Department of Agriculture Exploring Solar Energy for Biohouse, Agriculture Research Center

Photo of Dr. Paul Schnare checking the temperature of thermal battery inside the BioHouse.

Dr. Paul Schnare, assistant professor of agriculture at Southeast, checks the temperature of  a thermal battery inside the BioHouse.

CAPE GIRARDEAU, Mo.,

Feb. 20, 2009 – “It doesn’t look like much,” cautions Dr. Paul Schnare, assistant professor of agriculture at Southeast Missouri State University, as he makes his way to a small BioHouse he’s constructed with a few basic building materials.

In fact, he says he’s built this prototype for less than $800.

But inside this rudimentary BioHouse, located on the property at Sunny Hill Gardens & Florist in Cape Girardeau, are the building blocks for a facility to be operated solely with passive energy sources. The BioHouse is now in its second year of development. Ultimately, the goal is to make structures like this available to consumers as backyard greenhouses and to sell the systems to existing greenhouses, Schnare says.

The idea for the BioHouse took hold at a meeting of the Missouri Research Corporation, which Schnare says was instrumental in landing a grant to launch the project.

The eight-by-12-foot BioHouse is framed with wood and PVC-pipe, covered with clear plastic and lined on both of its interior walls with thermal batteries – 10 plastic 55-gallon black barrels filled with water. Sunlight projects through the top of the structure, bouncing off the barrels on one side of the greenhouse to those on the other side. The sunlight heats the water, which in turn, warms the greenhouse. During daylight hours, vents on the top and sides of the structure help cool it, if necessary, with the aid of beeswax. The vents open when the beeswax, located within cylinders on them, warms to the right temperature.

At night, the batteries storing the solar energy re-radiate heat to warm the greenhouse. 

Schnare said he has spent the past two winters working to perfect the system that would continuously keep the facility warm throughout the winter without additional heating sources. Last winter, Schnare said, the greenhouse never got below 35 degrees when the outside air temperature was 6 degrees. This winter, the greenhouse temperature has not dropped below 28 degrees.

“We want to make sure we can keep the temperature warm enough at night,” he said, adding he is confident the BioHouse could currently support “cole crops,” like cauliflower and cabbage, during the winter. Last winter, he said, he grew tomato plants in the structure.

Eventually, Schnare says he would like to have a blow-molded thermal battery designed for the greenhouse, but he began experimenting with the 55-gallon barrels because they were affordable and available.

“We want to use only natural energy sources,” he said. “We want to make this so it can operate in any conditions.”

If the structure pans out, Schnare said he would like to begin operating BioHouses at Southeast’s Charles L. Hutson Horticulture Greenhouse and at the David M. Barton Agriculture Research Center.

Ultimately, the idea is to create a system that could be used by homeowners, said Dr. Michael Aide, chair of Southeast’s Department of Agriculture.

“We want to promote small farm income in rural Missouri,” Aide said. “The whole idea is to promote rural development by way of entrepreneurship. This could be an asset to both large and small farms.”

To that end, Southeast’s Department of Agriculture plans to apply for federal grant funding for alternative energy source projects.

“We have some excellent concepts and are confident we are going to be successful,” he said.

In addition to the BioHouse, a solar panel that would pump water from wells is being developed at Southeast’s David M. Barton Agriculture Research Center. Well pumps generally are operated with a diesel generator or an electric turbine. Aide says work is under way at the farm to power the electric turbine with the energy from the solar panel.

And the solar-powered well pump could be just the beginning of other alternative energy concepts to be implemented at the Center to make it completely energy independent.

“We would like to run all of our buildings, electric fences and everything else off of solar energy,” Aide said, adding the farm already operates a solar energy cattle watering system.

Under this model, everything at the Agriculture Research Center would operate with solar energy with the exception of its tractors.

“We would like to be the first sizable farm in Missouri powered solely with solar energy,” Aide said.

Aide said solar panels, like the one being developed at the Agriculture Research Center, provide more power at a lower per kilowatt hour rate than electric power sources.

He says faculty engineers in Southeast’s Department of Industrial and Engineering Technology are currently designing a solar energy system to make the Center energy independent.