Bring Biodiesel Back to the Farm

How biodiesel is behind one Canadian university's mission to promote rural development
By Bryan Sims | December 20, 2010
The small farming community of Ridgetown, Ontario, Canada, within the municipality of Chatham-Kent, is known as a breeding ground for a budding biofuels and bioenergy industry. A driving force that helped accelerate this movement can be traced back to the town's premier agricultural and environmental institution, the University of Guelph's Ridgetown Campus. With a deeply-rooted connection to its farm-based community, the campus holds firm its mission to promote a big message to local farmers: that a sustainable bioeconomy is achievable.

Recognizing biodiesel production as an emerging opportunity, in 2008 the campus received nearly $1 million in funding from the Canadian government to build a pilot biodiesel production plant and an oilseed crushing facility on campus. The plant has operated since 2009 with a nameplate production capacity of about 1 MMly (256,000 gallons a year) using primarily waste vegetable oil as feedstock, sourced by the truckload from Southwestern Ontario. Designed and built by Owens Borrow-based Lougheed Biodiesel Reactors, the plant typically receives about 20,000 liters of waste vegetable oil per shipment. In addition to the production plant, the federal money helped support the building of an oilseed crushing facility, which is under construction now.

According to technician Mark Uher, the plant runs a batch process with output typically ranging from 1,000 to 8,000 liters per batch per week. The purpose of the biodiesel project, Uher says, is to help determine the optimum model and scale of an economically viable on-farm biodiesel facility.

"Ultimately, the scope of the project is to show farmers and farm-based businesses how this equipment works, and what's cost-effective and applicable for their operations," Uher tells Biodiesel Magazine. "To have that equipment showcased is key to the research."

With a keen interest in renewable energy, Uher graduated with a diploma in agriculture from Ridgetown Campus in 2008. Combined with his passion for agriculture and knowledge of renewable energy, the biodiesel project drew the Blenheim, Ontario, native back to campus to work full time as a biodiesel technician.

"I like the idea of combining some of these different renewable energies with their applications on the farm, and how to make farming a more sustainable enterprise," he says.

Once construction of the oilseed crushing facility is complete, which should be by this spring, Uher says it will allow the production plant to handle multiple oil feedstocks in addition to waste vegetable oil. "We want to not only look at various types of oilseed feedstock, but also examine how the equipment performs," Uher says. "We're not sure it's going to be crushing huge quantities to begin with."

In addition to producing biodiesel, various campus farm and equipment fleets use blends of biodiesel in their diesel engines, Uher says. For example, some of the campus lawn mowers and vehicles run on B100 in the summer, while the farm machinery might use B5 or B10 all year long.

Uher says an important component of this project represents how intimate the connection is between the university and its rural farming community. Through communications, outreach, teaching, on-site demonstrations and on-farm consultations, the project has been well-received by the surrounding communities it serves since the project launch, Uher adds. "We want to show farmers how to do it themselves," he says.

The biodiesel production plant, along with the oilseed crushing facility under construction, was a major driver behind shaping the launch of the university's Center for Agricultural Renewable Energy and Sustainability. Officially formed in early 2009 with a five-year commitment, CARES marked a significant turning point for the community's agricultural sector. The primary focus of the center is to demonstrate renewable, sustainable practices, particularly to help increase value at the farm level and promote community development through research and knowledge transfer. Additionally, CARES aims to help rural producers make informed investment decisions when considering the adoption of renewable energy technologies, while providing benchmark data to support economic and technical viability.

Along with the University of Guelph, Ridgetown Campus and the main branch in Guelph, Ontario, the concept was developed in collaboration with the Southwestern Ontario Bioproducts Innovation Network, Community Futures Development Cooperation of Chatham-Kent, Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, Municipality of Chatham-Kent, Agricultural Adaptation Council and the Ontario Seed Corn Growers.

The biodiesel production plant and oilseed crushing facility are successfully proving out the positive economic and environmental impacts they'd have on a farm-based level. But that's just a start to the goals set by CARES, which include showcasing how synergies of biodiesel and other renewable energy projects can create a truly closed-loop renewable energy system.

Valuing Everything

For projects facilitated by CARES, the notion that nothing goes to waste is an understatement. With that in mind, researchers at the Ridgetown Campus are hard at work attempting to unlock potential uses from waste streams derived from the biodiesel production process, such as glycerin, for use in making value-added chemicals.

Rob Nicols, an instructor and researcher on the project, says he and his team are using a microbial fermentation technique on crude glycerin to see what types of chemicals could be released when isolated with various types of fungi. Nicols says his team has screened about 50 different types of fungi and found three able to use glycerol as the main nutrient. The next step, according to Nicols, is to pinpoint what types of chemicals are produced.

"We feel we can still get new opportunities out of this approach," Nicols says, adding that he's identified a few hurdles yet to overcome. "The challenge is that crude glycerin has a high pH and trace amounts of methanol still in it," he says. "We're in the process of using applied research to pull everything through."

In addition to exploring glycerin's ability to produce chemicals, Nicols says that the campus is considering recapturing the wastewater from the biodiesel process to use as a composting agent with poultry litter. "With our first trial we noticed it composted litter quickly, and reduced odor issues," Nicols says. "We're looking to conduct additional experiments to see where it goes from there."

Also, an anaerobic digester on campus will be operational this spring. The digester will serve as an additional platform for showcasing new methods and technologies that can be adopted throughout Ontario to add additional revenue streams to family farms. In April, Ridgetown Campus received an investment of more than $2.6 million through the Federal Development Agency of Southern Ontario to build the digester. Built and designed by PlanET Biogas Solutions, the digester will feature one dry feeder system, one pasteurization unit and a biogas engine to convert the biogas into renewable electricity. "The electricity will be sold to the grid as part of Canada's feed-in-tariff (FIT) program," Uher says. "It's exclusive to Ontario where the campus would get an elevated rate on its electricity." Construction on the plant began in late September and is expected to be producing biogas by February.

The plant will produce biogas from several organic waste streams such as manure sourced from various dairy, swine, and beef lots located on campus. Corn silage, glycerin and other off-farm wastes that might otherwise find their way to landfills are being explored as additional inputs for the digester, Uher says.

Adding the anaerobic digester would open up synergistic avenues leading to new energy streams. For example, waste heat could be fed back to campus boilers for heating buildings, or be directed to a greenhouse adjacent to the digester. Uher says the digestate could become a potential feedstock stream for the biodiesel production facility.

"The possibilities are endless," he says.

Author: Bryan Sims
Associate Editor, Biodiesel Magazine
(701) 738-4974
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