Plotting a Safe Landing in CHALLENGING TIMES

Perseverance, sustainability and alternatives were three broad themes of the 2008 National Biodiesel Conference & Expo in Orlando, Fla., in early February, as the industry adapts to changing market, agricultural and ecological dynamics.
By Ron Kotrba, Jerry W. Kram and Susanne Retka Schill | March 17, 2008
Saturn V, the rocket that propelled three astronauts to the moon on the infamous Apollo 13 mission, launched at 13:13 central time. Capt. James Lovell, one of three men aboard, said that in retrospect, he should have known just then the nature of things to come. Addressing attendees at the National Biodiesel Conference & Expo in Orlando, Fla., in early February, Lovell gave a compelling recollection of his incredible near-death experience in space-the ultimate crash course in crisis management.

After takeoff, Saturn V's center engine quit two minutes early, leaving enough power, however, to reach the moon. After two days, the mission was on course. Television cameras sent live feed to all three networks, which aired baseball and reruns of "I Love Lucy" and "The Dick Cavett Show" instead.

The unviewed program cut short when a loud bang occurred. The ship rocked violently back and forth as emergency lights flashed. The crew lost two of the three fuel cells-liquid hydrogen and oxygen combined to make power and water. Lovell said if one were lost, the moon landing was off. Then, he noticed that the needle on one of the oxygen tanks in the service module read zero, while the needle on the other was visibly going down-something they should never see. "A lead weight went to the bottom of my stomach as I looked out the window and saw a gaseous substance," Lovell said. "I knew it was oxygen-we were to lose our electricity and oxygen." They were 200,000 miles from Earth and had only a small battery and enough oxygen to make the final jettison home. However, they remained on course for the moon in order to circle around it and use propulsion from its gravity to get on the free-return course home. A long trip around the dark side of the moon still lay ahead.

The astronauts climbed into the small lunar module and communication with mission control was temporarily lost. Lovell said it was teamwork and leadership on the ground in Houston that ultimately got the desperate crew back onto the free-return course-a "better option" than perpetually orbiting the Earth and moon for an eternity, he said. "I learned something then-always expect the unexpected." As he tried to navigate the small lunar module with a hulking 60,000-pound defunct ship still attached, mission control called with the conclusion that they were not coming home. Under the spell of the moon's elusive far side, Lovell's crew mates were oblivious to their expected fate and continued taking photographs.

Headed finally toward Earth, the weary crew needed to re-enter the atmosphere with extreme care and precision-between five and seven degrees. Too shallow an attempt and they would miss re-entry altogether. Too deep and they would burst into flames like a fiery meteor. Again, mission control called with bad news-the module was off course by 60 to 80 nautical miles. Quickly they remembered the emergency manual procedures, which entailed sighting Earth in the gun sight of the lunar module's window and using what little power remained to maneuver. Earth's horizon was in the cross hairs. With critical teamwork, the three precariously navigated re-entry and landed safely in the Pacific Ocean. "Mission control quietly tore up the obituaries they had planned for us," Lovell said.

Good leadership, teamwork, initiative, imagination, perseverance, and motivation were the human qualities that changed Apollo 13 into a mission about crisis management. "Sharpen those management skills," he said. "Good leadership fosters teamwork. We never planned for multiple failures like this. The moral of the story is I shouldn't be here to talk with you today. I'm here because of those attributes." Before he left the stage Lovell told the spellbound audience that there are three types of people: Those who make things happen; those who watch things happen; and those who just wonder what happened.

Meeting Minutes
The biodiesel industry needs people with the attributes Lovell says it took to safely land Apollo 13, to navigate through some trying times in the biodiesel industry. In his opening remarks at the National Biodiesel Conference, Joe Jobe, executive director of the National Biodiesel Board, said he remains optimistic for the industry despite the current painful market situation and high feedstock costs. Jobe listed positive developments in the past year including the biodiesel carve-out in the renewable fuels standard; the marked improvement in biodiesel quality as shown in National Renewable Energy Laboratory's latest survey; and the boost in people's awareness of biodiesel-jumping 45 percent to 65 percent in one year. Alan Weber, vice president of MARC-IV Consulting Inc. and an economic consultant to the NBB, will be leading the board's feedstock development program, exploring ways for the board to help stimulate the development of second-generation feedstocks. The NBB board also appointed Philadelphia Fry-O-Diesel's business development director, Emily Bockian Landsburg to chair a new nine-member sustainability task force. Holding up a gallon of algae biodiesel, Jobe, who got his start in the soybean industry, hailed the potential for new feedstocks such as algae, with its cloud point of minus 57 degrees Celsius (135 degrees Fahrenheit). "I wouldn't suggest [algae biodiesel] is a panacea-the answer to all the industry's concerns," he said. "On the other hand, it isn't the tooth fairy either. This is real." Reflecting the annual conference's theme of "Navigating in a changing environment," Jobe called for the industry to set its course by navigating by the light of the stars rather than by the light of passing ships. There are few short-term solutions, he admitted, but the long-term outlook is still promising. "We have reached a bend in the road," he said. "But a bend in the road is not the end of the road, that is, unless you fail to make the turn."

