The Applicant
AUTHOR: Michael Thompson DATE: 3/24/2004 06:25:00 PM BODY: The Paper
READER: From here on this be the work of Mr. MICHAEL THOMPSON. Cite the URL above for location and give me credit.

Calorie Science Applied to Electrical Generation:
Caloric Comparisons of Biomass and Fossil Fuels
Michael Thompson
Mr. Carl Aakre, Adviser


Calorie Science is use in the comparison of products based on energy produced, and is most often applied to food products. The primary goal of the experiment is to quantify whether coal or biomass fuels are superior in heat production. The experiment and research are inconclusive, despite and apparent lead of coal in heat production.

Review of Literature

In recent years the economy of the United States has become more and more dependent on electronic equipment, and electricity needs have increased dramatically, without a noticeable increase in electrical generation in high demand areas (Lelyveld, May 9 2001). This has caused supply not to keep up with demand, leading up to incidents such as the 2000 and 2001 blackouts in California (Betz, 2001). One possible solution to this problem has been the use of biomass electrical generation. This is merely changing existing fuels, typically coal for wood or farm wastes (Anderson, 2001). Biomass fuels are the use of plant materials for electrical or other energy generation (CMP Information, 2003; Oak Ridge National Laboratory, 2003). Agriculturally, biomass can be made from purpose grown crops to the waste of a grain field (Oak Ridge National Laboratory, 2003). Use of biomass has been proposed as a possible alternative to coal and also the possibly reducing our dependence on foreign fuels.


On November 14, 2003 coal closed at $35.00 for each 1550-ton contract on the New York Mercantile Exchange, while no biomass crop statistics were available. The current coal electricity produced in the United States is 313 gigawatts (U.S. Department of Energy, 2001); while the biomass energy production is 7000 megawatts (U.S. Department of Energy, 2003). Oak Ridge National Laboratory biomass experiments are in two solid biofuel areas; grasses and woody plants. The grasses they research are Miscanthus and switchgrass species, which can be grown on utilized and under utilized land (Oak Ridge National Laboratory, 2003; Anderson, 2001). Their woody plant experiments are with genetically modified hybrid poplars (Oak Ridge National Laboratory, 2003) that have been modified for infertility and a short growth time.
One facet of using biomass for power is a possible decrease in power plant size (CMP Information, 2003; Wilmington Publishing, 2002). A small-scale incinerator could theoretically fuel a suburban community or a farm, rather than the massive power plants currently used. Also, there are there is the possibility of using solid biomass for in a combination plant with coal (U.S. Department of Energy, 2003; Wilmington Publishing, 2002). This would decrease emissions of heavy metals and other toxics currently produced (Wilmington Publishing 2002; U.S. Department of Energy, 2003). A minor advantage of using biomass is the ease of production in less developed countries (Barnes and Floor, 1999). Harvesting a grass or a tree is not as complex as mining coal, which requires heavy equipment. Also, smaller plants can be constructed, for example a Nordic sawmill has a 4-megawatt plant that uses the sawmill’s waste (Wilmington Publishing, 2003). Smaller plants like these supply about 2.5 billion people with power according to U.S. Department of Energy statistics (2003). However, the standalone biomass power plants in the United States provide around 7,000 megawatts of power.

Power Generation

Most power generation in the United States is through a boiler process, be it nuclear, gas or coal. In gas and coal fired boilers, the fuel boils water, which either fires a piston or runs a turbine, and a nuclear reactor runs a turbine (U.S. Department of Energy, 2003; Seminar provided by Commonwealth Edison Employees for Boy Scouts of America in Chicago Area, 1998). Both turbines and piston systems run an electrical generator. Biofuels are used in a similar fashion as coal, and some plants are combination coal and biomass fueled (U.S. Department of Energy, 2003).

Calorimetry Science and the Experiment

Calorimetry science is usually analyzes food products, but this project uses fuel products as fuel for the calorimeter. It should provide useful data in deciding the most economical fuel for large-scale use. The experiment is based on Elizabeth Argo and Laura Meyer’s 2002 work, and their work can be considered a base for this. The can calorimeter is effective when used with pieces of material about peanut sized, as they demonstrated (2002). The calorimeter is a 12-ounce (355 mL) beverage can. The can is placed on a ring stand, with a smaller rings at the top and bottom of the can, and the larger one about 2 cm below and having a metal mesh square. This assembly serves as the test stand. The material to be tested is placed on a test stand and ignited. A thermometer and a scale are used to chart results. The material is measured before and after ignition. The amount of water used in the can is controlled; the resource on this topic recommends 200 mL (Argo and Meyer, 2002, 11), however, 300 mL will be used for possibly higher heat production. Because the exact caloric content cannot be exactly determined in theses tests because of precision problems with the calorimeter, it is required to test repeatedly for accuracy.


Hypothetically, the coal fuel should produce more heat than the biomass fuel. The biomass fuel will not be as productive. The procedure will be as outlined in the “Calorimetry Science and the Experiment” section above. After assembly of the calorimeter, the fuel will be burnt, and it will have to be compared in mass before and after. The fuel under test will be lit with a long handled lighter, to avoid burning fingers, and a bad experiment. The fuel tested was timothy hay because of time constraints. All of the energy measurements are in calories (cal). Hypothetically, the coal should produce more heat energy than an equal amount of biomass.

