Today, Kansas farmers can transport their crop in a vehicle powered by that crop.
Top commodities like corn, grain sorghum and soybeans are taking on a new life as alternative fuels — some of which are already blended in at the pump.
Here’s more on three Kansas-grown fuels and how they might help, or hurt, consumers and producers alike.
Ethanol, the same form of alcohol found in alcoholic beverages, can be used as a fuel and fuel additive. It’s produced with corn, sorghum or a variety of other crops.
“It’s homegrown fuel, it’s renewable, it’s not adding more carbon to the atmosphere, and it’s a great economic boost for a lot of these smaller communities across the midwest,” said Mike Chisholm, plant manager of Kansas Ethanol LLC, an ethanol production plant in Lyons.
Chisholm explained that the fuel offers benefits to both fuel producers looking to improve their product and consumers using it.
“The biggest advantage of ethanol is the octane value. It’s the cheapest source of octane around. Other sources that are from petroleum fuels are available, but they’re much more expensive and they have some negative health effects, like they have benzene and xylene which are carcinogens,” Chisholm said. “Ethanol is a cheap source of octane and refiners like that because they have been able to produce a sub-octane fuel to increase their profit margins, I’d be doing the same thing, and they can blend in 10 percent ethanol to that fuel and raise the octane level to 87. That’s what everyone buys at the pump and that’s E10.”
Fueling stations across the state offer blends ranging from 10 percent ethanol, or E10, to up to 85 percent ethanol.
“Ethanol is a very economically efficient fuel to produce and the price point allows consumers to save quite a bit at the pump,” Chisholm said. “Essentially all the gasoline in the state of Kansas is E10, unless it’s specifically labeled ‘no ethanol.’ Quik Trip in Wichita offers an 87 octane gasoline with no ethanol and it’s 40 cents more expensive.”
The ethanol production process produces very little waste, so none of the grain is going unused.
“We bring the grain in, we grind it, expose the starch in the grain and we convert that into sugars and we use a yeast that will consume the sugars and produce ethanol. Everything else in the grain — the germ and non-fermentable components, grain oil — all has nutrient value and makes a very good livestock feed or range cube. That distillers grain becomes a co-product out of our facility,” Chisholm explained. “Everything is used. The great thing about these facilities is that we have a little bit of discharge of water from here, but even that’s minimal. All the grain that comes in is either converted to ethanol or it goes out as distillers grains.”
McPherson County producer Kim Baldwin’s family-run operation benefits from converting their crop to ethanol when the market is right.
“The pricing varies, based on market and demand,” Baldwin said. “Sometimes there’s a benefit to trucking a portion of our crop to Kansas Ethanol based on market prices. It’s a bit of a distance, so it has to be worth the drive and it has been a couple of times for us.”
Ethanol blends however may increase the number of trips to the pump.
“It brings down your cost of fuel, that’s the biggest positive for a lot of people who use it, but it burns faster so you have to fill your car up more,” said Blake Beye, a sales consultant at Midway Motors. “Your miles per gallon goes down just a bit.”
Manufacturers are also producing fewer flex-fuel vehicles in order to produce higher functioning products.
“A lot of newer cars aren’t using E85 because they don’t run as well with that much ethanol in them,” Beye explained. “General Motors is moving away from E85, so you don’t see it as much anymore.”
For older cars, using an ethanol blend could benefit the vehicle in the long run, but there might be a few issues as systems adjusts to a cleaner fuel.
“If you have a vehicle old enough to have a carburetor, ethanol will help clean it out, and once it’s cleaned out it will run very well,” Chisholm said. “There is the possibility that cleaning it out will cause it to clog up a bit, but once its cleaned out, the vehicles perform very well.”
Biodiesel is diesel fuel made with vegetable oil or animal fat. It is meant to be used in regular diesel engines, either alone or in a diesel blend, rather than in a converted engine.
U.S. Department of Energy’s Alternative Fuels Data Center recommends that consumers first check the OEM engine warranty to ensure that higher-level blends of this alternative fuel are approved. B5, which is 5 percent biodiesel and 95 percent petrol diesel, is the most commonly used and is approved for use in all diesel vehicles.
