Advertise in Print | Subscriptions
Published August 04, 2009, 12:13 AM

UMC tests feasibility of running equipment on canola biodiesel

The challenge: Get canola biodiesel from a local crush plant, fill a farm machine and go to work. This scenario is getting closer every day to becoming a reality, and a lot of people are waiting for it. Barry Coleman, executive director of the Northern Canola Growers Association, is one of them.

By: Matt Bewley, Grand Forks Herald

CROOKSTON — The challenge: Get canola biodiesel from a local crush plant, fill a farm machine and go to work.

This scenario is getting closer every day to becoming a reality, and a lot of people are waiting for it. Barry Coleman, executive director of the Northern Canola Growers Association, is one of them.

“I know plenty of people who would like to get the canola biodiesel from a crush plant and use the biodiesel themselves,” he said.

Paul Aakre, assistant professor at the University of Minnesota-Crookston, is heading an effort to test the feasibility of the concept.

“Part of the idea of this project here is just to see how much work it actually takes to squeeze the oil, get it filtered, be able to deliver it to a tractor and so on and what the feasibility of that is,” he said.

Last year, Aakre was focused on the economic value of buying and crushing canola seed. The two products, canola pellets and oil, were compared in value to the original cost of the seed. They were found to be a viable cattle feed supplement and fuel source for home heating.

Several studies have been performed, comparing soybean meal with canola meal as protein supplements in dairy and beef cattle and as starters for calves. While there are some differences in the nutrients present in the two seeds, a protein supplement report by North Dakota State University Extension Service beef cattle specialist Greg Lardy indicates canola is an effective protein supplement.

Minnesota’s Agricultural Utilization Research Institute’s oils laboratory in Marshall found that, while most organic materials, including wood pellets, contain about 8,000 British thermal units per pound, the canola pellets generated 8,766 Btu.

Of 100 pounds of seed, bought at $16 per hundredweight, Aakre was extracting 30 pounds of oil and 66 pounds of pellets.

“It’s going to give us a feed value of about $6.60,” he said. “We have been selling some pellets for about $240 per ton, which comes to about 12 cents a pound. But they’re really worth more than that.”

The pellets also can be sold for about 12 cents per pound as a home heating fuel, he said.

Therefore, excluding the roughly $16,000 cost of the press, Aakre can produce canola oil for about $2.35 per gallon and break even with the cost of the seed.

Alternatively, straight canola oil can be bought in quantity from press plants, though Coleman said those sales are made based on full tanker-loads.

“Typically, canola oil is going to be probably 4 to 5 cents per pound more than the Chicago Board of Trade’s soy oil would cost,” he said.

Hot oil

The canola press at the university is working hard these days to keep up with the demand of the test machine, a New Holland T6070 tractor, which is leased to the Polk County (Minn.) Highway Department from Titan Machinery in Crookston. They use it to tow a 15-foot mower deck, which they use to mow ditches along the county’s rural roads.

The tractor can run on straight vegetable oil with the aid of a heat exchanger, which heats the vegetable oil, thinning it so it can atomize and burn properly. Aakre knows from experience at NDSU that running vegetable oil can gum up a diesel engine.

“We were burning a mixture of sunflower oil and diesel fuel,” he says. “We ran some tractors, and by the end of the year, when we pulled the engines apart, we found that we had some ring-sticking problems and lots of gum and varnish built up in the piston and piston ring area and also up in the valve area because of incomplete combustion.”

The heat exchanger, a unit made in Germany, uses engine coolant to transfer heat to the vegetable oil. The Elsbett conversion kit costs about $3,500.

Dual fuel

To get the heat exchanger warmed to operating temperature by the engine coolant, the tractor engine must be allowed to warm. This must be done on diesel fuel, for which a small auxiliary tank is mounted on the front of the chassis.

Initial bench testing at Titan Machinery showed the engine coolant, as well as the vegetable oil, were being properly heated.

“The temperature of the fuel approaches 185 degrees,” Aakre said. “In that process then, that oil is thinned out considerably, and so its spray and burn characteristics are going to be closer to diesel than it would be if it was cold fuel.”

Why 185 degrees? Because that’s the temperature of the coolant temperature.

Once the engine is properly warmed, a thermostatic control unit in the heat exchanger switches the fuel supplied to the engine from diesel to vegetable oil. The tractor then can run all day on vegetable oil.

Field testing

The conversion done, Aakre turned the tractor over to its users at the county highway department. On June 15, driver Dave Volker got the nod from his boss to take the canola-fueled tractor out and put it to work. He hooked up the 15-foot batwing mower deck and headed out.

Volker has driven the tractor for 125 hours since then, and Aakre understands the department expects to get a total of 300 to 350 hours in by wintertime.

“It’s operating satisfactorily for what we need,” he said. “It’s not necessarily an easy deal, compared to diesel fuel, but the conditions we’re running at right now are about ideal,” he said.

They also are finding that the system operates better when the vegetable oil filter is changed regularly, somewhere around 125 hours. Volker says he thought he had lost a little power recently, so he replaced it. The performance immediately returned to normal.

This is the reason for Aakre’s testing: To find the glitches and maintenance needs that farmers would be faced with.

Meanwhile, the canola press at the university is going full tilt by pressing about 1,200 pounds a day.

He says the tractor probably is operating about nine hours a day. They will keep up the supply and make sure the tractor gets as much test time in the field before winter.

“The intent is to look for a renewable source of farm-grown oil,” he said. “We’re just looking at opportunities where farmers, co-ops or groups of farmers can get together and press some of their own seed to produce some oil for diesel tractors.”