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UC Merced lab turns leftovers into energy
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A University of California, Merced plasma lab is testing a novel way of converting organic waste into energy.

The lab generates plasma blasts of more than 3,000 degrees Celsius – 5,400 degrees Fahrenheit – to turn coffee grounds, almond hulls, and winery leftovers into clean-burning energy.

“There’s a lot of biomass here in the form of agricultural waste, and it is left to rot, is burned in the fields or is burned for fuel, but not very efficiently or cleanly,” UC Merced engineering professor Gerardo Diaz said. “This might be a way to put it to use with very little emission.”

The process sees waste turned into steam, using a plasma gasifier to super-heat biomass, leaving behind mostly hydrogen and carbon dioxide. Gasifier products can be turned into liquid fuel or gasoline, or a soil enhancer.

The project has received a $258,000 grant from the California Energy Commission and $50,000 in equipment from Foret Plasma Laboratories to determine how clean the gas produced through the process is, and whether it is cleaner than the current biomass-incineration process in use at plants around the state.

This Education Note has been corrected.

The note previously stated that a University of California, Merced plasma lab had developed a novel way of converting organic waste into energy. In actuality, the plasma system was developed by Texas-based Foret Plasma Labs, and inventor Todd Foret of Lafayette, La.

Foret holds multiple patents on the system, and its underlying technologies. UC Merced leased the plasma equipment from Foret Plasma Labs to conduct research on the technology, and test its effectiveness on local biomass, according to Foret.