Biomass research is heating up

There aren’t many ancient practices that still have a place in the 21st century. One exception is the burning of biomass, which is organic matter that can be used as fuel, like grass or wood. Biomass is made up of plant material that absorbs the sun’s energy through photosynthesis. When it’s burned, the chemical energy is released as heat. Biomass can be burned directly or converted to liquid biofuels or biogas that can also be burned as fuel.

On July 18th, ISTC researchers B.K Sharma and Sriraam Chandrasekaran held an open house to demonstrate a biomass system they’ve developed with funding from the Illinois Department of Transportation. The project’s goal is to create a renewable, carbon-neutral heating system. The demonstration was organized to raise community awareness about biomass, as well as ISTC’s renewable energy research.

The project uses waste grass that has grown along highways in Illinois to power a combustion heating system. Currently, the system is being used to heat greenhouses, but the researchers believe this technology has the potential to become able to heat even larger spaces. The researchers estimate that the project will save $3 million in public funds by harvesting the biomass for energy. Chandrasekaran says that he believes the possibilities of using biomass as an energy source are endless.

Collection, production, storage, transportation, and the environmental impact of the biomass all need to be carefully evaluated before it becomes marketable. Sharma and Chandrasekaran are interested in discovering which species of plants will produce the maximum amount of efficiency per pound. They are also researching the pelletizing ability of the grasses.

There are some downsides to burning biomass. The sustainability of the energy created depends on the carbon emissions produced during the entire lifecycle of the feedstock. Variables include the type of feedstock, the manner in which it is harvested, and the scale and technology used to convert the feedstock to energy.

This project has made great strides in three years. The efficiency of the combustion and boiler is near 80 percent, compared to other systems that average just under 50 percent. Research is heating up. Burning biomass is a technology from the past that will continue to be useful in the future.