Big Sky Biofuels offers on-farm seed crushing, biodiesel conversion

If Paul R. Miller has his way, farmers will soon begin powering their tractors and combines with fuel that they grow themselves.

Miller is owner of Big Sky Biofuels, a startup Billings company that will offer on-farm crushing and biodiesel conversion for farmers who have raised oil-seed crops.

"The idea is to encourage sustainable production and to have the farmer grow oilseed crops capable of fueling their operations," Miller said.

Miller's portable seed crusher and a generator that powers it fit on a flatbed trailer and can be hauled directly to a farm, where it can be used to extract oil from crops like canola, camelina, safflower and sunflower.

The crusher can process up to 5 tons of seed per day. Aside from yielding vegetable oil, the seed hulls can be used to make a protein-rich livestock feed, which can replace corn and other feed.

At the farmer's option, the pressed vegetable oil can be converted into biodiesel, which is created by treating the oil with common chemicals. The process, known as transesterification, removes glycerine from the oil and yields a fuel that can be blended with traditional petroleum-based diesel. Some biodiesel advocates prefer to run their vehicles on 100 percent biodiesel, Miller said.

Biodiesel production has soared over the past decade, from barely measurable amounts in 1999 to more than 250 million gallons in 2007. Biodiesel supporters say it's a cleaner burning, homegrown fuel that can help farmers break their dependence from imported oil.

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