Biomass Fuel: Kilowatts From Corn Cobs

Small communities could realize an economic gain from recycling corn cobs into biomass fuel for electrical generation.

| March/April 1983

When we top off our gas tanks or pay the power and heat bills, all of us are made aware that the cost of surviving in modern society is taxing our incomes to a greater extent than ever before. And since these energy costs to some extent reflect the economic hardships placed upon the suppliers of those commodities, the expenses are ultimately distributed so that everyone (manufacturers, food producers, and consumers alike) is affected, in a vicious circle of circumstance.

Cut-and-dried solutions to such a complicated problem can't be expected, of course, but one option — increased decentralization of power generation — offers some real advantages to folks who are willing to work with alternatives on a personal or community level.

We're referring to biomass fuel — specifically, the generation of electricity using corn cobs. There’s no shortage of feedstock; 36 million tons of waste cores are produced annually in just 10 of our corn-raising states.  When teamed with an old technology that's now being updated, and perfectly good municipal power generation equipment that costs too much to use at present, this feedstock might help to solve a problem that plagues hundreds of rural communities across the nation.

Footwork Pays Off

About three years ago, Dr. James O'Toole of Iowa State University began developing a concept that would allow "local scale" power plants (those with a total generation capacity of several thousand kilowatts or less) to utilize agricultural waste to fuel their natural gas/diesel-powered generators. With the support of both municipal power associations and two local municipal utilities, he conducted a survey of the diesel generating capacity in the state of Iowa (77 plants were evaluated for condition, adaptability, cost of retrofitting, and acceptable environmental and safety considerations); made a study of corn cob availability (based on the location of seed corn operations in 14 states, as well as on the storage capacity of Iowa's grain elevators); and worked up an economic assessment of corn cob power production versus diesel electric generation.

During this same period, utility analyst Robert Haug formed a firm called Odin Associates in order to develop a small-scale demonstration of the existing technology. Late in 1981, after testing, his organization received an Appropriate Technology grant from the Department of Energy to further investigate the possibility of using gasification equipment for the generation of electricity on a community level.

Same Song, Different Verse

The technology necessary to make fuel from biomass dates from the nineteenth century, and was further refined during the Second World War when a shortage of petroleum encouraged the use of charcoal in gasification systems. Recently, there's been a renewed interest in wood-fueled gasifiers (we've reported the progress of MOTHER EARTH NEWS' researchers, among others, in past issues), and the availability of modem materials and components—along with a more complete understanding of how wood, rather than charcoal, can function within such a system—has done a lot to improve the performance of this type of equipment.

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