Fuel DilemmaWritten by Christy Hemken
Rancher makes biodiesel from vegetable oil
Otto – After spending $30,000 every year for diesel when it was just $2.60 per gallon, Phil Boreen, who ranches near Otto, began to search for options to either compensate for or replace the purchase of commercial fuel.
Boreen says he uses 12,000 gallons of diesel each year, mainly in three pivots run by generators. “That was the impetus behind this whole thing.”
“If we could have gotten on the grid, we would have, but we couldn’t because of the $140,000 it cost,” he says. The ranch also looked into using wind energy to compensate for the cost of fuel, but recently completed anemometer data shows the location coming in a little low to make that a viable option.
“I got way laid on a flight from Denver to Cody and ended up spending the night in Salt Lake City,” says Boreen. “I got on the plane the next day and the guy sitting next to me was an oil trader from Billings. I let off on him about the price of diesel, and he said, ‘Why don’t you make your own?’”
“When I got home I researched it and got a hold of an engineer in Michigan,” he says. The engineer, who specializes in process engineering, was Paul Oliver of Murphy’s Machines. “I was looking at online biodiesel forums and they kept talking about this guy, whom everyone calls ‘Murphy,’ and I went to his website and started emailing him.”
Boreen asked if Oliver, who was marketing a 60-gallon process, could help design a process to make 350 gallons of biodiesel per batch. After 500 emails and a thousand phone calls, Boreen’s system was up and running. “I was on the phone with him about every 15 minutes for two days while we were making the first batch,” he says. “All along I’d take pictures of things and send them to him and he’d say if it was right.”
The system, now situated in a corner of the newly-insulated heated shop of an existing building, is composed primarily of old propane tanks and a fuel tank, all stood on end. “I paid a guy to do some of the welding for me on the inside of the tanks to ensure they wouldn’t leak, and Oliver designed it all and we tweaked it as we went along,” says Boreen.
“The most expensive single part on the whole thing is the pump, which was $500,” he says of the system cost. “The equipment cost around $10,000, and with insulating the building there’s about $13,000 in it.” To help out with the project the Boreens received a grant from Rural Development, which paid a quarter of the costs.
As for oil supply, Boreen says he has 38 cans out at restaurants all over the Basin. “That’s the biggest pain, because it’s a 50-mile shot from here to everywhere I go, and I pick them up once a week in the summer.”
“What makes good oil is that the restaurant has to change it every once in a while,” he says, noting that Cody restaurants supply the best. “There are certain restaurants that I wouldn’t eat at in this county because I see their oil. If oil stinks, it’s probably no good.”
“The restaurants were paying between $35 and $80 each month to get rid of their oil, and they can give it to me for nothing,” says Boreen, noting that most restaurants were easy to get into once he showed them he’d be consistent in collection. He’s still looking for a few more restaurants to bring his barrel count up to 50.
Boreen fabricated a machine that sits in the back of his truck and sucks oil out of the barrels along his route. Right now the raw oil sits in barrels to settle before the oil is sucked off the top, but two additional tanks are planned for the shop that will filter the oil as it’s pumped in.
So far the system has produced 10,000 gallons of biodiesel. “Some people say you have to have all the filters to go with the system, but you don’t,” he explains. “The only filters on this system are the regular fuel tank filters, and they hardly ever get plugged.”
The byproduct of biodiesel – glycerin – is stored before being spread on the fields. “We put the glycerin through the pivots and it feeds the bacteria in the ground,” says Boreen.
“This biodiesel gels at about 20 degrees, and I wouldn’t recommend it below that,” he notes, adding that it does initially plug equipment filters as it cleans the fuel tanks. “In all my tractors, after the first three tanks or so, I had to change all the filters, but since that I haven’t changed one. This stuff is like detergent, and when it gets in there it takes everything loose from inside the tank.”
“This process is absolutely environmentally friendly because it’s all organic, and it’s all made from waste products, so I’m reusing and recycling a product that has to be handled somehow,” explains Boreen. “It doesn’t take as much energy to make it as I get out of it.”
In the third phase he says the plan is to build a waste oil boiler to use instead of the current electric heaters. “Then we won’t use any electricity except for the pump.”
When giving advice to others who may be interested in making their own biodiesel, Boreen says the first thing is to find a source. “Get a solid oil source, which is the most important thing. Figure out what your needs are and then figure 20 percent more because that’s what you lose to glycerin. Figure out your summer fuel use, and if it’s high enough, then it’s worth it.”
The Boreens use management intensive grazing with their cattle, only putting up enough hay to last a few months in the winter. “Our goal is to graze 10 months out of the year, and we haven’t got there yet, but we will,” he says.
The most irrigation water they’ve had since moving to the place in 2002 is 30 percent of normal. Two ponds have been renovated and two new ones constructed, and the three pivots have been added in the last five years. Plans also exist to tear an existing barn down to the foundation and rebuild it with an apartment, community space and wood shop within.
The Boreens have also gone natural with their cattle and are moving to organic this year with their herd of Hereford and commercial cows. Boreen says his wife, Kate, is the marketer and he’s sure they’ll get a good price for their natural cattle this year now that their herd numbers are up and they have a higher quantity to sell.
Previously, Boreen spent 30 years as a fireman in Washington. “My wife brought us to Wyoming because she hated the Coast. We had 50 cows out there and we thought we could either retire and move to Arizona and play golf and look at each other for the next 30 years, or we could do this.”
The Boreens recently adopted four children and plan to build a new house after the current list of projects has been checked off.
“I’m lucky,” says Boreen. “I got to do two of the things in my life that make me happy. I got to run my cows and I got to be a fireman and not many people could go through life and say they did exactly what they wanted.”