Northern Illinois University

Northern Today

AgTech to help farmers grow crops
that become alternative biodiesel fuel

October 1, 2007

by Joe King

AgTech

Farmers and others in Boone County could soon fire up their tractors and trucks with fuel created from their own crops, thanks to a project nurtured by the AgTech Initiative, a public-private partnership that includes NIU, the City of Belvidere and Growth Dimensions.

BioVantage Fuels LLC, a developer of cost-effective alternative fuels that has been nurtured and supported by the AgTech Initiative, broke ground last week for a 10,000-square-foot refinery that will turn soybean oil and used vegetable oil from restaurants into diesel fuel that can be blended with regular diesel to create a cleaner, renewable fuel.

The $5 million refinery, which will be capable of producing up to 5 million gallons of fuel annually, is scheduled to go online next spring.

One major reason for locating the refinery in Belvidere was the support of AgTech. That group’s New Uses Entrepreneur Development Center has been working with BioVantage since 2005, when AgTech sponsored a symposium on the potential for developing “green” energy projects in the region.

“At that time it was more of a concept than a plan,” said Norb Ziemer, director of the AgTech Initiative’s NUEDC as part of his role for NIU Outreach. “We’ve worked with them to tighten the focus of the plan and establish connections within the community with groups like the farm bureau.”

The plant initially will create about a dozen jobs, but should also have a ripple effect on the county’s economy, Ziemer said. “Aside from providing farmers a new market and creating some technical and production jobs,” he said, “this plant will also create jobs in trucking and other services that will be required to support it.”

One of the unique aspects of the BioVantage approach, Ziemer said, is its portability.

The company envisions being able to create a series of refineries in agricultural areas, each supported by a supply chain of local farmers who would produce soy beans (or other raw materials) that would be converted into fuel, which they would then consume (with excess being sold to others.)

While the viability of that model is tested in Belvidere, Ziemer anticipates that BioVantage also will work with chemists and other researchers at NIU to investigate other sources of raw materials to create the fuel and to investigate potential commercial uses for byproducts of the process, such as glycerin.

The BioVantage project is the largest undertaking by AgTech to come to fruition to date and represents the payoff on many man-hours of investment, Ziemer said.

“This process takes a significant amount of time,” he said. “There is a lot of uncertainty related to this sort of entrepreneurship, and we are delighted to see it moving forward.”