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Biodiesel production begins in Minnesota
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The plant began producing biodiesel in December. These jars hold some of the first samples of the new product. (MPR Photo/Mark Steil)
The era of farm-based diesel fuel production in Minnesota is underway. The first plant in the state to make what's called biodiesel began operation last month near Redwood Falls. By this summer, it's expected three biodiesel plants will be operating in the state. The activity is pegged to a new state fuel mandate which takes effect in June. It will require nearly all the diesel fuel sold in the state to contain at least 2 percent biodiesel.

Redwood Falls, Minn. — The production of biodiesel is a groundbreaking idea steeped in agricultural tradition. Farmers want to eke every possible product from everything they produce.

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Image Chuck Neece

At the Redwood Falls plant, animal fat is being converted into fuel. The plant is owned by Farmers Union Marketing and Processing Association. The company makes everything from pet food to kitty litter -- its main business is rendering. Livestock are processed into a variety of products, including bone meal and fats.

In the past, the fats were used in livestock feeds. But with the start of biodiesel production, company research director Chuck Neese says most of the fats will be used to make fuel. He says the company already is using the product in its own diesel engines.

"We run 60 Navistar with Cummins diesels. We're running a 5 percent blend in those tractors, and we're also running a 5 percent blend in our own electrical generation," says Neece.

Neese says the heart of the plant's biodiesel production is a simple chemical reaction: Alcohol is mixed with the animal fats. The alcohol acts as a catalyst to separate non-fuel components from the fats. Neese says the final product is a gold-colored liquid, which looks and smells like cooking oil.

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Image The fuel's brand name

"These are an imitator of a diesel fuel," says Neece. "And in fact, from the American Society of Testing Methods, it meets the requirements of a diesel fuel for combustion engines."

Minnesota is the first state in the nation to require the use of biodiesel. The 2 percent mandate mimics the start of another farm-based fuel requirement, ethanol. Since 1997, all gasoline sold in Minnesota must contain at least 10 percent ethanol, a product derived mainly from corn. The law brought a quick increase in the number of ethanol plants in the state, and also boosted the price of corn.

Kurt Markham of the state Agriculture Department thinks the same will happen with biodiesel. He says soybeans will be the principal raw ingredient.

"It should add about 3 to 5 cents a bushel for the Minnesota farmers with the additional demand for biodiesel," says Markham.

The main opponents of the biodiesel mandate have been truckers. Minnesota Trucking Association President John Hausladen says drivers support alternative fuels, but oppose government mandates. He says the Minnesota biodiesel law will take effect during a time of historically high diesel fuel costs.

The inventor of the diesel engine, Rudolf Diesel, ran his first prototype on peanut oil. He believed farm-based products would fuel commercial use of the engine.

"We have just the price of the fuel itself; there's been discussion about a fuel tax increase this legislative session; and then biodiesel, we still believe, will be an added cost on top of that. So, it's a real triple-whammy," says Hausladen.

Minnesota's biodiesel mandate could add 2 cents to a gallon of fuel. However, federal energy aid for biodiesel producers could cancel out that increase. State agriculture officials say if enough federal money comes to Minnesota, it could lower production costs and lead to no biodiesel impact on prices.

Farmers say price considerations are more than offset by the fuel's benefits. They believe biodiesel will improve air quality since it burns cleaner than petroleum fuels, and it could lessen the nation's dependence on foreign oil.

In Redwood Falls, Chuck Neece says producing biodiesel also completes a nice circle. The inventor of the diesel engine, Rudolf Diesel, ran his first prototype on peanut oil. He believed farm-based products would fuel commercial use of the engine. Rudolf Diesel was wrong, but biodiesel is a small step in the direction of his original vision.

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