Final Report for LNE06-247
From 2006 through 2009, the Wilson College Biodiesel Project (WCBP) engaged the Mid-Atlantic farming community with an interactive on-farm biodiesel education program. Beginning in the fall of 2006, the WCBP held six free workshops for 120 farmers and educators in the region surrounding Chambersburg, PA. These full day hands-on workshops included a biodiesel production manual, basic biodiesel chemistry, a slide show, and production of a 50 gallon batch of biodiesel on site. After completing the workshops, participants were invited to apply for ten mini-grants of $1500 to cover start-up costs for on-farm biodiesel plants, as well as comprehensive technical support from the staff of the WCBP. Eighteen farmers applied and ten were selected for the mini-grants by a committee of agricultural professionals. The WCBP staff supported these participant farmers throughout the design and start-up phase of their on-farm biodiesel projects.
At the time of this report, eight of the ten farmer participants have adopted biodiesel production as a regular practice on their farms, and have developed sufficient skills to be considered responsible and effective micro-scale biodiesel producers. Two farmers working with the project have lagged behind this goal but continue to work towards incorporating biodiesel into their operations. One more farmer who did not seek start-up funds, but did receive technical support from the project has fully adopted biodiesel as an on-farm practice. To date, the farmers working with the project have produced and used over 11,000 gallons of biodiesel fuel worth approximately $44,000, and have a combined installed on-farm production capacity of approximately 1700 gallons per week.
An equally important phase of this project was to research and document the best practices for safe, environmentally responsible, and legal production of biodiesel on the farm. The project coordinator worked with faculty and engineers from Penn State University and regulatory personnel from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection to produce a 40 page manual titled “Biodiesel Safety and Best Management Practices for Small-Scale Noncommercial Use and Production”. This document has been accepted by biodiesel producers and educators nationwide as a landmark in legitimizing the practice of responsible small scale production.
The WCBP conducted practical research into advanced techniques for safer biodiesel production described in the manual, and publicized this work through nine outreach events over the duration of the project.
Biodiesel fuel is a renewable alternative to petroleum diesel that can be used to power most diesel engines without equipment modification, as well as some heating appliances. Biodiesel is considered to be a more environmentally sustainable alternative to petroleum because its combustion emissions are significantly lower in several EPA regulated air pollutants, and it is commonly made from either recycled cooking oil or farm-produced plant oils. When farmers collect free used cooking oil from restaurants in an efficient manner, or raise oilseed crops to be crushed on the farm, small-scale biodiesel production can also help lower fuel costs, improving economic sustainability.
Biodiesel is unique among alternative fuels in that high quality fuel can be produced in small processing facilities using low-tech, readily available equipment. However, biodiesel production at any scale involves some dangerous chemicals, fire hazards, and potential environmental pollution. Since most farmers are neither chemical engineers nor familiar with industrial safety standards, there exists a clear need for straightforward information and education on the topic of safe and responsible biodiesel production.
In 2006, Wilson College, located in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, had been running an educational biodiesel program and using biodiesel in farm equipment on its demonstration farm for several years. Prior experiences of the Wilson College Biodiesel Project (WCBP), including workshops and live demos at several agricultural and renewable energy events around the state, suggested that there was a strong interest among farmers and the general public in more information related to small scale biodiesel production. It was also apparent that one barrier to farmers starting their own biodiesel production facilities was the cost of capital equipment needed for fuel processing.
These factors lead to the three key objectives of this project:
1. To research the most up-to-date safety, regulatory, and environmental responsibility protocols for small scale biodiesel production.
2. To lead a series of hands-on workshops around the region for farmers to learn the basics of small scale biodiesel production and what is involved in running an on-farm operation.
3. To provide start-up funds of $1,500 and comprehensive technical support for ten farmer participants as they launched their own biodiesel production facilities, and as they progressed to become advocates for responsible small-scale production in their communities.
The efforts of this project focused entirely on the above areas, the success of which will be described in greater detail in the narrative to follow. The research into safe and responsible production methods culminated in the publication of the handbook “Biodiesel Safety and Best Management Practices for Small-Scale Noncommercial Use and Production”, which was co-written by the project coordinator, representatives of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, and agricultural, chemical, and environmental engineers from Penn State University. The project coordinator continues to research advanced safety topics, coordinate meetings, and serve as a speaker on the subject around the country.
The WCBP developed and refined a workshop curriculum, and held six free workshops for farmers at five different locations around the region. Over 120 people participated in the workshops, which were met with positive comments from attendees. Eighteen farmers applied for start-up funds and intensive technical support, and from these, ten were selected to be focused participants in the project. At the close of the project, eight of the ten farmers are actively producing biodiesel on their farms, and the project coordinator continues to support them with technical advice as needed.
(From the original application)
Of the 70 farmers who participate in hands-on biodiesel workshops, at least 10 will adopt biodiesel fuel production as a part of their regular practice. These 10 farmers will have achieved success when they have produced at least 500 gallons of biodiesel, and have hosted a workshop on fuel production for five or more other growers.
The outcome of this project will be improvement of farm sustainability by lowering operating costs and decreasing environmental impact, as a result of reduction in fossil fuel use.
Over 120 farmers and educators attended six hands-on biodiesel production workshops. Of the ten farmers selected for start-up mini-grants and intensive technical support, eight are currently making biodiesel fuel on the farm. Five of the ten have produced at least 500 gallons of biodiesel, while three others are well on their way to achieving this goal. One participant has made some fuel and is slowly developing his project, and one participant has failed to make significant progress toward biodiesel production goals. Eight of the ten participants have successfully promoted their projects to visitors through tours and focused workshops, and two have gone on to mentor other farmers in alternative fuels production.
Improved farm sustainability will be discussed in further detail in the Impact/ Results section. Several participants report reduced net fuel costs and all producers state that they appreciate the fact that they have decreased their farms’ fossil fuel dependence.
A. “Best Practices” Research and Promotion:
From the inception of the project, it was clear to project coordinator Matt Steiman (the PC) that safety and environmental responsibility protocols would be a vital part of this educational effort. The PC realized the need for a comprehensive “best practices” protocol following public workshops conducted prior to the inception of the project. On the surface, biodiesel production appears neither difficult nor complicated. It is easy to teach workshop participants enough production technology to get started and become dangerous. Moreover, a wealth of biodiesel information abounds on the internet and in print materials, some of which is of questionable reliability.
People are drawn to on-farm biodiesel production for a variety of reasons. While the interest of the Wilson College Biodiesel Project (WCBP) has always been in producing an environmentally friendly diesel alternative, many come to biodiesel strictly to save money or out of contempt for multinational oil companies. Coupled with farmers’ natural inclination towards independence, inventive but marginally safe fabrication standards, and a common disdain for regulatory agencies, we realized early on that improperly educated biodiesel producers could be a recipe for fire, injury, or other disasters. Furthermore, for philosophical and practical reasons, we sought to distinguish our participants from less scrupulous biodiesel producers. In the event of increased federal or state regulation of small scale biodiesel facilities, we hope that our community of “safe and responsible” producers will be considered in a different light from those who follow dangerous or illegal practices.
