From the Fields: Corn fuel—beating the high cost of heating fuel

Burning shell corn as a fuel can be a feasible way of dealing with the high costs of more conventional heating fuels like fuel oil, propane, natural gas, coal and firewood. Shelled corn is a fuel that can be produced within 180 days, compared to the millennia needed to produce fossil fuels.

Dry shelled corn contains a fair amount of energy, and it is relatively easy to handle. Shelled corn contains about 7,000 Btu (British thermal units) per pound at 15 percent moisture, or about 392,000 Btu per 56-pound bushel. In comparison, a gallon of propane produces 91,500 Btu.

It is best to use dry corn as a fuel source, because it is easier to handle and store than wet corn, and dry corn produces more energy per unit weight of corn. Energy content per pound of corn is dramatically lower for high-moisture corn because more of the weight of corn is water. Water in the corn does not produce any energy, and more energy from the corn dry matter is needed to evaporate water from the kernels, thus less is available for heating.

In most cases, equipment used to burn corn is not 100 percent efficient, so it is important to use burner efficiency in calculations for heat output.

When comparing costs for using different fuels, it is easiest to compare cost per unit of energy produced. Cost per million Btu is the common way to make this comparison. Cost per unit of fuel, energy content per unit of fuel, and burner efficiency all need to be considered in calculating fuel costs.

A source of information on burning shelled corn as fuel is the following Penn State Web site:

Information for this column taken from the University of Minnesota fact sheet “Burning Shelled Corn to Produce Heat Energy” and from the above-mentioned Penn State Web site.

Jim Morrison can be reached at the University of Illinois Extension office at 815-397-7714; FAX 815-397-8620; or e-mail at

From the March 8-14, 2006, issue

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