Pressing matters -- Oilseed growers soon may be able to squeeze more products out of their crops
CROOKSTON, Minn. -- If oil prices continue to climb or commodity prices adjust down, professor Paul Aakre of the University of Minnesota-Crookston has a pretty good idea how farmers can save money on diesel fuel. He's putting together a farm scal...
CROOKSTON, Minn. -- If oil prices continue to climb or commodity prices adjust down, professor Paul Aakre of the University of Minnesota-Crookston has a pretty good idea how farmers can save money on diesel fuel. He's putting together a farm scale seed-to-fuel biodiesel plant.
"What we're trying to show here is the potential of a farm-scale press that you could use to produce your own fuel and your own feed products," says the program manager for the school's Agriculture Management Systems department.
While farm-sized ethanol mixers have been available on the market for years, there have been few options for farmers to press their own seed for the oils used by the mixer, so there still were some middle-man costs in the way of a farmer producing his or her own ethanol. Aakre's system adds value back to the raw seed, producing oil for the fuel as well as valuable meal for use as a livestock protein supplement.
"This is obviously not the size you'd find in industry, but it could be the size you'd find on a farm, or with a group of farmers that get together," he says, adding that his system has produced more than 600 gallons of oil in the last two weeks.
He envisions groups of farmers pooling their resources for a setup like his, and sharing the feed and fuel. Meantime, his project is generating a lot of interest, both public and private -- all in the name of strengthening rural economies.
"This is a pretty big project because we're also dealing with the agronomy department down in St. Paul and the Northwest Minnesota Canola Growers are involved," he says. "We're also working with an organization called Northwest Regional Development, who work with a lot of different projects on trying to stimulate local economies by doing things such as this."
Hot off the press
A standard hopper feeds canola seed through two gated funnels into two small presses. Manufactured in Germany by Oekotec, each draws in the seed with an auger and compresses it until the oils are forced out into a trough which feeds into one of three large containers. The first tank is used as a settling tank. Once the impurities settle to the bottom, the remaining oil is pumped to another container, ready to be mixed as biodiesel.
"There are a lot of impurities in this stuff that are settling out," Aakre says. "It's a pre-
filtering process, so you get 99 percent of (impurities) out of the oil. The final filtration is going to be your filter on your truck before it goes into your injection pump."
Approximately 30 pounds of oil are pressed from 100 pounds of canola seed, and the remaining 70 pounds become meal pellets.
Canola is not the only crop that can be made into biodiesel. With a minor modification the UMC system also can handle soybeans and sunflower.
"You use a bigger auger for soybeans and sunflower," says undergraduate student Jade Estling, who works with Aakre under a UMC research grant.
The remaining canola meal is forced through a 6-millimeter (0.24 inch) die and into a bin. A heated collar, which runs at 150 degrees Fahrenheit, is clamped onto the end of each press head to help pelletize the meal.
Aakre has sent samples of the pellets to various laboratories for testing. North Dakota State University's nutrition lab has tested them for nutritional value.
"We're talking mostly protein value, but the fat value in the feed adds energy," Aakre says. "It's also a good source of phosphorus and potassium, for maintaining bones and structure of an animal. It's certainly important in the diet."
Soybean meal has been the traditional feed supplement in areas where it is grown, but that doesn't mean that canola has no market as a supplement.
"Up in Canada, where soybeans are not so plentiful, canola has been a very common feed additive," he says.
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 NDSU Extension Service beef cattle specialist Greg Lardy indicates canola is an effective protein supplement.
"Canola meal appears to be a good source of supplemental protein for beef cattle," he says in the report. "Canola meal is an effective supplement for nursing calves, growing and finishing cattle and beef cows. Decisions on the use of canola meal in beef cattle operations should be based on cost and availability of competing protein supplements."
The canola pellets also can be used as a fuel source for heating, though it is worth more right now as a feed supplement. A sample was sent for testing to Agricultural Utilization Research Institute's oils laboratory in Marshall, Minn.
"Most organic materials contain about 8,000 Btu's (British thermal units) per pound, including wood pellets," according to Aakre.
The canola pellets generated 8,766 Btu's at the AURI oils lab.
He also had his brother, who uses a corn-burning furnace in his house, do some unofficial testing. He reported no problems with the grain auger lifting the pellets to the burner and that the heating was acceptable.
There was "no difference in flame or heat output," he wrote to Aakre. "There were more ashes than the wood pellets, but less than is left with the corn. They were also much whiter in color than the other ashes."
Aakre now is working with a wood furnace manufacturer to test the efficiency of canola pellets in its burners.
Still, wood is cheaper to burn, as long as canola prices hover at current highs.
"You can go to Menards today and pick up a bag of wood pellets," Aakre says. "It might be a combination of soft wood and hard wood, and you'll pay less than $4" for a 40-pound bag.
He estimates the canola pellets to be worth about 13 cents a pound, not including the cost of the equipment to make it.
Aakre is the first to admit that canola seed still is worth more as a commodity than a fuel.
"Even at today's high fuel prices, it doesn't work, economically," he says. "I did some quick calculations of, for example, the farmer who I got this seed from."
He bought a truckload of seed. That seed was worth $22.65 a hundredweight that day.
"Out of a hundred pounds of the seed, we get 30 pounds of oil, which converts to about four gallons of ethanol, and then the pellets have a value of about 13 cents per pound," he says.
That translates to roughly $9 for the pellets and $7.50 for the oil (at 25 cents per pound) -- a total of about $16.50 for both products derived from those 100 pounds of seed.
"But he could have got $22.65 by simply hauling it to the elevator," Aakre says.
Add to that the cost of the press and refinery equipment ($18,000 new), and it may, at first glance, look like a waste of time and money.
So why do the research?
"If commodity prices go down, and oil prices don't, then all of a sudden this process starts looking real attractive," Aakre says.