Biodiesel production in small scale facilities is a mini-industrial process, and involves many potential pitfalls. Personal poisoning from methanol, lye caustic, and other dangerous chemicals, a variety of fire and explosion hazards, and risk of large spills make biodiesel production a very serious business, requiring proper plant design and dedicated producers with attention to detail. Dealing responsibly with byproducts of fuel-making continues to be challenging for most small scale facilities.
The PC began researching areas of interest for the best practice protocol from day one of the project by reading all currently available books, peer-reviewed internet resources, and by consulting with more advanced biodiesel producer-educators. In July of 2006, the PC travelled to Golden, CO for a national conference of responsible small-scale producers. At this meeting he made contacts with several respected authorities, including representatives of Piedmont Biofuels (North Carolina), the Collaborative Biodiesel Tutorial, and Biodiesel Smarter magazine. In September of 2006, Wilson College hosted a national renewable energy conference, at which representatives of the above organizations gave presentations on safe production, byproduct disposal, and other advanced topics.
In late September of 2006, while giving a biodiesel demonstration at the Pennsylvania Renewable Energy Festival, the PC had the good fortune to meet Lysa Holland, an environmental health and safety engineer from Penn State University. Coincidentally, Ms. Holland was organizing a committee of experts to research and write a best practices guide for small scale biodiesel producers. The PC was invited and subsequently decided to join the Penn State committee as a representative of the small scale production community, and over the winter of 2006-2007 work on the publication began.
Team members of the best practices committee included the following:
Coordinator, co-author and co-editor: Lysa Holland, Penn State Environmental Health and Safety
Co-author and co-editor: Matt Steiman, Wilson College Biodiesel Project
Craig Altemose, Director, Centre County Cooperative Extension
Dr. Dennis Buffington, Agricultural and Biological Engineering, Penn State University
Glen Cauffman, Farm Operations Manager, Penn State University
Michelle Ferguson, Environmental Protection Specialist, PA Department of Environmental Protection
Mary Carol Frier, Department of Crop and Soil Sciences, Penn State University
Dr. Wallis Lloyd, Chemical Engineering, Penn State University
Kate Lumley-Sapanski, Assistant Director of Environmental Health and Safety, Penn State University
Dr. Joseph Perez, Chemical Engineering, Penn State University
Greg Roth, Professor of Crop and Soil Sciences, State Program Leader for Renewable and Alternative
Energy, Penn State University
James Young, Regional Manager, Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection
Over approximately 18 months, from conception of the manual to its final publication in the summer of 2008, the program committee held several in-person meetings and conference calls at Penn State University. Team members accepted responsibility for writing different sections of the manual, which were then reviewed for accuracy and proofreading by the entire committee. The PC researched and contributed a significant portion of the manual, including sections on Cold Temperature Issues, “Biodiesel-Should I Make it Myself?,” Process Safety and Handling Issues, Byproduct Handling and Disposal, Tracking Emissions, Methanol Recovery, Biodiesel Quality Test Methods, and appendices on Straight Vegetable Oil Conversions and a Biodiesel Batch Status Checklist.
In addition to the listed authors, drafts of the best practices manual were also reviewed by professionals from around the country, including small scale producer/educators, marketers of biodiesel equipment, and environmental health and safety personnel from other schools. The final draft was reviewed and approved by the lead environmental chemist and hazardous waste program director from the state headquarters of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (PA DEP). This approval, coupled with the established reputation and professional experience of the Penn State faculty, make the finished document the first guide of its kind for small scale biodiesel producers.
In order to verify the effectiveness of some techniques listed in the manual, the PC first researched and then implemented new practices at the Wilson College Biodiesel Project and the collaborating Dickinson College Biodiesel Project. For example, the practice of methanol recovery from biodiesel and the glycerol byproduct is considered an advanced technique, but one that is essential for full compliance with environmental regulations. Through consultations with experienced small producers and in-house trial and error, the PC and students working with the project developed a simple working system for methanol recovery that has since been replicated by several of the farmer-participants. Also, in order to test the efficacy of composting for disposal/ reuse of biodiesel byproducts, the PC and students conducted several composting research trials that have lead to some groundbreaking findings on the subject. These initial trials resulted in the PA DEP’s tentative approval of composting biodiesel waste products once certain conditions are met. To access copies of the finished manual, please see information listed in the “Resources” appendix of this report, or search the World Wide Web for “biodiesel safety manual wilson college” or “biodiesel safety manual penn state”.
B. Hands-On Biodiesel Workshops for Farmers
Throughout the summer and fall of 2006, and in spring of 2007, the WCBP held six hands-on workshops for farmers throughout the region. The full-day workshops were free to all participants, and each attendee took home a biodiesel production manual, biodiesel resource guide, and a 500 ml batch of biodiesel fuel that they made themselves during the workshop. Workshops were held at Adams County Cooperative Extension (Gettysburg, PA), Spoutwood Farm (Glen Rock, PA), Wilson College’s Fulton Farm (Chambersburg, PA), Backbone Farm (Oakland, MD), New Morning Farm (Hustonville, PA), and again at Wilson College in the spring of 2007.
Advertising, recruiting, and handling participant registration and questions for the workshops were almost as much work as presenting the actual events. It was extremely helpful to have student clerical help in the office of the WCBP to field requests for information, and to process event registrations as they came in. The Adams County Cooperative Extension and Maryland Cooperative Extension were extremely helpful in recruiting participants for the partner workshops held in their vicinities.
Working with student assistants Darwin Jackson and Kyle Shenk, the PC developed a refined workshop curriculum that fit into a six hour time slot. By the time workshops were underway, Jackson and Shenk were experienced biodiesel producers capable of setting up and managing processing equipment while the PC gave a slide show and dealt with farmer questions. These student helpers were invaluable to the success of the workshop series.
The structure for each workshop was as follows:
Introductory Slide Show with Question and Answer Period/ Biodiesel Safety Discussion
Loading the 35 – 50 gallon Biodiesel Reactor with Cooking Oil (student assistant managed processor as event proceeded)
Chemical Analysis of Used Cooking Oil / Biodiesel Chemistry
Hands-on Small Batch Production for Participants (500 ml batches in quart mason jars)
Titration and Mixing of Large Biodiesel Batch
Equipment Slide Show and Discussion
Final Question and Answer/ Evaluations
Successful presentation of these hands-on demonstrations at remote locations required the WCBP to develop a mobile biodiesel production unit and several transportable kits of jar-scale production gear. The equipment list for mobile workshops was as follows, approximately:
Large Batch Production Demo:
Biodiesel Reactor (first a trailer mounted plastic tank unit, later, an “appleseed” water heater processor that fit into a pickup truck).
