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March 2007
Biodiesel producers look to chicken fat  Some facilities in Arkansas are already blending vegetable oils with chicken fat when producing fuel.

In addition to providing the nation with food, poultry producers are eyeing the emerging biofuels industry hoping that chicken fat will fuel the biodiesel market.

The fat byproduct created while processing poultry is usually sold as an ingredient for use by animal-feed and pet-food manufacturers. But poultry producers are starting to get inquiries from numerous biodiesel producers, said Cathy Klein, director of protein and fat conversion at Perdue AgriBusiness, a subsidiary of Perdue Farms Inc.

"We have sent samples for analysis and we are learning along with them," Klein said. Perdue currently does not have any agreements to sell poultry fat to biodiesel producers, she said. But to meet growing demand, Salisbury, Maryland-based Purdue launched another unit, Perdue BioEnegy LLC, to focus on the biofuels industry.

"We see this as another use for poultry fat," Klein said, noting that Perdue is still in the learning phase when it comes to biofuels. "Economics and technology will determine the extent which poultry fat will be used as a raw material for biodiesel."

The United States will produce one billion gallons of biodiesel annually – half of the amount will be made from animal fat – within five years, according to Vernon Eidman, a professor of economics at the University of Minnesota, who has studied the market.

Two biodiesel facilities in Arkansas are already producing about 30 million gallons of biodiesel from oils and fats a year, said R.E. Babcock, a professor of chemical engineering at the University of Arkansas. One of the biodiesel plants is also planning an expansion. Two other biodiesel facilities are also under construction. Once complete, he estimated that Arkansas might produce about 300 million gallons of biodiesel a year.

Babcock was not able to provide an estimate of how much biodiesel is being produced from chicken fat, however. The plants are using some chicken fat, Babcock said. "These plants by necessity have flexible feedstock capabilities," he said.

When the facilities operate in batch mode, the parameters are adjusted from vegetable oils to chicken fat. When the plants operate in continuous flow, the biodiesel facilities blend the chicken fat with vegetable oils to produce fuel.

Babcock, along with a team of researchers at the University of Arkansas, have studied the quality of biodiesel made from rendered chicken fat compared to biodiesel from more conventional feedstock, such as vegetable oil. He said the quality of biodiesel made from chicken fat was equivalent to the quality from conventional feedstocks.

The cost of feedstocks is driving development, Babcock said. "The interest in biodiesel plants is driving up the price of vegetable oils, so chicken fat as a feedstock has a price advantage" over more conventional feedstock, like vegetable oil.

Babcock warned that some owners of biodiesel facilities maybe entering the market too soon. "There are many variables that influence the viability of this market. Far too many small plants are going in without the proper advanced study," Babcock said.

"Quality control and distribution of the biodiesel product is an issue yet to be resolved. The industry will have to go through a shake out. I expect the market to grow but biodiesel alone is not the answer to the energy needs of the United States."

Babcock said there are several promising innovations under development to produce biodiesel. "That will hopefully render the process competitive with petroleum diesel. But the proverbial breakthrough has not occurred yet," Babcock said.

While scientists continue testing, developers are busy building facilities to turn chicken fat into biodiesel. Global Fuels LLC has completed a $5 million plant in rural, southeast Missouri. The biodiesel plant will receive chicken fat from a nearby Tyson Foods Inc. poultry plant. The facility will then refine the chicken fat and mix it with soybean oil. The eventual goal is to produce three million gallons of biodiesel annually.

Springdale, Arkansas-based Tyson created a new business unit last year called Tyson Renewable Energy to feed the market. The division is exploring ways to commercialize the company's supply of animal fat into renewable fuels.

"The charter of the division is consistent with our value-up strategy, since it's focused on increasing margins in our by products," said Jeff Webster, leader of Tyson Corporate Strategy and Development, who helped form the new division.

A predictable quality of feedstock is key to advancement of the market, said Matt Drinkwater, an analyst at the renewable energy research firm New Energy Finance Ltd., in London. "If you are getting it from a place that has quite a bit of high volume coming through, you can blend it to a reasonably predictable quality," Drinkwater said.

If a biodiesel facility plans to collect the chicken fat from a lot of different locations, however, the facility may soon run into problems, Drinkwater said. Long-term agreements with companies that specialize in chicken processing are key, he said.

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