Berkeley Startup Works to Make Biomass Carbon-Negative and Affordable

Downtown Berkeley. The Oakland – San Francisco Bay Bridge and the San Francisco downtown can be seen in the background. PowerBar headquarters are visible in Downtown Berkeley. Looking from the Berkeley Hills westward. California, USA.

Conventional methods of using biomass as an energy source have been met with strong opposition and concerns over the efficiency, cost-effectiveness, and pollution associated with burning natural materials for fuel. However, one California startup has created a method to convert biomass into carbon-negative energy.

All Power Labs’ CEO Jim Mason wasn’t inspired to start his company by the environmental movement – it started as an effort to keep his own electricity running. The former artist owned an art facility known as the Shipyard. In 2007, a dispute with the city of Berkeley led officials to shut off the facility’s electricity, leaving Mason to search for a new way to power the Shipyard.

Mason began experimenting with a smoldering process known as gasification, which uses a low-oxygen environment to smolder biomass, converting it into hydrogen gas. From there, All Power Labs was born. The high temperature process separates out pollutants, allowing for cleaner gas than what comes from basic biomass combustion. In All Power Labs’ gasification process, carbon is converted into charcoal rather than being released into the atmosphere. According to Mason, this carbon-rich charcoal is an extremely powerful fertilizer, rendering the process carbon-negative.

The process of converting organic matter into energy is an extremely popular idea in the green energy community. It is often done in the form of biomass combustion or by breaking down the organic material in the absence of oxygen, known as biogas. One of the key arguments in favor of these energy generation methods is that they would provide a productive outlet for food waste rather than forcing the waste to be sent to landfills.

All Power Labs’ Power Pallets machines cost between $19,000 and $27,000 and convert walnut shells or wood chips into pollution-free energy for less than 10 cents per kilowatt hour, significantly less expensive than the cost of some other renewable energy sources. The low cost of energy generation makes the Power Pallet a valuable asset for developing countries. In addition to the low cost of generation, organic biomass is almost universally accessible.

Currently, All Power Labs nets about $5 million in annual sales, and it has doubled in revenue every year. More than 500 machines have been sold, but the company makes only 10- and 20-kilowatt machines. Recently, All Power Labs received a grant from the U.S. Department of Energy and University of Minnesota to build a 100-kilowatt version. One of the company’s long-term goals is to make its machines capable of converting any organic material into biomass. Whether it’s nut shells, corn husks, or fruit skins, items otherwise destined for the garbage would be used for cheap, clean energy.

Keith Patterson is a freelance writer and designer for all things green and sustainable. His work promotes the technological advancements for the benefit of our environment and the constant balance between man, gadget, and world.


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