35 to 50 gallons of used cooking oil
7 to 12 gallons of methanol
2 to 3 kilograms of lye catalyst (NaOH or KOH)
Hands-on Small Batch Demos:
Quart Mason jars (1-2 for each participant)
Pots for heating vegetable oil
Oil, methanol, lye for 500 ml batches
Scales and graduated cylinders
Titration gear: Isopropyl alcohol, indicator solution, lye-water titration solution, syringes or pipettes
Scoops and funnels for handling oil
Oil absorbent / spill containment materials/ paper towels
Auxiliary Equipment: Tie downs, hand pump for oil transfer, extension cord, barrel for finished product
For each demonstration, we made a particular effort to ensure that participants understood safety protocols for the processes involved (readers who would like a full description of biodiesel safety protocols are encouraged to read the Best Practices manual or contact the PC directly). Typically it seems that the biodiesel process appears complicated to those who have minimal experience with chemistry, but by seeing it and experiencing the process firsthand with supervision, many participants left the workshops with a grasp of the fundamentals of the biodiesel reaction as well as basic safety concerns.
The simplest biodiesel reaction is called base catalyzed transesterification. The vegetable oil molecule is a triglyceride, composed of a glycerol backbone joined to three fatty acid chains. Alternative fuels researchers have found that vegetable oil at normal fuel temperatures is somewhat too viscous (thick) to properly burn in a diesel engine, but after removal of the glycerol fraction from the oil, what is left burns well with properties very similar to diesel fuel. In transesterifcation, the glycerol is removed by replacing it with methanol, forming fatty acid methyl esters, also known as biodiesel. Lye caustic (either NaOH or KOH) is used to separate the fatty acids from the glycerol backbone so that they can be joined with methanol. Glycerol is more dense than biodiesel, so after separation, it settles to the bottom of the reaction container and can be decanted or drained off from the bottom.
A common “recipe” for biodiesel made from new vegetable oil is 1 liter of vegetable oil, 220 ml of methanol, and 8.5 grams of Potassium Hydroxide (KOH). This recipe can be extrapolated up or down in size depending on how much oil will be processed. In the case of our farmer demonstrations, we would use 500 ml of new salad oil, blended with 110 ml of methanol and 4.25 grams of KOH. Typically participants put on gloves and goggles; then proceed to combine the lye and methanol in a clean mason jar. The oil is heated to 130 degrees Fahrenheit (F). Hot oil is mixed with the lye and methanol in the mason jar by carefully, but vigorously, shaking the jar for about one minute. After about thirty minutes of settling, glycerol begins to separate and settle to the bottom of the container.
A titration is a means of determining how much of one reactant will be needed to mix with another reactant to achieve a desired result. In the case of making biodiesel from used cooking oil, the oils develop an acid character after being heated to high temperatures in the presence of water and food particles. The acid in the cooking oil will neutralize some of the lye catalyst needed to complete the biodiesel reaction, so more lye needs to be added to ensure proper conversion from vegetable oil to biodiesel. A titration with a lye-water solution allows the biodiesel producer to determine how much extra lye to add to the reaction in order to achieve high quality fuel. In on-farm workshops, we perform lye-water titrations using simple plastic cups and cheap syringes purchased from the animal care section of farm-supply stores. After learning the basics of titration, farmer participants would test a sample of used cooking oil; then make a batch of fuel using the recipe described above, plus the extra amount of lye specified by the titration test.
These are the two processes that participants need to master to begin making high quality biodiesel fuel. Following the hands on demonstration, we would extrapolate the recipe up to a large batch (either 35 or 50 gallons of oil, depending on the reactor being used). Farmer participants then helped to titrate the oil after it was mixed in the reactor, came up with a recipe for lye and methanol appropriate to the large batch, and then observed as we added the chemicals to the oil to begin the reaction. These steps were intended to broaden participants’ understanding from the small batch process to a larger and more labor efficient reaction scale.
C. Farmer Start-Up Projects and Technical Support
Following the on-farm workshops, participants were encouraged to apply for one of ten “focused participant” slots. Those selected were promised $1,500 in start-up funds to cover equipment and materials to begin a biodiesel project, and comprehensive technical support from the Wilson College Biodiesel Project (WCBP). Eighteen farmers applied, and ten were selected to receive the mini-grants by the project coordinator and a committee of agricultural professionals. Focused participants were selected based on their likelihood of success, including stated technical skills, access to used cooking oil, attention to safety details, and need for diesel fuel on the farm. Additionally, we attempted to choose farmers from diverse types of operations, and also considered the distance of each farm from the project’s home base in Chambersburg PA. The WCBP pledged to visit the farm projects on start-up, help with equipment design and safety questions, as well as quality testing and other related issues. Phone and email support was also offered as part of the package. Each focused participant signed a “contract” which stated their agreement to produce 500 gallons of biodiesel fuel over the course of one year, and to offer a biodiesel focused educational workshop or tour to at least five growers from their area. The WCBP disbursed initial checks of $1,000 to the ten participants to begin their projects, with the balance of $500 to come when significant progress was demonstrated towards the production goal.
The initial project design included Volvo powertrain engineer David Birky in the technical support team. Mr. Birky is an experienced biodiesel producer who had attended a workshop at Wilson College in 2005, and offered his support to help the farmer participants design state of the art biodiesel plants. However, as the project progressed, it became clear that he was too overburdened with responsibilities at home and his day job to be available for the project, so Mr. Birky was excused from his position as project engineer without using any SARE funds for his initial efforts.
During the plant design phase of the farmer start-ups, the PC purchased a copy of biodiesel reactor construction plans from a reputable equipment dealer, and these were shared with all participants under permission from the plans vendor. Eight of the ten participants ended up building some version of this reactor design for their start-up projects. The WCBP fully endorses the use of a water heater based processor (dubbed the “Appleseed” by its creator, Maria Alovert). We favor the Appleseed for its simple yet effective design that can be easily fabricated by most any person with basic plumbing skills and the ability to follow directions. Water heaters salvaged from plumbers’ scrap yards can be reconditioned to become suitable biodiesel reactors, saving the producer the $300-400 price of a new water heater or other suitable tank. Additionally, the Appleseed has several key safety advantages over the popular plastic tank reactors, in that they can be sealed for fumeless processing, and heated to the high temperatures necessary for methanol distillation. Readers interested in plans for an Appleseed reactor are encouraged to visit
http://www.biodieselcommunity.org/appleseedprocessor/ or www.utahbiodieselsupply.com
The PC made himself available by phone and email throughout the start-up phase, and encouraged farmers to visit the Wilson College facility and Dickinson College Biodiesel Plant (a collaborator in the project). Four participants traveled to visit the PC at Wilson College or remote demonstration sites to follow up on design questions. The PC and students then traveled to the majority of participating farms over the course of the project to help with start-up questions, troubleshoot processing systems, discuss advanced topics, and reinforce safety protocols. All participants either visited with the PC at Wilson or Dickinson College, or were visited at their own farms by the PC and students. Periodically the PC would also call and email all participants to check up on their progress, notify them of advanced workshops in the area, and organize site visits. At the close of the project, participants continue to contact the PC from time to time as processing questions arise.
