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Putting the biodiesel plant in the farmer’s hands

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Friday, September 01, 2006
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THE SITUATION

Crops to fuel biodiesel are being raised in Eastern Oregon, but there are no biodiesel production plants east of the Cascades and scant supplies at the pump. Meanwhile, farmers running diesel pickups and tractors are prime potential consumers of home-grown fuel.

THE NEW TECHNOLOGY
Oregon State University professor Goran Jovanovic has created a credit card-sized biodiesel reactor that takes in canola oil and alcohol and, using a catalyst in tiny microchannels, produces biodiesel. In Wallowa County, Ethical Energy, co-founded by Rick Weatherspoon and Gloria Garvin, is one of several groups negotiating to buy Jovanovic’s technology and use it at the center of a biodiesel system they’d peddle to rural farmers. Ethical Energy would aggregate hundreds of thousands of the cards into a mini-biodiesel production unit the size of a suitcase. Farmers or communities with access to canola, sunflower or other seed crops would crush the seeds and then feed the oil into the suitcase processing unit to produce enough biodiesel to fill their gas tank or a storage tank in their barns or pickups.

DOES IT HAVE JUICE?
So far, Jovanovic has only produced a test-tube worth of biodiesel. But his idea has disruptive technology written all over it. The micro-scale reactor promises major efficiencies over industrial-scale biodiesel plants. If someone can turn it into a usable, personal scale production unit, it could change the way we produce fuel by putting the end user in control. Garvin and Weatherspoon, who is a former engineer for defense contractors and an Enterprise native, want to nail that killer app. Wallowa County will be their proving ground. They are testing high-oil-content sunflowers on a 40-acre plot in Imnaha, while machinists look at materials to construct the suitcase unit, a local oil company studies how to winterize the biodiesel and Weatherspoon looks into manufacturing the units in the county. “I’m trying to create a little industry at the end of the road here,” says Weatherspoon, who drives a ’99 Dodge Cummins diesel pickup himself. “It’s not a slam dunk. But we’re just gonna do it and see if it works.” Venture capitalists, including OVP Venture Partners’ David Chen, have shown interest in Jovanovic’s mini processor. Jovanovic still needs to find a benign solid catalyst to replace the liquid sodium hydroxide — a legally controlled substance — that he’s currently using.

And should Weatherspoon get a license for the technology, he needs
to cross a first production hurdle with a prototype of the suitcase unit in the next nine months to fuel the test vehicle — his pickup.

— Oakley Brooks


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