Friday, July 03, 2009

University of Iowa "Fueling" Its Oats

U of I power plant operations manager Brad Swearingen pours oat hulls acquired from Quaker Oats in Cedar Rapids. Behind him is the boiler that burns the hulls, along with coal.

Washington, D.C. - Ethanol and wind turbines aren't the only ways Iowans are reducing the use of fossil fuels. Oat hulls are another. Several times every day, oat hulls from a Quaker Oats cereal plant in Cedar Rapids are dumped at the University of Iowa's power plant, where they are burned to generate electricity and produce steam for heat. Using the cereal byproduct means the power plant can burn 25 percent less coal. That lowers the plant's greenhouse gas emissions and earns credits that could someday be a source of revenue for the university. The oat hulls have another benefit: They cost half as much as coal.


Quaker Oats' oat hulls were cheap and relatively easy to use, but there aren't nearly enough to go around. Utilities would need access to large sources of crop residue, grasses or wood, and no one has figured out how to economically harvest, transport and store large amounts of biomass, or plant cellulose.

"The key in all of it is supply, supply, supply," said Brian Crowe of the Iowa Office of Energy Independence.- Electric utilities will most likely have to compete for biomass with ethanol producers, who are hurrying to commercialize methods of turning the plant material economically into ethanol. There already is a guaranteed market for that fuel. Refiners are required to mix as much as 16 billion gallons of cellulosic biofuels a year by 2022.

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