That's not popcorn: Corn fuels biomass furnace that keeps the Clifton house warm
Publication Salisbury Post
Date February 11, 2007
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Page A1
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Brief Photo:71518,left,;By Shelley Smith

Salisbury Post

With the demand for oil and gas increasing each year and the threat of global warming becoming increasingly real, Ken Clifton opted to go "green" to do his part in helping out the environment

By Shelley Smith

Salisbury Post

With the demand for oil and gas increasing each year and the threat of global warming becoming increasingly real, Ken Clifton opted to go "green" to do his part in helping out the environment -- and his family.

Actually, he favors the color yellow, and therein lies the story.

An information systems professor at Catawba College, Clifton was reviewing a BTU (British Thermal Unit) chart one day, comparing which fuel produced the most heat while using the least amount of energy and noticed corn at the bottom of the list.

"I thought, 'Why do they even have corn on the same chart as propane and natural gas?' " he said.

Clifton began researching and discovered a furnace that burns corn kernels -- known, technically, as a biomass furnace -- is capable of heating an entire house for a fraction of the cost of what he paid last winter.

Plus, no "greenhouse gases" -- the kind blamed for global warming -- are released when corn burns.

Clifton did some more research and found that LMF Manufacturers made the model he was looking for. He ordered it directly from LMF and had it shipped motor freight to Benton Parts & amp; Supply Co. on South Main Street.

"Jim Benton was nice enough to let me do that because I didn't have a forklift at home to get it off the back of the 53-foot-long truck," Clifton said.

Clifton spent $3,200 on the furnace, and installation was at least the price of the furnace. This winter, Clifton expects his heating bill to be less than $500.

Last winter, his heating bill was $2,700 using a propane heater.

He says the kernels produce a higher heat temperature than the propane he used last winter.

The biomass furnace burns corn that he buys from Rowan County farmers. One recent chilly day, Clifton was burning deer feed from the gas station less than a mile away from his house.

A bushel of corn weighs 56 pounds, costs around $2 and contains about 500,000 BTUs. Clifton uses an average of seven bushels per week.

A gallon of heating oil contains about 125,000 BTUs, and a gallon of LP gas contains about 93,000 BTUs, he said.

"Gas and oil not only damage the environment but are limited in supply. Corn helps the environment by producing oxygen and can be grown year-round all over the world," he explains.

The biomass furnace also cleans up very easily. Instead of having a furnace full of popcorn, the burnt corn kernels combust into lime rocks, which, when crushed, can be used as yard fertilizer.

Clifton stores the rocks in a 3-gallon bucket. Three buckets full of lime are all that's left from 4,000 pounds of corn, which is all he'll burn this winter.

According to research done at Penn State University, burning shucked corn yields less ash residue than burning firewood or cinders from burning coal.

And you don't even get a burnt-popcorn smell. Corn heat is odorless.

Clifton also made sure his homeowner's insurance would cover the furnace.

When the corn is growing, the plants cleanse the air through photosynthesis, which makes up for the little carbon dioxide released during burning, Clifton said.

Clifton has also burned wood pellets but believes corn gives off the best heat and gives him the best results for his money. His biomass furnace also can burn cherry pits, rye grass seed, wheat pellets, sugar beet pellets and, most recently researched, grass pellets.

Grass pellets can renew themselves every 60 days; corn takes 180 days.

Clifton says this is a breakthrough for industries and residences, as well as a blessing to North American farmers. If more people join Clifton in using renewable energy, "we can not only slow down global warming, but we can help North America agriculture and save a lot of money at the same time," Clifton said.

"Thirty years from now I can look my daughter in the eye and tell her I did everything I could to slow global warming," Clifton said.

Clifton also drives a hybrid car and says he will never buy anything different again.

"It uses the energy you use to pump the gas and breaks to propel the car. I can actually hear the birds chirping outside when I sit at a stoplight because there is no noisy alternator," he says.

Clifton's wife, Kathryn, is an environmental science major from Catawba College and got a master's degree in city and regional planning at Clemson. She has supported her husband's plans throughout the process, he said.

"Some people are skeptical of new technology, but we have been overjoyed with the way this has worked. Farmers and others who work in agriculture are very supportive and eager to learn more about our furnace," Clifton said.

If you're interested in researching biomass furnaces and renewable energy, you can find links to hundreds of Web sites on the Internet.

Beaver Brothers installed the furnace last summer at the Cliftons' home on Hartman Road. The biomass furnace was the first of its kind that the company had installed. It took a week.

"Everyone involved with installation showed up in October for the first official test of the furnace," Clifton said. "They were so eager to see their finished product at work."

Ernest Dunlap, service manager of Beaver Brothers, speaks wonders of the corn biomass furnaces.

"It puts out a tremendous amount of heat, much better than an oil furnace," he said.

When asked if he himself would like to have his own corn biomass furnace, he said, "Of course, they're a little expensive, but they give off the best heat."

Clifton agreed to show a Post reporter and photographer his furnace in hopes more people will become interested in using renewable energy and combating global warming.

Contact Shelley Smith at 704-797-4265 or intern@salisburypost.com.