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Biofuel basics: Soybeans are needed for crude oil

Editor's Note: This is the fourth and final installment in a four-part series this week on the renewable fuel industry.

BREWSTER -- A short distance north of Brewster, Minnesota Soybean Processors (MnSP) is converting soybeans grown in the tri-state area into a renewable fuel.

Unlike the first three stories in this four-part series that focused on ethanol production, MnSP is in the business of producing biodiesel.

The plant completed construction of a 30-million-gallon capacity biodiesel refinery in 2005, an addition that allowed the plant to further process the crude oil extracted from soybeans into biodiesel. MnSP was the third of Minnesota's three biodiesel plants to be put online.

Today, an estimated one-half of the oil MnSP extracts from soybeans delivered to the plant goes into the production of biodiesel. The plant processes approximately 110,000 bushels of soybeans daily, resulting in 160,000 gallons of crude soybean oil. Of that, 90,000 gallons of crude oil is run through the plant's refine and bleach process and made into biodiesel.

Travis Antonsen, MnSP's commercial merchandiser, said all of the crude oil produced at the plant goes through the refining process. Outside orders determine how much will leave the plant as a food-grade oil and how much will go on to other plants for the production of biodiesel.

Oil produced at MnSP is hauled by truck or rail to all of the terminals in Minnesota, as well as to terminals in North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa, Nebraska and Illinois.

"It goes straight from the plant to fuel stations," Antonsen said.

Minnesota's B-2 (2 percent biodiesel blend) mandate helped the industry get off the ground, but it is the commitment of equipment manufacturers that is hoped to take biodiesel to the next step -- B-20.

Already, Ford-New Holland, Dodge and Caterpillar have introduced implement lines guaranteed to run on a 20 percent biodiesel blend, and John Deere and Case IH are also making steps in that direction, Antonsen said.

Running a diesel engine on a blended biofuel is nothing new, he added. In fact, when the diesel engine was designed in the 1800s, it ran on 100 percent peanut oil.

"We're kind of getting back to the basics," Antonsen said.

Biodiesel can be produced from any fat, whether it's from canola, corn, sunflowers, palm or animal fat. In Minnesota, Central Bi-Products in Redwood Falls makes its biodiesel from livestock hauled to its rendering facility. Its biodiesel was the first online in the state, followed by a soybean biodiesel refinery in Albert Lea.

Antonsen said regardless of what fat biodiesel is made from, the energy value is the same across the board. The industry has noted, however, that biodiesel made from animal fat has a greater tendency to gel at higher temperatures.

Naturally, Antonsen said soybeans are one of the best crops for the production of biodiesel.

"Soybeans are the most readily available -- there are lots of soybeans grown in the Upper Midwest," he said.

Antonsen credits the ethanol industry in Minnesota for getting the state to fund the growing renewable fuel industry.

"Twenty years ago, ethanol laid the ground work," he said. "The government got behind it with Minnesota mandates. "Mandates got production moving along and spread out."

Today, Washington state is looking at a 2 percent biodiesel mandate, while Illinois provides a tax incentive for B11.

As for MnSP, the plant ships its biodiesel out as fast as it can be produced. Antonsen said the biggest demand for biodiesel is during the spring planting season and again at harvest when farmers are putting the renewable fuel into their fuel tank to plant and harvest a renewable crop. One acre of soybeans, at an average of 40 bushels harvested, will produce approximately 63 gallons of biodiesel.

Julie Buntjer

Julie Buntjer joined the Globe newsroom in December 2003, after working more than nine years for weekly newspapers. A native of Worthington, she has a bachelor's degree in agriculture journalism. Find more of her stories of farm life, family and various other tidbits at

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