Thirty visitors from as far away as New York and Guatemala journeyed to the Brooks Forest Products Center to see demonstrations of the Department of Sustainable Biomaterials’ new portable biomass power plant.

About the size of a Mini Cooper turned upright, the biomass power system generates electricity by burning wood chips, corncobs, manure, and other agricultural wastes. In demonstrations, Assistant Professor Henry Quesada-Pineda powered shop tools with the unit. “There is increasing interest in the community and around the world, especially in off-grid situations, to learn more about how biomass energy production can be integrated into small-scale systems,” he said.

The unit’s generator is powered by a three-cylinder combustion engine using syngas — a combination of nitrogen, carbon monoxide, and hydrogen produced by biomass reacting with steam at temperatures over 750 C. The unit, which produces 1 kilowatt hour for every 1.2 kilograms of biomass, is capable of generating 10 kilowatts, enough to power 100 100-watt light bulbs.

With a price tag of $18,000, the unit is not a cost-effective investment for most U.S. companies with access to electricity, Quesada-Pineda says, but the department’s research will seek to determine the optimal use for this renewable energy source.

In addition to research, the biomass power unit will be used to support teaching efforts, giving students the opportunity to familiarize themselves with this emerging technology, and to power projects of the department’s student-run Wood Enterprise Institute.