Brian Nicholson, Deseret Morning News
Michael Bouck drives a tractor and a seeding machine to plant canola, potential biodiesel, along I-15 in Davis.

The Utah Department of Transportation isn't going to be in the business of producing biodiesel fuel this year.

Four months after planting canola, safflower and flax crops along the sides of highways, with the hope that the oil-producing plants could be harvested to make biodiesel, not much has happened. Some of the plants germinated, but few yielded seed.

Researchers from Utah State University, who partnered with UDOT to plant the crops, blame the sun and shallow planting depths. They hope to come back this fall and next spring and try planting again.

"The thing that we found this summer was that Mother Nature rules all," said Dallas Hanks, a USU doctoral student. "We've had the hottest summer in Utah on record, and our precipitation has been off the charts in terms of being dry. It's really difficult to grow plants in those conditions."

Two years ago, Hanks came up with the idea to planting oil-producing crops alongside state highways. He approached UDOT, and the agency gave him $50,000 to experiment with different crops. The money came from a federal grant and is expected to cover planting and research costs through next year.

Hanks and other USU researchers first planted seeds in early May at sites near Tremonton, Kaysville and Mona. A "test site" was also created at a USU-owned farm in Kaysville to see how plants grew in "normal" conditions away from the highway.

Hanks learned safflower seeds should be planted deeper alongside the highway to counteract harsh growing conditions. He is confident his plan to grow oil-producing plants by the highway — a plan he describes as the first of its kind in the United States — will be a success.

"We don't really feel like it's a complete failure," Hanks said. "We feel like we've learned a lot and this next year, we'll have really good, strong information on which to base our study."

UDOT is also pleased with the results. Agency spokesman Adan Carrillo said UDOT would like to pursue additional funding to continue the project in the future. The agency hopes the plants will produce enough oil for biodiesel to power UDOT trucks and other machinery.

"We're very excited about it," Carillo said. "We're hoping it will turn out successfully so we can keep funding it next year and the year after that."

UDOT spends about $1.6 million each year to mow grasses it plants alongside state highways. The biodiesel option could be more cost-effective if proven cheaper to plant, harvest and then use in vehicles, UDOT said.


E-mail: nwarburton@desnews.com