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Using Missouri Corn Waste to Build a Biomass Business

Gary Grigsby

Sometime later this month the city of Columbia will likely begin a test project at the city power plant on Business Loop 70.

The test will involve using a biomass product to help produce power.  It's made from agricultural residues left after harvesting Missouri corn.  And that biomass product, years in the making, was invented in mid-Missouri. 

If you're driving on Missouri Highway 54 heading north nearing the city of Mexico, it won't be long before you see a sign that says Entering Audrain County, Biofuel Capital of Missouri.  And not far from that sign, just off the highway, you will find Enginuity Worldwide. Enginuity set up shop in the Missouri Plant Science Center there about six years ago.  It's a research and development operation and Nancy Heimann, an MU engineering grad, is the CEO.  "Biomass is anything that grows," she said.  She also said there's plenty of it in Missouri.  "What's left after harvesting grain, agricultural residues.  That's biomass.  Grasses that you roll into a bale.  There's also energy crops.  Anything that contains BTUs."

She made these comments while conducting a tour of the facility for about a dozen people earlier this year.  "The process you're going to see today goes from raw biomass to biocoal in three and a half minutes."  Those on the tour moved into a large open space about the size of a small high school gymnasium where the sound of the biomass dryer took over. 

Credit Gary Grigsby / KBIA News
A Enginuity employee works with biomass product as it makes its way through the drying process at the company's facility in Mexico, MO.

The biomass is fed into the dryer where high pressure and heat combine to push the raw material through clear plastic piping.  This is where it binds together and comes out the other end looking like a Duraflame log you might buy for your fireplace.  It is then broken into smaller chips about the size of a small cookie.  Nancy Heimann said those are the chips that will be fed into a power plant boiler.  "It has many of the characteristics of coal without the mercury, arsenic or some of the other toxic materials that are some of the problems associated with coal."

The inventor of this biomass product is Bob Heimann who is married to Nancy.  He's an engineer at Enginuity.  He said the main stumbling block in research and development has been producing a corn waste based biomass that creates as much heat as coal.  But he said Enginuity has made that breakthrough.  "Very high energy density, high carbon content."  Yes, Bob Heimann said high carbon content, like, well, coal.  Which in theory is what many are trying to use less of.  Putting less CO2 into the atmosphere.  But Nancy Heimann said biomass is different in that regard.  "When we start looking at materials that grow every year, they absorb CO2 during their growing cycle," she said.  "Therefore when we use those to produce power, the emissions from those are considered carbon neutral because it absorbs CO2 during its growing cycle."

Even so, Carbon or CO2 emissions is an issue in this ongoing relationship between the city of Columbia and Enginuity.  Both said they will be looking closely at what type of emissions will be coming off the trial burn of biomass the city will be conducting soon.