January 21, 2006
Corn Stoves For Home Heat Are Hot On US Market

All of the corn stove makers are sold out with long waiting times and sales volumes have more than doubled in the last year to about 150,000 stoves a year according to one report. Why the big demand for corn heating? Corn is a much cheaper source of heat than wood, natural gas, oil, or propane.

Why all the sudden hullabaloo? Simple nothing costs less to burn at this point than corn, which sells for about $2 per bushel. According to figures provided by Even Temp, maker of the St. Croix line of stoves, the cost per therm for 100,000 British thermal units is 42 cents. The same per therm cost for natural gas is $1.40 and $2.60 for propane (LP). Wood is 64 cents per therm.

And Dennis Buffington, a professor of engineering at Penn State University, provided these figures in a recent Wall Street Journal story about corn stoves: For 1 million BTUs of heat, it takes $16.47 in natural gas, $33.80 in propane and a mere $8.75 for corn.

Check out Buffington's neat web site on corn as a heat energy source.

Corn heat costs about the same as coal heat but with far less pollution. (same article here)

It would cost about $130 worth of corn to heat a 2,000-square-foot home in Colorado for a month during the winter with a corn-burning stove, according to figures provided by Dennis Buffington, a professor at Penn State University who has studied corn-burning stoves for seven years.

In comparison, it would cost about $125 a month using a coal stove and $247 for natural gas.

Corn stove sales might rise by a factor of 5 from 2004 to 2006.

About 65,000 corn stoves were sold domestically last year, estimated Mike Haefner, president of Minnesota-based American Energy Systems. He expects a jump to about 150,000 this year, and at least 350,000 in 2006. Even with a retail price of $1,600 to $3,000, the stoves often pay for themselves within a year or two.

Unless you have a really cheap source of wood (e.g. your own forest) corn seems a better choice. Wood pellets are in short supply and wood pellet prices have more than doubled.

Retailers, meanwhile, have been struggling to find any pellets for sale. But those that have a supply should ration their sale to no more than 10, 50 or 40-pound bags per customer, the CPB is recommending. The cost per bag has risen from $3 to between $7 and $10.

The demand for pellet stoves increased dramatically following the severe price increases forecast this winter for natural gas, heating oil and propane.

You can burn corn in some wood stoves. But corn leaves behind a sugary residue which is difficult to clean from wood stoves.

When corn is burned it leaves behind a substance from the sugars it contains that when cooled is very hard and stays in the burner. These clinkers, as they are called, must be regularly cleaned out of the stove. Some special corn stoves are designed to automatically clear clinkers, Koval said.

Shelled corn contains about 7000 Btu (British thermal units) per pound at 15 percent moisture, or about 392,000 Btu per 56-pound bushel. That rating is about the same for wood pellets.

Actually, Dennis Buffington says corn has 6,800 BTUs per pound and wood 8,200 BTUs per lb. So for heating wood is worth about 20% more per pound than corn.

There are hassles to operating a corn burning stove.

Yet owning one of these stoves is not like owning a gas furnace, Doubek said. "You've got to be a handy person to own a pellet stove."

The fire pot must be emptied daily, the ash tray about once a week. There's dealing with the 40-pound bags of pellets or corn to keep the fuel bin full, and the stove requires an annual disassembly and cleaning of the heat exchanger, combustion fan, and other parts exposed to sooty smoke.

With better designs that hassle factor looks reducible. Big feeder bins could reduce the frequency of refueling to once a seaon. Also, the waste ought to automatically get moved into a fairly large sized container that could get taken out a lot less often.

Mary-Sue Halliburton, in an excellent survey of corn stoves, points out that if corn stoves were upgraded to do co-generation of electricity they could power their own fans and also run household appliances. I agree with her that there's still plenty of room for innovation to make corn stoves better values.

How about making a corn hot water heater also produce steam for a small electric turbine? Corn hot water heaters already exist. Here's a corn boiler water heater that comes with a 14 bushel storage bin to reduce the frequency of reloads.

Local costs of corn vary quite a bit by region but for some corn is incredibly cheap.