Following Jobe's opening remarks members of the NBB executive committee presented an overview of the biodiesel industry and the challenges ahead in a panel discussion at a simulated truck stop. NBB Chairman Ed Hegland, Minnesota Soybean Research and Promotion Council, moderated the discussion. He was joined by NBB Vice Chairman Gary Haer, vice president of sales and marketing for Renewable Energy Group Inc., NBB Secretary Graham Noyes, vice president of sales and business development for Imperium Renewables Inc., and the newly appointed chair of the NBB sustainability task force, Bockian Landsburg. Their presentation was followed by market commentator Don Reynolds, who put the global economy and subprime mortgage crisis into context for the room full of biodiesel producers.

Lisa Ryan of Alterra Energy didn't mind telling the crowd she would be willing to trade hugs for donations to the National Biodiesel Political Action Committee (NAPAC), which was formed just last year and raised $75,000 from 150 donors. In 2008, she wanted to bring in double what the NBPAC pulled in last year. "You spend money on wining and dining customers," she said. "So reroute a small amount of that money to the biodiesel PAC." Manning Feraci, vice president of federal affairs for the NBB, said although the industry was able to secure a billion-dollar biodiesel carve out in the RFS two big legislative initiatives remain-extending the $1-per-gallon blenders' credit, and reviving a new-and-improved Commodity Credit Corp. Bioenergy Program in the Farm Bill, which is currently being debated. Feraci said the industry needs the CCC Bioenergy Program to offset high feedstock costs. The new program should provide payments for every gallon of biodiesel production out there, not just new or expanded volumes like the old one did.

The First Shall Be Last
The final day of the conference centered on the first step of the biodiesel process: feedstocks. NBB Consultant Weber led a forum with Jack Brown, an associate professor and plant breeder at the University of Idaho; Keith Bruinsma, vice president of corporate development for ethanol producer VeraSun Energy Corp.; John Sheehan, vice president of strategy and sustainability for LiveFuels Inc; and John Soper, senior research director for soybean product development for Pioneer Hi-Bred International Inc.

It will be another challenging year for biodiesel producers looking to secure feedstocks for two reasons, according to Brown, $5 corn and $14 wheat. "There is too much money in grain crops right now in the USA," he said. "It's great that it's going that way because farmers need a shot in the arm right now. But those crops are still too valuable (compared with oilseeds)." Any new oilseed crop introduced to farmers will have to compete with grains for acres. In order to gain a significant amount of acres, those crops will have to have a significant financial or agronomic benefit or grow on land unsuitable for grain production.

The future isn't all gloom and doom. Soper said his company and other plant breeders continue to work on products that could prove valuable to the biodiesel industry. Along with continued efforts to create higher yielding soybean varieties, Pioneer is close to releasing soybean and corn varieties with higher oil content. The company will be accelerating its introduction of higher yielding soybeans by 2010, and high-oil corn varieties could be on the market by 2013, Soper said.

In some areas, nontraditional crops such as winter canola and rapeseed could make short-term contributions to the biodiesel feedstock supply, Brown said. But in the long term, he thinks mustard may become much more significant within five years. Mustard meal is being registered as an organic pesticide, and up to 15 million acres could be raised for biopesticides, with up to 70 gallons an acre of oil being produced as a coproduct, Brown said.

One potential new feedstock that could provide some short-term relief comes, somewhat ironically, from the ethanol industry. Bruinsma talked about VeraSun's work to extract corn oil from distillers grains as a feedstock for biodiesel. "You will see a small amount of corn oil come into the market next year, but in the next five years you will see that significantly ramped up as people figure out ways to get solvent extraction equipment installed to get that oil out," he said.

Sheehan is encouraged by the long-term possibilities for algae production. Potentially, an acre that could grow an oilseed crop to produce a few dozen gallons of oil could produce thousands of gallons of algae-based oil. However, the first commercial production of significant quantities of algae oil is most likely about seven years off, Sheehan said.

No one feedstock will provide the ultimate solution to the biodiesel industry's challenges. Arguments about the relative merits of feedstocks are doubly counterproductive, creating divisions between producers and giving ammunition to those opposed to biofuels. "Each of the pieces represented here are part of the solution," Sheehan said. "For someone to get up and say they're the good guy because they have the more sustainable product is damaging to everybody."

Ron Kotrba is a Biodiesel Magazine senior writer. Jerry W. Kram and Susanne Retka Schill are staff writers. Reach them at, or or (701) 738-4962.
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