It smells like French Fries, is less harmful to the atmosphere and generally costs several cents per gallon less than diesel fuel.

People living and working in the Delta may now have limited knowledge about bio-diesel — often referred to as “soy diesel” — but if diesel prices continue to climb or remain steady, they soon could be quite familiar with it.

At least, that is the hope and strategy behind a recently completed bio-diesel refinery in Mississippi, the first one in the state acknowledged by both the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the National Biodiesel Board.

Jimmy Chiles, chief operating officer of Biodiesel of Mississippi, says workers at that plant, located on about five acres outside Tupelo, Miss., have successfully been test-producing the clean, clear material for the past three months. Workers, he said, are fast-approaching the ability to produce up to 20,000 gallons of bio-diesel daily.

And if conditions go well, he added, work toward a second refinery somewhere in the north Delta may start sometime next year.

“I have had discussions with several people in the area who have expressed interest in investing in a second refinery, but am still months away from that decision,” Chiles said.

Bio-diesel, a fuel that derives from vegetable oils, animal fat and — most pertinent to the Delta — soybeans, was discovered in 1929.

However, due to pollution emissions generated from combustible diesel fuel, the chemical advantages of bio-diesel have raised its value in recent years.

Bio-diesel is non-toxic and biodegradable and reduces unwanted sulfur emissions.

It also has been shown to improve the lubricity of diesel fuel, allowing engines to run smoother and thus, operate longer.

Chiles said bio-diesel, which is blended with diesel fuel, commonly costs 10 to 15 cents less for trucks than diesel, a key difference in today's economy.

“I think bio-diesel could become an excellent business down the road, especially with the way diesel fuel prices are now,” he said. “Right now it is cheaper to produce and market bio-diesel than it is to regulate diesel fuel.”

Officials at the Mississippi Department of Agriculture and Commerce are paying close attention to bio-diesel development. Sumesh Arora, project development engineer with MDAC, predicts the industry holds “great promise” for the region.

“We are certainly optimistic, and we think it could open a lot of new markets,” Arora said.

He said soy-diesel technology must continue to improve while the cost of soybeans will have to drop before the industry picks up more attention.

“You also have to have investment dollars from local and federal governments, and not for the short term, it must be set up for the long term to help defer the costs,” he added.

Out West, bio-diesel technology is already popular — especially in California — thanks in part to the government, which has encouraged the heavily regulated trucking and freight industry to adopt such kinds of alternative fuels.

In 1988 the Clean Air Act was amended to include bio-diesel fuel as a way for federal, state and public utility fleets to meet requirements for using alternative fuel. That move resulted in a sharp increase in bio-diesel users, which include the U.S. Postal Service and the U.S. departments of energy and agriculture.

More recently, the American Soybean Association and the National Biodiesel Board praised passage of bio-diesel tax incentive legislation in the U.S House of Representatives, with hopes of subsequent approval in the Senate.

“The trucking industry and the government seem to have more interest in this product more than anyone else right now,” Chiles said, noting consistent, continual inquiries from both sectors.

According to statistics from the USDA, Mississippi ranks annually as one of the top five states that grow soybeans, while the state's department of agriculture estimates that nearly $115 million of soybeans are exported from the Magnolia State every year.

That leads Chiles to believe that the emergence of bio-diesel could become triangularly beneficial to soybean farmers, truckers and bio-diesel producers.

“Of the raw materials necessary to make bio-diesel, the soybean composes the majority of the costs,” he said. “So there is potential for this industry to become a win/win situation down the road for the commercial driving industry and the farmer.

“The refinery can use the farmers' soybeans and they (the farmers) could get improved, less expensive fuel from it themselves and from right here in the Delta, not from the Middle East.”


e-mail: abell@primediabusiness.com