Grantee: State Line Biofuels
State Line Biofuels is Vermont's first on-farm facility making biodiesel made from oilseed crops grown on-site. The Williamson family has owned State Line Farm in North Bennington (Bennington County) since 1936. John Williamson currently produces maple syrup, honey, sorghum syrup and hay for sale in local markets. The Williamsons had a dairy herd until 2004. For the past several years, John Williamson (pictured), with the help of Steve Plummer, Stephen LeBlanc, his family and friends, has been diversifying his farm operations toward biodiesel production. “It’s a pretty nice feeling to have your own source of fuel", says John,"It works really well."
VSJF, its partners, and many funders have been working closely with State Line Biofuels to develop their production capacity and optimize their system.
The following photos, text, and links highlight the major steps that led to State Line Biofuels becoming a fully operational on-farm biodiesel production facility.
In summer 2005, State Line Farm started by building a small processor in the old barn and making biodiesel from waste vegetable oil that they collected from local restaurants. They made sixty gallon batches to figure out the process and, by September, had made nine hundred gallons, plenty to run three John Deere tractors and one Kubota on B100 produced at a cost to them of about $0.75/gallon. It is important to note that, generally speaking, pressing oil is not compatible with a barn or equipment shop because of dust entering the process, inevitable oil spills, and the need for separating processing from foot and vehicle traffic patterns. Making biodiesel in an old barn is also not recommended due to safety concerns regarding materials involved in the process that are toxic and potentially explosive.
Switching to Oilseed Crops
In 2006, VSJF (with US Department of Energy funding, courtesy of US Senator Patrick Leahy) granted $98,000 to the University of Vermont’s Center for Sustainable Agriculture to conduct a project titled On-Farm Seed Oil Production and Feasibility Study. The aim of the project was to develop a pilot scale, farm-based biodiesel and ethanol production system coupled with a set of oilseed crop (sunflower, canola, soybean) trials. State Line Farm was selected as the ideal location, and Dr. Vern Grubinger and Dr. Heather Darby spearheaded crop trials at State Line Farm, Clear Brook Farm (Shaftsbury), and Borderview Farm (Alburgh).
Dr. Grubinger is enthusiastic about the State Line Farm model: "John and Steve [Plummer] have an exciting vision about energy independence for local agriculture, and they've put innovative thinking and practical know-how to work to start making that vision a reality. It's amazing how much they've accomplished in short time to figure out how to grow and process oil seed crops for fuel, on a scale that makes sense for Vermont's farms."
Subsequent research paid for by the High Meadows Fund and conducted by Dr. Darby and Emily Stebbins (a UVM grad student) indicates that, with good soil fertility and management, the production of oilseed crops and co-products is technically feasible in Vermont. Oilseed crops can grow well, and good yields are achievable given improved harvesting equipment and techniques. Crop trials from Vermont, as well as Maine, and New Hampshire, indicate that yields for oilseed crops at, or exceeding, the national average are achievable in New England's climate and agricultural soils.
Learn more about the research of Heather, Emily, and others on oilseed crop market potential and economic feasibility in Vermont:
Harvesting and storage have thus far been the most challenging aspects of optimizing oilseed crop production in Vermont. Difficulties include scarcity of and familiarity with equipment, optimal timing, and having access to enough equipment to provide flexibility in using the best technique for a given crop and season. State Line Biofuels has a 1960s Massey Harris combine (pictured right, fitted to harvest sunflowers) that harvested all its oilseed crops. It was purchased from a neighbor for $1,000, and John then spent many hours and $1,000 on parts refurbishing it to good operating condition. Click the video links below to see the combine in action:
The foundation for what would eventually become State Line Biofuels was poured in 2006. Behind the facility are canola fields.
The production facility was under construction during a 2006 visit from Governor Douglas (foreground: John and Governor Douglas; background: Matt Patterson, Andrew Knafel [Clear Brook Farm], and Steve Plummer).