"It's beautiful," exclaims Mr. Hallman, a retired mailman. He went on the warpath in 2000, turning off his gas furnace after paying a $400 monthly heating bill. After that, he struggled to heat his house with a wood stove. "I had to bring in wheelbarrows full (wood), clean out ashes, soot and creosote," he recalls. "Those days are over. This burns absolutely clean."

Corn warmth also comes cheap. Mr. Hallman pays an area farmer $1.60 a bushel to fill the back of his pickup truck with dried kernel corn. He unloads it into a plywood bin in his garage. Every morning he pours a couple of pails into a hopper on top of his furnace, which burns a little less than a bushel a day. He figures his new monthly heating bill will be less than $60.

To put that $1.60 per bushel in perspective consider that 1 gallon of #2 fuel oil has about the same amount of heat as 22 lb of corn. But there are 56 lbs in a bushel of corn. 56/22 is equivalent to 2.55 gallons of fuel oil per bushel. Of course, the fuel oil is going to cost you over $2 per gallon and possibly a lot more (as of this writing oil prices are headed up near $70 per barrel). So the oil equivalent is probably $5 or $6 or about 3 or 4 times more expensive. If you can get corn for $1.60 per bushel you are getting a great heat energy deal.

Seeing how cheap corn is as a heating source I've been wondering why utilities aren't trying to use it to generate electricity. So I did some poking around and came up with one utility that is attempting to use corn stalks and other biomass to generate electricity. Cedar Falls Utilities of Iowa is experimenting with corn stalks and other biomass to run an old coal electric generator.

CEDAR FALLS, Iowa -- Chunks of coal lay on the fringes of a 450-ton mountain of cubed biomass -- a symbol of transition as this eastern Iowa city enters a new age of electricity.

The cell phone-sized cubes -- comprised of corn stalks, switchgrass and oat hulls -- are crammed into a pole building and will be burned next month to show whether biomass can partially replace coal as a source for Cedar Falls' power.

If successful, Cedar Falls Utilities plans to convert one of its two coal-fired generators into a biomass facility, providing nearly a quarter of the city's electricity through environment-friendly means.

They are experimenting with a 16 megawatt steam turbine which they burn coal in for peak loads.

CFU has burned small quantities of biomass in recent months, said CFU Engineering Projects Manager David Rusley. "We needed to run a more extended test burn to move the project forward," he said. "The difficulty has been finding sufficient quantity of biomass in a form we can use in our boiler. After looking at many alternatives, we decided to manufacture the fuel we need."

Ultimately, the Utility's goal is to fuel one of its local generating units exclusively with biomass. Known as Streeter No. 6, the unit is a 16 megawatt (MW) steam turbine, powered by a boiler that typically burns stoker coal (small chunks of coal up to 1.25" in diameter).

"If we can convert Streeter No. 6 to biomass, nearly a quarter of the electric load in Cedar Falls could be met with biofuels grown in Iowa," said CFU General Manager Jim Krieg.

CFU is motivated to experiment with this old coal burner because new emissions regulations require an expensive upgrade if they are to continue burning coal and that upgrade is not cost effective. CFU thinks they can burn corn cob pellets with no major changes and eliminate the need for coal emissions reduction equipment.

CFU found it could burn the corn cob pellets without any major changes, only adjusting the oxygen composition in the stoker.

The biomass testing not only serves as a way to further CFU's endeavors into renewable fuels, but it could give Unit 6 new life. Federal emission standards will require $1.6 million in environmental upgrades.

"We can't justify that investment if we are only using the unit a few days each year to burn coal," said CFU General Manager Jim Krieg. "If we can burn a biomass fuel, we'd like to turn it into a base load unit that operates continuously."

I commend the Cedar Falls Utilities board of directors for their attitude about costs.

"The board's goal is to get to 10 percent renewable energy in Cedar Falls, but they want to do it without raising costs to customers," Zeman said.

Alliant Energy looks like it might also try to generate electricity from biomass.

The test comes as more utilities are exploring fossil fuel alternatives. Alliant Energy is also a partner with Chariton Valley Resource Conservation and Development and the U.S. Department of Energy on a biomass project in Chillicothe, near Ottumwa.

