Ground Cover North : Ground Cover 062 June-July 2006 - North
Farm-grown diesel fuels timely venture It is kind to engines, gives more torque and requires lower revs than regular diesel. The cooperative Northern Biodiesel Company in WA, which is turning canola into biodiesel, says the figures add up BY EAMMON CONAGHAN n While nature takes about 300 million years to turn plant residue into a tank of fuel, a group of WA graingrowers can fill their tractors just six hours after harvesting the same vegetative building blocks. Further, the biodiesel they are producing is said to create 70 per cent less emissions than standard mineral diesel, is easier on engines and improves engine torque. At the centre of this activity is RIRDC Rural Woman of the Year Bev Logue, husband Phil and brother-in-law John. They moved to Binnu in the north of WA’s agricultural zone four years ago, with little idea they would eventually have a registered ‘petroleum factory’ in the backyard. Like many oil producers in the world’s more orthodox oil fields of the Middle East and Russia, the Logues also lease a barren, isolated outpost – in this case one of the last grain farms on the wheatbelt’s northern edge. Although their wheat crops are rarely struck down completely by drought, the semi-arid location was wreaking enough havoc with their canola crops for them to reassess its use and value. They subsequently made the decision not to abandon the crop but to use it as the basis for a new venture, the Northern Biodiesel Company. Bev Logue says their canola only averages about one tonne per hectare, often with low oil content. So in 2003–04, after another low oil- content crop, they decided to experiment with biodiesel “because we had nothing to lose”. By happy coincidence, the Logues were leasing their farm from a local pioneer of conservation farming, Bob Porter. Under the leasing agreement with the Logues, he was entitled to a share of the grain income, so he shared their lament over the loss of income from the 2003–04 canola crop, and made the initial suggestion to turn it into biodiesel. “Bob had been looking into carbon credits and reducing greenhouse gas emissions and said we should have a go that harvest,” Mrs Logue recalls. “John looked up refining techniques on the internet, and we set up a makeshift refinery in the shed using an old hot-water system. We made 400 litres and tried it in the 220-horsepower International tractor. “Phil was rock-raking and immediately found he could operate at lower revs without stalling. So we were sold.” The Logues sent 70 tonnes of canola to Kojonup in the state’s Lower Great Southern region for crushing and turning into 15,000 litres of biodiesel, accounting for more than 12 per cent of their farm fuel needs. The results continued to be encouraging so they raised production to 35,000 litres in year two and this year joined with neighbours to form the Northern Biodiesel Company, producing 145,000 litres. The Logues will use 60,000 litres of that to power half of their farm machinery. That 60,000 litres requires 150 tonnes of canola grain from about 150 hectares of land. However, Mrs Logue says the intention is to have the farm powered entirely by biodiesel in the near future because it is proving to be economical and practical. “The customary diesel rattle is gone, and everyone that uses it will tell you how kind it is to engines,” she says. “It can be washed off your hands in water and it’s biodegradable, so spillage in a waterway won’t cause the damage that conventional diesel would. And the sums add up.” This is despite the fact that the Logues must still freight their canola 850 kilometres to Kojonup for crushing. For every tonne that goes down, 400 kilograms comes back as oil and another 600kg as canola meal. The canola meal fetches about $300 a tonne as a high-protein feed. However, because of its high oil content, it can represent no more than 10 per cent of sheep or cattle feed as it converts quickly to fat. Thus the Logues are mindful of the fact that a widespread move by growers into biodiesel could create a canola meal glut and crash the feed market. Such profitable by-products could be the area where biodiesel falls down, compared to its mineral counterpart. “The income from meal subsidises the cost of producing biodiesel, so the feed market is important for us,” Mrs Logue explains. “The freight costs to Kojonup are about $100 a tonne, so if we can make say $270 back on the sale of meal, it helps the equation. “If feed collapses, the ultimate fall- back is using the meal as fertiliser, which currently earns $50 to $60 a tonne.” Where growers use Indian mustard, the resultant meal has soil-conditioning properties that may find a market niche. “In drier areas, some growers may use mustard and that meal can clean up soils to ease disease pressure in continuous wheat-cropping areas,” Mrs Logue says. “It also keeps snails away and so could be helpful in viticulture and horticulture.” Whether growers can find premium markets for the meal could go a long way toward determining the viability of biodiesel. But with the current feed option offering good returns, the figures work out already for the Logues. Producing biodiesel, subsidised by the meal, costs about 10 cents a litre which, when added to the price they would otherwise have received for the canola, makes it 89c/litre. Biodiesel is subject to a fuel excise of 38.143c/litre, but its lower emissions entitle the Logues to a cleaner fuels grant that pays the excise. Mrs Logue says the Northern Biodiesel Company, a cooperative of six local growers who each supply their own canola grain, can produce enough fuel stocks to meet their needs with little fuss. “The thought of being a licensed petroleum (biodiesel) manufacturer can initially seem daunting, but the process is clean, easy and safe,” she says. “But, of course, the biggest consideration is financial and so far the numbers stack up quite well.” As crude oil prices continue to climb, the feeling among more and more growers is that biodiesel could emerge as a significant way to save money – and about 300 million years. More information: Bev Logue, email@example.com Biofuels GROUND COVER JUNE -- JULY 2006 14 Phil Logue explains the merits of biodiesel to interested local farmers. Biodiesel reactor tanks surrounded by recycled methanol drums, used for collecting glycerol by-product. Old spray tanks have found a second life as vessels for washing biodiesel in the final step before filling the tractor. Biodiesel enthusiast: RIRDC Rural Woman of the Year Bev Logue. PHOTOS: EAMMON CONAGHAN BIODIESEL IN SIX HOURS How does biodiesel compare to ethanol, the other farm fuels prospect? Mrs Logue explains that ethanol produc- tion is a more complex process, involving fermentation. "By comparison biodiesel can be pro- duced quite easily," she says. "With the plant we have from Biodiesel Australia, it only takes about six hours to conver t oil to biodiesel." The Logues begin the process with the overnight addition of sodium hydroxide to methanol (bought commercially) which creates methoxide. Canola oil enters the mix the next morning and separates into biodiesel and glycerol. The glycerol settles to the bottom and is drained before the biodiesel goes into a tank, where water is misted onto the sur face. This causes the raw biodiesel to separate into a layer of water, a layer of soap and a layer of tractor-ready biodiesel.
Ground Cover 063 August 2006 - North
Ground Cover 061 April-May 2006 - North