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GOLD (and green) RUSH
Biofuels boom and Idaho

by Bill Loftus
illustrated by Noah Kroese

When oil prices soared and gasoline topped $3 a gallon, the energy debate became an economic crisis for many in the United States. Farmers changed their crop mixes to plant those that needed less fertilizer or pesticides. Consumers wondered how high prices would rise. And suddenly, after decades of research and promotion, alternative fuels are hot.

The University of Idaho’s College of Agricultural and Life Sciences (CALS) stands ready to stake its claim in the biodiesel field it helped sow nearly three decades ago through the pioneering work of agricultural engineering professor Chuck Peterson.

Bright yellow canola blossoms reach for northern Idaho’s blue sky.
Bottles of several fuel oils are in J. L. Martin Lab.

“Our scientists lead the nation in educating people in biofuels production, in breeding oilseed crops, and in researching new uses for seed meals left over once oils are removed. We are quickly developing muscle in other biofuels-related topics, too,” said CALS Dean John Hammel. University scientists are also weighing in on national debates about values of biofuels and are increasingly called upon to consult with industry globally.             

The wheels of government began to turn toward the greener side of fuel. President George W. Bush spoke about the need for renewable fuels in his January State of the Union address, adding biodiesel for the first time to the list dominated by ethanol. Idaho legislators mulled a slate of bills to encourage renewable fuels, passing several and revamping the state’s oilseed commission.

Companies led the wave of interest, brokering deals with college scientists to expand long-term work on alternative fuels. In November, Gibraltar-based Eco-Energy Ltd. signed a 5-year research pact with CALS plant breeder Jack Brown to develop and test new canola, mustard, and rapeseed varieties worldwide.

University visitors to Spain explore second Idaho biodiesel plant

In late May, a contingent including University of Idaho President Tim White, CALS Dean Hammel, Idaho Agricultural Experiment Station Director Greg Bohach, biochemist Matt Morra, and biodiesel production expert Jon Van Gerpen, head of the college’s Department of Biological and Agricultural Engineering, joined Lewiston-area officials on a trip to Spain. A biodiesel manufacturer there invited them to explore a commercial alliance that would locate a new plant in north-central Idaho.

It would be Idaho’s second after Blue Sky Biodiesel, New Plymouth. In early 2007 the National Biodiesel Board estimated the nation can produce 824 million gallons of biodiesel a year in 94 plants—16 of them in the 11 western states. Another 49 are under construction and 7 are expanding, according to Brown.

The university is hiring a business specialist to help cultivate potential partners who want to capitalize on Idaho expertise. “There’s kind of a Gold Rush mentality out there, and we knew that if we didn’t invest, the world would pass us by,” Hammel said.

Also in May, a half dozen or more businesses and entrepreneurs contacted Morra, interested in his efforts to win U.S. Environmental Protection Agency approval for mustard meal as a biopesticide.

“There’s a tremendous amount of interest, and we’re poised to take advantage of it,” Morra said. “If we don’t  move now, it will be an opportunity lost.”

UI Biofuels, BioBug draw AAAS San Francisco crowds

In February 2007, the University of Idaho’s biofuels team filled up its bee-yellow BioBug and companion biotruck that hauls fuel needed for long trips and headed for downtown San Francisco and the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science—the world’s largest general scientific meeting.

Potential scientists get a feel for canola seeds
at Family Science Days in San Francisco.

On display for Family Science Days were the college’s Brown and Van Gerpen, assisted by researchers Joe Thompson, Donna Brown, Nichole Baker, and undergraduate plant science major Meagan Nickelson.

At the event’s first day, Brown followed a tough act—the Mythbusters of television’s Discovery Channel. Still, his crowd of hundreds of people was more animated than the opening act! Young audience members pounded rapeseed to demonstrate how oil is extracted, and people crowded the booth for a bag of popcorn popped in canola oil grown in Idaho.

The team’s booth also featured the BioBug, a 2001 Volkswagen Beetle that Brown and Idaho agricultural engineer and biodiesel pioneer Chuck Peterson bought as a symbol that biodiesel is ready for the marketplace, and seed packets of Sunrise canola, a variety Brown developed.

“As a fellow plant person, I’m glad to see you here doing this,” enthused a plant breeder from the University of Maryland.

Meanwhile, back in Idaho, new biofuels’ potential continues to emerge, aided by University of Idaho research enterprise.                                         


London comes calling

For Ian Rosenblatt, Eco-Energy’s London-based president, his company’s interest hinged on a simple fact: Brown’s stature as a plant breeder of oilseed crops and his worldwide collection of canola, mustard, and rapeseed germplasm.

The University of Idaho has the greatest depth and range of expertise in the field of all the potential partners the company had viewed around the globe, Rosenblatt said.

Ethanol boom echoes in Idaho

Other good news is that ethanol is booming again. An $80 million U.S. Department of Energy grant will encourage investors including Iogen Energy Corporation, Iogen Corporation, Goldman Sachs, and The Royal Dutch/Shell Group to build an ethanol biorefinery near Shelley, Idaho.

