The staff members of the Bioenergy Innovation and Testing Center at Montana State University-Northern gave an update on current and future work at the center during a tour taken by local Democratic candidates Friday.
Jessica Windy Boy, director of the research and testing facility, told the candidates that although the work is progressing and building up very quickly, the center has been in operation only four years.
“It’s actually very young in origin,” she said.
A WIRED grant provided by the state Department of Labor and Industry provided the initial funding for three positions, hers and lead researcher Nestor “Jon” Soriano, and Keith Richardson, the center’s engineer.
Since then, funding has come through the state Legislature in its last session and congressional appropriations.
U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, who helped secure the congressional funding, will be a featured speaker at a summit on agricultural biofuels on Tuesday.
The summit will be hosted by Ethanol Producers and Consumers at the Montana State University-Northern Bienergy Innovation and Testing Center.
Although the summit is free and open to the public, people are urged to reserve a seat by calling 406-785-3722.
Windy Boy said the start of the center also came through private partnerships, with its team helping Soriano find ways to purchase or solicit donations to equip it.
“We told Dr. Soriano, ‘Here’s an empty room. Fill it,’” she said.
The center has gone from being a fully approved certification lab, able to certify the quality of fuels to allow them to be sold and used, to including an oil testing center and a biodiesel production center and continues to expand.
“We keep on growing,” Soriano said.
Soriano said the next expansion will help the center do testing and research requested by the U.S. Department of Defense and supported by members of industry including Boeing Co.
A biomass conversion lab will be used for research, scheduled to start within a month or so, to find additives to allow aviation jet fuel to be produced using oilseed plants grown in north-central Montana, he said. The equipment will total an investement of more than $200,000, paid through funds from the U.S. Department of Energy. It also will require additional staff hired to help with the work.
“We will be developing the process here,” Soriano said.
That could include using items from waste wood chips to byproducts of the harvesting of local crops, potentially giving a market to local producers for items like chaff and straw.
Soriano said the center will develop some major partnerships, including with other universities as well as businesses and the federal government to work on the project.
Windy Boy said the research will help develop a component missing from aviation fuel made with oilseeds.
“If we can make aromatics from bio-base then we are that much, a step closer, to having a renewable fuel for aviation,” Windy Boy said.
A search is being pushed from all sides, including the airline industry and especially by the federal government, to find a way to produce renewable aviation fuel, she said.
Soriano said the U.S. government has a goal of using 36 billion gallons of renewable fuel annually by 2022. The press for renewable fuel will lead to opportunities in more than just aviation fuel in the U.S. military, with biofuels used in all modes of transportation.
He said another push is in the railroad industry, with a test on that under way in Havre right now.
Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway is testing use of a blend of biodiesel produced at Earl Fisher Biofuels in Chester with some produced at Northern, then certified at Northern. Northern and BNSF both are conducting tests on the results.
“We will have a really comprehensive report at the end of this,” she said.
The center also is using money from its DOE grant to help local entrepreneurs develop fuel additives, with the center working closely to test the additives.
“The point is to do the testing, have the industry here, hopefully have some manufacturing here in Havre,” Windy Boy said.
Soriano said the center also is working on a cooperative partnership with local producers. The idea will be for local farmers to produce canola or safflower, both of which produce high-quality vegetable oil as well as a byproduct of animal feedstock.
The idea of the new test will be for the center to press the oilseeds and process the oil, then supply it to local restaurants. Once the restaurants use the oil, they will return it to the lab to be processed into biodiesel, which then will be returned to its grower, who will use it in their farm equipment. The goal is to provide at least 10 percent fuel independence using that, Soriano said.
“We’re trying to have these clusters of all these groups of farmers who may work in cooperatives and own their own oilseed pressing facility, own their own biodiesel facility,” Soriano said.