Montana State University

Oil-crop growers form biofuel co-op

October 31, 2002


Biofuels in the lab of Sustainable Systems LLC of Missoula. Photo courtesy of Sustainable Systems LLC.   High-Res Available

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A Montana growers' cooperative has received a grant to study the feasibility of it producing oil seed crops for conversion into biodiesel fuel.

Sustainable Systems LLC, a Missoula based renewable energy research, development and commercialization company, will do the conversion.

Steve Simonson, chair of the co-op's steering committee, received the $46,300 check from a representative of USDA Rural Development in Kalispell Oct. 25.

"This type of project is what we need to be doing to create jobs and revitalize rural Montana's economy," Simonson said. "The agricultural producers are partnering with Sustainable Systems, which developed the technology for efficiently processing canola, mustard and other oil seed crops into biofuels."

The cooperative was known as Montana Eco Fuels of Thompson Falls when it applied for the grant but is now organized under the name Peaks and Prairies Oils Seed Growers Cooperative, said Simonson. The cooperative has five members who comprise a steering committee and will meet in Fort Benton Nov. 21 to explain membership to other Montana producers. The steering committee includes Simonson of Thompson Falls, Kent Wasson of Malta, John Stoner of Havre, Les Kirschner of Havre, and Jim O'Hara of Fort Benton.

The cooperative has worked with both the University of Montana and Montana State University in the project. Paul Miller, a graduate student at the University of Montana, is the founder of Sustainable Systems, LLC. Duane Johnson, superintendent of MSU's Northwestern Agricultural Research Center at Kalispell is working with the group on agronomics and providing advice from his experience developing bio-based lubricants. Mission Mountain Market in Ronan, Montana Cooperative Development Center, Bear Paw Development in Havre, and Sanders County Community Development also are helping the cooperative bring pieces of the project together, said Simonson.

Miller, with the help of the Associated Students of the University of Montana Office of Transportation and Nancy McKiddy, has coordinated testing of the fuels at UM in a commuter shuttle bus. The bus has burned 100 percent biodiesel and various blends over the past year.

"We have logged over 15,000 miles in all weather conditions and with all blends of the fuel in an unmodified diesel bus," said Miller. "This project is one of the premier demonstration projects in the country and is showing that Montana's and the Northwest's ability to produce a high quality agricultural based renewable fuel." In a separate project, Yellowstone National Park has logged over 150,000 miles on vehicles using biofuels made from various oilseeds that can be grown in Montana. Nationally, over 50 million road miles have been logged using various blends of biodiesel, said Miller.

The biofuel seems to be scrubbing out older engines, burning cleaner and providing more horsepower, said Simonson.

"We plan for the grower's cooperative to start producing enough oil seed to supply a processing plant next season," said Simonson. "Growers will be 50 percent owners of Sustainable Systems, LLC, giving them an opportunity to add value to our raw commodities in Montana."

"The USDA grant will let us pursue a market for this unique Montana business," said Simonson. Five percent of all fuel purchased by the government is required by law to be from alternative fuel sources. "We are positioning our business to seek out these contracts and tap into other markets that are interested in renewable energy supplies. This would be a great time and place for those truly concerned about the environment to help us financially by investing in ourselves and doing something good along the way," he added.

One of the objectives of the grant money is to assess the best location for the combination pressing plant and biorefinery.

"Currently the plant location is not locked in. We are looking for a location central to production agriculture as well as market access. We expect that location to be in central to eastern Montana," said Miller.

Sustainable Systems will market B100 (100 percent biodiesel) and B20 (20 percent biofuel and 80 percent petroleum) diesel, and B2 blends (2 percent biodiesel and 98 percent petroleum diesel). Diesel engines require no modifications to use the Montana biofuel, and it dramatically reduces emissions, said Simonson. In addition, the fuel is a superior lubricant, which reduces engine wear.

"Sustainable Systems LLC is committed to increasing the net return per acre to the Montana agricultural community through development of this and other value added products," said Miller.

While most of the oil seed crops are being grown along the Hi-Line in central and northeastern Montana, Johnson said growers shouldn't rule out canola as a rotational crop in western Montana.

"We haven't had many viable crops to rotate with small grains. Oil seed crops help break disease, weed and insect cycles, which reduces growers' input costs and potentially can increase crop yields following oilseed rotations," said Johnson.

For more information about the cooperative, contact Simonson at (406) 827-3074. For more information about Sustainable Systems LLC, please contact Miller at (406) 243-4269.

Steve Simonson (406) 827-3074, Duane Johnson (406) 755-4303, Paul Miller at (406) 243-4269