Biodiesel production is on the way in North Carolina. The largest biodiesel plant in the Southeast could be up and running in eastern North Carolina within the year.

The $20 million plant, located in Mount Olive, N.C., is predicted to have a capacity of 15 to 20 million gallons of biodiesel, making it the largest in the Southeast. The site was chosen because of its proximity to some 8.5 million acres of soybeans.

Grain Growers Cooperative, a group of 290 farmers, has been working on bringing biodiesel production to North Carolina since it was organized in 2001, says its chairman Earl Hendrix of Raeford, N.C. The growers also hope to bring a $25 million crushing plant on line at the same site.

Two years ago, the group brought the first biodiesel to the state and now works in partnership with a number of suppliers.

The plant is projected to employ about 20 people directly and provide a number of related jobs in transportation and fuel distribution. The annual capacity of the plant is expected to be enough to meet the blending requirements for the state's annual use of 1.1 billion gallons of petroleum.

Late last year, the cooperative received a $5 million investment from the Golden Leaf Foundation for the project. The plant would be owned by the cooperative.

“The idea behind the plant is to have the farmers supply and own the plant, so the stock money can flow back to the farmers,” Hendrix says.

Hendrix and the co-op members are excited about the possibilities of adding value to their production. Last year, President George W. Bush signed the first biodiesel tax incentive into law and extended the ethanol incentive.

Biodiesel is a clean burning alternative produced from renewable resources and contains no petroleum. It can be blended at any level with petroleum diesel to create a blend which is used in diesel engines with little or no modification.

Biodiesel fuel burns up to 75 percent cleaner than conventional diesel fuel made from fossil fuel. And reduces unburned hydrocarbons, carbon monoxide and particulate matter in exhaust fumes. Its fumes smell like French fries.

Biodiesel also improves engine performance. A German truck is in the Guiness Book of Records for traveling more than 780,000 miles on biodiesel with its original engine.

Biodiesel can be mixed with diesel fuel in any proportion. As little as 1 percent biodiesel blended with diesel increased the lubrication of the engine by 65 percent.

It is made through a process called transesterification that separates the glycerin from the fat or vegetable oil. The process leaves two products, methyl esters, the chemical name for biodiesel, and glycerin, a valuable byproduct sold to be used in soaps and other products

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