Corn for heat sure looks like a comer on the energy scene. While the US government has served Archer Daniels Midlands and the farm lobby by funding dubious corn ethanol production a far more cost effective use of corn for heating is taking off with little government intervention. I suspect there's a lesson in that.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2006 January 21 08:03 PM  Energy Biomass

Hugh Angell said at January 21, 2006 8:54 PM:

I'm all in favor of utilizing any and every form of energy anyone wants to use. However the
cost of fuel is but one factor in deciding what any individual might consider. As you point
out burning corn leaves a lot of residual combustion by products. Unless you are prepared
to do the daily and annual maintenance yourself the fuel cost is only part of the equation.

I can burn natural gas in a furnace and, other than perhaps a new thermocouple or, more
commonly today, a new spark or hot surface igniter every few years, it will run with no
servicing at all for 5, 10 or more years. An important consideration when a service call
for any reason will cost you over $50 just to have a technician walk through your door.

For this reason labor intensive fuels are not going to be popular even if the fuel cost is
low. Only the 'do it yourself' type personality is going to take the time and trouble to
use these type of heating appliances. People could save money by using a washboard and a
clothesline to do their laundry but not many today are going to go to the trouble.

If corn or any other fuel is to be a major source of energy it has to be delivered and for
dirty fuels that means it has to converted into electricity. That being the case it is hard
to fathom anything beyond nuclear and coal for this purpose. Solar hot water heating for
those with the space and proper climate is a useful and even economic idea. Photo voltaic
electricity production is feasible for a few today and may become economical for even more
in the future but we aren't going to escape the pipeline and electrical grid anytime soon
for everyone else.

Still for every household who cares to and is able, having an alternative energy source is
not a bad idea. We are walking blindly into an energy trap and those who depend on the
utility grid for their energy may have a rude awakening. Sh*t happens and the world seems
to be close to a case of global diarrhea!

Invisible Scientist said at January 21, 2006 9:24 PM:

If some corn and cheap vegetables can be used for heat and electric power, then there will be a lot more coal left for conversion to liquid and gas fuels. This is definitely good news. Additionally, I am sure that bioengineering can one day make corn and similar plants grow much faster and cheaper. Biotechnology will certainly be used to make a lot more fuels in the future.

joma said at January 21, 2006 9:40 PM:

I wonder what corn would cost without subsidies? Would anyone still grow it?

Randall Parker said at January 21, 2006 9:53 PM:


The purpose of US government corn subsidies is to cause corn growers to make more money per bushel. Take away any subsidies and the prices would probably fall, not rise.

Prices will fall in any case because agricultural technologies keep raising crop yields and farm productivity.

Invisible Scientist said at January 21, 2006 11:33 PM:

But what is the cost (per bushel) of artificial fertilizers that are used for growing corn? What I didn't know until recently was the frightful fact that artificial fertilizers are made from petroleum, and in the case when there is an oil embargo against the United States, there may not be enough petroleum left for artificiall fertilizers and also for fuel used by agricultural vehicles and machines. Right now only 40 % of the US oil consumption is from domestic oil reserves, and in case of emergency, the military will probably buy what is left for emergency purposes. I wonder how much the US agriculture would suffer in case there is an oil embargo. Are there any alternative ways of making artificial fertilizers without oil?

detribe said at January 22, 2006 12:58 AM:

Petroleum used for fertlisers is about 2.8% of total liqid energy used and it is unlikely fertiliser availability would be an issue. Costs will rise though and this will change demand.

Huffield Scholar said at January 22, 2006 6:38 AM:

You can make nitrogen based fertilizers using nuclear power. All you need is a source of electricity to make hydrogen from water. It then takes a lot of energy to combine this hydrogen gas with nitrogen gas in the air we breathe to make ammonia - the precursor to all nitrogen fertilizers currently manufactured from natural gas! You want food security, you better lobby your government to get more plants up and running!

odograph said at January 22, 2006 6:57 AM:

Randall, the subsidy equation has to be more complicated than that. Give me a high enough subsidy, and I'll (become a farmer and then) give my corn away!

