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Raising power at home


Elk River, Minn. — Robert Walker has smelled the opportunity in biomass energy, and it has him wide awake after a comfortable sleep.

As founder of Select Comfort Corporation and designer of the “Sleep Number Bed” air sleep system, “the products I’m interested in are ones that I think are beneficial to mankind,” Walker says. “I’m intrigued by a similar scenario — providing an effect on our energy system.”

Last March, Walker founded Bixby Energy Systems with a vision of developing and marketing high-tech biomass energy. Bixby began producing a space heater in November. But its sights are set much higher.

High burn rate

High fuel costs last heating season gave rise to renewed interest in alternative energy, including burning dry shelled corn. Several corn-burning furnaces have already been developed, but Walker says Bixby’s proprietary technology makes its systems operate more efficiently. Developed by Bixby’s chief technical officer, Marion Mast, the “MaxYield” system incorporates high levels of oxygen for a good burn rate and constantly monitors and adjusts fuel flow to maximize heat output.

Bixby Energy is working to certify fuels for their systems. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, shelled corn is one of the lowest cost fuels per Btu. Bixby isn’t limiting its efforts to corn, however; AURI is helping identify and test a wide range of ag products that could be pelleted as fuel.

“They’re not just selling burners, they’re integrating the fuels into their system,” says Jack Johnson, who heads up AURI’s coproducts utilization program. “It’s a technology that burns efficiently and combines renewable fuels. That’s what makes it attractive to us.”

Power as well as heat

Furnaces may be the first products available, but Bixby Energy’s goal is to develop biomass systems capable of heating a home and its water and generating electricity. Walker hopes to have these distributed power systems available within three years.

“(America is) too dependent on foreign sources for our energy — too dependent on others’ whims,” Walker says. “By utilizing these ‘super pellets’ made from ag products, we can make a real impact. There’s a double benefit, because the money for our energy isn’t leaving the country, plus we’re using up a low-value product that is really a valuable, renewable resource.”

Alternative energy sources have gained attention as fuels such as natural gas, liquid propane and fuel oil have undergone wild price fluctuations. Walker says that when biomass fuels reach their most cost competitive level, they’ll be cheaper than fossil fuels, which adds to their attractiveness.

“The evolution is occurring,” he says. “With knowledge and training we can become used to biomass as an energy source. This is a gold mine we just haven’t tapped.”

Bixby Energy Systems stoves are available at selected fireplace and wood stove retailers. For more information, visit the Web site: