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University of Montana researcher Brian Brian Kerns, right, and associate researcher Paul Williamson stand in front of the BioMax 25,
a portable generator powered by wood chips

Chip Power

Test Run of the BioMax 25 -- a portable gasification plant

By Barbara Coyner

Sometimes inventing new cutting edge technology means reinventing the old. That's pretty much the case with the BioMax 25, a portable gasification plant powered by wood chips.

Old High Tech

The generator can hit the road to furnish power at remote work locations or power up to 15 average homes. Using 50 pounds of wood chips per hour, the 30,000-pound unit cranks out 1,750 cubic feet of producer gas hourly, with a heating value of 135 BTUs per cubic foot. It's the brainchild of researchers at the University of Montana (UM) who reached back three or four centuries for inspiration.

"This is really 1600's technology," says project leader Brian Kerns, who specializes in alternative energy applied research. In 2005, Kerns was awarded a grant through the USDA's Biomass Research and Development Initiative to build and demonstrate a portable gasification plant. He contracted with Community Power Corporation (CPC) of Littleton, Colo., to custom build a trailer with their gasification technology. "This technology came into its own during World War II and was used extensively in Sweden and Germany. In this case, we took a propane generator and modified it."

As Kerns flips a switch, the generator quietly processes the wood chips into fuel with a computer regulating the process. He walks away and lets the BioMax 25 churn out power, noting that all he has to do is order another feeding of wood chips as the hoppers empty. The hoppers carry about a half-ton of chips, which are fed in by a loader.

Gallons from Cords

According to Kerns, CPC has been tweaking downdraft gasification since 1995, but the mobile version was a new twist and took a couple years to perfect. He hopes to work on an improvement to the process that will convert the producer gas into a hydrocarbon liquid.

For now, the unit gasifies the chips into producer gas equivalent to 8 gallons of diesel per hour -- or 2.9 gallons of crude oil. Byproducts are CO2 and char ash and the process is 70 percent efficient. With further tweaking, those numbers could improve. In addition, by furnishing 25 kilowatt-hours of energy, the BioMax 25 complies with California's tough air quality standards, as well.

Potential for Commercial Production

Beyond the promising numbers, the BioMax 25 is yet another tool in the arsenal of technology for the wood products industry. Craig Rawlings, head of the Smallwood Utilization Network in Missoula, says he likes the fact that the BioMax 25 can power a bank of high-intensity lights that could potentially light work areas in the woods after dark. And the idea that wood chips from the logging site could be dumped into the hopper to keep power going is appealing also. The prototype generation plant currently runs about $500,000, but that price tag would likely come down once it enters commercial production.

On the Road

As the BioMax 25 is shown off at Missoula Technology and Development Center (MTDC), influential policy makers take turns watching demonstrations of the generator as it powers its bank of lights, recharges the battery for an electric car, or feeds power onto the grid, actually reducing power bills at MTDC. Montana's junior senator, Jon Tester, recently reviewed the BioMax 25, seeing a future for such innovation.

Not only does Tester see a need to thin overstocked western forests to reduce fire danger, he sees wisdom in using wood residue to make power. Fuels for Schools is already active in the state, powering schools with chips, so a quiet generator that could power 15 houses is yet another valuable contribution from the forest industry.

"We're dusting off some old technology here," said Tester during his Missoula tour to watch the BioMax 25. "As far as alternative energy, we won't be served by any one thing, but by a combination of things. We really do have to think outside the box."

Getting the Most Value

For Dave Fallis, the MTDC operations project leader, it's a good deal having wood chips power a generator that reduces power bills at the technology center. He shows off the meter that reflects the generator's contribution, and how plugging in the BioMax 25 helps defray the center's operating costs. But the issue of uniform chips still presents a hurdle.

"We are working with multiple species and varied moisture content, so there's a challenge to have uniform feedstock," says Fallis. "To have this technology go out in a more widespread format to more people means we have to solve the issue of what kind of stuff it will take to make it work. And how can we make it competitive?"

Anyone working in logging and lumber mills today knows the volatile and sometimes competitive world of chips and hog fuel. Supply can be unsteady, and the material is frequently too remote to haul economically. However, it's vital to level out the supply, connect sources, and showcase research that eventually helps loggers get the most value from each logging job.

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