Biomass Energy

Link to Miscanthus Furnace Monitor

Heating a house with biomass crops is a true exercise in sustainability for the University of Illinois campus. This process begins to utilize contemporary renewable energy sources which, once shown to be successful and reliable, can be introduced to increase the diversity and productivity of local crops while reducing the costs and pollution of the campus’ current fossil fuel energy system.

Miscanthus and switchgrass are proven, highly productive energy crops that provide low sulfur and carbon-neutral fuel. Aside from being a carbon-neutral energy source, M. x giganteus is a carbon-sequestering plant. The conversion of arable crop land to production of M. x giganteus is modeled to sequester 1.5-1.9 tons C per year per hectare, (Clifton et al. 2004). Thus as cropland is converted from land used for food/animal feed production to land used for energy production, the land will act as a carbon sink. This is possible because energy crops are known to be less intensive than food crops. The contribution of carbon sequestration seems slight in comparison to the carbon which it offsets from coal emissions but is nonetheless substantial.

Taking advantage of the available biomass we are now burning corn, Miscanthus, and switchgrass material to heat a campus home. A biomass furnace specifically designed to burn corn for heat production which was developed by Big M Manufacturing in Illinois is being used to test these materials viability.

Miscanthus is currently set at a value of 40 dollars per ton for unprocessed Miscanthus (Heaton et al. 2004) and an additional cost of 50 dollars was added for the pelletizing of Miscanthus bales giving a total cost of $90 per ton , or, put otherwise, 4.98-6.15 $/MBtu (based on an energy range of 17-21 MJ/kg (Heaton et al. 2004)); however, this amount does not include the cost of transportation which would vary on a site to site basis.

Energy conversions and cost analysis has shown that replacing the natural gas usage with Miscanthus produced heat energy in the Fisher house alone, would prevent the emissions of 51 tons of carbon and an additional .5 tons would be sequestered in the crop soils per year. Although this amount seems miniscule in comparison to the average 6.3 ± 0.4 PgC emitted each year (IPCC 2001) this is a large contribution on the behalf of just one household.

The ‘Fisher House’ where biomass heat production is being utilized and researched is located at the SoyFACE site alongside the experimental and propagation fields for Miscanthus. This home is furthermore being developed into a museum to showcase biomass energy and its surrounding novel research and technologies.