Lifestyles Ohio University

Local students refine sunflowers to brighten Ohio’s fuel future

A sunflower grows in the field of the Athens Alternative Education Program, located in Albany, Ohio. Photo by CG Editor-in-Chief Erich Hiner.

By Zach Lloyd, CG Lifestyles & People

As petroleum prices soar, the world’s oil reserves dwindle and American agribusinesses must absorb higher costs. Meanwhile, students at the Athens Alternative Education Program (AAEP), are developing fuel from an unlikely source: sunflowers. Thanks to the project, Southeast Ohio’s “fuel future” has never looked brighter.

The AAEP, located off State Route 143 in Albany, Ohio,  serves as an alternative for students who’ve had difficulty adjusting to traditional classrooms. Dwight Mitchell, the program’s Science and Technology instructor, sought to demonstrate the scientific method to his students with a hands-on farming project. Some students suggested using sunflowers to create an alternative to diesel and the AAEP Sunflower Project began.

The Sugar Bush Foundation, a fund dedicated to sustainable development, supplied AAEP and Ohio University’s Russ College of Engineering with a partner grant for the project. The grant paid for two years of custom farming, grain storage and a mobile biodiesel processing facility.

Tyler Furr, an AAEP senior who has spent the last year working on the project, is nearly an expert on the biofuel manufacturing process.

“After planting and harvesting the sunflowers, we use a seed-press to squeeze the oil out of the seeds,” Furr said. “After that, we refine the oil in our processing facility which gives us the finished fuel.”

The finished product can be burned on its own or mixed with petroleum diesel to produce a cleaner-burning, environmentally healthier fuel. Additionally, the byproduct of the refining process, called seed cake, can be used as a feed concentrate for livestock.

By this time in the season, the students have harvested the plants and pressed the oil. They are in the middle of the refining process.

The students are involved in every stage of the process and learn how to make the biofuel. They also learn about its benefits. Bobby Kiser, another AAEP senior, has seen these benefits firsthand.

“I’ve been with the program for a year and a half now learning how to create a new, useful chemical out of sunflowers,” he said. “[Biodiesel] has gained a lot of my respect as a renewable energy source.”

That renewability is key to the message Mitchell gives his students. The short crop cycle of the sunflower allows for other crops to be planted after its harvest. Farmers can use the oil generated after the refinery process as fuel for diesel-powered equipment, such as tractors and combines.

The importance of the program lies both in the knowledge it gives students and the potential it has for the country and environment. While it’s unlikely that sunflower biodiesel will replace petroleum diesel, it can help promote self-sufficient American agribusinesses.

Mitchell hopes farmers nationwide will use sunflowers to their full potential. Since farmers account for nearly two percent of America’s annual energy consumption, self-sufficient farms could help decrease fossil-fuel imports and greenhouse gas emissions. The relative ease of harvesting the crop makes the possibility of self-sustained American farms that much more realistic.

“This is a blue-collar technology,” Mitchell said. “Besides an added head attachment to the combine, we are able to use conventional machines.”

The process’ simplicity could be a key factor in convincing individual farmers to follow AAEP’s example. Ohio farmers could easily adopt the technique, Furr said.

“There are nearly 75,000 farms in Ohio and I can’t think of a single one that is unable to become self-sufficient [through sunflower biodiesel],” Mitchell said.

AAEP’s biofuel program has been recognized by schools and organizations in Ohio and nationwide. Other schools and programs have inquired about the project and the Appalachian Regional Commission has recognized it as a viable environmental contribution to Southern Ohio. Schools in Kentucky have asked Mitchell to visit and talk about the program.

“When I first started the program, I had no idea how potentially beneficial it would become,” Mitchell said.

Mitchell and his students are organizing an AAEP “Biofuel Field Day” Oct. 23 to educate local farmers about the benefits of sunflower biofuels. Mitchell said the event will demonstrate sunflower biodiesel’s production, benefits and potential impact. For more information, contact AAEP at 740-698-0131.

Sunflowers in full bloom at the Athens Alternative Education Program's field during the summer of 2009. Photo courtesy of AAEP science and technology instructor Dwight Mitchell.

One Comment

  1. Good story, students appreciated being called experts. We learned a lot but have much more to learn.

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