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AF Research Lab seeks to turn waste into energy

WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio (AFNS) -- It may seem like a scene from “Back to the Future,” but the Air Force Research Laboratory is looking to turn fiction into reality with a nearly $7 million waste-to-energy project.

The AFRL Advanced Power Technology Office has embarked on the waste-to-energy demonstration at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii, to convert waste products such as wood, plastics, biomass, and other materials into alternative fuel that can be used in a variety of military base applications.

The project involves a gasification process, developed by Biomass Energy Systems, Inc., to convert wastes into synthesis gas (syngas), which can then be used to produce electricity.

The demo runs through this summer and plans to show a system capable of converting up to 10 tons of waste per day into 300 kilowatts of continuous electric power, or the equivalent of the total electrical load for about 100 U.S. homes.

This project is sponsored by the Hawaii Center for Advanced Transportation Technologies and is part of a larger microgrid effort demonstrating alternative energy technologies that could allow military bases to operate independently of the power grid for extended periods of time. This capability would be critical in the event of a break in power operations due to a public-grid outage, cyberattack, or other interruption of service.

Through the project, AFRL aims to use this technology in an operationally representative environment. In doing so, lab researchers collect data that will help determine the best use for the technology and how to most efficiently incorporate it in future applications.

"From an Air Force perspective, mission assurance is paramount," said Lt. Col. Scott Fitzner, chief of AFRL's Acquisition Systems Support Branch, which leads the Advanced Power Technology Office. "If a technology can provide mission assurance through energy assurance, it can then be considered for more widespread implementation."

Waste-to-energy technology offers a number of benefits beyond energy production. Fitzner adds that the data collected through this effort helps researchers evaluate the technology to reduce the use of landfills and toxic burn pits on bases. Reducing landfill waste helps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions produced by the decomposition process.

The 154th Air National Guard Wing complex on JB Pearl Harbor-Hickam was chosen as an alternative energy demo site because it represents a Pacific region environment where energy costs are high but the environment is conducive for various renewable energy technologies.

Additionally, it demonstrates integration into an operational mission and addresses the need to explore independent means of energy production. Hawaii Governor David Ige recently committed the state to a 100 percent renewable energy standard by 2045.

Following this initial demo, AFRL plans to implement the gasification process into the first phase of the base microgrid project. Longer-term efforts may explore the expanded use of the technology to produce fuel for vehicles and ground support equipment.