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A chicken in your tank

Chicken fat, - yes, the soup ingredient g r andma fed you when you had a cold - is becoming a piping hot biodiesel option.

Published January 9, 2007


DEXTER, Mo. - Jerry Bagby is typical of the oil men who are prospecting for a fortune in the Midwestern biofuels boom. He's convinced there's oil in these hills - and he's found a well that no one else is using.

Bagby and a longtime friend have cobbled together $5-million to build a new biodiesel plant on the lonely croplands outside this southeast Missouri town. They're betting they can hit pay dirt by exploiting a generally overlooked natural resource that's abundant in these parts: chicken fat.

There's a virtual gusher of the stuff at a nearby Tyson Foods Inc. poultry plant. Currently, the low-quality fat is shipped out of state to be rendered and used as a cheap ingredient in pet food, soap and other products.

Bagby and his partner Harold Williams plan to refine the gooey substance, mix it with soybean oil and produce about 3-million gallons of biodiesel annually.

Today, only a tiny fraction of U.S. biodiesel is made from chicken fat, but that seems likely to change. The rising cost of soybean oil - which accounts for roughly 90 percent of all biodiesel fuel stock - is pushing the industry to exploit cheap and plentiful animal fats.

The nation's biggest meat corporations haven taken notice. Tyson Foods announced in November it has established a renewable energy division that will be up and running during 2007. Competitors Perdue Farms Inc. and Smithfield Foods Inc. are making similar moves.

As meatpackers enter the field, they bring massive amounts of fuel stock that could make biodiesel cheaper and more plentiful.

The shift to animal fat as a fuel stock could be key to making the budding biodiesel industry a reliable fuel source for U.S. trucking fleets, said Vernon Eidman, a professor of economics at the University of Minnesota who has extensively studied the biofuels industry.

Eidman estimates that within five years, the U.S. will produce 1-billion gallons of biodiesel, and half of it will be made from animal fat.

For fuel refiners like Bagby, the allure of animal fat is clear. Soybean oil costs 33 cents a pound while chicken fat costs 19 cents. He plans to include soybean oil in his blend only because it adds necessary lubrication for engine parts.

For companies like Tyson, the attraction is simple. Being the nation's biggest meat company, Tyson is also the biggest producer of leftover fat from chicken, cattle and hogs.

Tyson is keeping the specifics of its renewable fuels division under tight wraps. But Tyson vice president Jeff Webster told a recent investment conference the potential is clear. Tyson produces about 2.3-billion pounds of chicken fat annually from its poultry plants. That's about 300-million gallons that could be converted to fuel.

Animal fat was initially overlooked as a biodiesel fuel stock because of its uneven quality and technical drawbacks. It may tend to thicken in colder, northern cities, Eidman said. That might limit distribution to warmer Southern areas.

While these factors kept animal fat in the background, the biodiesel industry has hit a turning point.

Bagby said his plant will be up and running by the end of January. His equipment can refine soybean oil, cotton seed oil and animal fat. That gives him flexibility to use whatever's cheapest on the commodity markets.

[Last modified January 9, 2007, 00:33:52]

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