Success of each focused participant will be discussed in the following “results” section. However, here it should be stated that on planning the project, we underestimated the effort it would take to keep regular contact with ten farmer participants, some of whom live more than four hours from the project’s home base. Site visits were certainly the most effective means of providing technical support, yet they were also the most demanding in terms of time away from home and farm. For example, participant Ben McKean, proprietor of Healthberry Farm in Dry Fork, WV, lives approximately five hours from the project base. The PC visited with Ben in 2008 and in one 24 hour work session, helped him complete the construction of his reactor, fabricate a methanol condenser, make a first batch of fuel, and then left Ben with a set of design drawings for putting together the rest of his plant. A follow-up visit in 2009 also proved to be fruitful in helping Ben re-launch the project after the spring thaw, and reinforce safety protocols. However, scheduling visits to the more remote farms was quite challenging due to busy schedules on both ends and the distances involved. Logistically speaking, if we were to repeat this project, we would either work with a smaller number of farmers, or choose farmers located much closer to the project base so as to minimize the challenge of coordinating long distance visits.
Mr. Steve Richter, an experienced biodiesel producer/educator from Philadelphia PA, was contracted to assist participant Greensgrow Farm with their project startup. Steve was instrumental in launching the Greensgrow program: he helped design and build their reactor system, wrote them a step by step production manual, and worked with the farm through their first several batches of fuel. The project paid Steve for 20 hours of work over the first year of the Greensgrow project. He later joined their CSA program, and his son Cody is currently supervising biodiesel production at this urban farm.
In July of 2007, the PC became a full-time employee of the Dickinson College Farm in nearby Carlisle, PA, but continued to run the SARE funded biodiesel education program for Wilson College. The PC worked with Dr. Edward Wells, Wilson’s chair of Environmental Studies, and farm manager Eric Benner to transition the management of daily biodiesel production into their hands. From 2007-2008, the PC managed a pilot scale biodiesel plant at the Dickinson College facilities management building, where he was able to host visiting farmers from the project and work on research for some of the techniques listed in the best practices manual.
III. Results and Discussion/Milestones
The following milestones were presented in the original grant application:
• 100 farmers express an interest in intensive biodiesel workshops. Assessed by recording number of phone, email, and personal inquiries. (Summer of year one).
Over 100 farmers expressed an interest in the workshops. While we were not able to accurately record the number of inquiries, the actual number of registered participants was 120.
• 70 farmers participate in hands-on biodiesel workshops. (Fall of year one).
Over 120 people participated in six hands-on workshops, the last of which was held in the spring of year two. Approximately ten of the attendees were not farmers, but were otherwise associated with agricultural education (extension agents, high school ag. teachers, etc.).
• 30 farmers demonstrate understanding of biodiesel process and a desire to pursue production on their own farms. Assessed by close-of-workshop evaluation forms. (Fall, year one).
Of the 45 farmers who completed close-of-workshop surveys, 34 answered “yes” and eight answered “maybe” to the questions “Do you feel you learned enough to make some test batches of fuel at home?” and “Would you say that it is likely that you will use the biodiesel techniques on your farm in the next year or two?”
• 18 farmers submit processor plans and apply for grant funded processor construction. (Winter, year one).
18 farmers submitted applications for the start-up grant funds and technical support. Some applications came in the winter of year one, while others came after the final hands-on workshop held in the spring of year two. It was deemed unrealistic to ask farmers to submit design plans with their applications.
• 10 farmers construct biodiesel processors with grant support. (Winter, year one)
• 10 farmers begin producing biodiesel fuel with staff support. (Spring of year two).
• 10 farmers successfully process 500 gallons of waste vegetable oil into fuel, and host a public workshop for at least five other farmers. (Fall & winter of year two).
Nine farmers constructed operational biodiesel producers with grant support by the end of year three. Three farms, Sankanac CSA, Greensgrow Farm, and Charles Kolb were successful in completing their processors, making 500 gallons of fuel, and holding their public workshops all by the fall of year two (2007). Another six farms (Blue Ridge Center for Environmental Stewardship/ Mountain View Farm, Healthberry Farm, Two Particular Acres, Phil Roth, Jim Bricker, and Sunset Ridge Farm) made significant progress toward the goal by the close of year three. Rock Ridge Farm’s biodiesel project remains a “work in progress” at the close of the grant period. All participants are described below.
Sebastian Kretschmer is the lead farmer and biodiesel producer of Sankanac CSA, a diversified biodynamic vegetable farm in Kimberton, PA with 200 CSA customers. Many projects at Sankanac reflect Sebastian’s interest in sustainable energy systems, and he took eagerly to the task of collecting fryer oil and producing biodiesel in a standard Appleseed reactor. The farm has a strong educational component, with full season internships, including international students. They are accustomed to hosting visitors, and regularly display their biodiesel production during tours and field days. CSA volunteers helped Sebastian refurbish a section of the barn so that the farm crew could produce fuel indoors in cooler weather. After making biodiesel regularly for two years, Sebastian converted his truck to run on Straight Vegetable Oil, and now only makes biodiesel for educational events. Sebastian was recently recruited by the AVEDA foundation to teach sustainable fuels technology to native people in Honduras and Brazil during the off season, and he says he owes this connection to his work with the biodiesel project. To date the farm has produced 1200 gallons of biodiesel.
Mary Corboy, proprietor of Greensgrow Farm in Philadelphia, has designated interns who manage the farm’s biodiesel operation. Greensgrow’s early success with the project was assisted by training assistance from Steve Richter, Philadelphia’s most enthusiastic small-scale biodiesel teacher. Greensgrow Farm is a diversified vegetable and bedding plant operation, which includes a CSA and market stand on one acre of reclaimed urban brownfield. Cooking oil is readily available from the farm’s many restaurant accounts, and the fuel is used to power a large diesel delivery truck. After starting with a 50-gallon capacity Appleseed processing line that is housed in the farm’s greenhouse, Greensgrow recently constructed a dedicated building for expanded production (currently at 150 gallons per week). After just two years of operation, Greensgrow has progressed to a leadership role in their “biodiesel neighborhood”, and is serving as a glycerol byproduct processing facility for a handful of other Philadelphia biodiesel producers. After methanol recovery, cleaned glycerol byproduct is given to soap makers in the area. Mary Corboy has sought the professional advice of her farm’s board members to work out environmental management issues associated with processing biodiesel on a city lot. The farm hosts regular visitors and has included the biodiesel production area into its educational offerings. Mary reports “This project fits in perfectly with our mission and vision. We built the new building with big barn doors that swing open, so that visitors can see it all while standing outside. So many people see it and love it.” To date, they have produced over 3,500 gallons of biodiesel fuel.
