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Building a better generator

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One would be forgiven for thinking the half-million dollar black trailer tucked behind the Missoula Technology and Development Center near Missoula International Airport was the original hauler from the classic television series “Knight Rider,” the one that housed KITT.

But instead of an automated Trans-Am, this unit houses a state of the art power generator. Without using diesel, the system combusts biomass—like ag waste or logging slash—and converts it into a hydrogen-rich gas that powers a 25-kilowatt generator. That’s enough to power 15 houses, says Brian Kerns, a project manager with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Biomass Research Development Initiative.

“Biomass in western Montana means trees,” says Kerns, who also teaches at the University of Montana’s College of Technology. Specifically, “waste stocks” for the country’s first “trailerized” biomass generator include pallets and donated waste wood from nearby pulp and post mills. “We just want to use waste,” he says.

Although Kerns sees abundant fuel potential in ongoing local thinning projects, he also notes that “region-specific biomass” exists everywhere, from walnut and coconut husks to corn and logging waste.

The Missoula unit currently pumps power—and, when useful, heat—into the Forest Service campus’ power grid a few hours every weekday. The project’s greater goal, however, is to show the benefits of bringing a biomass generator into the field.

“We want to move the trailer to the waste, since it’s not economically viable to move waste to a centralized plant,” says Kerns.

Inside the trailer, wood chips are efficiently burned in a high-temperature, low-oxygen environment. Kerns says it meets California’s stricter air quality standards, and the little solid waste it produces makes for carbon-rich soil fertilizer.

Kerns put the trailer on display for a recent demonstration in front of local students in an otherwise online-only “Energy Technology” course.

“We want our students to see energy production from beginning to end,” said UM College of Technology professor Ashley Preston. “This really fits that bill.”

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