First Impressions

The 22 students in teacher Lynn Strong's Garden Club from Wonder Junior High School in West Memphis, Ark., were introduced to biodiesel-some of them for the first time-during a recent field day excursion. What the children learned has the potential to not only change the way they view transportation fuels and agriculture, but set the dreams of tomorrow's engineers, farmers and policy-makers in motion.
By Gary DiGiuseppe | January 01, 2006
Andrew Couch recently told a giggling group of seventh graders that he wants them to start bugging people.

"When you go home and you talk to your parents-or when you get in your [family's] car-ask your folks about it," the representative of the West Tennessee Clean Cities Coalition told the kids. "[Ask them] 'Have you ever heard of this stuff? Why don't we have it? You guys are the ones who need to know about this stuff. If you are driving, then you need to know that there is an alternative to petroleum.'"

Couch was one of several speakers hoping the 22 students in teacher Lynn Strong's Garden Club from Wonder Junior High School in West Memphis, Ark., would take home a dual message-the nation needs clean air and greater energy security, and biodiesel is part of the solution. The speakers and kids were assembled at Uncle John's restaurant in Crawfordsville, a tiny, farming-intensive community in Crittenden County, Ark. The event's organizer, Crittenden County Farm Bureau President Boyce Johnson, has been a tireless advocate of biodiesel. In 2004, he got most of the county's farmers to sign a pledge to use the alternative fuel in their operations. For this field day, he arranged for the kids to visit a soybean seed plant, as well as his own farm, and finally to stop at Uncle John's for lunch followed by a discussion about alternative fuels.

The Garden Club is a first for the middle school. It is funded by allocations from the county Farm Bureau and a nonprofit group which funnels federal grants into extracurricular school projects. The students who participate do so on their own, taking part in activities after school. Strong said he hoped biofuels "is something that they have an interest in [something] that's going to spark some growth in them." One bright student, Uniqua Woods, who proudly declared "I want to be a scientist," said she plans to go to Harvard University-and that her grades are good enough to get her there.

The idea of crops being used to produce energy was new to many of the students. Although several were aware that ethanol is primarily made from corn, most knew very little about biodiesel. The issue is topical, because in 2004, Crittenden County and Shelby County, Tenn., including Memphis, were both declared to be non-attainment ozone regions. Local officials in both counties hope incentives-as opposed to mandates-for biofuels production and use will help clean up the air.

Eddie Rawling, head of Crittenden County's Metropolitan Planning Organization, explained to the youngsters in simple terms how some measures were already being adopted to reduce hydrocarbon and NOx emissions. For example, the county employs more than 70 truck stop electrification units so truckers don't need to continuously run engines during breaks. Likewise, service stations have vapor recovery units to capture and return fumes as the tanks are refilled. "Saving energy is really important, and the less energy we use, the less pollutants are put out," Rawling said, adding that the county is excited about biodiesel. "It's cleaner burning, so therefore we don't get as much pollutants into the air."

Johnson told the group that speakers at an Arkansas Department of Enviromental Quality (ADEQ) meeting had said the U.S. EPA "was almost to the point" of letting biodiesel qualify as an emissions controller, rather than mandate the retrofitting of engines with emissions control devices. "We're taking small, incremental steps-but that's a big one," he said. Johnson said ADEQ had also talked about recent research which demonstrated that biodiesel slightly reduces NOx emissions. This is contradictory to established research that shows that the alternative fuel increases NOx emissions. "[Biodiesel] lowers every other kind of emission," Johnson said. "If it would help us out on NOx, that would certainly be beneficial."

The local authority on biodiesel is Gordon Petty, Crawfordsville operations manager for Ritter Oil Co., which has been blending biodiesel for its customers for three years. Petty conservatively estimated the company's two local affiliates had already blended 6 million gallons in the first nine months of 2005. "We buy B100 from our suppliers, and we blend it into the diesel at whatever percentage the farmer wants," he said. "Two percent is most common, but some want 5 percent or 20 percent-or even 99 percent." Biodiesel is a natural solvent and some say it can lead to the corrosion of rubber components in older vehicles, but Petty said farmers tell him, "Well, I'm going to burn it, and if I have to replace a hose, that's fine because it's not a big expense."