Charlie Kolb of Thurmont MD built the largest capacity biodiesel reactor of the entire group: a 400 gallon capacity Appleseed style unit. In addition to running a mixed agronomic crop farm and excavation business, Charlie is an expert fabricator. He used these skills to construct a large batch wash tank, a Purolite dry wash system, and an innovative oil collection method just to name a few. He too practices methanol recovery to clean up his glycerol byproduct, and has experimented with composting his waste materials. After two winters of trial and error, Charlie has found that he can run 100% biodiesel in his diesel truck and car through the cold season if he is careful to select canola oil from his multiple used cooking oil sources. Charlie’s operation is off the beaten path, but he has demonstrated his system to several neighbors, and is now mentoring a local fireman in biodiesel production. Charlie’s “student” has produced over 3,000 gallons of fuel to date. Charlie’s own plant has converted over 4,000 gallons of used cooking oil to biodiesel for use in farm operations.
Attila Agoston manages biodiesel production for the Blue Ridge Center for Environmental Stewardship’s Mountain View Farm near Purcelville, VA. Attila has been a dedicated learner throughout the project, visiting the PC at the Dickinson College biodiesel plant, and attending two full day workshops organized by the PC on advanced topics. Using a 40 gallon water heater based processor built from salvaged parts, Attila has produced over 350 gallons of fuel for use on the farm. Attila wrote, “Since we lease the farm from an environmental center, we have a lot of visitors inquire about the biodiesel set up. We have given tours to about 20 people so farm and made connections with a handful of other small scale biodiesel producers in our area.”
Healthberry Farm in Dry Fork, WV produces hay, garlic, honey, poultry, berries, and wild harvest products on a 40 acre homestead. While the farm is remote, proprietor Ben McKean has found sufficient used cooking oil from local restaurants to produce the fuel he needs for the farm’s tractor, riding mower, four-wheeler, and road vehicles. To date, he has produced over 300 gallons of biodiesel in 38 gallon capacity water-heater system. Thirty community members have visited the biodiesel shop, and one farmer from the area has gone on to make his own biodiesel fuel. Ben will continue to make fuel for his farm into the future.
Two Particular Acres in Royersford, PA is a custom hay and compost farm. Proprietor Ned Foley collects and processes hundreds of tons of organic wastes from the Philadelphia area each year, marketing both compost and mulch as finished products. Ned’s waste contracts with large hotels and commercial eateries have enabled him to secure significant quantities of high quality used cooking oil. Ned partnered with a local hardware store owner and a barbeque foodservice operator to build and run their biodiesel facility. Currently, oil is stored at the farm, but processing into biodiesel takes place in the garage of the hardware store, which is convenient when extra parts are needed for the developing process line. The partners are gaining experience using a 60 gallon capacity “appleseed” reactor before building a large scale unit that will be more labor efficient. The fuel (over 500 gallons produced to date) is used to power large diesel equipment for compost handling as well as skid loaders and a forklift. Glycerol byproduct is composted on site in industrial scale windrows. Dozens of people have toured the biodiesel facility in its present location, and the Two Particular Acres team has referred all interested parties to information resources provided by the Wilson College project.
Phil Roth, a third generation fruit grower from Fairfield (Adams County) PA, joined the project in the third year, and has done a tremendous job with his biodiesel startup over the past twelve months. Phil took over the participant slot originally designated for New Morning Farm (Hustontown, PA). Despite early enthusiasm for biodiesel following the hands-on workshop in the fall of 2006, a management shift and the rigors of intensive market farming at New Morning Farm forced them to rethink the project, and in 2008 New Morning’s management decided to send back their initial payment of startup funds. During the same period, Phil Roth had approached the PC for technical advice on starting a biodiesel project on his farm. After a few meetings, the PC judged that Phil was a strong candidate for success with biodiesel start-up, and with approval from SARE, the participant slot was re-designated. Mr. Roth now collects substantial quantities of cooking oil from Gettysburg College and other local restaurants using an innovative oil pumping trailer of his own design. Rather than build his own reactor from scratch, Phil bought a 100 gallon capacity “BioPro” brand commercial biodiesel processor and then modified it to suit his own plant design. He has set up a sophisticated processing line in an old fruit warehouse on his property, and in the first few months of operation has processed 900 gallons of fuel (averaging 200 gallons per week) for use as heating oil and to power diesel farm equipment. Mr. Roth is hosting his first formal field day on June 5th, 2009, and intends to welcome farmers and local fire officials for a comprehensive biodiesel brewing demonstration using the BioPro. This computer-controlled semi automated unit has a large capacity and requires minimal labor once the entire plant is in place. While the PC has generally advised farmers to build their own processors for economic reasons and to foster a fundamental understanding of the technology, the simplicity of the BioPro may appeal to some who are just getting started.
Jim Bricker is co-owner/ operator of Waste Oil Recyclers, a cooking oil collection, processing, and brokering company in Modena, PA (http://wasteoilrecyclers.com). Jim joined the Wilson College biodiesel education project as a participant while living and working at Dancing Goat Farm in Coatesville, PA. After beginning his biodiesel production project, a disagreement with the farm owner led Jim to relocate his business and biodiesel operation to a new facility at an aging industrial park in Modena. While handling used cooking oil is Waste Oil Recylcers main business, they continue to educate farmers and the general public about biodiesel production and renewable fuels. Jim has partnered with two agricultural businesses co-located at the industrial park: Organic Mechanics potting soil manufacturer (http://www.organicmechanicsoil.com), and Grass Roots Organics, an all natural landscaping firm. These businesses use the biodiesel produced by Jim’s project to heat their greenhouses and power loading equipment. Together they have offered several public “diesel days” over the project period, and continue to use public events to promote renewable fuels. One field day in 2008 drew roughly 150 people, and local congresswoman Barbara Smith took a sincere interest in the biodiesel project. Jim chose not to claim his second allotment of start-up funds due to the change in status of his project from farm-based biodiesel to industrial cooking oil processing.
Brian Harris and his son Aaron joined the program as participants after attending the Wilson College workshop in the spring of 2007. The Harris family runs Sunset Ridge Farm, a 100 cow dairy and row crop operation in rural Milan, PA. The farm uses a significant amount of diesel fuel for tractors and trucks, and has an interest in raising oilseeds for biodiesel production in the long run. Brian and Aaron constructed their biodiesel reactor (an “appleseed” water heater design) in year two of the project, but as of the close of year three they have produced less than 100 gallons of fuel. The pressures of full time work on the dairy and limited access to fryer oil have been the team’s chief limitations. However, Aaron will use the biodiesel production system as his senior project in high school, and they expect to begin making fuel in earnest in the summer of 2009. Aaron will promote the biodiesel program to other students in his rural school as they become more successful with production. Brian has also recently secured more reliable oil sources from the local fairgrounds and a seasonal festival.
