DES MOINES, Iowa – Corn could be fueling more than just cars.
A Pocahontas company is developing a corn-fueled grain dryer that farmers could use by next year to prevent crop decay.
S.A.R. Biomass Energy Systems has already developed home and office furnaces fueled by burning corn, and recently finished a second trial-run of a grain dryer prototype.
Theron Andersen, co-owner of S.A.R., said he and his father-in-law Randy Severson, 49, started testing corn's fuel-burning potential about six years ago as a way to save money on the family farm.
"Once we got going and had enough interest [we] decided to get the company going," the 27-year-old Theron said.
Their efforts resulted in home and office furnace models that provide heating exclusively from burning corn. Since the furnaces went on the market two years ago, they've sold about 800 units through 35 dealers in 11 states.
Jason Raveling, another S.A.R. co-owner, said they took the furnace idea and "enlarged it to a larger scale" in creating the grain dryer.
High moisture levels can make corn rot, which is why farmers use grain dryers to decrease moisture content and ensure its storage longevity.
During much trial and error, they've developed a model that can be used even at low temperatures and run for 12 hours without oversight, Raveling said.
"Quite a few farmers are intrigued of the fact that they can grow their own fuel, and not have to rely on a foreign source," said Raveling, 48.
If it's truly cost-effective, then farmers and grain elevator businesses would likely opt for it, according to Darin Stutler, vice president of sales at Des Moines-based Bratney Companies.
"It has to do with the price of fuel and corn. It depends on which one costs less," said Stutler, whose clientele for drying and equipment services range from small Iowa farms to Starbucks.
Theron estimates that drying 5,500 bushels of corn — a typical amount a farmer dries at one time — would cost $250 using corn as fuel compared to $780 using propane.
Another plus to burning corn, Raveling said, is it's more favorable for the atmosphere than gas because it doesn't release extra carbons.
"You see no smoke, no exhaust, so it's a clean burn," he said.
They've created a cycle in the process — taking the ash byproduct and using it as fertilizer for new crops.
The grain dryer prototype must undergo some design refinements and certifying procedures, but S.A.R. expects its 11 employees will be manufacturing them widely by the middle of 2007. They have a patent pending, Theron said.
"Now we know what we need to change," he said. "You got to take steps forward. But sometimes you end up taking two steps back in order to get forward. It's an uphill battle."