Subsidy + farm price = farm income

My worry, perhasp in line with Joma's, is that there could be come middle ground of subsidy values which basically make the government co-purchasers (with consumers) of the corn product. If the subsidy is covering costs of production, and subsidy was lost, consumer prices would have to rise or farmers would stop growing corn.

.... don't we hear about increasing fuel and fertiliser costs increasing the costs of production?

odograph said at January 22, 2006 7:02 AM:

BTW, won't switchgrass pellets come on-line before these stoves get really mainstream?

(my understanding is that corn-compatible pellet stoves are also, by their nature, switchgrass compatible)

Randall Parker said at January 22, 2006 8:33 AM:

Regarding the corn subsidy: We need two facts:

1) Number of bushels of US corn crops per year. Okay, here's US corn crop from 2004:

In 2004 U.S. farmers produced 11.8 billion bushels of corn and 3.14 billion bushels of soybeans. Both were U.S. production records. The national corn yield was estimated at 160.4 bushels per acre and soybean yield at 42.5 bushels an acre.

2) Total corn subsidies in dollars.

Divide them and we'll have subsidy per bushel. I doubt that the subsidy is all that much. Total subsidies across all crop types were around $25 billion to $30 billion per year a few years ago. Even if the subsidy for corn was 50 cents a bushel that'd still leave corn way cheaper than natural gas or oil for heating.

How widely could corn get used for space heating? Imagine a person used 100 bushels to heat a house. That'd be a bushel a day for 3 months. So that seems ballpark at least. Then the 11 billion bushels would heat 110 million homes. Though obviously there'd be no corn left for other purposes. So could corn production be doubled in the United States?

Regarding fertilizers: We need to know how much ammonia fertilizer is used per acre of corn and how much that costs given current high natural gas prices. How much has the cost of ammonia gone up in the last few years?

Also, we need to know whether coal could be used to make ammonia fertilizer. I recall running across a report of a company currently building a coal ammonia fertilizer plant, maybe in Illinois.

Also, can genetic engineering of corn reduce the need for ammonia fertilizer? Suppose genes for nitrogen fixation were transferred from soy. Would that eliminate the need for the ammonia fertilizer? How much would that reduce yields due to sun energy getting converted to nitrogen fixation?

My guess is we can eliminate the need for ammonia fertilizer with some genetic engineering and that this'll happen in 5 to 10 years time. Monsanto already has genetically enhanced corn that fixes nitrogen:

Nearby are 121 more growth chambers, each housing different bioengineered seed projects, ranging from nitrogen-absorbing corn to soybeans modified to produce heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids. Each room has its own air circulation system and can replicate the temperature and humidity of almost any place on earth. St. Louis-based Monsanto's researchers may grow 10,000 plants to find one with the right genes in the right place. From the chambers, plants go to one of the 26 greenhouses on the roof. The electricity bill for the building runs $4 million a year. "We operate this process as a single machine, from lab to field," says Tim Conner, one of Monsanto's food technologists.

Oh, and Monsanto is making very big profits in genetic engineered crop seeds. Read the whole article and see. They have the money to bring nitrogen-fixing grain crops to market. So I do not see energy cost of fertilizer as an obstacle to biomass energy.

Randall Parker said at January 22, 2006 9:18 AM:

The Environmental Working Group has a handy farm subsidy database. According to the Environmental Working Group in 2004 corn farmers received $4.5 billion in subsidies.

Okay, $4.5 billion in subsidies divided by 11.8 billion bushels equals 38 cents a bushel. So my 50 cents a bushel was close but an overestimate. Add 38 cents to the market price of corn and corn would still be way way cheaper than natural gas or oil for heating.

To the extent that corn displaces coal or reduces future growth in coal demand it reduces mercury, sulfur, and other pollution.

I do not believe an end to corn subsidies would increase corn prices by much. But a big shift of heating toward corn certainly would. However, the shift would only drive up prices to the extent that corn remained sufficiently cheaper than its competitors. Wood and coal are its current price competitors.

odograph said at January 22, 2006 1:19 PM:

My worries about subsidies are general, and sticking to the specific - I feel pretty good about corn stoves. It strikes a little bit at my Lutheran nature to burn food ... but if obesity is more of a problem than starvation these days, that might not be so bad either.

