Biodiesel may be one way to increase the market for locally-grown soybeans, but with commodity prices at current levels, many growers may not be able to afford the environmentally friendly fuel.

“We've tried it in everything we have that runs on diesel and we have had zero problems,” says Bob Glenn, a partner in Biodiesel Fuels of Mississippi, Inc., in Meridian, Miss. “You can blend anywhere from one percent to 100 percent biodiesel with regular diesel fuel, and it takes zero conversion to change to biodiesel. You change nothing. Just fill up your tank and go.”

According to the U.S. Alternative Fuels Data Center, biodiesel is a cleaner-burning diesel replacement fuel made from natural, renewable sources such as new and used vegetable oils and animal fats.

Blends of up to 20 percent biodiesel can be used in nearly all diesel equipment, and are compatible with most storage and distribution equipment. These low level blends don't require any engine modifications, and can provide the same payload capacity and range as diesel. Higher blends, even pure biodiesel, can be used in many engines built since 1994 with little or no modification, the government agency says.

Glenn's company is currently supplying the biodegradable soybean fuel to local school systems and government agencies, which run their vehicles on a 20 percent biodiesel blend.

“We started out producing 80 gallons of biodiesel per day, now we are easily producing 250 gallons per day, and we may soon move to 1,000 gallons of production per day if demand for biodiesel continues to increase,” Glenn says.

He does admit, however, that he hasn't yet been able to generate much interest in the fuel among area farmers. “It's a new product that costs more than regular diesel fuel.”

While diesel fuel is currently selling for about $1.15 per gallon delivered in Mississippi, biodiesel will cost you about $2.50 per gallon, and that doesn't include delivery costs. The product is available from Biodiesel Fuels of Mississippi in 13-gallon cans, 55-gallon drums, or 250-gallon totes, which are basically big plastic tanks with a steel frame around them.

Another partner in the Mississippi biodiesel manufacturing venture, Bill Webster of Meridian, Miss., says producing biodiesel is relatively easy. The challenge, he says, is creating a market for the fuel.

“You've got to create the market before you can set up the infrastructure necessary for large scale production,” he says. “The United States is already dependent on other countries for petroleum, and there won't be any more discoveries of oil. At some point in the future we will have to find another primary energy source.”

Webster contends that the infrastructure already set up for petroleum products can also be used for biodiesel. In addition, there are currently 59 service stations in the United States where you can fill-up your vehicle with 100 percent biodiesel. In comparison, he says, a hydrogen car costs about $1 million to build and is in need of an entirely new infrastructure for fill-ups.

Making biodiesel is easy, Webster says. ““It's not hard to make this stuff. You could make it on your farm to run in your tractors and other diesel-run farm equipment. All you really need is a blender and the basic ingredients of lye (NaOH), methanol, and vegetable oil. The combination of these ingredients produces biodiesel and the by-product glycerol, which is used in pharmaceuticals and cosmetics.

To produce biodiesel, oils and fats are filtered and pre-processed to remove water and contaminants. The pre-treated oils and fats are then mixed with an alcohol, usually methanol, and a catalyst, usually sodium or potassium hydroxide. The oil molecules (triglycerides) are broken apart and reformed into esters and glycerol, which are then separated from each other and purified, notes the Alternative Fuels Data Center.

While Webster's Mississippi-based biodiesel manufacturing plant uses recycled soybean cooking oil provided by area restaurants, he says coconut oil, palm oil, canola oil, sunflower oil, and livestock or chicken fat can also be used to produce the biodegradable fuel.

A civil engineer by trade, Webster says biodiesel offers several environmental benefits, as compared to petroleum-based fuel products. “As you increase the percentage of biodiesel mixed with petroleum diesel fuels you decrease carbon monoxide emissions, as well as particle matter and hydrocarbons.”

These reductions increase as the amount of biodiesel blended into diesel fuel increases. The best reductions are seen with 100 percent biodiesel, according to the Alternative Fuels Data Center.

“Biodiesel uses our agricultural resources, improves the environment, reduces our dependency on foreign oil and helps farmers,” says Mississippi's Commissioner of Agriculture Lester Spell. “We have as much potential to develop alternative energy in the state as any state in the nation. We can grow the corn, and we've got the waterway access needed for distribution.”

Spell says, “These new products are where we've got to be to obtain profitability in agriculture. There are tremendous potential new markets out there.”

e-mail: dmuzzi@primediabusiness.com