Farm-to-Fuel Summit discusses biodiesel issues

By Ron Kotrba | September 04, 2007
In mid-July, St. Petersburg, Fla., was a bioenergy hotspot as the state ag department hosted the 2007 Farm-to-Fuel Summit, where legislators and renewable energy participants came together to build on growing biofuels momentum and fulfill the progressive energy vision cast by Florida Gov. Charlie Crist. Charles Bronson, state agriculture commissioner, said the task of accomplishing significant energy independence with renewables is Herculean, but the challenges must-and will-be met.

Although the summit's focus was on the larger, more mature ethanol and biomass-to-power industries, a small biodiesel contingent talked about the challenges and opportunities facing existing and future biodiesel producers today. Dave Jarrett with Xenerga Inc. detailed his company's testing of jatropha through its subsidiary JatrophaTech, which plans to grow large-scale nurseries of its cloned and modified jatropha strain near Orlando, Fla. It takes four years for typical jatropha to seed, but the JatrophaTech strain yields oilseeds after just one year. "The plant thinks it is four years old," he said of the 1-year-old specimen. After five years, 5,250 liters of oil per hectare is achievable, Jarrett said. The company is now preparing to set up large nurseries raising its special variety of jatropha.

Fred Tennant, vice president of business development with Melbourne, Fla.-based PetroAlgae, detailed his company's plans to commercialize biodiesel production from a high-yielding algae licensed from Arizona State University. He said 14,000 gallons of algae-based oil per acre is achievable using proprietary bioreactors and the special micro-algae. Tennant said his company has a research facility under construction and will have a small-scale pilot plant running by the end of the year. The company has aggressive plans for commercial algae production in 2008. "Palm and soy oil prices are going up every day," he said, justifying PetroAlgae's production of the alternative feedstock. PetroAlgae intends to develop several strains of oil for many different purposes. After inoculation and growth, the algae are harvested and dewatered, followed by cell disruption to release the oil. PetroAlgae plans to ship algae oil to biodiesel plants for methyl ester refining.

Soybean pricing was also discussed since the increase in corn planting and decrease in soybean acres helped to push soybean oil prices up to 37.5 cents per pound in mid-July. "Palm oil is higher than soy oil for the first time in 20 years," said World Energy Vice President David Shiflett. In 16 months' time, feedstock costs for U.S. producers went up an average of 14 cents per pound, or about a dollar per gallon, boosting per-gallon prices upward of $3 per gallon for soy oil delivered to the average plant. "There's not a lot of arbitrage opportunity in the United States now," he said. "Ninety percent of our Lakeland biodiesel is exported out of state, and much goes out of the country" as B99.9, he said.
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