Bently ventures into biofuels
Using a traditional Midwest crop and waste vegetable oil from area restaurants, Bently Agrowdynamics plans to mass produce an alternative fuel by the end of this year.
The company, owned by Douglas County multi-millionaire Don Bently, has had a natural program in agriculture-related endeavors for nearly 30 years. The company includes 38,000 acres of land and reservoirs for the production of alfalfa, small grains, and cattle.
In the late 1990’s , Bently ventured into the business of composting — working up to 30,000 tons annually, with only 1 percent sold retail.
By the end of 2006, General Manager and Professional Engineer Jim Usher predicts the company will have up to 6,000 acres of composting ventures.
“We’ve become very efficient at composting,” said Usher. “It’s become our primary fertilizer.
“It’s so efficient it almost runs itself.”
Two years ago, Bently had Usher start researching alternative fuels.
Don Bently “has, in his lifetime, been dealing with energy and he has a lot of insight,” Usher said. “He feels its an ideal time to get away from foreign fuels.”
Initially, Usher and his team, Ken Waldram, biofuels manager, and Patti Bently, technician, (whose husband’s uncle is Don Bently), looked into methane. But storage was a problem because methane is a very light gas that vaporizes.
“It would require a lot of work to store it,” Usher said.
The group “stumbled” on a biodiesel project that uses oils, animal fats and canola oil as feedstock to power diesel engines. Biodiesel is as biodegradable as sugar. Yellowstone National Park has been using biodiesel in its vehicles since 1998.
“It requires no modification … used in a regular diesel engine,” Waldram said. “It is easy to make. Safe. Non-toxic and clean-burning.”
In the United States, 200,000 gallon of regular diesel fuel is used annually. The biodiesel already being used in Bently vehicles is exempt from federal regulations because it is used on agricultural roads. Usher suspects more stringent regulations from the Environmental Protection Agency within a few years.
Although it smells like French fires or barbecue, a 1969 Mercedes at Bently Agrowdynamics runs on straight biodiesel produced on-site. The team is making 100 gallons of biodiesel a week. They expect to use more of a blend of straight biodiesel in the near future.
“We plan to use 100 percent,” Waldram said. “At this point 20 percent is common now.”
The goal is to produce 300,000 gallons per year.
To make biodiesel, Bently Agrowdynamics is growing its own canola oil plants. Usually found in the Dakotas and Idaho, canola looks a lot like mustard plants.
“The canola plants are like a little solar panel,” Usher said.
Waldram is gathering a cache of area restaurants to provide the waste vegetable oil and bacon drippings, including the Carson Valley Inn in Minden.
“We actually pay them for their waste,” he said.
The chemistry is technical but glycerin is a by-product of using the feedstocks (canola and waste vegetable oil) .
“We don’t know quite yet what to do with it (glycerin). It needs to be refined,” said Waldram. “We are looking at whether to (refine it) or sell it.”
As for the canola, which is 30-35 percent oil in each seed, Bently Agrowdynamics is researching ways to efficiently extract the oil for the biodiesel program. Each acre of canola produces 400 gallons of oil. The rest of the seed becomes canola meal to feed livestock.
“It’s still fairly new technology,” Usher said.
Testing of the final biodiesel is done at the Bently-owned National Tribiology Service. The company is scouting metropolitan areas to set up production plants, including Los Angeles and San Francisco.
The only drawback is the cost. Because biodiesel is new and slow-catching-on, Waldram said it could cost upward of $3 a gallon.
He said the U.S. Department of Energy is working to reduce the cost to less than $1 per gallon over the next five years.
“What excites me is that it is recyclable,” Usher said.
Regina Purcell can be reached at email@example.com or (775) 782-5121, ext. 211.