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Lee at forefront of bio-diesel research

By Staff | Sep 13, 2008

The quiet of Ken Ryan’s farm is shocking at first; the only sounds you hear are the trees swaying, the birds singing, the occasional truck rumbling down the gravel road in front of his house.

The tranquility of this North Fort Myers location is a far cry from the gridlocked nightmare of Del Prado at rush hour, though the two might one day be more closely linked than an initial glance would indicate.

Imagine a fleet of LeeTran buses traveling the Cape on a daily basis, running on something other than diesel fuel. Imagine them being powered by a green, leafy plant, one that is growing abundantly in the small field behind Ryan’s home.

Ryan is working closely with the University of Florida/IFAS (Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences) Lee County Extension program on a plant called Jatropha Curcus, an emerging possibility for a new biodiesel fuel source.

Only in the research phase here in Florida, Jatropha Curcus has been used in India for several years.

According to Ryan the plant grows a “nut”, that produces oil when pressed. The oil could then be used to power buses, trucks, tractors — anything that uses a diesel engine to operate.

In recent days, local and state officials including Lee County Commisioner Ray Judah and Lt. Gov. Jeff Kottkamp have endorsed the plant, kicking off nearly a year of very quiet, and relatively down-low research. Ryan has been at the heart of that research since the beginning.

“This plant has so much potential, there is no waste,” Ryan said. “Oil from the plant can be used for fuel, and left over residue from pressing can be used for organic fertilizer.”

Ryan said the plant’s true strength is its near invulnerability. Through testing the plant’s limits, Ryan and the Extension Office have determined the plant is imperviousness to insects and diseases, and can survive on little to no water.

“We really wanted to see what would happen when you stick them in the ground and walk away,” Ryan added.

For every acre of Jatropha Curcus, Ryan said 700 gallons of fuel can be produced. He’s now working on specific “pruning techniques” that could raise that total to 2,800 gallons per acre.

Ryan’s farm was vital to the research so scientists could get a sense of how the plant operates in a real-life setting.

It’s all part of certain “stages” the research has gone through since its inception.

The Extension program’s Agricultural and Natural Resource Agent Roy Beckford said Ryan’s farm was used as one of the initial plots, alongside a plot in Buckingham, near Lehigh Acres. Soon the research will move to labs at the University of Florida in Gainesville.

“We’re collecting empirical data, trying to find out what’s happening with the plant on a day-to-day basis,” Beckford said. “You go through stages when you do research, but very soon we’re going to up the research portion.”

The county has been supportive throughout the research project, according to Beckford.

They donated the land in Buckingham, where Ray Judah planted a young Jatropha Curcus, and are even looking into establishing biodiesel refineries, though he warned of the difficulties of bringing together separate interests.

“There have been proposals from various companies, about setting up biodiesel refineries,” Beckford Said. “But several things have to come together. There are all these groups that have their hands in the game. It’s a matter of getting in the game, and we are.”

The realities of establishing a vital and thriving alternative fuel source in Lee County is still too far down the road to determine its true plausibility.

Lee County Transit staff said they have already taken steps toward moving the LeeTran fleet toward using biodiesel fuels.

“The Board of County Commissioners approved buying biodiesel on the commercial market. We’re going to start off using a 5 percent blend,” Transit Director Steve Myers said. “It’s been widely used and most municipalities are not reporting any problems.”

The most common biodiesel fuels use soy beans as a base, though LeeTran buses are going to powered, in part, with palm oil.

The price differential between diesel and biodiesel is about 7 cents a gallon, according to Myers. If LeeTran buys roughly 1 million gallons of fuel each year, which they do, the county will save about $70,000.

Myers is concerned about the overall efficiency of the bio-fuel, but said the approval of engine emissions trumps the concern.

Then there’s the possibility of the Jatropha Curcus, which seems to be beyond what the county transit authority seems capable of at the moment.

“We’re not a test bed. We’re not out front on these technologies because we can’t afford to be,” Myers added. “We just try to keep up and improve our emissions as best as we can as we go along. We know diesel is dirty.”

On the state level, Florida has had trouble grappling with alternative fuel and transportation sources, fighting to keep up with a population boom that has desperately challenged infrastructures statewide.

The next few years will indeed be crucial to the development of Florida’s “green” future, as traditional fuel costs rise.

On Friday, the office of the governor released a press statement that New Generation Biofuels plans to build its corporate headquarters in Lake Mary, Fla..

The release indicated the move will create 20 brand new high-wage jobs, and looks to “solidify Florida’s position as a renewable energy leader” but gives no indication of using biofuels in the future.

The boldest move came from the state Senate in May, which gave final approval to an energy bill that touts new energy efficient building codes and renewable fuel standards.

Sen. Burt Suanders, R-Naples, said Florida is not behind the curve when it comes to biofuels or any other green initiatives, and is indeed poised to take the lead on such issues. Saunders was one of the bill’s sponsors, which was approved by the governor in June.

“The solution is complex,” Saunders said. “Other energies are not necessarily going to be cheaper, but Florida is not behind the curve. This new bill puts Florida at the forefront of the country.”

Saunders said the bill will provide the opportunity to bring brand new green technologies to the state. As more technologies arrive, the prices will go down.

“In 15 years, all of our buildings could be green,” He said. “Energy goes up, but technology helps prices go down.”

Back in North Fort Myers, Ken Ryan is looking down at his small field of Jatropha Curcus, talking about his time as a small farmer in Florida and New England.

He makes his money working October through May selling specialized herbs to local chefs, doing the good work, as he says.

He doesn’t care about the political aspect of growing a possible game changer in Jatropha Curcus. He loves Florida, and wants nothing more than to see the plant become widely used, if not widely accepted.

“Good things are coming out of this despite the politicians. I don’t care who gets the credit as long as it gets done,” He said. “I really wanted to give something back to this beautiful state.”