“If your buying diesel in Kansas, you’re probably using some percentage of biodiesel and you just don’t know it yet,” said Shawn Schmidt, program coordinator of Central Kansas Clean Cities Coalition. “We’re up to B2 to B5 at a lot of stations which doesn’t need to be labeled at all, which is 2 to 5 percent of biodiesel in 98 to 95 percent diesel.”
Produced in the U.S. with crops like corn, biodiesel acts as a lubricant when blended with regular diesel and can be used in a standard diesel vehicle.
“One of the benefits is that you can use it without being an engineering whiz. If you have an existing diesel engine that’s been running petroleum for years, using biodiesel will clean up the exhaust, the engine will run smoother because there’s more lubricity, and biodiesel has a lot of solvent-like properties to it so you don’t need a lot of after-market equipment to start running it. All you have to do is switch the fuel as long as the engine is warrantied for that.”
Research performed by the California Air Resources Board found that biodiesel had the lowest carbon emissions of the fuels tested, including ultra-low-sulfur diesel, gasoline, corn-based ethanol, compressed natural gas, and five types of biodiesel from varying feedstocks.
These lower emissions have been useful for industries working with engines in confined spaces.
“The Hutchinson Salt Mine uses it in its operations. Their equipment is diesel powered and they’re using B100 so they don’t have those carcinogenic fumes down there,” Schmidt said. “Their guys working in the salt mine don’t have to breathe those diesel fumes and that fuel runs a lot cleaner in the engine so they cut down on maintenance.”
The Kansas Soybean Commission is also funding rebates through a Biodiesel Outreach grant, managed by Central Kansas Clean Cities. In a calendar year, fleets can receive a $1 per gallon rebate for up to 2,000 gallons of any biodiesel blend above 10 percent, and individuals can receive the same $1 per gallon rebate, up to $200 for the year, for blends above 5 percent.
More information on the rebate program is available at http://metroenergy.org/index.php/building-performance/grants-rebates/biodiesel-rebate/.
As with regular petrol diesel, issues arise in cold winter months.
“It’s had some gelling issues in the past, but the formulation of it now doesn’t have those issues. The state of Minnesota has a mandate requiring at least B5 and their winters are way more harsh than Kansas winters,” Schmidt said. “If a biodiesel is gelling in Kansas, chances are that a full petrol diesel would have gelled too.”
For the consumer, biodiesel can be beneficial with more diesel engine options on the market, but most manufacturers only offer warranty for blends lower than B20.
“Manufactures are starting to build smaller trucks with a Duramax diesel engine in it, like GM’s Silverado or the Chevy Cruze. They’re going with these smaller diesel motors to try to maximize fuel economy. They’ve been experimenting with them so you don’t see a lot of them on the road yet,” Beye said. “I always tell my customers to follow the manufactures recommendations because that’s what will run the best in that vehicle.”
When using a higher percentage of biodiesel in a vehicle, the cleaning aspects of the fuel can develop into issues if left unchecked.
“One thing to watch out for is that your filters will need to be changed more frequently the first couple of times, just because the fuel is cleaning out gunk and sludge in the fuel lines that petroleum diesel left,” Schmidt said.
Renewable diesel, or green diesel, is produced with vegetable oil and is refined in a process similar to how crude oil is refined into diesel.
“Renewable diesel is, on the molecular level, exactly the same as petroleum diesel — it just comes from a different feedstock,” Schmidt said. “Instead of coming from crude oil, it’s coming from soybeans or corn or animal fats. It’s made very similarly to petroleum diesel.”
The cleaner fuel builds up fewer particulates so less maintenance is required on a diesel vehicle’s particulate filters. Renewable diesel producer Neste reports on their website that the product can be used in higher volumes than biodiesel, partly because the fuel is chemically similar to regular diesel and causes fewer problems with buildup.
The everyday consumer might not come across renewable diesel very often in the U.S.
“There’s a few applications for it, but you’ll see a lot more of it in aviation in the next few years,” Schmidt said. “It can be amped up to jet fuel. Your local gas station will have biodiesel more than a renewable diesel.”
Renewable diesel is also a very new fuel and not very regulated, so organization like the Kansas Soybean Association warn consumers to read up on fuel producers to ensure the quality of their purchase.
While many alternative fuels are on the market, each is suited for a particular use and each still has their flaws, keeping crude oil the fuel of today.
Contact Cheyenne Derksen Schroeder by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter at @MacSentinel.