Feedstock research continues with peanut, sunflower oils

By | December 15, 2006
While soybeans, canola and palm oil are the traditionally preferred feedstocks for biodiesel production, researchers around the world continue to search for alternative feedstocks that are cheaper and yield more oil. Dr. Daniel Geller, a faculty engineer at the University of Georgia, is conducting tests on several types of what he calls "industrial" peanuts-those not suitable for eating-in hopes of identifying a perfect peanut for biodiesel production. Peanut oil produces approximately 123 gallons of biodiesel per acre while soybeans yield 50 gallons, according to Geller.

The prevalence of peanuts in Georgia made it a logical choice for biodiesel research, Geller said. He and his research team have run initial tests on 10 varieties of peanuts, inputting their properties into a database, manufacturing biodiesel and running engines on the fuel from each type with success.

The high price of the commodity, however, keeps it from competing with soybeans in the biodiesel market. Peanut oil costs 50 cents per gallon while soy oil costs 30 cents per gallon. Geller's ideal peanut would be one with negative food properties that doesn't perform well as a cooking oil, yet is suitable for biodiesel manufacture, he said.

University of Georgia research teams have been experimenting with peanut oil as a fuel for more than 20 years, running university buses on it as far back as 1982, Geller said. However, a number of hurdles for peanuts as a viable feedstock remain. "We're going to try to get higher yields for less money to make this happen, and that's the only way it's going to work," he said.

In a similar project, Dr. Becky Grube, an associate professor from the University of New Hampshire and sustainable horticultural crop specialist, is collaborating with local farmer Dorn Cox to conduct research into the feasibility of sunflowers as a biodiesel feedstock. Just like Geller's peanuts in Georgia, the sunflowers were chosen because of their ability to grow well in New Hampshire and their higher oil yield. Grube and Cox estimate 130 gallons of biodiesel can be made per acre of sunflowers. While Cox built a mobile biodiesel manufacturing station on a trailer, five hybrid varieties of sunflowers were planted on a four-acre plot at the university's Kingman Farm.

Grube said the first batch of sunflowers has been harvested, and a second crop has also been planted. Seed and oil yield measurements will be taken to determine the economic feasibility for New Hampshire growers. Biodiesel will be produced with the sunflower oil and then used to power farm equipment at Cox's farm. Grube said that through research, they hope be able to identify a new feedstock that "local farmers can use to fuel their energy needs without having to rely on something that is imported."

The experiment is the first of its kind at the University of New Hampshire, Grube said. There are similar research projects being done at the University of Maine and the University of Vermont.
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