Three pioneers of the U.S. biofuels industry sat together on February 11 at a UNC Pembroke workshop.
Hosted by three UNCP scientists, the purpose of the meeting was to generate interest among local farmers and agribusinesses in making biodiesel.
Gary Sink is president of Red Birch Energy, Inc., a Virginia company that makes biodiesel and sells it at its truck stops.
“We should all get hats like Daniel Boone because we are pioneers,” Sink said. “It’s been a lot of fun though.”
Lyle Estill of Piedmont Biofuels of Pittsboro, N.C., produces biodiesel and manufactures custom, small-scale biodiesel plants.
“I have not stopped at a gas station since 2002,” Estill said. “It’s been a wild ride.”
Estill, who has made biodiesel from chicken fat and used cooking oil, invited the attendees to a Biodiesel Summit on March 5 at Central Piedmont Community College.
The third pioneer in the room was UNCP.
“We started making biodiesel in 2007,” said Dr. Cornelia Tirla, a chemist. “With a $750,000 Department of Energy grant, we are developing a model that uses a new type of catalyst, and then we will scale it up with the help of engineers from North Carolina A&T University.
“It will take a while,” Dr. Tirla said. “It’s new technology.”
While the scientists work in the lab, UNCP is laying groundwork for a manufacturing facility that may be supported by locally grown canola or rapeseed and may be sold on I-95 or used in farm machinery.
“With I-95, Robeson County is an ideal location,” Sink said.
Small farmer-owned processors are a model that Sink proposed. Canola is a winter crop that grows well locally and requires no new investment in farm equipment, he said.
Lee McCormick of St. Pauls soaked up information at the workshop.
“I’m looking for ideas for our farm land,” McCormick said. “I’m interested in income generation.”
For farmers and communities, it is a win-win, Sink believes. Producing biodiesel creates jobs, utilizes farmland in the winter and lets farmers control their own fuel costs. And it reduces reliance on foreign oil, he said.
High commodity prices are against the farm-to-diesel model right now because any crop in the field is more valuable as food than fuel, Estill cautioned. One possibility is turning canola into cooking oil for local restaurants, and then turning used oil into fuel.
For UNCP, Drs. Tirla, Tom Dooling and Rachel Smith are working on the prototype. The University’s first biodiesel processor was purchased from Piedmont and is mounted on a truck trailer for demonstrations in the region.
“In two years, we hope to have a prototype reactor with a re-useable catalyst,” Dr. Smith said.
“At this point, we want to establish a network of interest locally,” Dr. Tirla said.