Producers, marketers and aficionados gathered in Fort Worth, Texas in late January for the 25th National Biodiesel Conference & Expo.
Attendees got to learn about the latest policy developments related to biodiesel, see a hot-off-the-line B20 ready diesel Ford F-150 pickup truck, visit a Vehicle Showcase featuring offerings from General Motors, John Deere, Caterpillar and Optimus Technologie, learn about a semi-truck that runs on 100% biodiesel, and enjoy the Biodiesel Ride & Drive that allowed attendees to take a spin in new diesel vehicles around Fort Worth.
Though the focus of the conference was on fuel, it has very agricultural roots. Soybean farmers were instrumental in the initial push for biodiesel and the start of the conference 25 years ago.
“We need to remember that we have a tremendous product that can produce meal, oil and we are very competitive around the world,” said Dave Dotterer an Ohio Soybean Council board member from Wayne County who attended the conference. “With biodiesel we have a product that reduces carbon in the atmosphere and we can replace fuel without cutting performance. It is renewable — we can grow it every year. We are consistent in our production and there is a stable supply. The people who produce biodiesel do not have to wonder if we will have a supply next year. They can depend on it and they know it is always going to be there.”
Roughly half of the biodiesel used in the U.S. is made from soybean oil. The other half is produced from sources like used cooking oil, animal fats, and other fats and oils.
Soybeans are grown primarily to produce protein meal for livestock feed. So, the first processing step after soybeans leave the farm is to a soybean crush facility where 80% of every soybean is used to produce livestock feed. The volume of oil that remains after protein extraction exceeds demand for feed or food uses including salad dressing, frying and baking, so a portion of that oil not used for food or export is used to produce biodiesel.
“Every soybean is approximately 80% protein meal and 20% oil. You can see slight variation in that but it is a fundamental ratio. That is something the plant has developed. It is storing energy in that seed to grow a new plant,” said Don Scott, director of sustainability for the National Biodiesel Board. “The biodiesel industry began with soybean oil because when we grow protein for food, soy is one of the best sources. It produces more protein per acre than any other crop, but it also produces a lot of oil. When we grow soy for protein we produce more fat than we can possibly eat. We have more oil than we can consume. We needed a product we could make out of this oil and it makes great fuel.”
Biodiesel production offers numerous benefits for farmers and consumers.
“We can blend it with petroleum, it has great performance on-road and reduces emissions,” Scott said. “It is around a 63-cent increase per bushel for farmers and it is also good for livestock producers because it decreases the price they have to pay for feed.”
Much of the conference looked into addressing the myths and real challenges of biodiesel.
“When you get in sub-zero temperatures you have to pay attention to the diesel fuel you use. The same is true for petroleum and for biodiesel. You have to have a blend that will perform at low temperatures,” Scott said. “You can achieve that with biodiesel, but just like diesel you have to pay attention to those cloud points and make sure you are using the proper fuel and good quality fuel.”
These types of quality biodiesel blends are the focus of Wade Thorson, with Benchmark Biodiesel, Inc. in Columbus.
“About 15 years ago I was working for a small bank that got into the ethanol business and I saw an opportunity with biodiesel. I put together a business plan to become a producer and found a site in Columbus that was an old Texaco fuel terminal. I was all set to begin production and crude oil prices started declining, so instead of building a production facility, we started blending biodiesel and diesel off the pipeline that is now the Benchmark Biodiesel Fuel Terminal in Columbus,” Thorson said. “Biodiesel is now more readily available, but the end customer still doesn’t understand that they can get biodiesel from people like us. Unless they seek it out they don’t know about it. Then they hear things like biodiesel will void their warranty, choke the engine up and if anything goes wrong — even a flat tire — it is because of biodiesel. That is just not the case.”
Benchmark Biodiesel, along with a sustained industry-wide effort, has been taking extensive measures to improve quality and reliability of the biodiesel blends being offered.
“When we renovated our facility we insulated and heated all our tanks. Our diesel comes off a pipeline at 50 or 60 degrees and we keep it heated to 70 degrees so when we blend we are assured that the blend will be terrific, as opposed to splash diesel that may be blended cold and the biodiesel may sit in there for awhile and gel up,” Thorson said. “We blend specifically for our customer right at the fuel rack. We have the most sophisticated blending system in the state. It is fabulous and we have not had problems even with the zero degree weather in Ohio this year. Any time there is any cold weather you want to get the blended biodiesel at the rack.”
The fuel and the biodiesel industry as a whole have accomplished much in the last 25 years. Following a University of Missouri study that demonstrated biodiesel had potential as a diesel fuel replacement, the Missouri Soybean Merchandising Council created the National SoyDiesel Development Board in 1992. With the opportunity to use the surplus of soybean oil collected each year, while also expanding energy security and environmental benefits, other state soybean associations quickly joined the effort. The new association changed its name to the National Biodiesel Board in 1994 to reflect the diversity of fats and oils that can be made into biodiesel.
In the early days, NBB spearheaded diesel engine research and emissions testing to demonstrate biodiesel’s environmental benefits, leading to official specifications for the fuel used in diesel cars and trucks and earning the reputation as America’s first commercially produced advanced biofuel. The producers then were primarily a collection of small businesses serving their communities, distributing a few hundred million gallons of biodiesel by the turn of the century.
Today, through implementation of the federal Renewable Fuel Standard and a tax incentive to spur growth, the advanced biofuel has blossomed into a nearly 3 billion gallon per year industry. The biodiesel industry supports more than 64,000 jobs and, to be called biodiesel, the fuel must meet the strict quality specifications of ASTM D6751.
“Biodiesel is an American success story,” said Donnell Rehagen, NBB CEO. “We have overcome countless challenges, and we will undoubtedly face many more as we continue to grow the industry. But for everyone who has pulled together for the past 25 years to make our success a reality, this conference is a great time to celebrate.”