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August 26, 2011

Company Takes Biodiesel From Field to Fryer to Fuel

by Steve Baragona

In the worldwide search for alternative energy sources, vegetable oil is becoming an increasingly popular substitute for crude oil.  

Just a 90-minute drive from Washington, D.C., one company is working to take oil from the canola plant from the field to the fryer to the fuel tank, and do it all locally.

Company executives say it's a system that could work anywhere in the world.

At Cork Street Tavern in Winchester, Virginia, kitchen manager Chris Bennett cooks his freshly-fried potato chips in canola oil from Shenandoah Agricultural Products, a small company just a few kilometers away.

"It's nice to help out hardworking local people," he says.

After the restaurant has fried all it can with the oil, Shenandoah has plans for it.

"They're going to turn it into biodiesel," says Bennett.

Plant power

Biodiesel is diesel fuel made from plants, not petroleum. Shenandoah runs its farm equipment with it.  

"Humans and everything that goes on are just part of a bigger picture," says Diane Kearns, who runs the company. "And so, if we can do things sustainably, environmentally, that's really a huge help. Everything has to work economically, too."

Farming is on the decline in this area as the suburbs gradually encroach. Kearns wants to find a way to keep local agriculture in business while helping the environment. She thinks biofuel crops might help, but is not in it for the money.

"The reason for doing this is not to make a million dollars," says Kearns. "The reason to do this is to empower local ag and prove you can be sustainable with this kind of stuff."

Full circle

Biodiesel is a growing worldwide industry but Kearns and her partners are different in that they do it all. Kearns grows canola and then her partner, Josh Leidhecker, makes it into the fryer oil they sell to local restaurants.

Then they take the used oil back and turn it into biodiesel fuel in a system Leidhecker designed and built himself.

"I am a backwoods engineer," Leidhecker says. "I don't have any formal training in engineering. I've always just been intuitive in figuring things out."

Mobile refinery

He even figured out a way to put it all inside the back of a tractor-trailer.

"We wanted to design a system that was truly mobile, that we could take to the consumer and produce the fuel for them on site," Leidhecker adds.

Since it is mobile, and the chemical process is simple, he says it could work anywhere in the world where farmers have an oilseed crop.

According to Kearns, the system is economical, too. Their biodiesel costs about the same to make as the regular diesel fuel they buy.

"With a little bit of profit margin in there, the cost is coming out pretty darn close," Kearns says, "which I'm really psyched about."

They can even sell their vegetable oil for less than their competitors, which means kitchen manager Bennett is pretty excited, too.

"I think it's a great idea, especially with gas costing more than milk now," Bennett says.  "It's going to save us money, save them money, and help the environment as well."

All that, and help local farmers, too.