The plant will use 700 tons per day of wheat straw, barley straw, and other crop residues to produce 18 million gallons of ethanol a year.

Bob Zemetra, the university’s Moscow-based wheat breeder, has already devoted part of his research program to exploring which wheats and barleys could produce the best straw for use in cellulosic ethanol production at the Shelley plant.

Canola benefits human health; increases cows’ milk yield

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) calls canola oil a heart-healthy food. That official determination supports  what researchers have been finding and doctors saying for years. Canola growers hope that the FDA seal of approval will help expand the oil’s presence in the  marketplace.

Canola meal is a protein supplement commonly fed to dairy cattle in southern Idaho and Washington’s Columbia Basin, said Alex Hristov, the college’s dairy nutrition scientist at Moscow. “If the biodiesel industry grows, it will be more and more  available,” Hristov said.

As a dietary protein supplement, canola meal helps cows maintain high milk production. The meal’s price is based on its protein concentration. An irony for Idaho dairy operators is that the meal they like to feed their cows is imported from Canada’s crushing plants, bypassing northern Idaho’s rich fields that gleam golden each spring with canola blooms.

Will camelina be a viable new crop for Idaho?

As in fashion, crops sometimes attract renewed interest as conditions change, and what is old is new again.

There’s hardly a crop that could make that statement any more pronounced than camelina, a tiny oilseed related to canola and mustard that intrigues UI Extension Crop  Management Specialist Stephen Guy.

During a canola and mustard field day last summer, Guy showed off some test plantings of the crop that anthropologists can trace back 3,500 years. Guy believes camelina seed, which contains high levels of omega-3 fatty acids, holds potential as a healthful oil.

Its yields are comparable to canola’s and it may supply a reliable feedstock for biodiesel production.

This year UI Extension’s Juliet Windes will test camelina near Soda Springs. The “new” oilseed may provide an alternate rotation crop to break disease and pest cycles in areas where few other crops are viable. UI Extension’s Brad Brown will test camelina in the Treasure Valley as a second crop, giving growers two harvests a year.

UI Extension takes on energy cost cutting for Energy Department

Nor are the college’s efforts confined to future possibilities. Hans Kok, UI Extension conservation specialist, is working through the U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy  Initiative to equip county educators to help producers cut energy costs.

 “UI Extension has a great chance of tying it all together,” said Kok. “I think we’re seeing a lot of interest, and it will continue to be important.”

There is a strong link with his main assignment—helping growers adopt no-till or minimum tillage conservation practices that can cut farmers’ fuel bills by 50 to 60 percent, Kok said.

Idaho scientists answer Cornell critic over biodiesel value

When a national debate raised questions recently about biodiesel’s fuel value, Van Gerpen and UI colleague Dev Shrestha spoke out. They critically analyzed a report by Cornell University researchers that biodiesel took more energy to make than it returned when burned in an engine.

Source: Food and Agricultural policy Research Institute 2007

Source: U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis

The university’s analysis showed that biodiesel, contrary to the Cornell assertion, returned three to five  times the energy required to grow an oilseed crop and then convert the oil to fuel.

Biodiesel and its energy content is an issue that is part of an overall discussion about alternative fuels.

Van Gerpen, whose research and educational efforts have focused on bringing quality biodiesel fuel to  market, believes the biodiesel industry is at a crossroads.

Costs of breaking United States addiction to foreign oil

Van Gerpen now worries whether a recent Internal Revenue Service decision about which fuels qualify for a $1 a gallon tax break could undermine the biodiesel industry. The ruling broadened the definition of fuels made from animal fats or plant oils that mimic petroleum diesel.

The cost to produce biodiesel, which contains more oxygen, is  higher, Van Gerpen said, but so are the benefits.

The ethanol industry was on the same growth curve in the 1970s, then crashed when government support dropped. The question is whether biodiesel will mirror that boom and bust before it becomes as firmly established as ethanol is today.

On that subject, the normally reserved and soft-spoken Van Gerpen becomes passionate.

He refers back to another statement by President Bush in his 2006 State of the Union address: “Keeping America competitive requires affordable energy. And here we have a serious problem: America is addicted to oil, which is often imported from unstable parts of the world.”

U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis shows U.S. dependence on foreign petroleum products growing. Always a major part of our balance of payment deficits, our nation paid foreign countries some $300 billion for  petroleum products in 2006, the year our balance of payment deficit reached more than $800 billion.

That is up from less than $100 billion for petroleum products during 1997’s $200 billion balance of payment deficit.

Van Gerpen sees biodiesel as part of the solution. “We’re really talking about major changes in the country’s energy supply,” he said. “We’re trying to wean the U.S. off its dependence on foreign oil. Do people really think it’s going to be free or easy?”

University contacts:

Jon Van Gerpen at

Dean John Hammel at

Jack Brown at

Matt Morra at

Alex Hristov at, or        

Stephen Guy at