Biomass Energy

In Minnesota’s agricultural regions, millions of tons of crop residues are left on fields after farmers harvest grains and other crops. Referred to as biomass, this material stores a tremendous amount of energy. Plants convert sunlight and carbon dioxide into the energy-rich materials that make up plant leaves, stems and roots. Biomass research at the West Central Research and Outreach Center (WCROC) examines how these materials can be converted into useful energy for heating our homes, powering our vehicles, and running our electrical devices. 

In partnership with the University of Minnesota, Morris campus, the ARS North Central Soil Conservation Research Lab and a number of other partners, WCROC has examined biomass to energy and conversion, logistics, sustainability and lifecycle carbon and energy issues. A centerpiece of our research is the biomass gasification demonstration and research facility that serves as both a research platform and campus heating facility. The facility began heating the U of MN, Morris campus using corn cobs in 2011.

While we do not currently have ongoing research projects in this area, we continue to follow the technological, economic, and environmental issues surrounding biomass energy and how it could successfully be used in Minnesota.

Biomass Technology

Biomass gasification converts many agricultural residues (such as corn stover, wood waste, wheat straw), into an energy-rich vapor called "Producer Gas" that can be burned much like natural gas. By heating biomass with very little oxygen, a solid (such as corn stover) can be converted into a gas composed of mostly carbon monoxide and hydrogen. When this combination is mixed with oxygen, it burns to yield a high amount of energy. These producer gases can be used in a variety of applications including fuel for internal combustion engines, direct heating, and in production of the chemical fuel methanol. The char and ash can often be used as a fertilizer.

Biomass gasification process

Biomass Research & Documentation

Faculty, staff, and students have generated a number of reports and data which is available to the public. Below is an overview of our research activities:

Main Project Report for the USDA Rural Development Project 68-3A75-5-232: Biomass Gasification: A Comprehensive Demonstration of a Community Scale Biomass Energy System, (.pdf) 2011

Biomass User Toolbox:

  1. Summary (.pdf)
  2. Best Management Practices (.pdf)
  3. Financial and Economic Analysis (.pdf)
  4. Permitting Processes and Procedures (.pdf)
  5. Developing a Supply Chain (.pdf)
  6. Outreach and Information Transfer (.pdf)
  7. Biomass Processing (.pdf)

Biomass Harvesting of Native Grasslands in West Central Minnesota (.pdf) : A production scale pilot study (2007)

Integrating Wind and Biomass to Manage Carbon Emissions (.pdf)

Biofuel Sources and Emerging Technologies - The Future of Biofuels in Minnesota (.pdf)

Biomass for Energy Production: Finding the Hay in a Stack of Needles? (.pdf)

The Viability of Corn Cobs as a Bioenergy Feedstock (.pdf)

More Info

Contact Dr. Joel Tallaksen, Renewable Energy Scientist at the WCROC, for more information about our biomass research and projects.