More on Chicken Fat as a Biodiesel Feedstock

Two weeks we ran a story on biodiesel chronicling the exploits of one Jerry Bagby who plans to set up a biodiesel plant in Missouri which would utilize rendered chicken fat as a feedstock. A professor of economics named Vernon Eidman was quoted as stating that animal fat based biofuel would comprise 20% of the market in the U.S. in 2012.

Take it for what it’s worth was pretty much our attitude in presenting this material. Interesting story and go figure. Now I will belatedly provide a little analysis.

Anyone who has studied biodiesel production in any depth at all knows that animal fats comprise an acceptable feedstock for producing the fuel, though there are problems with utilizing them, the most obvious of which is the increased cost of processing.. Approximately double the alcohol or 20% by volume is required to process animal fat as compared to vegetable oil, and it generally requires more pretreatment in order to arrive at a high purity product that will meet ASTM and SAE certification.

Another problem in using domestic animals as feedstocks is that they represent relatively small amounts of biomass compared to plants and their bodies retain but a fraction of the energy they consume in the form of grains over the course of a lifetime, not to mention the fact that much of their biomass is already dedicated to meat and fertilizer. Animal fats themselves are normally but a small fraction of body mass, and so overall energy loss is even worse—if, that is, one considers the animal solely as a fuel source. Furthermore, as countless environmentalists have pointed out over the years, raising animals for meat is a relatively wasteful practice, and one that will become ever more questionable as world population grows.

Of course, in the U.S. meat packing industry today, chicken fat and beef tallow are relatively low value co-products that don’t command very high prices. And that being the case, a chicken fat biodiesel plant isn’t all that harebrained, at least for the time being.

Anyway, I happened to call up an alternative fuel consultant of my acquaintance and solicited his opinion on the matter. He wouldn’t speak for attribution but he did provide some information on background.

My consultant friend thought Eidman was probably right, and that at least in the short term animal fat would be playing a major role in the biodiesel business. His rationale was that the price of soybeans already reflected growing demand from the biodiesel sector and that a lower cost substitute had to be found. And so chickens to the rescue.

Mind you, he wasn’t saying that the long term future of the biodiesel industry is livestock. He agreed that in the longer term the industry is going to have to settle on a dedicated fuel crop if it is to ever to achieve mass market status, but he allowed that chicken fat looks pretty good in the mid term.

So when does the biodiesel industry move beyond soybean surpluses and animal wastes and settle on really high volume fuel crops? It’s already happening in Asia with the planting of the first jatropha bean plantations, but no one to my knowledge is doing anything similar in the U.S. That’s because in Asia and in Europe biodiesel is already being taken very seriously, whereas in the U.S. it’s still considered marginal in spite of the extremely rapid growth of both production and production facilities. Because biodiesel can be profitably produced in very small capacity plants, it’s not necessarily that much of risk for the entrepreneur. On the other hand, getting into a dedicated fuel crop like jatropha beans or the Chinese tallow tree that has no valuable co-products is extremely risky. Given that yields are at most a few thousand gallons per acre, hundreds if not thousands of acres are necessary in order to make much money at the business. And, of course, one has either to convince existing plant operators to switch to a new form of oil or set up one’s own production facilities. So far no one has been willing to make the bet.

I think someone will eventually, perhaps within two years or so. As the biodiesel market continues to grow, the risk will decline, and the superior economics of high yield fuel crops will become compelling. And that point the animal fat based factories will be seen as bad bets.