Features

All Systems Green: Wind, Waste, Water, and WPI Alumni

Bernie Podberesky ’58

Bernie Podberesky ’58 works enthusiastically to solve a major problem—or two or three. His interests lie in transforming biomass and other waste streams into clean power.

"We see our technology as an ideal way to eliminate some difficult issues in a number of applications worldwide," says Podberesky, president of AgriPower Inc. He has held this position since 2004, but he has been involved with the company’s predecessors since 1998.

AgriPower’s biomass-to-energy technology produces clean combined heat and power, and its latest units are rated at 300 kW per hour. The company’s closely guarded technology eliminates two common problems associated with using biomass for fuel. The entire air-to-air electric power generation system is contained in an easily transportable, modular mini-turbine, making it easy and inexpensive to transport the units to places where they are needed. And AgriPower’s patented design—in which the biomass fuel combustion products are separated from the gas turbine cycle—greatly reduces costly and time-consuming problems with turbine maintenance and operation.

These waste-to-energy workhorses use virtually free or inexpensive biomass and other materials for fuel. Everything from coffee bean shells, corn cobs, and nuisance plants, to furniture, wood chips, and sawdust, to construction debris— even that containing paint and creosote—can be tossed into an AgriPower hopper (once cut into chips) and burned, producing clean energy. For items such as finished woods, utility poles, or railroad ties, toxins can be scrubbed and set safely aside with an add-on scrubber. If distilled water or ice are required, a co-generation converter addresses this need.

"When we started the enterprise, we immediately saw the market for replacing diesel generators," says Podberesky, pointing to the fact that most of the world’s island nations, and many other remote rural areas, rely on diesel fuel as their main source of electricity. "There are several hundred thousand diesel-run machines operating globally, and although we wouldn’t be appropriate for all of those applications, that is still a very large pool of potential customers. Our units are so portable, versatile, easy to operate, and low-maintenance, they could really help out in many of those areas."

"We’ve also identified applications where companies face waste streams with costly tipping fees," Podberesky continues, referring to the price of dumping refuse at landfills. "In these situations, burning waste is quite advantageous, especially when you can also generate your own power, and sell electricity back to the grid. So what started as a niche market has expanded."

Small- to medium-sized lumber mills in remote areas could also use the units. "The hot air stream could dry the lumber, replacing natural gas kiln drying," says Podberesky. "The rest of the energy could supplant some of the mill’s electricity needs."

Podberesky is proud of AgriPower’s technology assessment regimen. Rigorously testing units for four years, the earlier, 80-kilowatt-hour unit was proven at a lumber mill, where wood chips and sawdust were burned as fuel. AgriPower also tested gas flows and heat transfer dynamics in its design and manufacturing facility near Sacramento, Calif.

After accounting for the energy used in running itself, each of the company’s new 300-kW-hour units produce 270 kW per hour. With fuel prices at upward of three dollars per gallon, the unit pays for itself in less than 18 months.

"These fuel savings," Podberesky says, "don’t include the considerable value of the co-generation and thermal energy the unit produces, nor the carbon credits it could generate annually from using biomass as a fuel."

Fueling the Spirit
Whether he’s troubleshooting with the research, design, and manufacturing team, or meeting with investment bankers or potential customers—state and federal agencies, waste man management companies, consumer paper goods manufacturers, energy mills, and others—Podberesky is running hard.

"We see a high degree of interest," he says, "but with the current financial crisis, deals are scarce. We’re actively seeking additional financing sources to help us move into commercial production."

Like many visionaries, Podberesky would like to see more than just his own project succeed. "If we could get the AgriPower units to all of the villages and towns in Africa that desperately need them," he says, "the residents could grow their own fuel and power their villages. This kind of change could really build local economies across the world, and do it cleanly."

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Last modified: April 27, 2011 14:19:51