MANKATO — Bruce Jones and his Automotive Engineering Technology students at Minnesota State University are used to using sensitive equipment to measure the emissions from cars, lawnmowers, diesel trucks and any other kind of motorized device.
This coming school year the professor, undergraduate and graduate students will be loading equipment on trailers and traveling to Cloquet, Albany and Altura to test emissions from three large woody biomass furnaces being tested by the state.
"The way you measure that is similar to how you measure vehicle emissions, so that's how we got into it. It's not a huge stretch from what we do to do this," Jones said.
The projects were recently awarded grant money from the Minnesota Department of Agriculture through its NextGen Energy grants. The grants are part of the Agricultural Growth, Research and Innovation program to help fund creative and emerging agricultural projects.
The grant awards were specifically targeted at projects using woody biomass to replace propane as a heat source in regions of the state without access to natural gas, according to Ag Commissioner Dave Frederickson.
“These projects cover various sectors of the state as well as different technologies for biomass heating," he said. "This may help develop markets for the use of wood as fuel in an environmentally responsible way.”
The projects being monitored by MSU include one by the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa in Cloquet. They are using wood chips in a new hot water district heating system to meet 88 percent of the heating requirements for Fond du Lac’s Sawyer Community Center. The new system projects the replacement of over 15,000 gallons of propane a heating season while removing 85 tons of carbon dioxide from life cycle air emissions.
Another is a chicken farm near Altura owned by Viking Co. The firm is placing a wood chip-fired forced air furnace on a two-story broiler chicken facility to completely displace the barn’s liquid propane consumption. The major goals are significant cost savings using locally sourced wood chips, improved bird health, and humane treatment of the birds by means of a higher oxygen and lower humidity environment.
The third project are greenhouses on Whitewater Gardens Farm, in Altura, near Rochester. They are installing biomass heating to displace propane use in their greenhouses. The farm installed ground source heat pumps in 2010 and now will be using wood energy to further bring the greenhouses temperatures up during the winter months. The farm uses more than 10,000 gallons of propane per year. They estimate 45 cords of wood will be needed to replace this fuel, leading to potential savings of up to $8,000 a year.
"The ag department wanted to find out how much heat we get from these but they also wanted to know about emissions and gauge that at the same time," Jones said. "They have estimates on how much money they will save but they are also hoping to remove carbon dioxide (from the atmosphere.)"
He said the wood burning systems, whether using whole logs, wood pellets, or chips, are similar to the wood burning home-heating systems seen locally, with a small wood burning stove outside the house heating water that is then pumped through the home.
"By stepping up to a larger scale like a chicken barn, it moves it into a different emissions category."
The ag department is excited about the chicken barn heating system because the wood boiler provides much drier heat than the previous propane heater. "There might be health benefits for the chickens," Jones said.
Jones said he — and students when they return this fall — will first look at Environmental Protection Agency protocol on testing the emissions. "This winter we'll be loading the testing equipment up and going out to these sites to measure them."
He said an ag department grant for $138,000 will buy needed equipment, pay for travel and allow him to hire at least a couple of graduate students to help. "They may be able to use this toward their thesis. So it's cheap labor and it helps them out, too," Jones said.