Converting acres of soybeans to miles per gallon

ON THE FARM

September 24, 2006|By TED SHELSBY

Geologists will tell you there has never been a drop of oil discovered in Maryland.

However, soybeans are plentiful - there are more than 450,000 acres of the crop in the state - and a Worcester County couple is producing a diesel fuel alternative made from soybean oil.

James and Virginia Warren operate Maryland Biodiesel Inc., a Berlin-based company that is the first and only facility of its type in the state, extracting an oil from soybeans that is blended with traditional diesel fuel to produce biodiesel fuel.

The Warrens believe that biodiesel offers advantages that make it poised to be a part of the solution to the nation's energy problems.

"There are health benefits and environmental benefits, and it could help ease dependence on foreign oil," Virginia Warren said.

Maryland agriculture officials are among the biggest advocates of biodiesel, particularly because of the potential to open up new opportunities for farmers.

"If it creates an expanded market for soybeans, it will very likely benefit farmers with a higher price for their beans," said Maryland Agriculture Secretary Lewis R. Riley.

Maryland is a newcomer to the biodiesel industry. The Berlin plant, with its white, three-story fuel storage tanks, opened in June, joining 65 plants operating in the nation. Fifty more biodiesel plants are under construction, and eight plants are being expanded in the United States.

National biodiesel production reached 75 million gallons last year, three times the output in 2004.

Maryland Biodiesel likely won't be alone in the state market for long. Other companies, including Perdue Farms Inc., the giant Salisbury-based poultry processor, are exploring the market. Two biodiesel plants are in the planning stages for the Frederick area.

Julie DeYoung, a spokeswoman for Perdue, said the company formed a new division - Perdue BioEnergy LLC - in June and is looking at the possibility of building a biodiesel plant. She said the company could set up a plant to produce biodiesel itself or in partnership with another company.

Advocates of biodiesel primarily point to the potential environmental benefits.

"Unlike gasoline, which has MTBE in it, you can spill a gallon of biodiesel on the ground and it won't hurt anything," says Virginia Warren, vice president and chief financial officer of Maryland Biodiesel.

MTBE, an additive used in gasoline to make it burn cleaner, has caused cancer in lab animals. A leak of MTBE at an Exxon station in the Fallston area of Harford County in 2004 contaminated the wells of more than 200 homes. Oil refiners are phasing out its use.

Maryland Biodiesel buys soybean oil from Perdue Farms, where the oil is extracted from beans while the remaining meal is used in chicken feed.

After processing the oil, workers at Maryland Biodiesel mix it with regular diesel oil in a 2,250-gallon tank.

The Berlin plant is producing 500,000 gallons of biodiesel a year, company President James Warren said, with a goal of eventually turning out 4 million gallons annually.

The company offers blends of 20 percent, 50 percent and 99 percent of the fuel made from soybean oil, all priced at $2.99 a gallon. During the winter months, biodiesel thickens faster than the product made from petroleum, Virginia Warren said, explaining the purpose of the varying blends.

Maryland Biodiesel's customers include school bus owners, and most of the buses in Worcester County use biodiesel, the Warrens said.

The Warrens say that many customers - particularly bus drivers - tell them they get better fuel mileage with biodiesel.

James Warren says he gets improved mileage in his 2005 1-ton Chevy pickup truck with a diesel engine when he uses biodiesel.

The use of the fuel is not limited to vehicles, James Warren said.

"It can be used in anything with a diesel engine," he said. "Boats, tractors, cars, trucks and construction equipment like backhoes and generators. You can even use it as a home heating oil."

To help promote the use of alternative fuels, the General Assembly passed legislation this year requiring at least half of the state's fleet of diesel vehicles to use a 5 percent blend of biodiesel by the year 2008. The state Highway Administration currently uses a 20-percent blend biodiesel in its diesel vehicles.

The federal government has set a goal of having 25 percent of the country's energy coming from renewable resources by the year 2025.

James Warren said that people driving personal vehicles with diesel engines account for only about 5 percent of the company's biodiesel sales. He thinks that number will rise as automakers produce diesel engine cars that are more fuel-efficient than like models with gas engines.

The bulk of his sales are shipments to government or commercial customers.

"The state of Maryland is my biggest customer," he said. "They buy about 20 or 25 percent for their fleet vehicles. Bulk shipments are also sent to county transportation centers and to on-farm storage tanks."

For now, one of the main challenges for biodiesel producers is educating the public that any diesel engine can run on the soybean blend, said Virginia Warren.

"Often people think you have to do modifications to your truck or vehicle, and you don't," Virginia Warren said. "I often am asked, `What do I have to do to my Ford 350 [pickup truck] to run on biodiesel?' I say, `Listen very carefully: Nothing.'"

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