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Coconuts supply power to rural community

A typical coconut palm can produce 50 coconuts annually and lives an average of 75 years. For residents of Alaminos, a rural community in the Philippines, this means a ready supply of fuel for the newly designed small-modular biomass power system (SMB), BioMax 15.

Developed by Community Power Corp. of Littleton, Shell Renewables and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) , the Biomax 15 gasifies wood chips or agricultural residues to generate up to 15 kilowatts of power.

NREL's John Scahill has spent the better part of the last year working with the Community Power Corp. engineering team in developing the BioMax 15.

"To be involved from the initial conceptual design stage to actual field deployment was a very rewarding project assignment," Scahill said.

Community Power Corp. was able to deploy a finished prototype within a year. Scahill worked directly with the employees of the firm in developing component design concepts and testing the system. His many years of experience at NREL in biomass thermochemical conversion technology and process safety brought important features to the process.

"We spent many long hours working out the process design bugs but eventually developed a working prototype that incorporated all of the elements of our design criteria," Scahill said.

In April, Scahill traveled to Alaminos for the Biomax 15 field trial, including safety orientation and training local operators.

Coconut is a large part of the economy in Alaminos. "The locals press the copra (white meat of the coconut) and extract oil which they use for cooking," Scahill explained. "They discard the shells because there is no market for them."

But the BioMax 15 can use coconut shells as its primary fuel. Each day, operators grind the shells into pieces roughly the size of a quarter. They are fed into a downdraft gasifier, which converts the solid biomass into a gas that is fed to a standard internal combustion engine. The motor turns a generator to produce electrical power.

Future plans call for the SMB to be moved to a permanent mill site where the power will be used to run a decorticator, a machine that removes the fibrous husk from the coconut shells. Waste heat from the SMB will be used to dry copra and rice. Oil from the copra can be used to produce soap. Nets and mats can be made from the fiber in the husks.

With the success of the Alaminos project, Community Power Corp. plans to the BioMax 15 to the Hoopa Indian Reservation in the Trinity Mountains of Northern California, where it will use forest slash as fuel. It will produce heat that will be used to warm the greenhouses that the tribe uses to grow evergreen seedlings, and it will also produce needed electricity.

So, access to renewable biomass power soon could be responsible for providing income and electricity to those who have little.

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