Colorado grants assist farm-scale biodiesel projects

By Ryan C. Christiansen | February 10, 2009
The Colorado Agricultural Value Added Development Board, part of the Colorado Department of Agriculture, awarded $150,000 in Advancing Colorado's Renewable Energy grants to two biodiesel-related projects.

In partnership with Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Colo., the International Center for Appropriate and Sustainable Technology (ICAST) in Lakewood, Colo., was awarded $100,000 to assist with the implementation of two farm-scale oilseed crushing and biodiesel production facilities. According to Raphael Shay, sustainability project manager for ICAST, one of the facilities will be at a feedlot in Stratton, Colo. "By producing meal with the oilseeds, we can actually make the project viable," he said. "The biodiesel in this case is the coproduct. We're hoping to use this as a demonstration project so that other producers see how it can be done."

While growers in the region are more familiar with sunflowers, Shay said soybeans will be used as a feedstock "just because sunflowers are very valuable in the market right now."

The facility is expected to be operational this summer and will produce 100,000 gallons of biodiesel per year. The glycerin byproduct might be diluted with wastewater and sprayed onto fields, or it might be used as a feed additive.

Shay said the location for the second facility hasn't been finalized, but it might be built at the USDA Agricultural Research Service's Central Great Plains Research Station in Akron, Colo. There, dryland canola and camelina oilseeds from test fields would be crushed for use as a straight vegetable oil fuel or converted into biodiesel to be used in research center tractors. Students from the Colorado School of Mines in Golden, Colo., will design and build the oilseed fuel operations at the research center. Shay said students from the University of Denver are expected to work on a model business plan for farm-scale biodiesel production facilities for ICAST.

"Speaking with producers, one of the problems that we found [often] is the very unstable price of fuel, which makes it really hard for them to plan whether their farms will be viable or not," Shay said. "By producing biodiesel with on-farm crops, we therefore isolate the producers from price variability."

In 2007, ICAST and CSU studied the performance of five oilseed crops-soybeans, safflowers, sunflowers, canola, and camelina-at nine locations within Colorado: Fort Collins, Akron, Walsh, Dailey, Idalia, Julesburg, Brandon, Yuma and Rocky Ford. Crop performance was tested under three environmental conditions, including dryland, limited irrigation and full irrigation. The collected data included seed yield, moisture content, plant height and pod shattering.

Over the past two years, ICAST has been using a mobile biodiesel demonstration unit, dubbed Big SID (Seeds Into Diesel), to educate farmers and ranchers in Colorado and Wyoming about how to make biodiesel on the farm. It includes a seed crusher and biodiesel reactor, is mounted on a donated flatbed military truck and is designed for mobile farm-scale biodiesel production. Depending on seed oil content, the oilseed crusher can process five tons of seed per day, producing 16 to 20 gallons of oil per hour. The idea is that a Big SID-type unit could be easily transported to produce oil and meal for individual farms. "We actually have a few projects that are moving into the implementation phase," Shay said, adding he knows of at least two other farmers who have started their own farm-scale biodiesel production operations after visiting the Big SID mobile unit.

Colorado State University's Golden Plains Area Extension Service received the second ACRE grant. A $50,000 research grant will be used to evaluate how energy crops should be rotated on northeastern Colorado dryland farms. "What we're trying to do is take the potential renewable energy crops-whether they're biodiesel, ethanol or cellulosic sources-and see how they fit into a cropping sequence," said Alan Helm, area extension agent for CSU. "Which crops follow which best? Which crops don't follow? If we start growing some of these alternative crops, whether it's canola or camelina, where do they fit into our cropping systems?"

Helm said canola, camelina and sunflowers will be rotated with dryland corn, grain sorghum, forage sorghums, winter wheat and other crops at the Central Great Plains Research Station to determine how well the crops grow in sequence. "Every crop will be planted into every residue," he said. The ACRE grant covers the first two years of the project, but additional grants will be sought to extend the project.
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