It was just about a year ago, on Aug. 23, 2008, that James Baker recorded an idea in his journal for an improved method of converting organic material into usable energy. Known as biomass gasification, the process reduces sources such as grass or wood to produce synthetic gas similar to natural gas or propane. These fuels can be used in a variety of applications, from automobiles to heating furnaces.
The ultimate goal for the student from Rossford is to make a different type of hybrid/dual fuel processor small enough to fit in the trunk of an automobile. The gasifier would convert cellulose derived from biomass into a clean, burnable gas that could supplement the gasoline used in the vehicle’s engine.
Baker, now a senior majoring in engineering technology, said of his inspiration, “A lot of people were skeptical that it would work—a lot of people still have a hard time believing it will work.”
However, after months of design, construction and bated breath on the part of its creators, the centrifugal gasification reactor has validated Baker’s initial concept. In its recent first test, it outperformed his expectations. “Getting it working was the Eureka moment,” Baker said. Though the test was only the first step of many, he said, “the really important part of it works, so it’s on its way.”
Though others doubted, the University saw potential in the idea. When Baker transferred to BGSU from Owens Community College in fall 2007, he disclosed his concept to the Office of Sponsored Programs and Research, which found enough merit in it to be willing to help fund its development. “The PATDOC (Patent Advisory and Technology Development Oversight Committee) members were impressed with the knowledge and initiative evidenced by James in his invention. We decided that we wanted to fund further development of his idea. BGSU does have a fund to support small projects that could lead to commercialization of BGSU intellectual property,” said Dr. Deanne Snavely, interim vice provost for research and dean of the Graduate College.
Barry Piersol, director of the Electric Vehicle Institute (EVI), is the principal investigator on the project and has handled all the financial aspects. Under his direction, Baker participated in the SETGO undergraduate research program this summer (www.bgsu.edu/offices/mc/monitor/08-24-09/page69667.html), spending 10 weeks building the biomass gasifier.
“James is the first undergraduate in my memory who has presented us a potentially patentable invention,” Piersol said. “It’s been refreshing to be engaged with a young mind with lots of creative juices.”
BGSU also offered Baker the invaluable assistance of Charles Codding Jr., EVI process engineer and former engineering instructor, who guided the physical building of the apparatus. “His expertise and knowledge of manufacturing and engineering processes got this project off the ground. I’m indebted to him because of his help,” Baker said.
Codding mentored him while he was making the initial design, which helped reduce the cost significantly, Baker added.
The two availed themselves of the vast array of equipment the College of Technology has amassed over the years. “We probably used every tool in the research lab, including some that hadn’t been used for years,” Baker recalled.
The aluminum castings were done in a local foundry, and Baker and Codding machined the rough metal pieces. Finally, the gasifier was sent out to be balanced. Then came the all-important actual test, which, to everyone’s great relief and exultation, worked.
Baker has been intrigued with science and physics since he was a child reading a set of scientific encyclopedias on inventions that he described as a “catalog of ideas.”
“I’m always thinking of how to mesh ideas to create a new idea,” he said.
Now that the SETGO summer program is completed, the project will move back into the EVI Research and Development Laboratory in the technology college, where Baker can continue testing and refinements.