Entrepreneur driving chicken fat biofuel alternative

Who put chicken fat in my fuel tank?

America’s unquenchable energy appetite may soon have another item on its menu — chicken fat.

Dexter, Mo., entrepreneur Jerry Bagby and longtime-friend Harold Williams have cobbled together $5 million to build a “turn key” biodiesel plant for refining the tons of chicken fat from a nearby Tyson Foods poultry plant.

“We’re not the originators of the process,” Bagby said. “We’re just seeing this product as a potential for biodiesel with a much higher value.”

All oils the same

The poultry plant’s low-quality fat is currently shipped out of state to be rendered and used as a cheap ingredient in pet food, soap and other products.

Bagby and his partner, however, plan to refine the gooey substance, mix it with soy oil and produce about 3 million gallons of biodiesel at Global Fuels annually. He sees other products that can be refined through the same system — such as animal fat, cotton seed oil, palm oil and waste fat from the fast-food industry.

Bagby contends that all of nature’s oil products are similar in their basic chemistry, citing that the difference between animal fat and vegetable oil is minimal when it comes to converting into useable biodiesel.

“Once refined, we can blend these various oil sources so our processing can be geared to using whatever feedstock happens to be least cost at any given time,” he said.

The nation’s biggest meat corporations have taken notice. Tyson Foods announced in November the establishment of a renewable energy division that will be up and running this year. Competitors Perdue Farms and Smithfield Foods are making similar moves.

Reliable fuel source

Vernon Eidman, a University of Minnesota economics professor, said the use of animal fat could help make the budding biodiesel industry a reliable fuel source. He estimated that within five years the United States will produce 1 billion gallons of biodiesel, and potentially half of it could be made from animal fat.

“Animal fats provide an opportunity for biodiesel production, but there are problems that must be overcome,” Eidman said. The first is simple logistics. There are lots of fats, but they are not readily available and are more difficult to transport and store than soybean oil. They are also less uniform and present more problems in refining.

“But the major technical problem relates to the cold flow properties of the resulting biodiesel produced,” he said. “The pour point for soy methyl ester is 25 F, while the pour point for lard, edible tallow and inedible tallow methyl esters are 55, 60 and 59, respectively.”

He said the major issue now is where these fats can be used given their cold-weather properties. “We need some new additives that are inexpensive enough so that biodiesel from these sources is more usable in transportation fuels.”

Allure of chicken fat

Central Illinois soybean oil was $0.28 per pound in January, while the Jan. 1 issue of Feedstuffs listed the prices of Chicago prime tallow and Memphis feed-grade poultry grease and pet food-grade poultry grease at $0.16, $0.20 and $0.26 per pound, respectively.

For fuel refiners like Bagby, a University of Missouri graduate in agricultural economics — which included about 20 hours of organic chemistry “several years back” — the allure of animal fat is clear: soybean oil at 28 to 30 cents versus chicken fat at 20 cents.

However, he plans to include some soybean oil in their product to provide additional lubrication for engine parts.

For companies like Tyson the attraction is simple. As the nation’s biggest meat company, they are also the biggest producer of leftover fat from chicken, cattle and hogs. Tyson produces about 2.3 billion pounds of chicken fat annually from its poultry plants. That’s about 300 million gallons that could be converted to fuel.

Industry ramping up

Animal fat was initially overlooked as a biodiesel fuel stock because of its uneven quality and technical drawbacks. As Eidman related, it may tend to thicken in colder, northern climates which might restrict distribution to warmer areas. While these factors have kept animal fat in the background, the biodiesel industry is ramping up rapidly in America. We’re still behind Europe, however, which operates on a nearly 100 percent biodiesel fuel economy with rapeseed as the primary feedstock.

Bagby said his plant will be up and running by early February. Located in the “boot heel” section of southeast Missouri, he’s 40 miles from Illinois, 50 miles from Tennessee and 20 miles from Arkansas. Tyson Foods has a large broiler processing plant in Dexter, Mo.

Chicken fat has to be rendered prior to the refinery process at Global Fuels so Bagby said they will use 7,000-gallon tankers sourcing from nearby rendering plants in three or four neighboring states. “We’re not concerned about the availability of the chicken fat feedstock.”

Seven gallons per minute

They’re waiting until fully operational before setting up their pricing and marketing agreements. “We’re getting calls,” he said. “We know there will be diesel fuel distributors checking us out for blending opportunities. The same blending process used for soybean oil works for chicken fat. I see B20 being an ideal blend. We’ll be doing about 7,000 gallons each day, or seven gallons per minute.” Bagby described it as like running a garden hose wide open, 24 hours a day.

He said diesel mechanics talk about biodiesel offering a longer engine life, and some truckers report better mileage; six miles per gallon with conventional diesel fuel compared to 6.8 to 6.9 miles per gallon with B20.

“We’re optimistic this opens a new opportunity for renewable energy,” said Bagby. “Agriculture in our area really needs a shot in the arm. (There are) lots of broilers produced in this area so just maybe chicken fat can be the key that turns this biodiesel industry into high gear in our part of the country.” His partner operates a fleet of 100 over-the-road semi rigs so Global Fuels will launch with at least one market already in the system.

Equal incentives

Dave Preisler, Minnesota Pork Producer Association executive director, suggested animal fats could be a small piece of the biofuels market potential.

“Our concern at this early stage,” Preisler said, “is that animal fats receive the same incentives and credits as other oils, be that state and or federal government. However, any time we can add value to any product coming from animal processing we’re interested and want to be a part of that development if the economics work out properly.”

A more direct use of animal fats by the meat processing industry may be utilizing these products as a “synthetic fuel” to power their own plants. In essence this could be a replacement for natural gas, the common fuel source powering meat plants across the nation.

“It appears the biodiesel industry may be competitive for the fats that are not used for pet food, but it is unlikely biodiesel can bid away the supplies used by pet food,” Eidman said.

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