Ken and Terry Cummings of Rock Ridge Farm raise hay and row crops on 80 acres of mountain ground near Oakland, MD. Their farm was selected as a participant due to their heavy use of diesel fuel for regular operations, and for the couple’s diverse skill set (Ken is a master plumber, welder and machinist, Terry is skilled with carpentry and electrical work). While Rock Ridge Farm has managed to secure a good source of used cooking oil and amass several tanks to be used for biodiesel production, they have yet to complete construction of the processing line. The PC met with Ken and Terry in March of 2009, and they declared their intent to continue with the project as time permits. The chief obstacle to their success thus far has been a complicated work schedule, and that Ken and Terry were also tied up building a new home on their property following damage to their previous residence from longwall coal mining under the farm. Rock Ridge Farm did not qualify for its second disbursement of start-up funds due to lack of progress by the close of the grant period, but the PC has offered to support the Cummings family with technical advice at their request.
Wilmer Newswanger and his sons became the unofficial “eleventh participant” in the project and have been quite successful at integrating biodiesel production into the rhythm of their diversified dairy farm in Newville, PA. Wilmer, a member of an old-order Mennonite community, was not interested in taking any grant support for his project, but did attend a hands-on workshop, and later sought out the PC’s help with technical advice and support. The PC worked with Wilmer and his sons to design their plant and produce the first batch of fuel. The Newswanger farm is known throughout the region as a prime example of sustainable farming: they market farmstead artisan cheese and other products from their grass fed dairy cows, as well as pasture fed turkeys, chickens, pork, lamb and beef. While Wilmer uses a horse and carriage for transportation, his farm uses diesel fuel for skid loaders and tractors. Adding biodiesel production to the farm has fit in well with other seasonal activities, and Wilmer has connected with other members of his community who also use vegetable oil to fuel their equipment.
It is worthwhile here to consider the question “who is likely to be successful with on-farm biodiesel production?” so that future educational efforts can be directed to the correct audience. Sankanac CSA, Greensgrow Farm, Waste Oil Recyclers, and Mountain View Farm all have educational components to their main business venture, so they were already accustomed to taking time to develop special projects associated with their interests. Phil Roth is semi-retired, and thus has more time to tinker with the project than most full time farmers. Ned Foley benefitted greatly by partnering with two friends (one of whom owns a hardware store), and Ned’s composting business involves finding value in organic waste products, so developing a successful oil collection scheme was nothing new for him. Ben McKean had already been working with renewable energy systems on his farm, and as such was dedicated to see the fuelmaking project through to fruition. Charlie Kolb’s fabrication skills and courage to think big helped him become the group’s largest volume producer. Wilmer Newswanger has been accustomed to thinking outside the box since his successful transition from commodity milk producer to farmstead cheese expert, and the efforts of his sons to operate the biodiesel reactor have been invaluable.
Those who struggled to achieve the objectives of the project seemed unable to prioritize biodiesel production over other numerous responsibilities on their farms. Both Sunset Ridge Farm and Rock Ridge Farm are single family operations located in rural areas, with little prior experience dealing with the public. New Morning Farm runs an extremely busy vegetable operation, and the departure of one of the farm’s managers left the remaining crew with little time to dedicate to the biodiesel startup. Getting off the ground with on-farm biodiesel takes significant time and dedication: At least 20 hours of research and design, 20 hours to compile parts and supplies, 40 hours to fabricate a process line, and 10 hours to run a first batch of fuel. It all becomes much easier once a project is up and running, but it is safe to estimate that aspiring biodiesel producers can easily spend 100 hours just getting a project started. Once started, biodiesel plants typically require regular maintenance, and many home-producers often find themselves making upgrades as their goals or understanding of the technology change.
In summary, those who are most likely to succeed with on-farm biodiesel are truly dedicated to the “spirit” of biodiesel production for farm independence and sustainability (more so than for economic reasons alone), and have the time and perseverance to follow through with a significant new undertaking. Those who like to tinker and build, study and experiment also seem particularly suited to this sort of activity. An ability to take safety protocols seriously is also fundamental. There is no limit to how inventive one can be with an on-farm project, and biodiesel production, from oil collection to quality testing to proudly using the finished product, essentially becomes a hobby for the successful producer. Farmers who would attempt such a venture need to ask themselves whether or not they have room in their lives for a new hobby.
The best practices manual, titled “Biodiesel Safety and Best Management Practices for Small-Scale Noncommercial Use and Production” is now available for free PDF downloads from http://pubs.cas.psu.edu/FreePubs/pdfs/agrs103.pdf
Printed copies of the 40 page manual (ask for AGRS 103) can be ordered for $8.00 apiece from:
Publications Distribution Center
The Pennsylvania State University
112 Agricultural Administration Building
University Park, PA 16802-2602
During and following the development of the best practices manual, the PC and students gave presentations on “safe and responsible biodiesel production” and associated topics at the following venues:
September 2006 PA Renewable Energy Festival, Kempton PA (live production demonstration)
January 2007 Future Harvest/ CASA, Hagerstown, MD (introductory biodiesel workshop)
May 2007 Howard County, MD Extension Energy Conference (introductory biodiesel)
May 2007 Pogoil Farm Biodiesel Workshop, MD (methanol recovery demo)
September 2007 PASA Introduction to Biodiesel Workshop, Union Co,PA (co-presented with farmer Preston Boop)
September 2007 PA Renewable Energy Festival, Kempton PA (Safe and Responsible Production)
February 2008 PASA Pre-conference workshop, “Advanced Biodiesel”, Penn State University
This full day workshop was organized and moderated by the PC for the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture’s annual farming for the future conference. Topics covered included Biodiesel Safety, presented by members of the Best Practice committee, Oilseed Production (Vern Grubinger), Straight Vegetable Oil Conversion (Fossil Free Fuels), Large Batch Production (Frankie Abralind), Composting Glycerol (Ali Dethoff), and Methanol Recovery (Matt Steiman). The Wilson College processor purchased by the SARE grant was used to demonstrate methanol recovery at the event. Approximately 50 farmers and extension personnel attended, including three participants farmers from this project.
March 2008 National SARE Conference, St. Louis, MO (Safe and Responsible Production)
July 2008 Fueling the Farm, Center for Ecological Farming Systems, NC (methanol recovery, biodiesel safety)
September 2008 PA Renewable Energy Festival, Kempton PA (Safe and Responsible Production)
The PC and Lysa Holland from Penn State have become voices for biodiesel safety at this annual event. In 2007 and 2008 another producer with particularly lax safety practices gave live demonstrations at the fair. After two years of “heckling” by the PC, this producer has now approached the project for safety counseling, and has pledged to improve his presentation to reflect the Best Practices mentality.
