MU research farm, local business testing biomass compressor

Monday, July 5, 2010 | 7:30 p.m. CDT; updated 9:32 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 5, 2010
Jesse VanEngelenhoven pours corn stalks into a biomass compactor during a demonstration of the machine Wednesday at MU's Bradford Research and Extension Center.

COLUMBIA — MU's Bradford Research and Extension Center farm and a local business have built a machine that can compact corncobs, switchgrass and other biomass so four times as much material can fit in the same amount of space.

Instead of needing an 18-wheeler truck to move biomass to burn as fuel for electricity and ethanol, the same amount could be transported in a dump truck.


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"We're able to repackage it into a size that's usable rather than bulk material," said Jesse VanEngelenhoven, research director of the Columbia firm Ecologic Tech.

There are two major advantages to compacting biomass: lower transportation costs for hauling the same amount of material and lower emissions of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide.

Tim Reinbott, the farm's superintendent, said burning biomass recycles carbon into the atmosphere; burning fossil fuels adds carbon.

The farm is testing to see how different materials compact in the "tabletizer," including wood and miscanthus grass.

"We'll have a way of converting our grasses and waste products into something usable," Reinbott said. "What we're hoping to start with is something that can be used on the farm itself."

In 2007, Ecologic Tech received a grant for about $100,000 from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to design a machine that compacts biomass. In 2009, it received a second grant for an additional $100,000 from the U.S. Department of Energy to build the machine.

Ecologic Tech is a local company of seven people that former MU civil engineering professor Henry Liu started when he retired in 2000. Liu died in a car crash in December 2009.

VanEngelenhoven said the tabletizer can produce the same amount of biomass tablets using half the energy of other machines on the market. The machine uses a hydraulic system to push a piston into a mold to compress the biomass. 

The biomass compactor might provide farmers with an additional supply of income if they sell their scraps and waste material.

"Some of these products are something that has no use already," Reinbott said. "This gives us some value to something that normally doesn't have value."

The technology would make switchgrass a valuable crop for farms to grow to make biofuel tablets.

Ecologic Tech has applied for additional federal energy funds to refine the design and build a machine for commercial use that could produce two to three tons of biomass tablets per hour, compared with the one-tenth ton per hour the current machine produces.

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