I do wish we'd strip some subsidies (while continuing research) just so that we could be assured that the most efficient energy paths are winning. I mean, if we ever got to the point where farmers were still being funded on the assumption of "low demand" while at the same time corn heating and ethanol production were greatly expanding demand, that would be kind of sad.

Bob Badour said at January 22, 2006 1:54 PM:

Hmmmmm.... 160 bushels/acre, eh? I wonder whether I could get that much here in PEI? I have an acre to spare.

jimcrack said at January 23, 2006 2:11 PM:

A lot of discussion about corn, but why not Miscanthus Giganticus (Elephant Grass)?

A cousin to sugar cane, miscan. grows 10 ft high, does not need fertilizer (unlike corn), and grows on marginal land which must be dumped with fertilizer to grow our current corn glut. My reading is that dieback is not an issue with misc. unlike corn, which gives it some utility as a windbreak against snow (which was explored with switchgrass: properly controlled snow accumulation on open plains helps conserve water, accumulates airborne nitrogen in the snow, and the stalks help stop soil erosion by wind). It is a perrenial that does not have to be replanted, and will not spread like kudzu.

We should be hearing more about misc and other novel crops in the role of soil recovery. Lands in Colorado and WV lain waste by stripmining would be ideal places to start. This will create many jobs and some economic self-sufficiency in those communities. There is some concern about the high ash content of misc: perhaps forced air convection in home furnaces will stop clinker buildup.

AS FOR COAL: If you want your blood to boil, really boil, check out the Spector-Byrd hearings on C-SPAN on the Sago mine disaster. You must conclude that proper mine inspection, and some diligence by Washington to something other than the coal industry would have prevented 11 deaths, a worse talley than the last 2 years combined. 208 violations! China now utilizes cheap wireless communications for its mines, and the BOM had not a clue about mandating that here!

I would tell every green economy group to promote corn heat and miscanthus in the Sago mine comunity first.

odograph said at January 23, 2006 2:23 PM:

Jimcrack, I have hopes for the grasses. The problems have apparently (I'm not an expert) been in the burner itself forming "clinkers." The page below links to some PDF files (bottom right corner) that talk about an improved burner for corn and switchgrass. One thing I picked up from those is that clinkers relate to minerals in the pellets, and different crops (grasses?) apparently have different mineral levels.


Of course, it would be nice to have a stove that burned whatever pellet you wanted ... like scraps from the tree trimmers ... but I don't think we'll be there for a while.

joma said at January 23, 2006 2:48 PM:

"Add 38 cents to the market price of corn and corn would still be way way cheaper than natural gas or oil for heating."

Would all the other uses of field corn also pay an extra $.38? Could corn compete with imports at that price?

Don't we already have problems with environmental degradation - eutrophication of surface waters, "blue babies" and such - due to corn growing? Isn't this a problem rather than an energy solution?

Randall Parker said at January 23, 2006 4:51 PM:


People who make favorable comparisons for Chinese coal mines over American mines are ignorant or deceptive. China loses thousands in coal mine accidents every year.

Chinese pits have an appalling safety record, with more than 5,600 workers losing their lives in accidents last year.


And independent analysts believe the yearly death toll may be far higher than the official figures.

The bigger death toll in both China's and the US's case is not from the mines. It is from breathing the polluted air, getting mercury in our food, and other ways that coal pollutes our bodies.

I want to move away from fossil fuels because I want to live a long time.

Randall Parker said at January 23, 2006 4:54 PM:


I'm not thrilled with biomass for energy precisely because of the environmental impact. However, it is far from clear to me that coal is better than biomass. Maybe some types of biomass are better on net for environmental impacts.

One has to choose between lesser evils. What do you prefer?

As for water pollution from agriculture: We could cut the need for fertilizer and insecticides with genetic engineering. Monsanto is already doing this and is on course to do a great deal more of this.

