“The use of vegetable oils for engine fuels may seem insignificant today. But such oils may become, in the course of time, as important as petroleum and the coal tar products of the present time.” — Rudolf Diesel, 1912

With gasoline prices topping $2 per gallon, and diesel fuel even higher, those long-ago words from the inventor of the diesel engine are taking on new relevance in the agricultural community.

Although Diesel's initial engine was powered by a coal dust mixture, its abrasiveness led him in 1894 to the use of peanut oil, which proved a far better fuel.

“Peanut oil, cottonseed oil, and other vegetable oils can be used in diesel engines,” says Herb Willcutt, Extension agricultural engineer with the Mississippi State University Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering. “But their price is at a premium to soybean oil, which makes soy oil more feasible for biodiesel.”

Willcutt has recently conducted a series of meetings, supported with farmer checkoff funds through the Mississippi Soybean Promotion Board, to explain the benefits of soydiesel and to create greater awareness of the alternative fuel in the agricultural community. A number of fuel distributors have participated in the meetings.

“We're trying to improve customer awareness of biodiesel,” said Solon Scott, Scott Petroleum, Itta Bena, Miss., at a meeting at Cleveland, Miss. “There is a lot of interest from area farmers, wanting to know if we're going to handle it.”

He is making biodiesel available to area farmers this season.

“It's something new for us, but we see it as an opportunity to further capitalize on one of the crops we grow in Mississippi. We feel, over time, it can help to keep soybean prices up. We want to do our part to help our state's agricultural economy be as healthy as possible.

“This is the first year for us to have biodiesel available for our customers,” Scott said. “We're recommending initially that customers use a 2 percent blend to see how it works, then increase the percentage as they gain experience with it. We're looking at a B20 blend to see what kind of usage potential there may be in our area.”

(Biodiesel products carry “B” ratings; for example, B100 is 100 percent biodiesel. Most biodiesel, however, is blended with petroleum diesel in varying amounts. B2, a common grade, is 2 percent biodiesel, 98 percent petroleum diesel.)

B100, pure biodiesel, could be burned in diesel engines, Willcutt noted, but it would not be cost effective.

“B2, the most widely used blend, now is about 2 cents per gallon more than regular diesel. Many producers feel it's worth an extra 2 cents to 3 cents a gallon to help the soybean industry and to get a cleaner burning fuel and longer engine life.”

The price of biodiesel “goes up and down as prices fluctuate for the petroleum diesel used in the blend,” said Solon Scott. “I'd like to see a soydiesel manufacturing plant in the state. It would reduce transportation costs and would put our farmers more in control of their destiny, rather than having to bring it in from someplace else.”

At present, Willcutt said, the bulk of the biodiesel being sold in the state is coming through the TransMontaigne terminal on the Mississippi River at Greenville, Miss.

“They're storing biodiesel for Peter Cremer North America, a biodiesel manufacturer headquartered at Cincinnati, Ohio, and they have about 1.7 million gallons of B100 on site.”

A number of other Greenville-area producers purchase B2 biodiesel from Farmers, Inc., at Greenville. Other distributors include Gresham Petroleum, Bostick Bros. Petroleum, and Sayle Oil.

Currently, Willcutt said, there is no confirmed production of soydiesel in the state, although there are plants refining bio-based oils and fats for biodiesel blends. “A plant at Nettleton, Miss., Biodiesel of Mississippi Inc., is reported to have soydiesel processing capability.

“Another plant, at Meridian, Miss., Biodiesel Fuels of Mississippi, collects used cooking oil from fast food stores and restaurants and refines it for biodiesel. We're told that they are planning to process soy oil in conjunction with their plant in Texas.

“Southern Biofuels LLC, at Madison, Miss., is refining chicken fat from poultry operations — about one-tenth pound of fat is produced per pound of chicken.

“There are a lot of rumors about plans for other plants, but we aren't aware of anything specific.

Farmers and ranchers are the second largest users of diesel fuel in the United States. It is estimated that if every farmer and rancher used the minimum grade B2 biodiesel, more than 60 million bushels of soybeans could be utilized each year.