Farmers represent about 70 percent of Ritter Oil Co.'s biodiesel customers. The company's biggest industrial user is H&M, which has a railcar-switching operation in nearby Marion, Ark.

Petty told the kids, "What we see at Ritter Oil Co. is a chance for us in the petroleum business to blend a product with our petroleum diesel that will help improve the environment. It'll help improve the performance of our tractors and our diesel engines make them last longer. And hopefully, with the clean air problems that we have, I think it's probably going to be less expensive than we think it will be to use a blend of biodiesel." Petty said biodiesel could be used by Southern farmers who have thousands of irrigated acres that rely on diesel-powered pumps.

Petty also pointed out that biodiesel boosts the market for local soybean farmers. One of them, Todd Allen of West Memphis, is also the New Uses Committee chairman of the United Soybean Board, which gets half of the 0.25 percent checked-off against all U.S. soybean sales-state boards get the rest-and uses it for market promotion and research. One of the new uses developed with the help of the checkoff is a soybean-derived oil for electric transformers. Allen said the biobased oil costs 20 percent more but extends the life of a transformer three to five times. "The potential market is 75 million gallons per year, which would equate to 50 million bushels of soybeans," he said.

Allen and Petty both said the surge in petroleum prices is driving demand for biodiesel. "Truckers are aware of the fact that right now they can buy biodiesel cheaper than they can buy petroleum diesel in most places, and it's made an impact on our truck business," Petty said. Allen explained that biodiesel is "coming on stream very fast, and the problem that we've had-we haven't been able to make enough."

Petty is critical of other oil companies for not following Ritter Oil Co.'s lead and offering biodiesel blends. "We have some in Arkansas that have, but they've been reluctant," he said. " ... The biggest problem that everyone's had is getting a supply, where you have it regularly so you won't disappoint your truckers who come off the road if they're depending on you having it. But the supply is getting better-they've got more manufacturers-and we've been able to keep it for our people."

Petty said it's also cheaper to build a biodiesel plant than a refinery and cited the recent hurricane devastation as evidence that U.S. fuel production needs to be more spread out. Memphis only has one refinery, and the next closest is in Louisiana. "If we have these biodiesel plants where we can produce at least some energy-and they're scattered around the country-to me, that's also a national security issue," Petty said.

The local officials present during the field day were positive yet cautious about the prospects of a biodiesel plant being built. "Hope so," said Kevin Gallagher, the Clean Air Coordinator for Shelby County. "Memphis and Shelby County are well situated with the rail, truck and barge traffic. If we can start our alternative fuels production and distribution now, as we move forward and as gas prices continue to rise, the demand is going to go up, and we'll have a real economic development opportunity there."
Gallagher said the non-attainment status generates a demand to do something, whether it's biodiesel and alternative fuels, or some other opportunity. "There are stricter regulatory controls that we can put in place, but those would be restrictive to businesses," he said. "We would rather take an approach that can be an economic benefit, as well as being an environmental benefit."

Johnson also said there have been rumors about a local biodiesel plant. "I think we're laying the groundwork right now for when a facility does come on line; we'll be ready to use it." Petty was tight-lipped about whether Ritter Oil Co. would be interested in a plant. "We're examining opportunities in the biodiesel business," he hinted.

At the end of the event, Couch showed the students a jar of biodiesel and handed them brochures that explained how the fuel is made. "Your chemistry teacher could make it in the lab," he said. Couch, who said his job is to "educate, outreach and let people know about these alternative fuels," likened the situation to hearing about recycling when he was in school. "They educated us on it; we went home and sweated our parents to death, and my parents started recycling, and it has become a national program," he said. "Ask them, 'Why don't we have biodiesel? Why don't we have ethanol?' And then hopefully, we'll be able to provide you with an answer in the next couple years. Or the next couple months, even."

Gary DiGiuseppe is an Arkansas-based freelance writer. The last feature article he authored for Biodiesel Magazine, titled "Is Biodiesel Right for Arkansas?" was published in the December/January 2005 issue.
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