A machine that can compact corncobs, switchgrass and other biomass so four times as much material can fit in the same amount of space has been built by researchers at the University of Missouri’s Bradford Research and Extension Center and a local Columbia, MO, company.

“We're able to repackage it into a size that's usable rather than bulk material,” says Jesse VanEngelenhoven, research director at Ecologic Tech.

There are two major advantages to compacting biomass: lower transportation costs for hauling the same amount of material and lower emissions of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide.

Tim Reinbott, the farm's superintendent, says burning biomass recycles carbon into the atmosphere; burning fossil fuels adds carbon. The researchers are testing to see how different materials compact in the “tabletizer,” including wood and miscanthus grass.

“We'll have a way of converting our grasses and waste products into something usable,” Reinbott says. “What we're hoping to start with is something that can be used on the farm itself.”

In 2007, Ecologic Tech received a grant for about $100,000 from USDA to design a machine that compacts biomass. In 2009, it received a second grant for an additional $100,000 from the U.S. Department of Energy to build the machine.

Ecologic Tech is a local company that former University of Missouri civil engineer Henry Liu started when he retired in 2000. Liu died in a car crash last December.

VanEngelenhoven says the tabletizer can produce the same amount of biomass tablets using half the energy of other machines on the market. The machine uses a hydraulic system to push a piston into a mold to compress the biomass.

The compactor might provide farmers with additional income if they sell their scraps and waste material.

“Some of these products are something that has no use already,” Reinbott says. “This gives us some value to something that normally doesn't have value.”

Ecologic Tech has applied for additional federal energy funds to refine the design and build a machine for commercial use that could produce two to three tons of biomass tablets per hour, compared with the one-tenth ton per hour the current machine produces.