Biodiesel grain drying project offers value added opportunities

Using biodiesel to dry grain has proved uneconomic, but a Kent co-op is keeping its eye open for other value-added opportunities for its members, writes Andrew Blake

Weald Granary has always been keen to maximise revenue for its co-operative members, says Andy Barr, Farmers Weekly Barometer farmer and one of its directors.

“That includes exploring every possible benefit that can be derived from their grain crops, including cost savings through economies of scale,” says Mr Barr.

It was that which led to Weald’s involvement in a South East England Development Agency-funded project (see panel) evaluating the scope for developing an integrated process for medium-scale biodiesel production from oilseed rape – the so-called “Kent Biofuel Project”.

Although that operation has proved no longer economically viable it has prompted the directors to examine other ways to “add value” to its members’ output, explains Mr Barr.

“Two years ago Weald volunteered to become a hub in the biodiesel project and installed two Taby and Oleane cold screw presses on-site alongside a modest biodiesel plant to process oilseed rape.

“It produced high quality virgin rapeseed oil with varied culinary uses, and some trial amounts were processed into biodiesel which managing director, John Smith, successfully tested in his own car.”

“No engine conversion was necessary – the fuel simply replaced mineral diesel. The 1.4TDI VW Polo ran perfectly with no noticeable differences in performance or fuel consumption, and there were no unusual smells.”

However, by the end of the first year the project partners concluded that the changing government priorities, hugely fluctuating crude oil and rapeseed oil prices and vehicle manufacturers’ unwillingness to extend warranties to cars using biodiesel, combined to make medium-scale biodiesel production unviable.

The cost of producing a litre on that scale with rapeseed valued at £170/t was about 92p/litre excluding any labour, Mr Smith calculates.

“It’s perhaps even undesirable in terms of its carbon footprint as methanol is used in the process,” adds Mr Barr.

“However the 2500 litre a year exemption from fuel duty is likely to mean that small scale production remains competitive with traditional diesel, perhaps allowing farmers to consider producing their own for use in older, out-of-warranty vehicles.”

Despite the apparent set-back, dialogue among the participants in the project was so constructive that it was redirected to examine other ways of using rapeseed oil and its by-products, he says.

The by-products include rape cake left after the pressing, rape straw and grain screenings, all of which have potential as cattle feed or fuel for use in Combined Heat and Power installations.

“So we’ve set up a new company called Granary Energy which all members have had the opportunity to take a share in.”

Granary Energy is now a member of Cantium Energy, an energy supply company emerging from the original SEEDA project. Cantium Energy will own and operate CHP engines providing power and heat to larger buildings such as offices, hotels and community buildings.

“It will take production of burnable pellets forward with a further two-year SEEDA grant, and Granary Energy ultimately hopes to become one of its fuel pellet suppliers.

“We aim to install a biomass boiler to run on pellets produced from rape meal, grain screenings and possibly rape straw, which will heat our new office and laboratory development at the store.

“The 6250t extra storage that goes hand in hand with this looks like it will be sold out before any foundations are dug.

“Medium-sized CHP facilities could also have the potential to generate enough electricity to sell back to the National Grid or to recharge electric vehicles.

“There would be a certain irony if, having being abandoned for making biodiesel for transport, the same raw materials could successfully be used to power electric vehicles instead.”