Marshall, Minn. — As petroleum-based fuel prices soar, consumer interest in ag-based energy is getting hotter.

Along with renewable fuels, the buzz over biomass that can generate heat and electricity is building as well.

“Hardly a day goes by that we don’t get a call from someone looking to manufacture biomass fuels or to buy them,” says Al Doering, a scientist at AURI’s coproducts utilization lab in Waseca.

Consumers are buying corn-burning stoves to offset home heating costs, although they may be on the waiting list for months as manufacturers try to keep pace with demand. And many large Minnesota ag processing plants have installed technology to generate power from their own coproducts.

But there are still more potential uses for biomass fuels — especially on farms and small-scale commercial operations. “There are on-farm applications such as grain dryers, heaters for livestock confinement buildings or machine shops that could be fueled with a biomass burner,” says Wayne Hansen of AURI’s Center for Producer-Owned Energy.

“There are also smaller commercial applications in rural areas that could benefit and use resources that are available in their local area. Those fuels may vary depending upon where they‘re located.”

AURI, the Center for Producer-Owned Energy and the Minnesota Corn Growers want to improve biomass use by identifying manufacturers that produce biomass burners for small farm and industrial needs. The initiative will identify what designs or features a burner needs for combustion and raw material handling.

Hansen, who is spearheading the initiative, says he has heard the most interest from greenhouses concerned about their high heating costs. But they’re not alone in their quest for alternatives. “I’ve gotten a number of inquiries from smaller manufacturing firms looking for direction in building burners,” Hansen says. “So there is interest on both sides — from the user and the manufacturer.”

In rural areas, ample fuel supplies are not far away. An AURI evaluation of available biomass shows that in 19 southwestern Minnesota counties alone, there are nearly 6.8 million tons of available biomass, primarily from crop waste and residues. In other areas of the state wood waste is the principal fuel.

Fuel handling could be the biggest design difference with a mid-sized burner that handles bales of straw, corn stover, dried distiller’s grains or other large quantities of ag biomass.

Hansen expects the information on larger-scale biomass burners to be available by early fall.