John Powers said at January 24, 2006 8:29 PM:

Randall Parker,

Corn Subsidies are vastly overrated.

I can show you the checks I have recieved over the last 10 years for the Corn I farm. They are nowhere near 38 cents a bushel. You are figuring all the nitwits in Washington DC and at every extension office in every county in the United States as part of the subsidy. It isn't. That is overhead, and it is useless. I have to pay a lawyer to fill out these assine forms, and the USDA has to pay a lawyer to write them, and a team of Egyptologists to interpret the results.

If there is .38 a bushel out there, I would gladly take it, but there isn't.


jimcrack said at January 25, 2006 1:03 PM:


I was in no way endorsing the Chinese coal industry by criticising the BOM. Why is it that the US, despite our wealth and efficiencies in coal mining, cannot make an investment in what is the equivalent to cell phone technology for coal miners, except with extreme pressure toward lobbyists and government agencies (or why is it South Korea leads the world in high speed internet, and the US is something like 29th?)

Anyway, your endorsement of ammonia fertizers needs correction. "The New Scientist" now reports that nitrogen compound emissions are a growing problem, perhaps bigger than greenhouse gas emissions. Nitrates cause acid rain and eutrophication, which destroy plant life and fisheries. This and the fact that nitrates only release soil nutrients that are already there (and do not add them back to the soil) means that the corn industry bears the seeds of its own destruction. And add the fact that fertilizer use in the US is past the point of diminishing returns and this is the picture that emerges:

US farming is concentrating in fewer and fewer hands, who are more adroit at playing for farm subsidies. They have few incentives to find remedies to environmental problems. But if they could create an OPEC in biofuels, they might.

Randall Parker said at January 25, 2006 4:33 PM:


What I endorse is genetic engineering to make corn and other crops do their own nitrogen fixing.

Crops using soil nutrients: Which particular minerals are getting depleted? Any idea?

John Powers,

I'm not surprised to hear that administrative costs take a lot of the subsidy money. I would be very interested to know what percentage of the money in subsidy programs makes it to farms. I also would like to know what farmers spend per year total in time to fill out forms and what they spend on lawyers.

But your comment makes my larger point: Subsidies are not driving up the cost of corn by much. Take away subsidies and the price of corn would not change that much up or down. So current corn prices are a decent measure of the cost of using corn for heating.

odograph said at January 26, 2006 7:52 AM:

I don't suppose anyone here is going to know the answer but WRT nitrogen fixing, why not just burn beans?

I don't have any dry beans in the house, but if you do, compare to the dry weight calorie count for dry corn (pop-corn). Food calories are really measured by burning (in a bomb calorimeter) anyway.

I'd suspect that pound-for-pound beans and corn have a similar energy value.

odograph said at January 26, 2006 7:53 AM:

Peas are nitrogen fixers too, right? Is the problem just a lack of a bean/pea lobby?

Randall Parker said at January 26, 2006 4:41 PM:


The problem is how much beans can farmers grow per acre? How much energy does that represent? What does it cost? Beans cost more than corn. My guess is they can't grow as much beans per acre as corn. But you could probably do some googling to find out.

Corn farmers can grow 160 bushels per acre and get 392,000 btus per bushel. So corn produces 62.7 million btus per acre. What do other crops produce in btus per acre? I'm guessing most are much lower.

The United States uses about 23,000,000 million cubic feet of natural gas per year. Well, 1 cubic foot of natural gas has 1031 Btu of energy.

The acre of corn's 62.7 million btus divided by 1031 btu per 1 cu foot natural gas yields the equivalent of 60834 cubic feet of natural gas.

So how many acres of corn would be needed to produce as much energy as we get from natural gas per year? 23,000,000 million divided by 60,834. That's 378 million acres. At 160 bushels per acre that's 60.4 billion bushels. If memory serves US corn farmers currently grow between 11 and 12 billion bushels per year. So 5 times more corn would have to be put under cultivation for corn to replace natural gas.

