Today's world is crazy for ethanol. Every corn grower from South Dakota into the Southern Plains seemingly is either part of an ethanol-production co-op or trying to get one going.

Sugarcane farmers in Brazil have been doing the same thing for 30 years, and now they're looking at it in Louisiana. Beef producers don't have to feel left out, however. Beef, too, has a biodiesel future.

As with most inventions, it was just a matter of innovation brought on by desperation. In March 1996, the link between BSE and variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease was reported in the United Kingdom's (UK) House of Commons. Overnight, a beef carcass went from being worth $175 (U.S.) to a renderer, to costing $145 for its disposal via storage or burning.

“The cost on the rendering industry was passed on to abattoirs, which passed it on to producers. Loads of small businesses took it in the chin,” says Jim Walker, former president of Scotland's National Farmers Union and former chair of the Scottish checkoff-type program, Quality Beef Scotland. He says before that fateful day in the House of Commons, an animal was worth $1.82/lb. dead weight but now is only worth $1.5/lb., with the bulk of the difference related to by-product value.

Argent Group, a rendering company located between Edinburgh and Glasgow, didn't want to the look to the UK government for a bailout, or even to the European Union (EU) to solve its problem. Instead, the firm searched to find the best technology. It found biodiesel, says Walker, who three years ago became Argent Energy's vice chairman.

Located next door to the rendering plant, which supplies Argent Energy with about half the 45,000 metric tons (mt) of beef tallow it uses annually, the company combines the tallow with used cooking oil gathered from across England to make biodiesel. Producing about 13.2 million gals./year, Walker says demand has grown so much the past few months it can't keep up. Thanks to a marketing agreement made in early 2006 with Dutch petroleum company, Petro Plus, just about every gallon of diesel Argent makes is blended at 5% into diesel for truck fleets around the UK, leaving nothing for export despite the demand across Europe.

Beyond the high-value biodiesel, the process produces fertilizer, glycerin and enough British-grade heating oil to operate the plant, all as by-products.

The plant at Argent Energy was designed by Biodiesel International (BDI), an Austria engineering company that developed the technology to create biodiesel from “multiple feedstocks,” or from more than one thing at a time. This is what allows the plant to use both beef tallow and used cooking oil, a ratio that changes according to what's most economical and available.

Much of the biodiesel produced in Europe is from rapeseed (canola), but it costs about $755/mt. Compare that to $421 for used cooking oil and $281 for tallow, and it's easy to see why Argent is happy with the niche it's found. Not only is the feedstock cheaper, it's using a beef by-product that's lost its use.

“It's expensive technology because it's multi-feedstock. Of the available technology, it's the Rolls Royce version rather than the Yugo,” Walker says.

He estimates the plant would cost $3.5-$5.2 million more to build today than in 2003 because the base materials have become more expensive. For the turnkey operation, Argent put up $26.3 million in 2003; the Scottish government chipped in $2.1 million, and the EU $3.9 million.

“We set about getting the legislation changed to be able to use tallow from the rendering industry. In 2001, the agriculture strategy for Scotland included a government promise to buy animal-fat diesel,” Walker says. Argent was in business.

The EU was more than happy to put up the money for the plant as a way to set up the “Biodiepro” project. Though the technology isn't new, the Argent Energy's plant was set up as a demonstration-skills project to help further the technology since it had never been used at this scale.

On top of that, the EU funded prion research through Martin Mittelbach at Austria's University of Graz, who proved to the EU that the BSE-linked prion was destroyed in the biodiesel-making process. The last part of the EU project is a lifecycle analysis to understand how the plant pollutes and reduces pollution at the same time.

Still more to come

Argent is now looking for a way to extract the tallow, take the slurry and create electricity with a fluidized bed.

“Then we can trade renewable energy certificates. Companies could buy electricity from us; they get the credits, we don't have a cost for disposing the slurry,” Walker says. “It will probably be the first site in the world that's a complete recycling site, a complete waste-to-energy business.”

Now that the biodiesel technology is proven and the demand is there, Argent Energy has serious plans for expansion. It's hoping to open a new plant at triple the current size in 2008 in northwest England, and a similar sized one in northeast England a few years later. The logic is simple, Walker says. In the west, it's rainy and contains a majority of the country's livestock with easy port access for feedstock imports from the U.S. and Ireland. In the east, it's drier with more cropland than livestock, but with easy port access to Europe for feedstock imports and biodiesel exports.

And that port access may make all the difference in the future. U.S. demand for biofuels is rising at a nearly immeasurable rate. As petroleum prices continue to escalate, alternatives like biofuels become a better option.

Beyond that, even though the U.S. hasn't signed on to the Kyoto Protocol requiring countries around the world to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, some states are doing it on their own. Hawaii and Washington, for instance, both have mandated 10% biofuel use while other states are looking at the same thing.

Both gas and diesel engines can run on 10% biofuels without changing internal specifications and without causing damage. With a few specifications, engines can run on up to 85% biofuels.

There's no reason why a co-op of U.S. beef producers can't put together a biodiesel plant like Argent's, just as corn growers put together co-ops for ethanol. So put a little beef in your tank.

Meghan Sapp is an American agricultural journalist based in Brussels, Belgium.