As construction of the facility and crop trials have gone on, hundreds of visitors have streamed by to learn about renewable energy production and new ways of diversifying farm activities. Here John talks to Governor Douglas about oilseed farming (seeds in bin are canola).
Inside the biodiesel production facility (under construction) during an October 2007 Open House. The square piece of machinery in the middle of the room is a Eclipse model 324 seed cleaner. To make high-quality oil, enhance seed storage, and protect the seed presses, cleaning the seed to remove chaff, weeds, and other impurities is necessary. At State Line and Borderview Farms, batches of uncleaned seed stored with chaff caused the seed to heat up. This can reduce the quality of the seed meal, and potentially reduce oil quality if enough molding occurs. The 'Clipper' solves this problem by using three screens at a time to clean the oilseeds. The first screen lets the small grain pass through and uses bouncing or shaking to remove or “scalp” anything bigger than the seed being cleaned. A series of two sieving screens then remove the weed seeds that are smaller than the crop seed.
By spring of 2007 the biodiesel processing unit (supported by the J. Warren and Lois McClure Foundation, a supporting organization of the Vermont Community Foundation, and the Frank and Brinna Sands Foundation) was installed into the production facility and State Line Biofuels was born! Now the only thing missing...was a fresh coat of paint:
State Line Biofuels has experienced a significant challenge posed by the need to dry and store harvested oilseeds. A recent VSJF and Agency of Agriculture funded feasibility study, completed by Callahan Engineering, PLLC, has shown that the use of a solar hot water system (pictured above) to power a grain dryer dries the grain in half the time compared to an ambient air drying system. Additionally, the solar hot water system can be used to heat the biodiesel barn, raise the temperature of pressed oil for conversion to biodiesel and may be used for the recovery of methanol following biodiesel production.
Once dried, the seeds are gravity fed into an auger that delivers them to the seed press inside the barn.
This Taby Pressen Model 70 seed press (pictured above), purchased from Sweden with funding assistance from University of Vermont Extension and Clear Brook Farm, is pressing sunflower seeds into meal (the black material in the container). The sunflower oil slides down the white trough into a holding container until State Line Biofuels processes it into biodiesel.
In 2007 VSJF (with US Department of Energy funding, courtesy of Senator Patrick Leahy) provided a $23,200 grant to State Line Biofuels to engineer and optimize their biodiesel processing unit. Callahan Engineering, PLLC was hired to develop the engineering schematics and safety procedures. Click below to view the engineering schematic:
Click below for a step-by-step overview of the State Line biodiesel production system:
The unit in the foreground is a 400 gallon reaction tank that gets filled with vegetable oil. The middle unit is a 115 gallon mix tank where alcohol and hydroxide are mixed before being pumped into the reaction tank. The combination of alcohol / hydroxide and vegetable oil triggers the transesterfication process, leading to biodiesel which is allowed to settle in the 500 gallon conical tank furthest to the left.
Chris has also worked with John and his son, Tanner, to develop Standard Operating Procedures and a Failure Mode and Effects Analysis.
- State Line Biofuels Standard Operating Procedures
- State Line Biofuels Failure Mode and Effects Analysis
Finally, the Williamsons have worked with Vern Grubinger, Al Curler, Allen Matthews, and Mike Dolce at UVM Extension and the Farm Viability & Enhancement Program to develop a business plan and enterprise operating plan.
Products and Co-products
Vermont currently meets most of its demand for oilseed co-products and substitutes through importation: Vermont farms import over 100,000 tons of livestock meal and over 6 million gallons of diesel fuel per year. On-farm energy production offers opportunities for Vermont farmers to develop new value-added revenue sources (e.g., organic, local livestock meal), reduce on-farm expenditures and greenhouse gas emissions, ensure their energy security, and circulate money locally. Chris calculates that State Line Biofuels could ultimately process nearly 187,500 bushels of grain to 300,000 gallons of fuel annually using the existing biodiesel processor on site.
John takes a sample of biodiesel in 2008 (above) and canola, soy, and mustard meal from the State Line Biofuels seed press (below).