Randall Parker said at January 26, 2006 4:48 PM:

One other point about growing corn for energy: Additional acreage brought into production would have lower yields per acre than existing acreage. The lousier soil and lousier weather areas are less likely to have corn grown on them. The price of corn would have to rise quite a bit to bring that much acreage into production. I wonder by how much.

Anyone care to check my calculations above to see if I made any mistakes?

jimcrack said at January 27, 2006 8:32 AM:


What soil nutrients are being depleted, by corn et al? The most important one is phosphorus. This is not known as the stuff of war, but it is of some conflict. The USSR has very poor podzolic soil, and when they took over Estonia, they mined the phosphates there. Also, before nitrogen was turned into Urea, Chile exported large amounts of phosphates (from the Atacama Desert, which was seized from Bolivia in the 1800's, so now the Bolivians are very sensitive about exporting their resources through Chile). Phosphates also came through the Spanish Sahara, a former colony with its own guerrilla and international struggles. This can be restored with manure, or sludge pellets, which are very unpopular in many communities.

Loss of other minerals such as copper, magnesium and iron are less urgent. But organic farmers argue that since agrobusiness neglects land management, conventional produce is intrinsically poorer in nutrients.

Paul Dietz said at January 27, 2006 9:24 AM:

the frightful fact that artificial fertilizers are made from petroleum

The most frightening thing about this 'fact' is that it isn't true.

Phosphate and potassium fertilizers are made from mined minerals. The most energy intensive fertilizer, nitrogen fertilizer, is mostly made with energy input from natural gas, not petroleum. At best, one might claim that sulfur reclaimed from sour petroleum is part of the source of sulfuric acid used to process phosphate ores, but that acid can also be obtained from sulfur extracted from gasified coal; nitric acid is also used in some places (see previous).

Any hydrogen source can be used to make ammonia. Hydrogen from gasified biomass, for example. I bet you could fertilize a corn field entirely with ammonia produced by gasifying the corn stover.

odograph said at January 27, 2006 9:30 AM:

I woke up to price a little later and did a quick, and probably not that complete, web search. It looked like "field peas" might be within spitting difference on price ... I'll leave it to someone with a lab and better information on bulk prices to scope out $/btu

odograph said at January 27, 2006 9:33 AM:

(classic odograph multi-post)

BTW, I still think stove design is the problem/opportunity. We'd get a different result if we were able to pelletize the whold corn/pea/bean plant and burn that. As I understand it, we are burning de-shelled corn kernels because they pass the mineral issue.

Randall Parker said at January 27, 2006 6:30 PM:

Paul Dietz,

Aren't all the mined minerals used in fertilizers pretty cheap? My guess is if corn fields became depleted of some mineral then then whatever mineral it might be could be replaced rather cheaply.

As for ammonia fertilizer: Genetic engineering is going to solve that problem and probably within 5 years at the rate Monsanto is cranking out new genetically engineered crop plant strains.

BTW, It is my understanding that domestic ammonia fertilizer production has been scaled back and a lot of the production has been shifted toward the Middle East where natural gas is about an order of magnitude cheaper.

What I'd like to know: How much natural gas is used to make the ammonia fertilizer used on an acre of a corn field?

What I'd also like to know: How much will yields drop when corn is genetically engineered to do its own nitrogen fixing? In other words, how much of the energy that falls on a corn plant will get diverted toward nitrogen fixing?

Paul Dietz said at January 27, 2006 6:52 PM:

Aren't all the mined minerals used in fertilizers pretty cheap?

Yes, although phosphate may become more expensive at some point in the future, since high grade phosphate deposits are finite (ultimately it will be extracte at about .1% from average crustal rock). Potassium is available in essentially unlimited amounts from seawater.

Engineer-Poet said at January 28, 2006 9:23 PM:

Mr. Dietz:  Yes, you can fertilize a crop of corn with the nitrogen made from the corn stover.  You could also cultivate it with F-T diesel made from the gasification process, and have some left over.  (I covered this two months ago.)

