Updated: Jun 12, 2021
When you picture a farm, you’re likely to imagine green pastures, fields of corn or wheat, perhaps a house with a wraparound porch and a variety of animals milling about. Not pictured here are the tons of plant material cleared from fields to plant new crops, and Biomass Gas, a competitor at this year’s Invent Oregon Collegiate Challenge in June, sees a clean-energy opportunity.
Led by Aaron West and Darby Twight, two students out of the Oregon Institute of Technology, Biomass Gas hopes to build a closed-loop system for energy generation using the agricultural waste from large-scale operations like farms and logging outfits.
“We are looking to make power from plants,” said West. “Photosynthesis is the way the plants get energy from the sun. We all know that. But we can harness that energy by burning it. And it happens to be this really cool technology that might become more part of our future.”
Here’s how it works: Biomass Gas works with a farm in Klamath Falls to source crop residue, like stalks and stubble, leaves, cleared brush, or any number of byproducts of the agricultural process. This refuse is often burned in the fields where farmers collect it, but Biomass Gas has developed a generator that can burn this refuse to efficiently produce energy.
“We're taking old technology, essentially what people use for wood pellet stoves, and we're using organic material to create syngas that can be used in an electrical generator to produce sustainable clean power,” said Twight.
Biomass energy generation is among the technologies being touted by institutions like Project Drawdown as one that could become part of a clean-energy economy. Its impact isn’t as widespread as wind and solar technologies, but it is a significant part of an effort that will require the inclusion of every possible option to reach net-zero goals.
Biomass Gas’s generator expects to generate 15 kilowatts of electricity. But people often hear about combustion and begin to ask questions, West said. “One of the problems that some people have with our project is they say, well, you're burning organic material, you're producing emissions. How is this clean?”
Truly, combustive energy generation isn’t typically carbon neutral. But this kind of organic waste is typically burned anyway, and West and Twight envision generating electricity alongside a consultation process with farmers to offset the energy they produce with productive farm acreage.
In that sense, Biomass Gas isn’t about creating a new energy source; it leverages behaviors that already happen to generate electricity and improve efficiency systemically. Eventually, the team said, the process overall could even sequester carbon.
“Any time you grow something, you pull in carbon and you store it underground. And this tips the scale on how much energy you get out of something and what it took to get it. So our system is able to lock this carbon down in a solid form. And when it's in the solid form, it's not causing our problems. It's not our greenhouse gases, and it's not destroying the planet right now.”
“We are in a bit of a climate crisis,” said Twight. “Our project is just trying to provide a more sustainable way to get rid of organic material that can be burned in our system.”