Faith in mustard seed fuels Blue Suns vision of
|Colorado Agriculture Commissioner Don Ament
(second from left), Rural Development Director Gigi Dennis and
Tom Wernsman (right), director of Blue Sun Producers, Inc.,
joined Glenn Babcock (left) and Howard Wickham (second from
right), co-owners of Heartland Town and Country store, to cut
the ribbon on the states first all-biofuel filling station.
Heartland sells B20, a 20-percent biodiesel/80-percent
petroleum diesel mix, and ethanol to the general public.
(Photo courtesy of Blue Sun)|
Innovation can mean creating something completely new,
or, in the case of Blue Sun
Biodiesel, it can be taking a great idealike extracting fuel
oil from a renewable plant sourceand tailoring it to the specific
needs of a region or grouplike struggling farmers in dry western
The Ft. Collins, Colo.-based agriculture energy
company opened for business in 2001 to capitalize on the growing
market for biodiesel.
We started with the idea of producing and distributing a
high-quality, dependable product that both diesel engine
manufacturers and consumers would fully endorse, and worked backward
from there as we learned more about the business, recalled owner
and CEO Jeff Probst.
Search for cost-effective
feedstock uncovers high-performing alternative
lesson was that importing soybeans, a commonly used biodiesel
feedstock, from the Midwest to Colorado added to the cost of
manufacturing the renewable fuel. Blue Sun enlisted researchers from
Colorado State University, Kansas State University and the
University of Nebraska to investigate industrial oilseed crops that
could grow in dry land crop areas. We could build a business on
importing soy, but to compete in the long term, we knew we had to
exploit western resources, Probst noted. So we started looking at
alternative feedstocks, not only from a cost perspective but also in
terms of fuel performance.
Blue Sun turned its attention to a mustard family
plant similar to a biodiesel feedstock used in Europe, which offered
many performance advantages over soybeans. Pound for pound, the oil
content of mustard seed is 40 percent, compared to the 18 percent
content of soybeans. Mustard seed has a higher cetane rating, the
measurement of fuels ignition quality, and it retains flow
properties in freezing temperatures better than soy-derived oil.
Best of all, both for Blue Sun and for Colorado
farmers, mustard seed is better suited than soybeans and other
oil-bearing crops to the growing conditions of the High Plains
region. The drought-tolerant and heat -resistant crop requires
little irrigation, a factor that improves the fuels energy balance.
Soybeans produce 3.2 units of energy for every unit of energy used
to process the oil into fuel. Probst estimates that growing the
low-moisture feedstock close to the manufacturer helps to boost
mustard seeds energy balance to more than four units of energy per
unit spent in processing.
Growers co-ops give farmers stake
in biodiesels future
Mustard seeds early spring planting
season and July harvest fits into the fallow cycle of eastern
Colorados winter wheat producers, adding incremental value to the
farmers crops without adding to irrigation loads. It offers an
opportunity to support the rural economy, keep revenues in the state
and give farmers more control over their own destiny, said
Blue Sun formed two growers co-ops Colorado-based Blue Sun
Producers, to serve Colorado, eastern Kansas and Wyoming
farmers, and Progressive Producers, exclusively for the state of
Nebraskato offer farmers a stake in their vision. Members must
invest a minimum of $5,000 and plant up to 200 acres with seed Blue
Sun provides. The company will contract with the farmers before
planting season, and pay them an annual dividend on the investment.
Participating farmers will also benefit from the expected equity
appreciation in the company.
The money will be used to fund the construction of a
2.8-million-gallon biodiesel production facility in northeastern
Colorado. More than 50 farmers have already joined the cooperatives,
according to Probst.
The U.S. departments of Agriculture and
Energy have shown interest and support for the project, too. DOE
awarded Blue Sun a $100,000 Phase I SBIR grant to breed new oilseed
varieties that may improve on the fuel properties of mustard seed.
The research may lead to a Phase II grant of $750,000.
The company received two separate USDA Rural
Development matching grants for $450,000 each to help with setting
up the growers co-ops. The money will add 2.5 cents per pound
incentive to the 9-cent-per-pound payment mustard growers would
receive for their crop.
Greater availability, lower price needed to
build consumer acceptance
Development Director Gigi Dennis presented the grant to Blue Sun at
the Feb. 6 opening of the states first all-biofuel retail station.
Heartland Town and Country store in Ft. Morgan joins Bartkus Oil
Company in Boulder, Colo., the Catherine Store in Carbondale, Colo.,
and Shoco Oil in Commerce City, Colo., in pumping B20, a 20-percent
biodiesel/80-percent petroleum diesel mix, for the general
Babcock, co-owner of the Heartland Town and Country store, heard
about the product from a fellow Farmland Co-op member who
had worked with Blue Sun. The more I learned about it, the more I
thought we should give local farmers and ranchers the option of
renewable fuel, he explained.
Turning an entire station over to biofuels did
not require extensive retrofitting. Heartland had recently installed
a new pump to handle ethanol, and any diesel pump was compatible
with pumping biodiesel. My feeling is, weve been held hostage to
fossil fuels long enough, Babcock declared. Biofuels are good for
farmers and for the local economy. Heartland is supporting the
product from tillage to tank.
Whether consumers will support biofuels as
enthusiastically is still an unanswered question. The smog that
frequently plagues Colorados Front Range has made cleaner-burning
biodiesel attractive to many fleet customers. The University of
Colorado uses Blue Sun in most vehicles, and Denvers Regional
Transportation District has begun a pilot program for the product.
The cities of Boulder, Breckenridge and Colorado Springs, a Western
customer, recently contracted with Blue Suns distributor and retail
network to supply B20 for their municipal diesel
Still, with only five retail outlets in Colorado
and a sixth to open in Ft. Collins. Colo., it takes a committed
driver to seek out the pumps. Also, the B20 fuel blend customers
prefer costs about 20 cents more per gallon than petroleum diesel.
Congress is considering a revised energy bill with a
20-cent-per-gallon tax reduction on biodiesel and a new
transportation bill with a similar incentive. If one of those bills
carrying the incentive proposal passes, it could offer some price
And, of course, Blue Sun continues to believe
that the humble mustard seed can reduce air pollution and dependence
on foreign oil, save the family farm and build a multi-million
dollar industry. All it takes is a good idea and a little