Bob Badour said at January 30, 2006 4:22 PM:

While it's not particularly relevant, I like how the tyler blog turned the city where I used to live into a small farming community. lol

Brenda Buiskool said at February 3, 2006 9:58 AM:

I hardly think you have had much experience with a corn stove or atleast a good one. We have burned wood and now corn. THERE IS NO COMPARISON!
1 CLeaner..coming in the house and leaving in it's ash form
2 quicker cleaning time even if it is every 5-7 days.
3 My gas usage in January was comparable to June of 05 in quantity.
4. If a person is set up correctly for storage for the heating season it really is a bit of a NO BRAINER. ie; gravity feed bin or gravity wagon,the latter being the most sensible as you can shop around with individual farmers and go get your own or have a neighbor haul for the heating season
5 The ash can be spread via help of the wind so you vitually do not even know it is there and it helps sweeten the soil in the process. Ah! ha! recyclable,not possible with fossil fuel!
6Cleaning time from shut down to restart with wood pellets can be 20-30 minutes total.
\I am not a dealer but I do know this is a very viable source. As we can heat for the season with the corn from 1-1/2 acre of corn. Now! Do the ecconomics !The US dollar stays in US,@ the farmer has a market for product.3Less polution to air as this is a better way to burn environmentally a fuel as a heat source.
Satisfied corn heating consumer( incase you did not get it before)

Julie Nicoletti said at October 30, 2007 12:23 PM:

Who can I contact to get on the waiting list for these stoves? I am opening an Eco Friendly Store in the Mid Western US and I would like to have one for my store and to advertise and buy from wholesaler.

kelly said at December 9, 2007 5:50 PM:

how do you find corn to buy so you can heat with it?? Connecticut

James Bowery said at June 10, 2008 1:02 AM:

How much could you afford to pay for corn/bushel at current heating oil prices?

= 9.6135 $/bushel

Despite lowered planting of corn and flooding of what corn was planted, corn's record high price today is still only $6.73 a bushel.

Ah, for the good old days of 2006!

Randall Parker said at June 10, 2008 6:14 PM:


Yes, 2.55 gallons per bushel means that in 2008 corn is now a far more expensive way to heat your house than heating oil. This, in spite of the fact that heating oil has about doubled.

Yes, 2006 certainly was the good old days.

I'm guessing we are going to see a lot fewer trees as a lot of people shift toward burning wood for heat. The other alternative is a ground sink heat pump. But the initial investment will seem too much for many people.

James Bowery said at August 2, 2008 4:16 PM:

Wait -- one of us has bad math here.

My intent was to show how much you could afford to pay for corn given current heating oil prices. Now, I'm not advocating corn furnaces, perhaps except those living in the breadbasket, but it appears to me to make economic sense to convert oil furnaces to corn furnaces until the price of corn is near $9/bushel.

Note: I'm not doing this myself despite having recently moved to Iowa, where the local ethanol plant is paying about $5.50/bushel at present. The reason is that I don't believe corn is sustainable due to a variety of problems -- not the least of which is ecologically problematic nitrogen run-off. From an energy standpoint, the advantage of being here is the locality of biomass.

James Bowery said at August 3, 2008 5:23 PM:

I just got back from a visit with a corn furnace guy here in Iowa who told me that, yes, corn is still about half the heating cost of fuel oil but that since wood pellets haven't gone up as fast as corn or oil he's focusing on dual fuel furnaces -- particularly since wood pellets are cleaner burning than corn.

Interestingly when I asked him about the problem of nitrogen w/re switchgrass he said it is overblown -- that there isn't nearly as much nitrogen fertilizer required for switchgrass as for corn and that the swithgrass pellets are in much higher demand than wood pellets because of their superior burning qualities.

The biggest problem seems to be the number of years it takes to get a stand of switchgrass to harvestable state.

There was another "ditch weed" he mentioned that burns as well as switchgrass and can be harvested the first year but it requires very moist soil (hence the "ditch" qualifier). I don't recall the name just now but I'll be looking for it.

A lot of people "on fixed income" are having their utilities shut off in Iowa already.

When I asked him about corn cobs and corn stalks he said that companies like POET have been having trouble with their harvesters -- not to mention that a lot of farmers are so panicked by the corn situation this year that they are focused perhaps too narrowly.

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