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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Fields of gain

Dr. Jon H. Van Gerpen stands near a flask of biodiesel produced by the University of Idaho. Van Gerpen, a mechanical engineer, is the new head of the biological and agricultural engineering department. He was recently recruited from Iowa to direct the biodiesel program. 
 (Photos by KATHY PLONKA / The Spokesman-Review)

MOSCOW, Idaho – With some seed, sun and soil, the Inland Northwest is looking to help grow the nation away from its messy addiction to petroleum.

Wheat farmers are being wooed into growing thousands of acres of a yellow flowering plant with seeds capable of powering cars and heating homes. Plans also are well under way for at least two refineries in the region, which could be churning out millions of gallons of home-grown fuel by the end of the year.

Seemingly overnight, biodiesel has vaulted from the realm of university labs and Volkswagen bus-driving idealists to a potential tonic for curing the region’s ailing farm economy, while at the same time sealing the widening cracks in the energy foundation of the national economy.

“There’s a gold rush mentality,” said Jon Van Gerpen, a noted biodiesel expert recently recruited from Iowa State University to direct the University of Idaho’s national Biodiesel Education Program.

Unlike a gold rush, however, the biofuel industry is expected to stay in business as long as society needs energy, Van Gerpen said. Investors are racing to get a piece of the action, but few seem to have the know-how to create fuel from seeds. This has heightened demand for students from Idaho’s program, Van Gerpen said. One undergraduate recently snagged an internship at a California biodiesel refinery. But instead of returning to Idaho, he was lured into staying with the company after being offered a plant manager job with a $70,000 annual salary.

Van Gerpen traces the frenzy to a combination of factors: ever-increasing petroleum prices, improved biodiesel technology, growing unrest in petroleum-producing lands and new laws that provide incentives for using the plant-based fuel.

Last year, Minnesota instituted a requirement that biodiesel make up 2 percent of all diesel sold in the state. That amounted to only about 15 million gallons, but the guaranteed market prompted a flurry of investment and the state now produces 65 million gallons a year, Van Gerpen said. Hundreds of jobs were created, and soybean farmers were handed a new, local market for their harvest.

“It didn’t cost the state a thing to create this new industry,” Van Gerpen said. “That mandate was just the trigger.”

Washington stands poised to become the second state in the nation to institute a biodiesel requirement. This week, legislators are expected to vote on a similar 2 percent proposal, which would require as much as 30 million gallons of biodiesel to be sold per year beginning in 2008, based on the state’s current consumption of nearly 1.5 billion gallons of petroleum diesel annually.

Off the back burner

The idea of extracting energy from vegetable oil has been around since Rudolph Diesel began tinkering with a new style of engine well over a century ago. But cheap petroleum from the Middle East and a long-established refining industry has long kept biofuels on the back burner, said Charles Peterson, a University of Idaho professor and a pioneering researcher in the field.

Peterson, who was raised on a farm in southern Idaho, explained the basic idea on how plants can harness energy: “It’s just a big solar collector. We’re using land to grow plants to collect energy from the sun, compact it and use it to power engines.”

The process would require lots of land. If Washington were to grow enough canola to supply 30 million gallons of biodiesel, nearly a half-million acres would be needed, according to some estimates. That would be nearly half the size of Spokane County. For Idaho to grow 2 percent of its diesel, about 100,000 acres of good cropland would be needed, Peterson said. This is land that won’t be devoted to growing food.

Peterson became interested in the idea in the late 1970s, just as the country was in the midst of energy and farm crises. He started with an experiment by going to the grocery store, buying bottles of sunflower oil and pouring them into an old Ford tractor. The machine sputtered to life. Although the motor quickly gummed up – he didn’t add any alcohol to thin the mix – three decades of ensuing research have helped Peterson and the university come up with wiser ways of using plants for fuel.

Nowadays, about one gallon of alcohol is added to every nine gallons of raw oil extracted from seeds. Much of the 350 million gallons of biodiesel produced each year in the United States comes from soybean oil, according to the National Biodiesel Board. But Peterson and his colleagues are focusing on extracting oil from canola or mustard seeds. These plants offer more oil and result in a fuel that produces less pollution than soybean oil, according to research at the University of Idaho.

It takes energy to grow the plants and turn the oil into fuel. The exact balance of energy has been the focus of a heated debate, with a prominent scientist from Cornell University recently claiming that the process results in a 27 percent net loss of energy, when things like fertilizer and transporting the crop are factored into the equation. Research conducted at the University of Idaho, however, refutes these findings and claims that 2.8 units of biodiesel energy are created by every one unit of energy devoted to the process. The Idaho research also considered the crushed seed meal left over after the oil is extracted. This meal is a valuable, protein-rich food for livestock and poultry, and this beneficial byproduct should be considered, researchers say.

Biodiesel should not be seen as the answer to the country’s energy crunch, Peterson said in the university’s biodiesel lab. The room had the subtle smell of breakfast cereal and was filled with the hum of a motor. It was the sound of a machine squeezing oil from canola seeds.

“Conservation can do as much as biodiesel. But biodiesel could be part of the answer,” Peterson said. “It’s something that can never be grown in excess. The energy need is so huge.”

The rising price of petroleum has made biodiesel competitive, but profit margins are razor thin and few farmers in the region seem willing to switch to seed oils. Peterson said extra research dollars would help find new production efficiencies and plant strains suited for dry Inland Northwest soil. He noted that an estimated $100,000 per minute is being spent on the war in Iraq. “Just give us a few minutes and we could have a pretty spectacular energy program.”

Building an industry from the ground up

Biodiesel might help save the planet and reduce the nation’s dependence on foreign oil, but Tim Stearns has another hope for the plant-based fuel. Each day, about $25 million flows out of the state of Washington to pay for the fossil fuels that power the state, said Stearns, a senior energy policy specialist with the state’s Department of Community, Trade and Economic Development.

If the fuel could be grown and processed locally, this could mean millions of additional dollars “bouncing around” in the state, Stearns said. Private investors are working with the state on at least six prospective processing plants for oil seeds, he said.

But these processors will likely rely on imported soy oil from the Midwest or canola from Canada. Currently, only about 4,000 acres of canola is grown in the state – less than 1 percent of what would be needed under the proposed minimum biodiesel mandate. For the Inland Northwest to truly benefit from biofuels, the energy needs to be grown locally, Stearns said. That could be a monumental challenge.

Then again, nobody ever said ending an addiction to oil would be easy.

“We’re basically building an industry from scratch,” Stearns said.