Ring stand, quantity (1), obtained from School Lab
Stand rings, large (1) small (2), above
Wire, for bottom stand ring, from lab.
12 fluid (355 mL) ounce drink cans, cleaned, quantity as needed, from my self and fellow students
Coal, about 200 cm3, requested through Mr. Aakre
Biomass, timothy hay, provided by another student
Lighter, long tipped grill type, quantity 1, requested through the school
Thermometer, Celsius, quantity (1), requested through school
Water, from tap


Mount rings on the stand, the larger ring on the bottom, close to each other, but about 2.5 cm apart.
Place can with 300 mL of water on the top stand.
Take the initial measurement of water temperature.
Measure the material to be tested on an electronic scale.
Place testing material on the lower stand.
Light the testing material with the long lighter.
When the material is out, stir the water with the thermometer, and record the new temperature.
Measure the weight of the burnt material, and dispose.
Clean the soot off the can, and dispose of the water.
Repeat as needed


The timothy grass burnt in a smoldering manner, requiring frequent ignition. The average energy production of the grass was 1023.6666667 calories per .5 gram, while the coal is averages 2.2*10^7 BTU per short ton (Gerard, 1997), equal to 3057.600809 cal per .5 g. The coal is the superior fuel in heat production.


The data is inconclusive. However, the mass data is more conclusive, as the average loss in mass is about one hundred fifteen thousandths of a gram. A major problem was in keeping the grass on fire, so relighting was common. This could have affected the results. The hypothesis of the experiment, that coal produces more energy than biofuels, is correct. The problems mentioned above in lighting the fuel might have something to do with it. The seventh test could be the most accurate, but it does not agree with the rest of the data, although the two lowest tests could also be discarded, as there a large distance between them and the rest of the data.


Biomass fuels are useful in energy generation. They can be smaller scale, use waste products from manufacturing processes, such as scraps from a lumber mill, and work with existing systems. Also, existing coal plants can be modified to use biofuels, especially if it is in a form close to near coal. Unfortunately, it is not a highly productive source of energy; a cord of wood provides as much power as a 1-centimeter tall cylinder of Uranium nuclear fuel (Seminar provided by Commonwealth Edison Employees for Boy Scouts of America in Chicago Area, 1998). However, it is a viable alternative to coal, since it is using a resource with a practically unlimited supply, while coal deposits are limited by location and size. The experiment aims independently verify if biomass provides as much energy as coal. The biomass fuel did not provide more heat than coal, but the experiment may be flawed.


Anderson, H. (2001) Environmental Drawbacks of Renewable Energy: Real or Imagined? Energy User News. Retrieved October 20, 2003 from!xrn_1_0_A76520621?sw_aep=mnknorcamp.

Argo, E, & Meyer, L. (2002). Calorimetry Science: How do Food Labels Compare to Calorimeters? Little Canada: Agricultural & Food Sciences Academy

Barnes, D., and Floor, W. (1999). Biomass Energy and the Poor in the Developing World. Journal of International Affairs. Retrieved October 20, 2003 from!xrn_4_0_A62686095?sw_aep=mnknorcamp.

Betz, K. (2001, October). Even Without Rolling Blackouts, California Crisis Rolls into Second Year. [17 paragraphs].
Energy User News. [Online resource] Retrieved December 11, 2003, from!xrn_5_0_A79806175?sw_aep=mnknorcamp.

CMP Information. (2003). Fueling the Biomass Business. Farmers Guardian. Retrieved October 14, 2003 from!xrn_1_0_A105533045?sw_aep=mnknorcamp

Cushman, J, and Sokhansanj, S. (2002) Biorefining Industry Emerges: Opportunities Enormous for Handling, Supply of Biomass Feedstock. Resource: Engineering & Technology for a Sustainable World. Retrieved October 20, 2003 from

Gerard, A. (1997, August 29). A Chronology and Overview of the U.S. Coal Market. U.S. Department of Energy. Accessed March 2, 2004.

Lelyveld, N. (2001, May 9). Warm Weather Brings Blackouts to California. [21 paragraphs]. Knight-Ridder/Tribune Business News. Retrieved December 11, 2003 from!xrn_29_0_CJ74366598?sw_aep=mnknorcamp.

New York Mercantile Exchange. (2003). Accessed November 16 2003.

Oak Ridge National Laboratory. (2003). Bioenergy Information Network. Accessed November 16 2003.

U.S. Department of Energy. (2003). Biopower-Technologies-Index. Accessed 16 November 2003.
U.S. Department of Energy. (2001) Energy InfoCard 2001. Accessed 16 November 2003.

Wilmington Publishing Ltd. (2002). Bio-energy Potential: Why Small is Beautiful. Modern Power Systems. Retrieved October 20, 2003 from!xrn_2_0_A89930343?sw_aep=mnknorcamp
My thoughts and papers- updated irregularly. These are only my opinoins, do not apply these to anyone or the U.S. Government, who I do not represent.

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