Minnesota-Crookston researchers study oilseeds

CROOKSTON, Minn. -- Paul Aakre and other researchers at the University of Minnesota-Crookston are well ahead of the curve when it comes to oilseed research for biodiesel and other profitable uses.

CROOKSTON, Minn. -- Paul Aakre and other researchers at the University of Minnesota-Crookston are well ahead of the curve when it comes to oilseed research for biodiesel and other profitable uses.

In fact, Aakre has studied the potential of using oilseeds as a fuel and energy source since 1981, when he was a graduate student at North Dakota State University in Fargo.

"We are hearing more and more positive talk when it comes to biodiesels, even more so than corn for ethanol," Aakre said. "One of the advantages of biodiesel is the potential for individual farmers or a small group of farmers to produce their own fuel in a much simpler technology than ethanol."

Though the days when farmers create their own diesel blend from the soybeans, sunflowers or canola they produce are years away, the nation and more specifically, Minnesota researchers are inching in that direction.

Tax credits and other financial incentives are helping matters.


The U.S. Energy Act, or EPACT, enacted in 1992, set guidelines for government and utility fleets to earn federal credits for using biodiesel.

In 2002, Minnesota passed a law requiring all diesel fuel be blended with at least 2 percent biodiesel in three years. Also in 2004, as part of Gov. Tim Pawlenty's Job Opportunity Building Zones initiative, the state set up a $1 tax incentive for every gallon of biodiesel produced to offset costs of making biodiesel that meets strict industry standards.

Just last year, Pawlenty announced a new initiative to boost the level of biodiesel sold in Minnesota, from the current 2 percent to about 20 percent by 2015.

Aakre and one of his students, Jade Estling, Roosevelt, Minn., are embarking on a project that will test the viability of canola meal as a heating source in wood stoves.

The project will use the same basic process for extracting canola oil for biodiesel. Instead of using the pulp or the meal extrusion a byproduct of the process solely for cattle feed, the meal will be made into pellets that will be tested by Northwest Manufacturing Inc., in Red Lake Falls, Minn., which makes wood stoves.

Aakre and Estling will team with a group of canola growers from the Wannaska, Minn., area, which provided the UMC researchers with a twin-screw expeller, a $16,000 machine used to extract oil and meal from oil seeds.

Aakre said some of the canola seed will be used to make cattle feed and some of it will be used to continue biodiesel production research.

"We will be making some biodiesel on campus," he said, "but it's going to be more of a learning project or a demonstration project for us."


He said the oil that is produced most likely would be given to producers near Wannaska and Roseau, Minn., who provided the canola for their project.

Aakre said excitement that surrounds the biodiesel industry in Minnesota and elsewhere is a big change from his college days, when research on blending sunflower oils with diesel to fuel farm machinery was in its infancy.

"We put on over 5,000 hours on that machinery, and we had a lot of fuel-related problems. Two engines failed," Aakre said.

It was discovered that a waxy compound that occurs during the creation of biodiesel formed gum and a varnish on pistons, causing the engines to shut down over time.

Today's biodiesel is much more pure and refined, thanks to strict industry standards for its production.

Those standards also help guard against cold-weather problems associated with biodiesel.

Still, in order to adhere to those standards, biodiesel producers have to spend lots of money just get it tested, making on-the-farm production of the fuel cost-prohibitive at this time.

"You could not sell it as biodiesel unless it met that standard," Aakre said.


New tax credits for biodiesel production could go a long way in helping producers overcome the cost challenge, he said.

The National Biodiesel Board says the nation would use about 50 million gallons per year if biodiesel consumption reached its full potential.

It also could add $11 billion to the economies of about 30 states that grow oil seeds, such as soybeans and canola.

The Grand Forks Herald and The Dickinson Press are both owned by Forum Communications Co.

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