After hearing about Montana State University-Northern’s excellence in biodiesel research, several community leaders took the opportunity to see where the magic happens on Thursday.
Northern’s Dean of the College of Technical Sciences Greg Kegel led a tour of the university’s laboratories and other research facilities in the Applied Technology Center and the adjacent future home of the Bio-Energy Research Center, where the researchers are extracting oil from oilseeds to be processed into biodiesel.
The tour drew officials from every level of government, including Havre Mayor Tim Solomon, Hill County commissioners Jeff LaVoi and Kathy Bessette, Alyssa Townsend-Hudders from the Montana Department of Commerce and John Rogers from the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Administration.
The tour started in the Brockmann Center, as Kegel had a few instructors explain different parts of the school’s plumbing and electrical programs.
Larry Strizich, one of the college’s professors, talked about some of the recent changes in the school's electrical program.
One large change is Northern offering electrical training that was previously only available via correspondence from a school in Wahpeton, N.D.
He said that before Northern offered the classes, including online courses, more than $250,000 was leaving Montana to North Dakota because of that training.
The program’s first class graduates this spring.
The tour moved into the Applied Technology Center, where Kegel gave more of an overview of the biodiesel research happening at Northern.
He introduced the Bio-Energy Innovation and Testing Center’s Director Jessica Windy Boy and Lead Research Scientist Jon Soriano and had them talk about the research happening at the center.
Soriano said that most of the biofuel research is soy-based, but Northern wanted to focus on crops with a history on the Hi-Line and have worked with plants such as camelina and canola.
He also said that Northern is at the forefront of this research, from the seed-pressing oil-extracting facility that is one of the few in Montana, to the $1 million emissions-analyzing device that is one of only two in the country.
And Northern’s partnerships with area businesses has helped both.
One such partnership provides cooking oil to the university’s kitchens, as well as Murphy’s Pub and China Garden, restaurants in Havre. After the restaurants are done with the oil, the university takes the used oil and turns it into biodiesel.
The biggest business partnership is with Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway, which is partnered with Northern for a one-year study on the long-term effects of biodiesel on trains. The study began last summer and is more than halfway over.
“As far as I know, there has not been an extensive study on biodiesel and locomotives anywhere,” Soriano said.
The tour continued through the laboratories and garages where all of the research takes place, full of beakers, dripping tubes and whirring machines.
The last stop on the tour was the pressing plant, where the plants are pressed. Several machines lined up on a table constantly compacted their bins of camelina seeds into small brown tubes, squeezing out the oil to drip into collecting trays.
Seeing all of these things, Rogers said it was impressive.
“It’s really exciting to see the levels of resources they have here,” Rogers said. “I’m really impressed with the expertise and staff they have up here.
“The potential is just tremendous.”