MERCED -- What if the Central Valley could turn its agricultural waste into clean energy?
That's a process scientists at UC Merced are trying to perfect.
Under a $258,000 grant from the California Energy Commission, university professors and students are working with a prototype of a "plasma gasification reactor," which can turn bio-mass waste into what they hope will be low-emission fuel.
"We're particularly interested in biomass because of the abundance of it," said Gerardo Diaz, assistant professor at UC Merced School of Engineering. "The amount of agricultural waste that is produced in the Central Valley is substantial."
While the idea of plasma gasification has been around for a while, the technology has recently shown promise as potentially affordable for commercial and public use.
Under the grant, scientists at UC Merced are focused on determining just how inexpensively and cleanly that energy can be produced.
"We have been looking at the type of gas that's formed based on the type of biomass that we're putting in," Diaz said. "We're going to be looking at the emissions that come out of combusting that gas."
The reactor uses a plasma torch at temperatures of more than 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit to heat waste and turn it into what is called "synthetic gas," a mixture of carbon monoxide and hydrogen. Charcoal is also a byproduct, which proponents of the technology say can be used in agricultural fertilizer.
That gas can then be used as fuel to run a turbine or to create biodiesel.
"When you take biomass and you burn it in an incinerator you generate a lot of hydrocarbons," said Wolfgang Rogge, associate professor at UC Merced School of Engineering.
"It goes out in smoke like a wood stove," he said. "Here the basic idea is that the fuel gets ripped apart in components like CO (carbon monoxide) and hydrogen, and you can use it as a fuel, and hydrogen is a clean fuel."
Foret Plasma Labs has loaned the university the plasma gasification equipment in recent years. The private company has pledged to let the university use the equipment for about another two years, at a total estimated value of about $250,000.
The owner of the company, Todd Foret, said he plans to open a manufacturing plant in Merced in the next few months to build relatively small plasma gasification generators that run on biomass waste.
"Our target customers are small businesses located in the San Joaquin Central Valley," he said, adding that the units would cost $30,000 to $1.5 million.
Reporter Joshua Emerson Smith can be reached at (209) 385-2486 or firstname.lastname@example.org.