In a new study, researchers at the University of Iowa report that burning oat hulls had
considerable benefits to the environment as well as to human health. The study examined
the practices at the UI Power Plant, where technicians have burned a mix of oat hulls
and coal for more than a decade. File photo by Clarity Guerra.
(September 26, 2015) Biomass burning sometimes gets a bad rap. That’s because many associate the burning of living and dead vegetation with human-caused fires and clearing of land that release unhealthy particles and gases that spur global warming.
But what if you burned biomass in a controlled environment, such as in a power plant, that at least partially replaces using a fossil fuel? Would there be demonstrable environmental and health benefits?
In a new study, researchers at the University of Iowa report that burning oat hulls had considerable benefits to the environment as well as to human health. The study examined the practices at the UI Power Plant, where technicians have burned a mix of oat hulls and coal for more than a decade. The researchers found a 50-50 oat hulls-coal mix, when compared to burning only coal, reduced fossil carbon-dioxide emissions by 40 percent and significantly reduced the release of particulate matter, hazardous substances, and heavy metals.
“Our general conclusion is that when optimized, co firing (burning biomass with coal) presents a good option for energy production, without incurring the negative environmental effects that comes with burning fossil fuels alone, like fossil carbon dioxide emissions and harmful particulate matter,” says Betsy Stone, assistant professor of chemistry at the UI and corresponding author on the study, published in the journal Fuel.
It may seem logical that controlled burning any type of biomass—from grasses to wood chips—would be good for the environment. After all, shouldn’t any of these sources be more preferable than coal, known for its deleterious environmental and public-health effects? Not necessarily, as biomass burning requires specialized equipment, may not burn as efficiently as fossil fuels, and supplies may be limited, among other factors. In other words, the benefits may not outweigh the costs.