University of Iowa turns to biomass grass to fuel its dreams of a coal-free future

The University of Iowa expects to be coal-free by 2025, thanks to its innovative Biomass Fuel Project.

The university, in a joint programme with Iowa State University and the Leopold Centre for Sustainable Agriculture, is testing the efficiency of a number of biomass fuels, and working with farmers across the state to grow fuel in close proximity to the university campus.

Working with farmers who live within 50 miles of Iowa, a research team at the university is growing Miscanthus x gigantus to process for biomass fuel for use in their on-site power station.

Miscanthus x gigantus, or Mxg, is a large grass hybrid. It can grow up to 12ft in a year and has low nutritional and water use requirements, as it has great photosynethetic efficiency.

The University’s power station supplies water, steam, electricity and sewer services to the entire university campus, as well as the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics. As such, the decision by the university to lessen its dependence on fossil fuels is a significant one.

The station has previously run on oat hulls and wood chips mixed in with coal, though the group of organisations have now turned to Mxg. The Mxg plant is a perennial (a plant that lives longer than two years), and its long lifespan means it can provide a continuous source for biomass production.


Why Mxg: The plant project in numbers

  • The Mxg is speedy, growing between 8-12ft in a year
  • It has very low water and nutritional needs, making it an easy choice for mass growing
  • UoI has set targets to produce 40% of the energy it consumes using renewable sources
  • This means they’ll need a projected 22,500 tons of the Mxg biomass fuel
  • That’ll equate to 2,500 acres dedicated to growing crops as a clean energy source
  • Two pilot schemes have already taken place, with more than 300 acres planted in 2015 alone

Alongside the reduced carbon emissions from biomass, the large plot of land will also contribute to carbon sequestration (capturing and storing carbon dioxide in solid or liquid form), as well as having a number of ecological benefits including soil conservation, improving water quality and wildlife habitat.

biomass, fuel, grass, miscanthus, fuel


Why biomass?

Biomass is becoming an increasingly important fuel in the energy mix. As countries look to a low-carbon future, the need to transition away from fossil fuels and towards cleaner energy sources is taking on greater prominence.

Figures indicate that biomass releases almost 80% less carbon dioxide than coal, which makes it a brilliant coal substitute which compromises between efficiency and suitability. In 2015, the biomass industry was responsible for 4,500 UK jobs (a figure that’s on the rise) and was predicted to be able to provide 30% of the UK’s domestic gas demand.

The use of Miscanthus biomass across the University of Iowa and campus and its facilities is an important development, both for the university and for the wider community. As an institution with heavy energy demands, the university’s commitment to finding an alternative energy source which is both renewable and viable sets an impressive precedent. The fact that is also supports the local economy, utilising local farmers, makes it an admirable cause.

What else is there besides biomass? Discover more in our ultimate guide to renewable energy types.


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