January 2009 Oilseeds for Fuel and Profit, Billings, Montana (Methanol Recovery)
February 2009 Fueling the Farm, Lake Morey, VT (Safe and Responsible Production)
Additional Project Outcomes
Impacts of Results/Outcomes
Overall we are very pleased with the success of the project. It is incredibly satisfying to know that several new farms in the region are actively producing their own biodiesel, and attempting to do so safely and responsibly. Several of the participants have surpassed the level of technical expertise of the Wilson College project, and have forged ahead with their own innovations for small scale processing technology. Others are moving along at a pace that fits their farm’s work schedule and need for diesel fuel. Farmer Ben McKean reports that his original goal was “having enough fuel to run all diesel farm equipment during the growing season. [I] was able to produce enough excess fuel to run in a passenger vehicle.” Biodiesel production fits into his overall farm goals because “petroleum independence has added more sustainable and educational opportunities to the community.” Farmer Ned Foley wrote “Thanks for everything you did to get us started. Without the grant and in particular your personalized help this never would have been accomplished…”
This project has directly affected ten farmers by coaching them through the start-up phase of biodiesel production. Another 120 people benefited from the basic introduction to biodiesel they gained from the hands-on farmer workshops. We estimate that through the successful farm-based start-up projects, at least 500 people have been exposed to the basics of responsible biodiesel technology.
To date, farmers working with the project have collectively produced over 11,000 gallons of renewable biodiesel from recycled cooking oil. The total installed capacity of the on-farm biodiesel processors is approximately 1,700 gallons of fuel per week (assuming two batches of fuel per week).
The impact of the manual “Biodiesel Safety and Best Management Practices for Small-Scale Noncommerical Use and Production” has been infinitely farther reaching. The document was recently promoted in BiodieselSMARTER magazine, a producers’ journal with almost 1000 subscribers. A recent search of internet forums found numerous links and references to the best practices manual, including over 1000 views of just two prominent listings. The “make bio” blog reports “This is a great pub! A MUST READ for every homebrewer of every experience level.” Bob Armantrout, a part time farmer and former commercial biodiesel producer who now teaches in the renewable fuels and sustainable agriculture technology program at Central Carolina Community College (NC), frequently promotes the document to his students as “the only printed information of its kind.” Both major national suppliers of mail order biodiesel equipment (B100supply.com and utahbiodieselsupply.com) have publicly praised the manual in online forums. Biodiesel “extension” personnel working in the public sector from Vermont, Montana, and New Hampshire have contacted the PC regarding the promotion of the best practice manual in their states.
Profitability of a small-scale biodiesel operation is a moving target, depending principally on the price of petroleum fuel and the value and availability of on-farm labor. Most farmers surveyed at the end of the project report that with diesel fuel prices currently at or below $2.25 per gallon, their biodiesel production is costing them money. However, in the summer of 2008, when on-road fuel was at $4.50 per gallon, their biodiesel production was an economic relief to their farms. Most expect that conventional fuel prices will rise again, and thus they are confident of a return to profitability in the future. With his 400 gallon batch capacity, Charlie Kolb has what would potentially be the groups’ most labor efficient system. He estimates that with labor and materials included, it costs him $2.00 per gallon to make biodiesel from cooking oil. A trained farm helper now does most of the production work. Charlie reports that “my bookkeeper definitely notices that she is not writing nearly as many fuel checks as in prior years”. He is happy to be avoiding the regular $2,000 to $3,000 fuel bills previously incurred by his agronomic crop and excavating business. While Charlie fabricated most of his own equipment, he has purchased some expensive components (a centrifuge for cleaning oil, large capacity tanks) that drove his capital outlay to approximately $19,000 after the initial $1,500 provided by the grant.
Phil Roth is another of the larger capacity producers, with a 100 gallon capacity commercial BioPro reactor. Phil hired an electrical contractor and pipe fitter to help set up his shop, and has purchased some commercially built oil dumpsters for grease collection. His personal outlay for capital, after the grant funds, is $23,500 to date. Producing 200 gallons of fuel per week, Phil estimates he will pay back his capital investment in the plant in about eight years, not including his labor or mileage to collect materials. He states “At present cost of [off road] petroleum diesel (under $2.00), biodiesel is not saving money. The offsetting factors are a favorable impact on environmental issues and hopefully longer diesel engine life and smoother engine operation.”
Greensgrow Farm has invested approximately $5000 in their biodiesel operation after spending the $1,500 provided by the SARE project. Mary Corboy reports that the project “works for us” economically. Currently her project manager dedicates about 15 paid hours per week to production of 150 gallons of fuel for the farm. They estimate a cost of $2.00 per gallon of finished biodiesel, including labor and materials.
Ben McKean and Attila Agoston built their biodiesel plants from salvaged water heaters, which allowed them to dedicate more of the start-up funds to production supplies (methanol and lye) rather than equipment. Both farms run low-capacity biodiesel operations that fit their overall fuel needs, and both have some time available seasonally to run their processors. Attila reports “It definitely saved money last year when diesel was at $4.50/ gal. Looking more closely at the time and labor involved and how to place a value on those, I think making the biodiesel saves money on the farm during times when we are caught up on planting, weeding, harvesting, etc. and we can afford to focus the effort on making biodiesel in a non hurried way.”
This last comment seems to be a deciding factor: if farmers have some extra time to dedicate to fuel production, then they can in a sense pay themselves for their fuel, rather than paying an external entity. Those who enjoy tinkering and do not mind flipping a valve or stopping a pump in the off hours may begin to view biodiesel production as a hobby that potentially benefits their farm’s bottom line. A farmer who is already stretched thin between family and production responsibilities might regret starting a biodiesel project. However, as Greensgrow Farm and Charlie Kolb have demonstrated, once a production facility is set up, a laborer (whose time might cost less than the farm manager) can be trained and paid to operate the biodiesel equipment.
All farmers surveyed report that the potential economic benefit of on-farm biodiesel production is secondary to the fuel’s other sustainability benefits, including increased energy independence, decreased reliance on foreign oil, reduced air emissions, and making use of a locally available waste product. This sentiment is in line with the recommendations of the Wilson College Biodiesel Project: we generally do not advise newcomers to start biodiesel programs for purely economic motives due to the time and dedication required. Currently many well capitalized, large capacity biodiesel plants are struggling due to the fluctuation in diesel fuel and feedstock oil prices. Small-scale “efficiencies”, such as collecting fryer oil from existing produce accounts, working with salvaged and self-fabricated equipment, or making use of retired or family labor for production seem to be the keys to improving the bottom line of on-farm projects.
All ten of the farmer participants who received grant support, plus Wilmer Newswanger (unsupported participant) have pledged to continue making biodiesel as a standard practice on their farms. The PC feels that there is a high degree of certainty that at least eight of these projects will be producing modest to significant quantities of biodiesel one year from now and into the future. Further details related to farmer adoption are discussed elsewhere throughout this narrative.
