Tyson, ConocoPhillips link up for biodiesel

Companies will team up to turn billions of pounds of animal fat into biodiesel for U.S. drivers.

Michael Kanellos Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Michael Kanellos is editor at large at CNET News.com, where he covers hardware, research and development, start-ups and the tech industry overseas.
Michael Kanellos
3 min read
Big oil, meet big meat.

Tyson Foods, one of the largest meat processors in the United States, is working with oil giant ConocoPhillips to produce and start selling biodiesel made from chicken, pork and poultry fat. The two companies have been running processing trials in Tyson's Ireland facility.

Biodiesel can be run in most diesel engines but burns cleaner than regular diesel fuel. It emits less nitrous oxide and sulfur compounds, depending on how it is processed. It is also more carbon-neutral, advocates say, because the carbon dioxide emitted by tailpipes burning biodiesel is captured from green plants. (Grass takes in carbon dioxide during photosynthesis, cows eat the grass, and then the cow fat gets turned into gas, which releases the carbon dioxide).

Diesel fuel made from fossil deposits releases carbon dioxide that was captured below the surface of the earth.

Tyson formed a renewable-energy division last year. The company generates about 2.3 billion pounds of animal fat a year in its operations. The companies estimate that the operation could result in 175 million gallons of biodiesel a year. ConocoPhillips said it will invest $100 million in this project.

Culling animal fat from the nation's slaughterhouses won't solve the energy crisis. The United States consumed about 62 billion gallons of diesel last year. Thus, Tyson's contribution would amount to less than 1 percent of the overall diesel budget.

Even if all of the deep-fryer grease and animal fat in the States were collected for fuel, it would still likely amount to only a small percentage of the diesel supply.

Still, it could add to the bottom line for both companies. On the wholesale market, diesel sells for about $2 a gallon. The government also offers subsidies ranging from 50 cents to $1 a gallon to ensure that biodiesel, which is actually more expensive at the moment, stays competitive with regular fossil fuel diesel.

Biodiesel produced from animal fat is better-suited to fueling industrial boilers than cars, according to University of Minnesota professor Vernon Eidman. Tyson and ConocoPhillips, however, said their biodiesel will be sold for the "on-road" diesel market. Biodiesel can also be mixed in with regular diesel.

The two companies will begin to ramp up manufacturing facilities this year.

Converting waste oil or animal fat into biodiesel largely revolves around removing glycerols, which increase viscosity, from the oil. The glycerols removed from the process can also be sold to other customers and chemical producers.

Diesel engines can run on vegetable oil--Rudolf Diesel ran his first engines on peanut oil--but the oil needs to be heated first, which would require modifications to the car.

Although demand for fuel is high, alternative fuel remains a risky business. Erecting refineries costs millions of dollars, and fluctuations in the prices of crude oil and alternative-fuel feedstock can transform a company from profitable to loss-making. Several ethanol companies recently saw their profits evaporate after the price of corn shot up.

Smithfield Foods, for instance, canceled its own alternative-energy plant, which hoped to make biodiesel from mixing vegetable oil with methane from cow manure culled on its farms.