symbiosis with, can. And that is of benefit to the plant ( its bacteria guests are healthier ), to the bacteria ( absorbing carbon from the soil is energy-cheaper than absorbing it from air ) and to the farmer ( the bacteria decompose into humus i.e. humic acid ) after harvest time . Win-win-win, so to say.
    • Re:Fertilizer? (Score:5, Interesting)

      by RedBear ( 207369 ) <> on Sunday October 20, 2013 @09:21AM (#45180123) Homepage

      Since when has charcoal been something to bury instead of burn? Plants get carbon out of the air, they don't need to absorb it through their roots.


      Uh... Since the dawn of time itself? Plants eat each other's bio-nutrients in an endless cycle. The decay of carbon-rich plant matter creates fertilized soil for new plants.

      This post is a good example of how disconnected humanity has become to the way nature actually works.

      Better yet, outfit these places with urine-diverting toilets and combine the urine with the pure carbon charcoal, maybe mixed with the fully composted solid waste and you'll end up with not just plant crack but plant super-crack. It creates a carbon-nitrogen-phosphorus fertilizer that's just as good if not better than the most expensive commercially-produced fertilizers, for a tiny fraction of the cost. Essentially, free.

      If you think I'm just making things up you'll find if you do some research that many places are already using this process both to reduce dependence on commercial fertilizers and to reduce the energy and money required to process waste. Not just on small scales or undeveloped countries either. I'm now wondering how well this gasification process can scale up.

    • The charcoal should really be sealed off from the biosphere somehow, if you burn it or bury it the machine is carbon-neutral rather than carbon-negative.

      • Using biochar as a soil amendment does seem, at least in some environments* to sequester carbon for the long term. But I suspect that you are correct that whether this is carbon negative is largely a definitional thing.

        * And maintaining soil fertility in tropical climes has historically been particularly difficult. Heck maintaining soil fertility anywhere has been problematic.

  • by Electricity Likes Me ( 1098643 ) on Sunday October 20, 2013 @06:30AM (#45179637)

    $27,000 is pretty steep. If you could scale something down so you could say, dispose of household greenwaste through it and generate power to feed the grid for a few hours a week, you'd really be on to something. Though this is in a big part because I've always dreamed of having my trash go straight to an incinerator...

    • you would have to sort your trash into foodscraps and plastics as burning plastics could be harmful without catalytic converts and percipitators. and the cost of the control systems wouldnt scale. what would make more sense is the use of one of these units in a neighborhood where people drop off sorted foodscraps into a solar dryer to bleed off energy robbing moisture and are paid an energy credit. sort of like can deposit machines. this would amoratize the cost of the unit over the neighborhood and allow t

      • With an Arduino I am sure a control system could be built inexpensively and open source, not that the company making this would like that. You would have to work around or invalidate their patent possibly depending on what they have patented.

      • I'm sure a neighborhood could generate the 2000 pounds of foodscraps a day needed to keep this machine running.

        You might be amazed at how little food is considered "scraps" in a really poor neighborhood....

    • Just buy photovoltaics for half that price, and use a bit of the half you saved to make compost out of whatever you would burn.

      But I'd also avoid making compost in an urban environment. It's neither confortable nor healthy.

  • From the article ...
    For now, All Power Labs is making only 10 kW and 20 kW versions, though the U.S. Department of Energy and the University of Minnesota recently gave the company a grant to build a 100 kW version.
    If this thing is the greatest invention since sliced bread, why does the company (selling $5 million worth of machines per year) need a university grant for product development. Something doesn't pencil out here.

    • by Zumbs ( 1241138 )
      Assuming a 10% profit rate, a turnover of $5 million would result in a yearly profit of $500,000. While that is certainly a tidy profit, it is not much to both upscale their technology and expand their production facilities at the same time. On top of that, they may also want to improve and refine their technology.
  • by colordev ( 1764040 ) on Sunday October 20, 2013 @07:18AM (#45179767) Homepage
    It works []. During the WWII there were around 700,000 wood gas powered automobiles in Germany, France, Sweden and Finland. As those were back then able to power buses and trucks, it's plausible to think modern designs also producing 20kW of bio power - as advertised.

    Finland's eco-mobilist association has a gallery [] of hobbyist build wood gas mobiles, some even with designs specs and tips. Chairman on the Finland's currently most popular party, which unfortunately isn't The Pirate Party [] which among others has pirate bay and privacy activist Peter Sunde [] as a candidate in the coming EU- parliament election, has build his own wood gas automobile - " El Kamina []" which by the way is build on top Chevrolet El Camino, which...

    No, I didn't just wrote that
    • It works. During the WWII there were around 700,000 wood gas powered automobiles

      But those combusted all of the wood and did not leave carbon behind as charcoal.

  • by NotSoHeavyD3 ( 1400425 ) on Sunday October 20, 2013 @08:00AM (#45179849)
    Because if it's worth more a fuel I'm pretty sure what the people running these things will do and it isn't use it fertilizer for the good of the planet.
  • "a guy running a corn mill in Uganda with a PowerPallet will never need to open that door and never will"

    I live in Africa and I can verify that this is a foolish thing to say. We have to open all kinds of doors never meant to be opened and fix thing using materials and tools that in any other place might seem like a joke. But we can, and we do, not because we don't know better but because the things we need to fix were engineered to be used in friendly climates by people who grew up with machines and who

    • I believe the intention wasn't that africans wouldnt repair the machine. rather that you wouldnt need to rebuild the computerised combustion control system which is probably environmentally sealed. which seems accurate. Am I wrong on that point?

  • This device burns stuff, releases CO2 in the atmosphere that wasn't there before. It'd be carbon negative it if would take out CO2 that was in the atmosphere before. Misleading title, if this was carbon negative, all cars that run on bio diesel are carbon negative as well.
  • during World War II, a million vehicles utilized the technology. But after the war, it more or less vanished from the planet, for reasons unknown.

    Actually, the reasons are known. Gas has a poor energy density. This is why you see those huge great balloons on top of WW2 vehicles. Price probably thinks they're to make bombs bounce off.

    Compression requires specialized equipment and well made containers, which are expensive. The main active components of the gas are hydrogen (which leaks) and carbon mono

    • by PPH ( 736903 )

      Why use this for cars? Fixed base load generation is a far better idea (assuming fuel supply and other problems have been solved). And then you can charge an electric car, if you really need one.

  • mmmm fire up the grill!

  • There have been lots of these gasification setups in the past. Two problems are always:

    1) Aside from a colocation with an agriculture / waste facility, you will have to scour a large radius to get the amount of biomass to burn reliably. There is significant transport cost to that.

    2) For low grade biomass that you're talking about, you're incurring additional fuel and $ to gasify the biomass, to then burn it. This doesn't really make sense. If you're just generating power, you would probably ju
  • ... that makes such a process carbon neutral or negative is the input of plant matter. The plant matter which, during its life, sequestered carbon from the atmosphere. In that sense, it is better than burning 'old' carbon, which we pump or mine from the ground. But it does introduce competition between food crops and energy crops into an economy.

    The crop cycles into which this technology is introduced will have to be examined carefully to evaluate its impact. Is it better to burn or gassify the non-food p

I've noticed several design suggestions in your code.