Jan Allen has been involved in design, construction and operation of organics facilities for over 25 years. Now, he is the president of Impact Bioenergy, a company developing a machine that can convert organic waste materials into energy and fertilizer with zero waste. The machine has the capability to converting 25 tons of waste into energy each year.
Allen tells us about the machine, referred to as the “HORSE”, as well as the company’s goal of making communities more self-sufficient and granting individuals the opportunity to create renewable energy right on their property.
Electronics360: Can you tell me a little bit about your background? Do you come from a technical background since your work is generally focused around an electricity-producing machine?
Jan Allen: I have been involved in design, construction and operation of organics facilities since 1989. The aerobic (composting) facilities I designed have diverted over 10 million tons or organics from landfilling and the anaerobic systems produce 10 MW of renewable energy. I am the registered inventor of six U.S. Patents for composting, digestion and biofiltration. I’m a professional civil engineer and was educated at Purdue University in Indiana. I’m more of a microbiologist and nuts and bolts guy than an electrical guy.
Electronics360: Where did you come up with the concept for the HORSE?
Jan Allen: When I was in college, my advisor persuaded me to build three small digesters to convert waste into renewable natural gas. It was an inspiring project. Then much later in my career, I was working for a large firm in Boston that had a mission to build large urban power stations that are fueled by commercial food waste. When I was there, I was impressed at how many inquiries we received for smaller systems. My company did not want to bother with small projects. No one else in the industry did either.
So that was the main reason for starting Impact Bioenergy. There was a need and no one was filling it.
Now there are at least 35 companies selling or developing owner-operator anaerobic digestion technology in North America. Not one of them has scaled down to restaurant, office, campus, or hotel scale. Not one of them has brought the footprint and cost down to the onsite or community scale. It’s not that the technology can’t be scaled—it’s more about conventional wisdom with supersized facilities and long development timelines—on the order of two to 10 years. Conventional wisdom says that small projects take as much effort as big ones, but are not as profitable. These companies just don’t recognize the high cost and risk of permitting and waste transport.
Electronics360: Can you explain the science and technology behind the machine?
Jan Allen: It is a liquid system that uses microbes to mimic a living animal. We call it a HORSE, but it functions like a mechanical cow. The food waste is called feedstock and has to be ground and pureed into a smoothie-like consistency. It is metering into the system in small doses continuously and automatically. The system is maintained at 100 F°, is mixed, is airtight (anaerobic), and is monitored for pH, gas production, liquid level, pressure, etc. A gallon of feedstock takes 30 days to make it through the two stages and then overflows out as digested liquid plant food. There are only four moving parts: a mixer, heating pump, grinder pump and dosing valve. There is a gas manifold and a liquid manifold to manage the system.
Electronics360: How exactly does it generate electricity? How much power can it really produce?
Jan Allen: The machine makes natural gas. The gas is stored in a gas storage vessel until it can be used. To make electricity, the gas is used as a fuel in an engine generator. This is an ideal application for combined heat and power. The machine is rated for a full speed output of 15,000 BTU per hour. There are lots of choices for engine types, CHP systems, electrical efficiencies, etc. In general, making heat or hot water can be 90% to 94% efficient. Making electricity only can be 12% to 40% efficient. Making combined heat and power can be somewhere between these figures.
It will consume 25 tons per year of food scraps, beverages, fat and paper products. It can create 5,400 gallons per year of liquid fertilizer and up to 37 MW-hrs of raw energy. As renewable gas, that’s 125 Million BTU per year (4.3 MW-hrs of this energy is electrical output).
This is what that is equivalent to:
Electronics360: How do you envision the HORSE working in a community?
Jan Allen: The vision is to become more self-sufficient and to make renewable energy on your property and fertilize your own or a nearby garden or farm to grow food and flowers. The HORSE is both a sustainability and society game changer. It’s all about the quadruple bottom line: people, planet, profit and progress. There are 700,000 restaurants and 4,000 college campuses in North America. Each one should have their own HORSE. Just imagine the sustainable energy revolution for islands, resorts, zoos, museums, schools, parks, convention centers, farmer's markets, music venues, apartments and corporate and municipal campuses as they turn food scraps into energy. This is just the beginning.
The HORSE will eradicate curbside garbage pickup and the carbon emissions associated with long distance trucking. It will create a whole new shared carbon-negative transportation model for local use: less trucking plus no landfilling plus renewable energy! Its combined benefit is disruptive and huge; It’s decentralized—it’s portable—it’s affordable. Imagine a technology that can divert waste and create energy off-grid. Imagine eliminating the organic waste from your trashcan. Imagine making it into two valuable new resources that you can personally or commercially use.
Electronics360: What are Impact Bioenergy's goals at this point?
Jan Allen: To establish a few key partnerships and get these machines on the ground and operating. Everyone wants to see one working. We need reference facilities.
Electronics360: Where do you see yourself and the company in 10 years?
Jan Allen: We see a network of community supporting biocycling groups sharing information with each other. Impact Bioenergy is the core technology provider, designer, builder and supplier of the HORSE digester. CSB is the service end of a strategic partnering program that helps remove barriers to market this transformational technology in different locations. It is a partnering program between businesses such as breweries, restaurants, markets, urban farmers, and gardeners. What is Biocycling? Biocycling is the recycling of organic materials. In the context of our project, this term describes the process of taking organic wastes such as food scraps and converting it into liquid fertilizer and energy that can once more be used directly on the farm at which these food resources were originally produced. We like to say...Farm to fork to fertilizer and fuel, and back to the farm again.
Electronics360: Is there any other technology currently being developed behind the scenes?
Jan Allen: We are working on upgrading the biogas to CNG vehicle fuel. Back to the Future may be fictional, but the machine that converts food scraps into energy is here, because we just built it. This is a living machine that eats food scraps and makes energy and plant food using microbes with zero waste.
Electronics360: What do you find most challenging about being part of a company based on technology geared toward improving the environment?
Jan Allen: Right now the company needs operating systems on the ground so people can see the technology in action in an urban environment. To that end, a recent crowdfunding project has successfully reached its goal just this month to build a reference facility in Seattle. Remarkably, about 30% of the money pledged came from individuals in New York City.
Biggest lessons learned on the business end are:
- that being disruptive means some existing stakeholders will not embrace your good idea
- that triple bottom line decisions that account for environmental, social values in dollars is very rare indeed
- that accountants rule the day on payback period, return on investment, cost savings, etc. Remarkably this technology does offer what the accountants want.
Biggest lessons learned on the social and cultural end are:
- The idea of converting waste into energy and organic matter with zero waste really resonates. Impact Bioenergy has no payroll, but three full time workers, seven part time workers, and a constant stream of job seekers and volunteers
- Overall there were 16,000 video starts on the crowdfunding page
- People in 68 countries clicked into the crowdfunding page and video
The biggest lessons on the technology/environment end are:
- This technology is no more complicated that having a real horse or a large aquarium. The machine wants to be fed lots of small meals, doesn’t like to be cold, and sometimes needs antacids
- Visual art and odor control are essential. They are integrated into the design so it fits in the urban setting
- The big win here is eliminating trucks hauling waste away and hauling food into the city. That is two groups of trucks! Trucking is a huge cost and environmental burden to the city in air quality, greenhouse gases, congestion, noise, fuel use and export of resources and jobs away from the community.
- Using a HORSE eliminates the odor, flies, rats, seagulls and leakage associated with the traditional dumpster.
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