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Plasma Torch For Biomass Pyrolysis

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2008 Annual Conference & Exposition


Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Publication Date

June 22, 2008

Start Date

June 22, 2008

End Date

June 25, 2008



Conference Session

Alternative Energy Source Projects

Tagged Division

Energy Conversion and Conservation

Page Count


Page Numbers

13.984.1 - 13.984.8



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Paper Authors


Peter Schubert Packer Engineering

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Dr. Schubert conducts research into alternate energy, space-based manufacturing, and engineering education at Packer Engineering in Naperville, IL. He is Senior Director, and has served as PI on projects from DOE, NASA and the GSA. He has published 47 technical papers, has 25 US patents, and is an instructor with the Society of Automotive Engineers. Prior experience includes 21 years in automotive electronics with Delphi Corporation, where he was a Technical Fellow. His doctorate in EE from Purdue was sponsored by a GM Fellowship. His MSEE is from U. of Cincinnati on a Whirlpool Fellowship, and his undergraduate degree is a BA in Physics from Washington U. in St. Louis. Dr. Schubert has directly supervised over 60 students while in industry.

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NOTE: The first page of text has been automatically extracted and included below in lieu of an abstract

Plasma Torch for Biomass Pyrolysis


Our world abounds in diffuse sources of energy, and the engineer’s challenge is to concentrate that energy, and convert it to a useful form. When America’s farmers grow corn, half of the non- root mass is left to decompose in the field. This corn stover (cobs, stalks and leaves) represents a convenient and plentiful source of energy. The scope of this paper describes undergraduate research into a key component of an apparatus which has the potential to make small- and medium-sized farms net exporters of energy.

Although large-scale gasifiers are already used to convert municipal solid waste to combustible synthesis gas (carbon monoxide plus hydrogen), system efficiencies do not scale well to the average farm operation. A common design is the up-draft gasifier, which partly combusts the feedstock while producing the syngas. Direct combustion is less efficient than complete gasification; and up-draft gasifiers further dilute the output gas with non-combustible nitrogen from the air. A different approach, pioneered by our company and patent pending, uses a novel apparatus to efficiently convert farm biomass to syngas, which can then be burned in a generator set to provide electrical power and heat. In order to achieve this efficiency, a plasma torch is used to rapidly pyrolyze corn stover, producing high BTU content syngas and a dry ash rich in soil nutrients.

A multidisciplinary team of four undergraduate researchers converted a commercially-available plasma cutter into a plasma torch for use in a farm-scale biomass syngas reactor. This hands-on research project combined the best available published literature on plasma cutters and torches with the accumulated experience of professional engineers from industry to create a working prototype. Following each major development, the student team reviewed their work, and near- term plans, with a review board. Fabricating the plasma torch required the use of computer- aided design tools, and close interaction with the model makers who ran the computer numerical controlled milling machine.

Anticipating the bizarre behavior of plasmas, the students integrated the ability to tweak their design after the first operational tests. After the lengthy design process, the test-and-refine phase proceeded quickly. Each student contributed to the understanding and improvement of the performance, engendering a spirit of teamwork, appreciation for diversity, increased problem solving ability, and an appreciation for the value of a thorough design phase. In this paper we briefly review the plasma torch biomass reactor concept, explain the lessons learned by the students, and address the value gained by the company.


In December 2007, President Bush signed into law the 25x’25 Plan, with the aim to provide 25% of America’s energy needs from renewable sources by the year 2025. Carbon-neutral technologies for power production are needed to reduce overall greenhouse gas emissions to forestall global climate change. Biomass is emerging as a vital source of renewable, carbon-

Schubert, P. (2008, June), Plasma Torch For Biomass Pyrolysis Paper presented at 2008 Annual Conference & Exposition, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. 10.18260/1-2--4420

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