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Emissions a problem in using grass as fuel

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North Country farmers working with Cornell Cooperative Extension have been raising switchgrass for years. This region is a good one for growing grass. And there's lots of "marginal" land.

Switchgrass looks like a promising crop...and source of heat. But other research here shows there's a big problem with burning switchgrass pellets for heat: emissions, namely carbon monoxide.

Mike Newtown teaches in the energy technology department at SUNY Canton. He says grass pellets will emit between 1,000 to 15,000 parts per million of carbon monoxide--he says about 35 parts per million of Carbon Monoxide gas would be acceptable.

Working with colleagues at Clarkson University, Newtown's been researching how well switchgrass burns. They found that the pellets can be a good source of heat, measured in British Thermal Units or BTUs--but as it turns out, switchgrass just doesn't burn that well. Not nearly as well as cord wood, to name another native biofuel. Grass, he says, is just different.

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Reported by

Martha Foley
News and Public Affairs Director

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Grass picks up a lot of minerals on an annual basis, and when you cut it, it stays there unless it’s been leached out. It also picks up chlorine, that is part of the carrier chemical that carries fertilizer to the crops. That’s just the nature of grass. So, Chlorine inhibits combustion. We can get 8,000 BTUs per pound of energy out of wood pellets, and same out of grass pellets.

It’s just the byproducts that are the problem?

It’s the byproducts. And actually some of it’s the input into the grass from nature. I mean, it’s an annual process, so it picks up and drops and picks up and drops and so it’s always re-deposited back into the soil. And I was told—I’m not an agronomist—but it takes 10 years to get chlorine out of the soil once you’ve stopped fertilizing it.

So if we were to grow—if someone were to grow switchgrass on land that had not been fertilized—you know, not been put into production…as far as farming goes and fertilizing goes—would that solve the problem?

It would probably be interesting to see what the results of the testing would be. I would say there is potential if we can grow it on unfertilized land–wasteland—and get some of those inhibitors out of the grass cell structure, then we’d be better off.

At this point in the research that you’re doing and your colleagues at Clarkson and elsewhere, are you hopeful that this might be a good biomass crop, not only for growing here in the North Country, but actually for people to heat their homes?

It would be a very nice crop. I mean, we have a large percentage of land that goes to, you know, scrub brush and is wasted. And farmers—what we were asked really to do is determine whether this would be a good fuel stock for farmers to grow. And the answer is ‘yeah, it does heat.’ It’s the emission levels. Nobody’s developed technology to raise the combustion temperature high enough…to get complete combustion. And by complete combustion, I mean it goes from…pellets on to carbon dioxide and doesn’t stop at the carbon monoxide level. And carbon monoxide’s not a gas that you can smell, taste, or see. So it will cause problems down the road.

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