Piedmont Research Station producing biofuels thanks to TTFC grant
The Piedmont Research Station in Salisbury wants to show farmers that biodiesel fuels work and work well in equipment, and that creating biofuels can be done on the farm.
Knowing that the old adage, ‘Seeing is believing,’ holds true for most people, station superintendent Joe Hampton thought having this technology on display at the research station made sense. Through the years, North Carolina’s 18 state-operated research stations have led the way for many advances and innovations in agriculture production in the state.
“We very much want to use this as an educational tool. Our long-range plan is to put the biofuel system on a trailer that we can take to field days, festivals and special events, so farmers and others interested in biofuels can see what is involved in the process,” Hampton said. “It’s not that complicated and with the growing interest in biofuels, I felt we needed to be the ones showing this technology to growers.”
Thanks to a grant from the Tobacco Trust Fund Commission, the more than 100-year old station is turning recycled vegetable oil into biodiesel that power trucks, tractors and other farm equipment. And the five-stage process seems surprisingly easy.
Hampton first brought up the idea two years ago as a way to save the station money and as a way to help farmers become more familiar with biodiesel.
Hampton successfully pursued a grant from the trust fund and then set out to get a system up and running.
The first step was finding the right person to oversee the effort. Hampton turned to Kelly Snider, a 10-year employee of the station who is a unit manager in charge of field crops at the station.
Snider embraced the challenge, immediately doing a lot of reading on the subject and finding out what the station would need to accomplish its goal of producing enough biofuel for the station’s equipment and equipment at other research stations located in Western North Carolina.
Originally, the 1,054-acre station intended to purchase a complete system from a supplier, but realized after some additional study that staff could build a system with more capacity for less money.
And the rest is history.
In the summer of 2006, Snider began making and testing mini batches of biodiesel to be sure he was comfortable with the science involved in transforming the oil. Now, he routinely turns 85 gallons of recycled food oil into 75 gallons of biodiesel, at a cost of about 70 cents a gallon.
The biodiesel is blended to produce B5 and B20 for use in equipment. In essence, biodiesel replaces either 5 percent or 20 percent of the diesel fuel.
Around 30 pieces pf equipment operate off a biodiesel blend, and one vehicle, a surplus military truck, runs completely on biodiesel.
Snider carefully crafts each batch of biodiesel to ensure the finished product is clean enough to power the engines. That attention to detail has paid off.
Snider keeps up with all the maintenance logs for the vehicles and equipment so he can chart any changes since switching to the biodiesel blend.
“We haven’t seen fuel filters stopping up, which we were concerned might happen more,” Snider said.
Most importantly, the station has seen no difference in vehicle performance, Hampton said.
Although the process involves basic chemistry, Snider likens it to following a recipe, a process he thinks the average person could easily learn.
The N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services operates 18 research stations across the state in partnership with N.C. State University. A biodiesel unit is planned for the Cherry Research Farm in Goldsboro, with the intent of that station providing biodiesel for other research stations in the eastern part of the state.
Hampton sees additional research efforts coming from this beginning foray into biodiesel production.
That could involve using other forms of raw materials to make biodiesel, especially if competition for waste oil increases and the station’s supply dries up. It may also include finding new uses for the fuel on the farm, such as heating buildings and chicken houses.
“We need to approach it as a real person would,” Hampton said. “We try to manage the resources on the station like people would who are running a business.
“We’ll burn 1,000 gallons of fuel every six weeks. If we could cut our use by 20 percent, that’s a substantial savings.”