Propane powers effort to dispose of waste and generate energy

The Propane Education & Research Council has joined Onsite Power Systems Inc., along with the University of California-Davis, in testing a new biodigester technology that could result in environmental and economic advantages, including the possibility of becoming a new renewable fuel source.

The biodigester project kicked off with a June 29 demonstration at the university that was attended by government officials from California. PERC contributed to the purchase of two propane-fueled boilers; a low-emission, California Air Resources Board-certified propane engine; and a generator for the project.

“We look forward to seeing where this technology will take the energy industry,” said PERC Director of Agriculture Programs Mark Leitman. “PERC is honored to be part of the development of a new technology that can improve both the environment and the economic conditions for those in agriculture as well as other industries.”

Biodigesters can produce a renewable energy source and potentially reduce the costs and amount of waste added to landfills.

Biodigesters use bacteria to convert animal wastes, plant material referred to as green waste, and food waste to biogas, a form of methane. The Onsite Power Systems biodigester is testing a new two-step process that produces both methane and raw hydrogen from green waste and food waste. The hydrogen can be marketed as a fuel source for use in fuel cells or motor vehicles and sold as an industrial product. The biodigester can produce an estimated 22 therms of high-quality biohydrogen and biogas from one ton of food waste or green waste.

Biodigesters use propane-fueled boilers to maintain internal heat at the temperature required to promote optimal bacteria growth and the most efficient natural breakdown of wastes. Propane also can serve as a reliable backup energy source for the types of biodigesters that run off of their own energy production.

“Our biodigester will use propane to augment the system’s own generated energy because it is necessary to keep the temperature stable for the hydrogen-producing phase,” said Dave Konwinski, Chief Executive Officer of Onsite Power Systems, Inc. and project manager for the UC-Davis biodigester. “It is more economical and reliable to use propane, because propane burns at a more stable temperature and is readily available.”

According to Konwinski, propane is also critical to the reliable operation of the engine generator in the biodigester. “Propane is the sole fuel source for starting up and shutting down the system,” he explained. “Propane’s portability and ease of use in remote locations also makes it a great fuel source for the use of biodigesters in the agriculture sector.”

“Renewable energy is a new frontier for agriculture,” Leitman said. “New energy sources such as biogas could boost our economy and reduce our dependence on foreign oil. Propane has the opportunity to support this new technology because it is available across the country, it supplies efficient and reliable heat, and it is environmentally friendly.”

PERC’s vision in agriculture is that, by 2010, the agricultural industry will recognize propane as a preferred energy source offering exceptional value. This value is achieved through a unique combination of product benefits, including cost-effectiveness, efficiency and productivity, reliability, portability, and environmental friendliness.

For more information on PERC and its programs to promote the safe and efficient use of propane in agriculture, call (202) 452-8975 or visit

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