Community college plows new ground for biofuel crop research
A 24-acre double-crop plot of camelina and soybeans is growing this summer on Anoka-Ramsey Community College’s Cambridge Campus as part of an expanding emphasis at the college on biofuel research and training. Anoka-Ramsey Community College, with campuses in Cambridge and Coon Rapids, is a member of the Minnesota Colleges and Universities (MnSCU) system in Minnesota.
Camelina, a distant relative to canola, offers a promising new possibility for producing biofuels from nonfood sources, said Melanie Waite-Altringer, a biology faculty member who’s leading the project. The college’s biology and chemistry faculty joined with Ever Cat Fuels LLC., an Isanti biofuel processor, U.S. Department of Agriculture researchers, and local farmers to study various aspects of energy crops.
“This is a true energy crop that isn’t used for food,” Waite-Altringer said. “In this project, we are ‘intercropping’ camelina with soybeans to see if the two crops can be grown together with high yields of each.” Planted in early May, the camelina should be ready for harvest in late July or early August. A harvest party is planned for July 31 from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. The soybeans, planted in early June, are expected to be harvested in September or October.
“We’re pleased that Anoka-Ramsey can play a key role in this project, which may well spur new economic development in the region,” said Deidra Peaslee, vice president of Anoka-Ramsey Community College, “Besides enriching student learning, we are expanding opportunities for area farmers, businesses, and the workers needed in this emerging industry.”
“With the camelina not being widely known as a good source for biodiesel production, we are trying to showcase that it can be a sustainable resource of highly needed renewable energy,” Waite-Altringer said. “Our students are conducting research adjacent to the demonstration plot to see what ratio of camelina to soybeans will generate the optimal profit for farmers. We also are working with U.S.D.A. researchers from Morris, who are studying beneficial pollinating insects associated with energy crops. Ever Cat Fuels offers the most efficient way to process camelina into biodiesel fuel.” One acre of camelina may produce up to 70 gallons of biodiesel fuel.
Dillon Danforth, a 19-year-old science student who just completed this freshman year at the college, said he jumped at the chance to participate in the research project. “I plan on going into some kind of science,” he said. “With this project, I have a better understanding of how the whole process works and all the work that goes into it. Most undergraduates don’t get to do actual research. So, I feel I’m very lucky to have gotten this experience.”
The college’s interest in biofuels began several years ago when the Governor’s Workforce Development Council awarded a $100,000 grant to the college’s Professional and Workforce Training Center and Ever Cat Fuels to train current and potential employees in biofuel refining.
The courses included mechanical and biodiesel fundamentals, federal safety standards and technical report writing. By the end of the nine-week training in 2011, 25 individuals were certified in biofuel production. Sixteen of them were already employed in the industry but had had no previous training in biofuel refining. Nine others – all displaced workers – completed the certification program and most found jobs in the industry, said Steve Jones, the Training Center’s director of training.
In 2011, SarTec Corporation, in conjunction with Ever Cat Fuels received a $500,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Energy specifically to recruit farmers and others in growing energy crops, said Dave Wendorf, Ever Cat’s director of marketing.
“Anoka-Ramsey stepped up to the plate to work with us on this project,” Wendorf said. “Last year, they did some test plantings on the Cambridge Campus with pennycress, another energy crop that turned out to be problematic. With a grant this spring from the Anoka-Ramsey Community College Foundation, Central Minnesota Initiative Foundation and a Strategic Initiative Grant from the college, Waite-Altringer had the resources to plant and harvest the 24-acre plot.
“This year’s test plot certainly helps a lot because it gives us more experience and research on camelina,” Wendorf said. “Our long-term goal is to have our Isanti biodiesel plant able to process biodiesel from a crop like camelina. And with the college as a partner, we can make sure we have properly trained workers who can run our biodiesel facilities safely and efficiently.”
Jones said the next step for the college may be developing additional science and technology courses in biofuel refining with technical guidance from Ever Cat Fuel representatives and others.
The college is also seeking more community involvement. “We have local farmers on our advisory committee for the project,” Jones said. “We plan to involve 4-H, FFA and Boy Scout troops in working with the demonstration plot.”
Biofuels are expected to play an important role in helping Minnesota meet the goal, set by the Legislature in 2007, to produce 25 percent of the total energy used in the state from renewable energy resources by 2025.
For more information about the demonstration site, the professional training opportunities or more about biodiesel production, please contact Steve Jones at Stephen.firstname.lastname@example.org or 763-433-1200, or Melanie Waite-Altringer at email@example.com 763-433-1327.
ABOUT ANOKA-RAMSEY COMMUNITY COLLEGE
Anoka-Ramsey Community College, with campuses in Cambridge and Coon Rapids, is a member of the Minnesota Colleges and Universities (MnSCU) system and has been a leading provider of higher education and training in East Central Minnesota since 1978 and the north suburban area of Minneapolis/St. Paul since 1965. Annually, the college serves more than 12,500 learners of all ages as they pursue associate degrees that transfer as the first two years of a bachelor's degree, or certificate programs that lead immediately to rewarding careers. Anoka-Ramsey Community College is aligned with Anoka Technical College and together the institutions serve more than 16,000 learners–the largest community and technical college entity in Minnesota.