MSU-Northern’s biofuels program

Havre Daily News

by Tim Leeds

The staff members of the Bioenergy Innovation and Testing Center at Montana State University-Northern gave an update on current and future work at the center during a tour taken by local Democratic candidates Friday.

Jessica Windy Boy, director of the research and testing facility, told the candidates that although the work is progressing and building up very quickly, the center has been in operation only four years.

“It’s actually very young in origin,” she said.

A WIRED grant provided by the state Department of Labor and Industry provided the initial funding for three positions, hers and lead researcher Nestor “Jon” Soriano, and Keith Richardson, the center’s engineer.

Since then, funding has come through the state Legislature in its last session and congressional appropriations.

U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, who helped secure the congressional funding, will be a featured speaker at a summit on agricultural biofuels on Tuesday.

The summit will be hosted by Ethanol Producers and Consumers at the Montana State University-Northern Bienergy Innovation and Testing Center.

Although the summit is free and open to the public, people are urged to reserve a seat by calling 406-785-3722.

Windy Boy said the start of the center also came through private partnerships, with its team helping Soriano find ways to purchase or solicit donations to equip it.

“We told Dr. Soriano, ‘Here’s an empty room. Fill it,’” she said.

The center has gone from being a fully approved certification lab, able to certify the quality of fuels to allow them to be sold and used, to including an oil testing center and a biodiesel production center and continues to expand.

“We keep on growing,” Soriano said.

Soriano said the next expansion will help the center do testing and research requested by the U.S. Department of Defense and supported by members of industry including Boeing Co.

A biomass conversion lab will be used for research, scheduled to start within a month or so, to find additives to allow aviation jet fuel to be produced using oilseed plants grown in north-central Montana, he said. The equipment will total an investement of more than $200,000, paid through funds from the U.S. Department of Energy. It also will require additional staff hired to help with the work.

“We will be developing the process here,” Soriano said.

That could include using items from waste wood chips to byproducts of the harvesting of local crops, potentially giving a market to local producers for items like chaff and straw.

Soriano said the center will develop some major partnerships, including with other universities as well as businesses and the federal government to work on the project.

Windy Boy said the research will help develop a component missing from aviation fuel made with oilseeds.

“If we can make aromatics from bio-base then we are that much, a step closer, to having a renewable fuel for aviation,” Windy Boy said.

A search is being pushed from all sides, including the airline industry and especially by the federal government, to find a way to produce renewable aviation fuel, she said.

Soriano said the U.S. government has a goal of using 36 billion gallons of renewable fuel annually by 2022. The press for renewable fuel will lead to opportunities in more than just aviation fuel in the U.S. military, with biofuels used in all modes of transportation.

He said another push is in the railroad industry, with a test on that under way in Havre right now.