The Main Rotation

Quality issues during biodiesel production typically revolve around distillation additives, process technologies and ASTM methods at the refinery level. A new emphasis, however, is being focused on the field, where biodiesel feedstocks such as canola are grown and harvested. A Canadian team is examining how to tweak environmental and agronomic conditions for a superior biodiesel feedstock.
By Nicholas Zeman | October 14, 2009
Canada is a net oil exporter. It has huge oil reserves, and new petroleum discoveries have been made there in the past 10 years. Basically, Canada has no real problems when it comes to energy supplies, which means its forays into biodiesel production come from a sense of social responsibility and environmental conscientiousness, and not economic or national security issues. The country, however, does have access to an excellent biodiesel feedstock source, canola, and mandates at the provincial and national levels are being implemented across the vast nation.

North of the 49th parallel, biodiesel is seen more as a value-added component for farmers than as an energy solution, and a research team is looking into Canada's specific advantages as a producer of biodiesel feedstock for its own production needs-and the global market. A link has been made between the climate of certain crops used as feedstocks for biodiesel and variations related to cold weather operability. Canola oil is one of the best feedstocks, for instance, because it is grown mostly in the frigid climes of the Dakotas and Canada. Conversely, the European distributors report they only use palm methyl esters in the summer when it's warm, because of its tendency to gel quickly in cooler temperatures. Obviously, palm trees are grown in tropical climates where it's hot. Canola and palm occupy the poles of the spectrum of feedstocks, but cultivation weather does seem to have an affect on biodiesel quality.

"I don't know if a scientific conclusion has been made between cold weather operability and the environmental conditions of the feedstock," says K. Neil Harker, director of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada's Sustainable Cropping System Platforms for Biodiesel Feedstock Quantity and Quality (SBQQ). "But it seems logical-canola is certainly at the top of the cold weather operability range, and palm is at the bottom."

Cold weather performance is not the only fuel quality trait influenced by grow temperatures and other environmental conditions. Acid number, phosphorous content, free and total glycerin levels, total of metal ions, oxidative stability performance, sterols, kinematic viscosity and cetane are all influenced by environment and agronomics (rotations, pests, weeds and fertilizer).

Responsiveness to moisture, air and soil conditions can all be adjusted to enhance certain characteristics and the SBQQ network is part of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada's Agricultural Bioproducts Innovation Program (ABIP), designed to "integrate Canada's talent from universities, industry and government in order to stimulate creativity, leverage resources, reduce costs and accelerate progress towards commercialization of bioproducts and bioprocesses."

Sites in Alberta at Lacombe and Lethebridge, and the Saskatchewan locations of Scott, Melfort and Swift Current, represent the major soil zones and ecoregions of Western Canada, and provide a diverse range of conditions for the network to evaluate influences on biodiesel quality.

More Production, Increased Risk
Canadians know they have access to an excellent biodiesel oilseed as demand grows worldwide. To increase its canola production to 3 million tons by 2015, Harker says it will have to increase acreage, yield and frequency in crop rotations. The SBQQ brings together leading scientists, farmers and biodiesel analysts to transfer and share their expertise in order to ensure that Canada and its export markets have abundant supplies.

It is estimated that canola contributes more than $11 billion annually to the Canadian economy. For every $100 million of additional canola demand, a projected $83 million in additional Canadian gross domestic product is generated, with more than 730 new jobs created.

Increasing canola production by as much as 25 percent from its current total volume presents some problems for the healthiness and longevity of soil. "The biggest challenge getting there is simply access to those additional acres," says Bill Ross of the Manitoba Canola Growers Association. A traditional rotation in Canada has been wheat, peas, barley and canola. This means that canola was grown one in every four years on Canadian farms, but as producers shorten rotations and reduce crop diversity, increased risk of disease, weed and insect outbreaks could threaten canola biodiesel feedstock quality-and quantity. "Club root, for instance, may totally prevent you from shortening the rotations," Harker says. "It's a disease that's very long-lived in the soil."

This past year was a record breaker for Canadian canola as 10.9 million tons were grown on 6.4 million hectares (15.8 acres). "We have several different studies with different seed streams from regions in Alberta and Saskatchewan," says Dave Murray, a biodiesel analyst for the Alberta Research Council. "We're actively looking at a variety of crops as feedstocks because canola is particularly hard on soil. It's a cash crop so people want to grow more of it, but it can cause a lot of damage."

Diseases such as sclerotina build up in the soil when canola cycles through the rotation more frequently, but if producers are in a four-year rotation, there's no need to worry about build-up. Therefore, increasing production can actually have a negative correlation with sustainability. Disease and pest risk are very high when canola rotations are short and continuous. "Of course, those factors can lead to reduced yields," Harker tells Biodiesel Magazine.

Sacrificing sustainability for frequency is unacceptable. If a farmer is going to shorten his canola rotation, there has to be a strategy to mitigate increased risk. "With shorter rotations, your management takes over and you have to scout for things like sclerotina, and be ready to take over-ready to spray," Ross says. "We're also trying to find a variety that is more resistant or using biological controls that make the plant attack the fungus. So we're funding some of that research."

Competitive Edge
Canada would need 600 MMly (158.5 MMgy) of biodiesel to meet a federal B2 mandate, which is expected to go into effect sometime in 2011. Meanwhile, Canada's methyl ester refining capacity is projected to reach 216 MMly by the end of the year, a 71 percent increase over 2008, the USDA Foreign Agricultural Service said. "The mandates might help with some people's plans to put up plants," Ross says.

Interestingly, the majority of Canada's biodiesel production does not come from virgin oils. "For biodiesel, in 2009, 49 percent of the production capacity is estimated to be tallow-based (an increase from 36 percent in 2008), 37 percent yellow grease-based (a decrease from 59 percent in 2008) and 14 percent canola-based, an increase from 2008 levels where canola-based biodiesel accounted for six percent of the production capacity," FAS stated. "By 2010, forecasts [indicate] that tallow-, yellow grease- and canola-derived biodiesel production capacity will account for 46 percent, 37 percent and 17 percent, respectively."

Canadian biodiesel production is relatively non-existent, so producers have to look elsewhere for buyers today. With that said, competition among raw material suppliers is becoming increasingly fierce. Low price palm oil from Asia, record soy crops in South America and the U.S., an increased use of waste greases, tallow and animal fats are all creating a dynamic world marketplace for buyers. Canada sees it all opening up for canola, and some of its superior traits as a source for biodiesel.

According to reports, Europe makes a quarter of its total methyl ester reservoir from imported feedstocks-mostly from South America. Canada isn't really looking to compete for the European market. "We don't ship anything to Europe," Ross says. "It's the U.S. plants that use Canadian canola for biodiesel production. ADM's plant in Velva, N.D., uses a lot of seed from Manitoba and Saskatchewan."

Agricultural producers in Canada know the raw material business for methyl ester manufacturing is set to take off. Following a $1 million investment from the federal government, the Canadian Agriculture Ministry commented that this "research network will help farmers grow more canola more often, giving them a competitive edge in the burgeoning biofuels industry, and giving them more income, which will in turn boost the economy."

Nicholas Zeman is an associate editor for Biodiesel Magazine. Reach him at (701) 738-4972 or
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