A pair of University professors press biofuel issue

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The professors are helping Minnesota farmers find cost-effective fuel sources.

Two University professors are working together to give farmers a more efficient way to operate their farms.

Paul Porter, plant genetics professor in St. Paul, and Derek Crompton, a University extension educator and coordinator of the project, are working on a pilot biofuel project in Roseau County, Minn., which would allow farmers to make small batches of biodiesel fuel from crushed canola seeds.

The main goal of the project, Crompton said, is to examine the cost of producing oil on farms and to see if it is cost-efficient for farmers. The project has a projected time frame of two to five years, he said.

Porter said one goal is to use the available resources more efficiently and to add value to the farm.

He said the idea for the project came after he traveled to Wisconsin, which has its own biofuel program, last fall.

Porter said Minnesota farmers could make fuel with canola seeds, which would give them another form of energy.

Crompton said since the majority of canola seeds grown on Minnesota farms are shipped to other states, this idea allows canola seeds to stay in Minnesota and help enhance the state’s economy.

“Canola seeds are one of the best crops for oil,” he said.

Porter wrote a grant proposal to receive the initial funding for the project from the Northwest chapter of the Regional Sustainable Development Partnerships, a Crookston-based collaborative effort between the University and the citizens of Minnesota. The partnership allows the community to be actively involved in research it supports, Porter said.

The money from the grant allowed the University to buy the oil-seed press to crush the canola seeds and produce nearly one ton of oil a day, Porter said.

Porter purchased the press last spring and started using it in June, he said.

The Minnesota Department of Agriculture and Minnesota Pollution Agency have also provided money for the project.

Graduate student Seth Fore, the only graduate student working on the project this summer, said although the fundamental pieces are in place, there is not a lot of information on this subject, and there is a steep learning curve.

“This is a step in the right direction,” he said. “This is important because it is one of the first chances (for farmers) to produce their own energy on a small scale.”

There has been a lot of emphasis on alternative energy recently, and the topic is in the forefront of people’s minds, Fore said.

Once the oil-seed press crushes the canola seed into oil, the leftover parts turn into cornmeal pellets, Porter said.

This cornmeal can be useful as another source of energy for heating buildings. The cornmeal is burned for heating and used to feed dairy cows, he said.

While the project has gained attention from farmers across the Midwest, the dramatic increase in the price of canola seeds in the past year has become a problem.

The price jump caused a 50 percent increase in the project’s input costs, Porter said.

Farmers can also use soybeans and sunflower seeds since they are cheaper, but those seeds make more meal and do not contain as much oil as canola seeds, Porter said.

Although a few innovative farmers are interested in the project, Porter said the project is too new to attract widespread attention.

“There are a lot of different avenues to explore here,” Porter said.

Since the project is in the preliminary stages, they hope to increase productivity in the future, after more research into the cost-effectiveness of the project, Crompton said.