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Popular biodiesel manufacturing workshops a sell-out success in Idaho and Iowa

by Bill Loftus

When Jon Van Gerpen came to Idaho from Iowa State University in Ames in July 2004 to head the University of Idaho’s Department of Biological and Agricultural Engineering, he was a leader in his own right, helping to direct the 5-year $1 million national biodiesel education program he founded with the University of Idaho’s biodiesel pioneer Chuck Peterson.              

Workshops show biodiesel producers how to make the best fuel possible. Each year he teaches 4 to 6 workshops around the nation, and he consults with interested biodiesel venture leaders from around the world.

During the university’s March spring break, Van Gerpen oversaw another offering of the weeklong Biodiesel Technology Workshops, attracting engineers and entrepreneurs.

Since 2003, when he helped launch them, all workshops have filled to capacity. “We’ve had people upset that we limit enrollment. They either are angry because they feel we’re limiting their access to public information or because they feel they’re going to miss out on a business opportunity,” Van Gerpen said.

Among 40 students in Moscow in March was Anastasia Lytle, who plans to start a biodiesel manufacturing operation with her father near Redding, California. Others included experienced process engineers whose companies will provide service to biodiesel manufacturers.

For Chris Franklin of Danville, Ill., his job at a vegetable oil plant operated by agribusiness giant Bunge Ltd. will take a turn soon when a biodiesel manufacturer begins operations at the facility. “I wanted to be able to get hands-on experience about how biodiesel is made,” Franklin said. His lab partner, Karl Bloss of Institute, W.V., also works as an engineer and had a similar motivation.

Carlos Munoz, a faculty member at the Autonomous University of Guadalajara, attended the workshop to prepare for launching one of the first biodiesel education programs in Mexico. His university has a long-standing partnership with the college. “There is a growing interest in biodiesel in Mexico,” Munoz said.

The workshop toured them through topics ranging from writing business plans in a classroom to making biodiesel from varied sources in the university’s J.L. Martin Laboratory. Workshops have drawn participants from 43 states and 22 countries, Van Gerpen said.

Workshops and research are two facets of the leadership role Van Gerpen has assumed in the world of biodiesel. His published research is a backbone resource of the National Biodiesel Board, and he’s been a regular at the National Biodiesel Conference and Expo since its founding in 1998.

Contact Jon Van Gerpen at or visit