Motor City Methyl Esters

DaimlerChrysler Corp., NextEnergy Center and Biodiesel Industries Inc. are cleaning up a brownfield site in Detroit to grow feedstocks for biodiesel production. Developing future fuels in Michigan is critical as it's the U.S. automobile manufacturing hub. Furthermore, if the project is successful it could serve as a model for the "greening" of hazardous waste sites nationwide.
By Nicholas Zeman | August 03, 2007
Abandoned copper smelters, old dumps, chemical refuse heaps-these are the hazardous waste sites that the U.S. Congress wanted cleaned up when they established the U.S. EPA's Superfund program in 1980. The federal initiative has provided the opportunity for a lot of innovative projects.

Biodiesel is a part of the resourcefulness involved in the "greening" of ugly and dangerous brownfield sites in Michigan. A research lab, a biodiesel producer and a major automaker are collectively looking to transform an industrial cesspool near Detroit into a fertile, energy crop producing landscape. According to the EPA three sites within a five-square-mile area in Rose Township in Oakland County, Mich., were filled with about 5,000 drums of liquid industrial wastes including paint sludges, solvents, oils and greases. The wastes were either buried or deposited on the surface. "Some may have been emptied into the ground or in pits so that the drums could be recycled," the EPA says, adding that the state removed most of the drums in 1980, but groundwater, surface water and soils remained contaminated for many years.

"DaimlerChrysler was one of the companies that was doing the dumping," says Max Gates of DaimlerChrysler. "Since we were one of the larger companies, it was just easier for us to take over the cleanup." While they weren't responsible for all the pollution there, DaimlerChrysler and the other responsible parties agreed that something needed to be done, and began administering the effort to clean the site in 1988.

Since then, a unique partnership has formed to turn the Rose Township industrial refuse area into a place where crops that yield vegetable oils can be grown and used to produce biodiesel. Michigan and Detroit are looking to position themselves as leaders in the development of alternative fuels. There is a transformation occurring in the heart of the state's biggest city because of technological research and development at the NextEnergy Center (NEC), which houses the U.S. DOE-funded National Biofuels Energy Laboratory. In turn, DaimlerChrysler wants to "green" its image through the promotion of biodiesel, and is also integrating the fuel into its vehicle designs. Biodiesel Industries Inc. (BI), a company that is expanding its production capacity, has made research and development an integral part of its business model. From its perspective, what alternative fuel producer wouldn't want to be partnered with a major vehicle manufacturer?

The project also involved Kurt Thelen, associate professor and extension specialist in the Department of Crop and Soil Sciences at Michigan State University (MSU), who is growing soybeans, corn, canola and switchgrass on two acres of the 110-acre site. The test plots are being established to explore the possibility that the site could produce crops that have the quality and yield for biodiesel production, and could in turn help clean the contaminated soil. "It's a site where you don't want to grow crops for human consumption because it's not really known if the food would be safe for humans or livestock," Gates says. MSU harvested a crop last fall and has been studying it for various characteristics. The oil yield per bushel will be measured and the soil examined to see if there were any changes as a result of its interaction with the vegetation. "Biodiesel production is going to require a significant land base to meet future production expectations," Thelen says. "Using marginal lands or sites that aren't preferable for food crops is a good idea that needs to be explored." The sites also will be analyzed to determine which soil and climatic conditions, cultivation and irrigation processes, and crop varieties will produce the most fuel. "Eventually these oilseeds will be fed into Biodiesel Industries' plant in Detroit for refining into biodiesel," Gates says.

Russell Teall, president and founder of BI says a small amount of oil was produced from those crops but not quite enough to make any biodiesel. "These were very small test plots, but considerably more acres [for energy crops] are under development," he says. BI, which established production in 2001 using its own process technology, broke ground on a 10 MMgy plant in mid-May at the Detroit site. The company knows that new and innovative feedstocks will be necessary to grow the industry as biodiesel demand increases. The company is excited to work with DaimlerChrysler and the state-funded NEC to utilize crops grown on brownfield sites to make methyl esters a fuel staple in the Motor City.

Enter Renewable Fuels Research
The NEC is in Tech Town, Detroit's entrepreneurial high-tech center, which is in the shadow of the auto industry's manufacturing stronghold. "This is right in the area where Cadillacs and Corvettes were designed and next to Henry Ford's original Model-T assembly line," Teall says. "NextEnergy's entire focus is to bring Detroit into the 21st century with enhanced propulsion systems, fuels, etc." NEC is a state-of-the-art, 45,000 square-foot facility dedicated to an alternative fuels testing program aimed at increasing the infrastructure, quality and distribution of hydrogen fuel cells, biodiesel and ethanol, among other renewable fuels. "We've worked with NextEnergy on other types of projects, such as testing with fuel cells and on various renewable fuels," Gates says. "Now Biodiesel Industries will be able to supply NextEnergy with the biodiesel needed for their research and development.

BI's Detroit biodiesel plant, which is scheduled to begin production this fall, is being constructed at a site that's three blocks away from the NEC, in an area of the city that is being completely revitalized by renewable fuels developments. The company could also become a supplier for DaimlerChrysler in the near future. When launching the Jeep Liberty CR5 factory fill, DaimlerChrysler purchased fuel from Peter Cremer Inc., in Cincinnati, which it still does to this day. "We knew they were making a particularly high-quality biodiesel," Gates says. "Once Biodiesel Industries gets up and running and quality has been assured, we may begin purchasing our biodiesel from them."

Teall says there is widespread appreciation for Daimler Chrysler in the biodiesel industry for their efforts to promote the renewable fuel, especially as it was the first automaker to deliver new vehicles with a blend of biodiesel in the tank to customers. This promotion has largely been done using the Jeep Grand Cherokee CRD, Dodge Ram, Cummins Diesel pickup and Mercedes E320 models. In an effort to be more environmentally friendly, the world's fifth-largest automaker has even supported the development of a national B20 mandate.

While industry and technology are certainly a large part of the work detailed in this project, concerns over conservation and public health were the initial motivating forces for the cleanup of the Rose Township dump. The EPA has endorsed these endeavors for the Superfund site through its "return to use" initiative. This particular location could serve as a model for potential reuse for literally hundreds of Superfund and brownfield sites nationwide. The brownfield biodiesel project in Michigan is part of the Superfund program's success, the EPA reports. As of December 2005, construction work was complete at 966, or 62 percent, of Superfund sites and work was underway at an additional 422 sites. Crunching the numbers, there are more than 20 Superfund sites per state and one in every four Americans lives within three miles of a hazardous waste area. It is hoped that biodiesel and energy crop cultivation will change those statistics. "If I had a brownfield in my neighborhood, I know that I would prefer it be 'greened' and put to a constructive use," Thelen says.

Nicholas Zeman is a Biodiesel Magazine staff writer. Reach him at [email protected] or (701) 746-8385.
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