Areas needing additional study
Responsible Handling & Disposal of the Glycerol Byproduct: For every five gallons of biodiesel fuel produced, approximately one gallon of crude biodiesel glycerol will result. Safe and responsible disposal of this byproduct has been an important research area for the project. Crude biodiesel glycerol has a negative economic value given a current worldwide glut of this material, and the high cost of refining it into a marketable product. Representatives of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (PA DEP) working with the Best Practices committee identified glycerol issues as a potentially major sticking point for legitimizing on-farm biodiesel production in Pennsylvania. The challenge is that crude glycerol from the biodiesel reaction is contaminated with excess methanol used in production. The level of methanol common in post production glycerol leads it to be classified as a hazardous material due to its ignitibility and toxicity. Farmers who dispose of crude glycerol improperly on the farm or elsewhere potentially face legal action for unlawful handling of hazardous waste.
Our first step in addressing this stumbling block was to learn, practice, and later teach a low tech method for recovering excess methanol from the glycerol byproduct (as well as the biodiesel fuel). Following separation of the glycerol layer from biodiesel in a reaction vessel, each of these products can be heated through the boiling point of methanol, at which point dissolved methanol is vaporized and driven out of the reaction container, after which it can be cooled, condensed as a liquid, and collected for re-use. Termed “methanol recovery”, this process benefits the biodiesel producer in many ways, including potentially saving money and energy, increasing the safety and sustainability of the project, and foremost by allowing the plant to operate in accordance with environmental laws. The process is considered “advanced” by most small scale producers, but we have done our part to demystify the practice of safe methanol recovery in low tech systems. Working with the PA DEP and Piedmont Biofuels, we have found that by driving glycerol byproduct to a temperature over 240 degrees F in ambient pressure distillation reduces its methanol content to a level that it is no longer considered a hazardous material. Once sufficient methanol is removed, glycerol byproduct falls under the designation of either municipal or residual waste, and does not require the same stringent protocols for handling or disposal as hazardous waste.
Working with the PA DEP’s Bureau of Waste Management central office, two potential on-farm “disposal” methods for biodiesel glycerol have been tentatively accepted as of April of 2009. The DEP has stated that while they are still seeking further data on both practices, both composting and anaerobic digestion of crude biodiesel glycerol may be allowed if the methanol has been reclaimed. Our project has conducted initial research trials on both practices.
Glycerol Byproduct Composting: From 2007 to the present, students working with the Dickinson biodiesel project conducted several research trials to determine the effect of the addition of crude biodiesel glycerol (the main biodiesel byproduct) to aerobic compost piles on the farm. It has long been a popular belief that biodiesel glycerol is “compostable”, but there is as of yet no published research demonstrating the impact of such a practice. Students working with the PC carried out replicated trials in an attempt to determine the effect of glycerol additions on nutrient content, phytotoxicity, biological diversity, and physical characteristics of the resultant compost. Ali Dethoff, a senior in the Dickinson Biology program, conducted several of the trials, and wrote an article about her work for BiodieselSMARTER magazine, a trade journal for small producers (see http://www.biodieselsmarter.com/archives/2008/07/composting_solution.php). With NE-SARE permission, the PC redirected some unspent grant funds to pay for compost analysis through Woods End compost lab in Maine.
Thus far we can make the following statements with confidence. Additions of glycerol to compost piles increase the heating of the piles. The temperature of compost piles in several trials has been shown to increase in correlation with the amount of glycerol added (see graphs in the appendix, or contact the PC for further information). This may be of interest for those hoping to use heat to kill pathogens or weed seeds in compost. Our biodiesel and resulting glycerol was made using a potassium hydroxide catalyst, and the potassium content of the finished compost was shown to increase in correlation with the amount of glycerol added. This may indicate an opportunity to increase the valuable nutrient potassium in custom blended soils or composts. Producers who use a sodium hydroxide catalyst would be advised not to compost their glycerol, as increased sodium levels in soils are generally considered undesirable. Relative alkalinity (pH) was also shown to increase with glycerol addition. Several bioassays were conducted using the experimental composts, including cucumber seedling germination-growout tests, and assessing the macroinvertebrate biodiversity of finished composts using Berlese funnels. While the results are not statistically conclusive, there did not appear to be any overwhelming hostility to life or reduction in diversity in the glycerol compost piles. A unique white fungus was noted to be prevalent in repeated trials in the high glycerol content piles (Dr. Will Brinton of Woods End lab suggested that this might be a fungus that prefers fatty acids as feed material). Glycerol seems to result in “caking” of the compost, indicating that this substance may have some application as either a soil binder or erosion prevention component for disturbed soils.
In 2008, an organic fertilizer company from California solicited a glycerol sample from the project for use in prototype development of a new fertilizer product. The researchers reported that while the glycerol we provided gave excellent results as a coagulant in their process, they were not able to get permission to use it in organic products due to its synthetic origins as an industrial waste product. (Pennsylvania Certified Organic has also confirmed verbally that biodiesel glycerol would not be allowed in organic compost). However, this may prove interesting to conventional farmers or fertilizer manufacturers.
All glycerol used in the research trials was taken from the processing facility AFTER methanol recovery, and the research piles were covered with Compostex compost fabric to prevent excessive runoff to ground or surface waters in heavy rain events. The Pennsylvania DEP was invited to visit the compost site and biodiesel plant several times in 2008 and remains in contact with the project regarding glycerol issues.
The Dickinson College Biodiesel Project, in collaboration with the PC, has conducted rudimentary trials of anaerobic digestion of biodiesel glycerol after methanol recovery. This research is still in the beginning stages, but initial results show that crude glycerol is digestible and will produce useful methane gas (an energy source that can be combusted for heating, light, or to produce electricity). Further details of this project and the composting research trials can be found at http://www.dickinson.edu/departments/sustainability/biodieselinfo.html#research
Considerations for future biodiesel education programs: One change in approach worth mentioning is the PC’s attitude regarding teaching biodiesel technology to the public. At the beginning of the grant funded period, the Wilson College Biodiesel Project had been offering numerous public workshops on biodiesel production, with students and staff often promoting home-scale biodiesel operations at energy fairs and farm events. As the PC delved deeper into the research for the Best Practices manual, he gained a better appreciation for the responsibility one bears when teaching the basics of fuel production to newcomers. Done right, farm-scale biodiesel can be a responsible and sustainable practice that improves the environment and is financially sound. Done poorly, farm-scale biodiesel can be messy, polluting, dangerous or even deadly. Unfortunately, in this era of easy access to biodiesel information on the internet and some irresponsible print materials, there are plenty of examples of sloppy biodiesel operations to give the whole “movement” a bad name. While we heavily stress safety and responsibility in our workshops, even in a full day event, it is impossible to cover all the bases for those new to the subject. To truly grasp and practice responsible biodiesel production requires dedication from the farm project leader to read, seek information from other users, and act on suggestions. For these reasons, the PC shifted his and the project’s focus away from teaching newcomers how to make biodiesel, toward teaching those who already have an interest in making biodiesel how to do it safely. Future educational programs are advised to plan longer, more intensive workshops for small numbers of participants in order to fully deliver an appropriate information package that will lead to responsible production.