Biodiesel created from canola fields in Havre, Montana
By DAVID REESE
Those rolling fields of yellow flowers that bloom throughout Montana are pretty to look at.
But they are now helping to get you and your car from Point A to Point B.
A new biodiesel manufacturing facility is being built in Havre, Montana, to produce biodiesel, a form of automotive diesel fuel made out of canola and camelina crops. The Havre facility, which will employ about 35 people, should be finished in spring 2007, according to Duane Johnson, superintendent of Montana State University’s Northwest Ag Center in Creston, Montana.
CANOLA FIELD IN Creston, Montana. photo by David Reese
Biodiesel has surged in popularity as a more sustainable energy source and as an alternative to traditional petroleum products. Montana’s new processing facility, being built by Greater Montana Bio Energies, will be able to produce up to 10 million gallons of biodiesel annually, according to Johnson.
Producing biodiesel makes good economic sense in Montana. The state has 4.5 million acres of land available for oilseed production — land that is currently farmed for other products, such as wheat.
But now that oil prices are increasing, biodiesel manufacturing can finally pay for itself.
While a wheat crop may generate net profits of $35 to $50 an acre, raising oilseed crops for biodiesel manufacturing can put $75 to $150 net profit into a farmer’s pocketbook, Johnson said. There are about 100,000 acres dedicated to oilseed production in Montana, according to Johnson, but that should increase as the new biodiesel plant comes online.
The Havre biodiesel facility will be close to rail transportation and the crops that can supply the processing plant with the raw product. Biodiesel manufacturing involves processing the oil from plants like canola, camelina or safflower. After the tiny seeds are harvested from the plants, the seeds are crushed and the oil is filtered out. The oil that remains is treated with methanol or ethanol and a base, such as lye.
This chemical reaction — which takes only about five minutes — cleaves the glycerine backbone out of the oil. The resulting methyl ester is purified, leaving a fuel that is ready to burn, and a glycerine byproduct that can be used for anything from lipstick to shampoo.
Another byproduct is lecithin, a food emulsifier found in everything from ice cream to candy bars. The methanol is also recovered and reused. The refining process has very low emissions. It takes very little for traditional wheat farmers to make the switch to raising oilseed crops. “They’ve got the equipment, it’s just a matter of applying it in a different way,” Johnson says. Another facility is being looked at in Culbertson, Montana, where a biodiesel plant might be able to produce five to six million gallons of biodiesel a year.
With petroleum diesel prices around $2.75 a gallon, a Montana biodiesel manufacturer should be able to produce fuel that sells for $1.75 to $2 a gallon, Johnson said. Biodiesel prices are currently over $3 a gallon because the Midwest processors are using soybean oil, which is too expensive to produce and generates a low amount of oil per acre. Montana’s oilseed crops are more cost-effective because the seeds are 38 to 40 percent oil. “Volume will be the issue,” he said. “We’ll never completely replace petroleum, but we ought to be able to occupy 20 percent of their (petroleum’s) market.”
Roughly 66 billion gallons of diesel fuel are sold each year in the United States; Only 348 million gallons of biodiesel are used annually, according to Johnson. “We’ve got a long ways to go,” he said.
A good safflower or canola crop might yield 30 to 40 gallons of unrefined oil per acre. The crops can be diversified for Montana’s climate and each oilseed crop has its own advantages in biodiesel production. Mustard seed is more drought tolerant, while canola is good because there’s a market for the meal byproduct. “Plus, people know how to grow it,” Miller says. Canola is a popular crop in Montana, with an average of 200,000 acres planted a year.
A VERSATILE FUEL
BIODIESEL CAN BE made from other sources, as well. In fact, a Missoula company is already producing biodiesel from used vegetable oils.
Paul Miller’s facility at Sustainable Systems in Missoula makes biodiesel not only from canola seeds but also from used vegetable oil from the University of Montana food service. Once the chunks of french fries and fish and chips are filtered out of the used oil, the oil goes through the same refining process, with the same result: a renewable fuel ready to be put in any vehicle that burns diesel.
Biodiesel can be burned at 100 percent solution or mixed with petroleum diesel. The “BioBus” at the University of Montana is a student commuter bus that runs on biodiesel. It uses a mix of 20 percent biodiesel in the winter and 100 percent biodiesel in the warmer months.
Related products could be made in Montana from the biodiesel byproduct. Glycerine could be processed into a number of value-added products, from lip balm to chainsaw bar-chain oil. Biodiesel could also be used instead of petroleum diesel for form release. In this use, diesel is poured on concrete forms before being filled to help the forms pull away from the concrete when set.
Biodiesel is trendy, but it’s nothing new. In fact, one of the first automobiles ever built ran on peanut oil. Europe uses mainly biodiesel and leads the world in biodiesel production.
Refineries and oil companies will soon be required to remove more sulfur from their products, and biodiesel provides a ready alternative. Sulfur acts as the lubricant in diesel fuel and when it’s removed the fuel’s lubricity, or slipperiness, is greatly reduced. But a mix of only two percent biodiesel improves lubricity up to 60 percent, Miller said.
“You’ll appreciate the power, the increased lubricity and decreased emissions,” he said. “And by buying biodiesel you'll be supporting your local economy, versus national interests.”
Farmers — and the banks that lend to them — are starting to buy into creating additional biodiesel production. “They do recognize the potential,” Miller says. “We want to make sure the financials look good, then roll out the plan to sign up farmers so they can have a stake in it.”
On the Net: http://ag.montana.edu/NWARC; www.montanagreenpower.com; www.bozemanbiofuels.org/