Growing fuel? UDOT planting oil-producing crops

Published: Wednesday, May 9 2007 12:17 a.m. MDT

KAYSVILLE — The Utah Department of Transportation hopes to plant enough oil-producing crops — along stretches of highways and state roads, no less — to one day produce enough biodiesel to power its entire fleet.

UDOT now uses about 1.5 million gallons of diesel fuel per year. But the department has joined with researchers at Utah State University to begin a one-year experiment to see if UDOT can grow its own fuel.

The best-case scenario for the experiment is that by planting certain kinds of oil-producing, drought-tolerant crops — canola, safflower and flax — UDOT could harvest enough seeds to make 2 million gallons of biodiesel per year.

"Ultimately, we could have some significant cost savings," says UDOT executive director John Njord.

But getting results will take a while.

On Tuesday, USU researchers and UDOT officials oversaw a seeding operation in Kaysville, in which canola seeds were planted in 10 furrows in 24 20-foot-by-8-foot test plots.

UDOT has provided $50,000 for the experiment, conceived by Dallas Hanks, a 44-year-old doctoral student at Utah State University.

Hanks, who taught at Utah Valley State College for a number of years, said that two years ago, the idea occurred to him that roadsides were an untapped resource for growing oil-producing crops.

Currently, UDOT makes sure grasses grow in its rights of way along highways, because grasses stifle soil erosion. The surface of grass also allows cars to regain control if they've left the highway at high speeds.

But the department spends $1.6 million a year to mow those grasses. Because petroleum-based fuel costs have risen so much recently, it makes sense to grow crops for bio-fuel, Hanks said.

"Nothing is going to happen environmentally until it starts to hurt us in the pocketbook," Hanks said he has told his students.

Ralph Whitesides, USU professor and weed scientist, said sites for the UDOT experiment are being seeded in Tremonton, Kaysville and near Mona.

Part of the experiment, Whitesides said, is to see how well seeds do in areas that aren't irrigated. Most of the test sites are just off the side of I-15. To compare seed yields, a control group was set up at USU's test farm at the Utah Botanical Gardens, also located in Kaysville.

But the scientists also need to figure out if the costs of the seeds, weed abatement, planting, fertilizing and harvesting, as well as biodiesel production costs, are less than purchasing diesel fuel.

The scientists, and UDOT officials, hope to be pleasantly surprised, Whitesides said.

Biodiesel fuel is produced by mixing methanol and lye with vegetable oil. It's a simple, single process, Hanks said, as opposed to production of ethanol, which has a lengthy refining process and is used in flex-fuel vehicles.

With biodiesel, Hanks said, "we get more energy per unit we put in."


E-mail: jdougherty@desnews.com

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