Fueling future with biodiesel
Alternative fuels are all the rage in Alabama these days, but not all such fuels are created equal.
Biodiesel production is still in its technological infancy, but area experts believe it holds considerable potential as a supplement to petroleum diesel and as a revenue generator for area farms.
Southeast BioEnergy LLC announced last week its plan to build a $9 million biodiesel plant in Athens.
One of the beauties of biodiesel is that, unlike ethanol, vehicles need no modifications to use it. Any diesel vehicle can run on biodiesel, and many say they run better on biodiesel.
“It’s a premium fuel,” said Don Glenn, a partner in Glenn Acres Farm in Hillsboro. “As we go into emissions control, they’re taking sulfur out of diesel fuel. As they take sulfur out, they lower the lubricity of the fuel. It’s much more abrasive on fuel pumps and fuel systems in vehicles. Biodiesel has much more lubricity than your standard low-sulfur diesel does.”
Like ethanol, biodiesel is generally used in a blend. B20, for example, is 20 percent biodiesel and 80 percent diesel.
Glenn said that over the summer, he operated his equipment on B99 with no problems.
A downside of biodiesel is that it gels at a higher temperature than does diesel. That means cool weather can cause problems. As temperatures have fallen, Glenn said, he has switched to B20.
Most biodiesel in the United States is made from soybean oil, but other sources are increasingly significant. In Alabama, cottonseed oil is an option. Northern states also use rapeweed, which has higher oil yields than soybean.
Ongoing research is focusing on whether jojoba, a plant with much higher oil yields than soybean, can be grown commercially in Alabama.
The focus of Southeast BioEnergy’s operation in Athens will be its research facility. Eventually, said co-member Marvin Kilgore, the company hopes to build three high-capacity biodiesel production plants. He expects his Athens plant to produce 4 million gallons of biodiesel a year.
BioEnergy will not produce the oil, Kilgore said, but purchase it and have it brought in by truck or rail. He said the source of the oil ”” be it soybean, rapeweed or even animal fat ”” is immaterial.;
“Vegetable oils and animal fats are all basically the same molecule,” said Kilgore, a Huntsville chemist and microbiologist. “They’re made of triglycerides. We’ll use the oil after it’s been pressed and refined and bleached and degummed. What we have is a very purified oil to use in the process.”
The facility will use a production process in which methanol binds to fatty acids in the oil. The end result is methyl esthers, the chemical name for one form of biodiesel.
BioEnergy’s production process will create little of the waste that is problematic in ethanol production, Kilgore said.
“The beauty of this (chemical) reaction is that when you add the methanol to it, the methanol adds to the fatty acids. That’s where the methyl esthers come from,” Kilgore said. “The glycerol is your byproduct, and there’s no other waste produced. It’s just the methyl esthers and the glycerol, and the glycerol can be (sold and) used for other things.”
Part of the interest among farmers in cultivating biodiesel crops like soybean is the result of a fortuitous decision by Malaysia, the world’s main producer of palm oil.
“That crop is about 500 times as efficient as soybean,” Kilgore said.
Even with shipping costs, that meant palm oil was a cheaper source than most U.S.-grown crops. But Malaysia recently mandated that it would retain 60 percent of its harvest for its own use, changing the economic equation.
Suddenly soybean has more commercial potential, particularly when federal subsidies, tax breaks and high diesel prices are figured in.
The biodiesel industry is not just exploding in Alabama. According to a trade group, 80 biodiesel plants are in America. By the end of 2007, another 131 are expected to be online.
“Right now farmers aren’t producing enough soybeans to support a huge biodiesel effort,” Kilgore said. “It will take them a couple years to see this is a viable option and maybe change their crop and grow more soybeans.”
Kilgore’s interest in researching better methods of biodiesel production is not unique.
“Pretty much all of the biodiesel processes out there are proprietary processes because all of us believe that we have a better mousetrap,” Kilgore said.
Kilgore said he had been looking for a site for the BioEnergy facility for some time, and Athens was a natural choice.
“We were looking for someplace close to (Huntsville to) support the research and development effort,” Kilgore said. “The site was perfect.”
And most important to the success of biodiesel energy in general and BioEnergy in particular: the fuel works.
“We’ve been burning biodiesel for three years now,” Glenn said. “There’s not a problem with it whatsoever. It’s the preferred fuel.”