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Vegetable-based biofuels are not a new idea. Henry Ford's first vehicle was designed to run on ethanol, while Rudolf Diesel used peanut oil to fuel his 1898 compression-ignition engine. Since then, of course, petroleum-based products gradually came to dominate the scene.
As global petroleum supplies shrink, however, ethanol and biodiesel are back in the limelight. These clean-burning alternatives not only reduce greenhouse gas emissions, they also reduce air pollution.
Ethanol is a high-octane alcohol that can be created from the starches and sugars present in a variety of agricultural crops such as corn, wheat and barley. New technology is even making it possible to create ethanol from the cellulose in forestry waste and agricultural residues such as wheat straw and corn stalks.
Grain-based ethanol is made by milling the grain, mixing it with enzymes and water, and heating it to convert the starch into sugar. Yeast is then added to ferment the sugar into alcohol. Distillation concentrates the alcohol, while dehydration removes the remaining water.
Most standard vehicles can run on a blend of gasoline and up to 10 per cent ethanol (E10), while specially designed vehicles can run on blends of up to 85 per cent ethanol (E85).
Biodiesel is a renewable fuel that can be made from vegetable oils, such as soy and canola, as well as rendered animal fat. To produce it you extract oil from an oilseed crop and then heat the oil together with lye and methanol.
Biodiesel can be used in pure or blended form in diesel engines with little or no engine modification required. In some ways it is superior to traditional diesel: it ignites better and offers better lubricity, reducing engine friction and wear. The main disadvantage is that it loses viscosity at lower temperatures, so in cold Canadian winters it must be blended with petroleum-based diesel.
Most of the world's biofuels are currently produced in the U.S., Europe and Brazil, but Canada is gaining ground. A number of ethanol facilities are currently operating in Ontario, with more on the horizon, and biodiesel production is in the works.
Global demand for biofuels continues to increase. One-third of the 2007 U.S. corn crop went to biofuels, while plant breeders are developing higher-yielding crop varieties to serve the energy industry.
Although fluctuating oil prices will strongly influence the market for biofuels, measures like the current provincial and federal tax exemptions and Ontario Regulation 535/05, which requires an annual average of five per cent ethanol in gasoline sold in the province, will help to sustain demand.
From a grower's standpoint, an increasing demand for biofuels can expand the market for crops such as corn, soy and canola. Like any commodity, the price of energy crops fluctuates, but producers have the flexibility of selling to food markets if energy prices are low.
It's also quite feasible to produce biodiesel on your farm, using anything from a homemade system to a fully automated commercial one. It's more likely to be economically viable if you both grow oil seed crops and raise livestock that can take advantage of the meal produced during oil extraction.
If you choose to make your own biodiesel, be sure to take proper precautions handling the chemicals you'll need. As well, you'll need to decide what you will do with the glycerin that is a byproduct of biodiesel production.
Ethanol production is a more challenging undertaking. The economies of scale make it less attractive than biodiesel production, and there are more regulatory hurdles to face.
From a fuel user's standpoint, whether commercially produced biofuels can reduce the cost of running your vehicle will depend on market conditions.
Small-scale turn-key biodiesel systems can cost anywhere from US$15,000 to $100,000 or more, according to A Farmer's Guide to Energy Self Reliance, published by the Institute for Energy and the Environment.
At the other end of the production scale, building an ethanol production plant costs between $0.65 and $1.00 per litre of capacity according to Fuelling a New Economy: Exploring the Opportunities of Ethanol Production. Most new plants constructed have an annual capacity of 100-150 million litres, putting the initial investment at roughly $100 million.
Growing Energy Crops
If you plan to produce your own biodiesel, check with your local municipality about any zoning issues. You should also speak with your insurance broker.
Publications and Websites
For an overview of biofuels, check Farm Credit Canada's Are Biofuels an Idea Whose Time Has Come?. The Integration of Renewable Energy on Farms website includes several pages on biodiesel and ethanol.
For information on using biodiesel in your operations, check the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs infosheet about on-farm biodiesel use. If you plan to produce or blend your own biodiesel, consult the U.S. Department of Energy's Biodiesel Handling and Use Guidelines.
The Canadian Co-operative Association's Guide to Starting a Biofuel Co-operative outlines the steps in planning an ethanol or biodiesel production co-op.
You'll find an online video on On-Farm Biodiesel Production at AgVision TV.
Testing and Accreditation
For biodiesel testing, producers can contact the Alberta Research Council's Fuels & Lubricants Group.
The National Biodiesel Accreditation Program is a voluntary, co-operative accreditation program for biodiesel producers and marketers.
The University of Guelph's Ridgetown Campus is partnering with the Southwestern Ontario Bioproducts Innovation Network to create a farm-scale biodiesel demonstration, education and applied research facility located on the Ridgetown campus.
The Canadian International Grains Institute offers biodiesel production demonstrations and courses.
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