Utah State University and the Utah Department of Transportation are teaming up on an experiment to sow about a mile of grassy safety strips around the state with plants whose seeds can be crushed and processed into 100 percent biodiesel. UDOT will use the homegrown fuel to replace the conventional diesel in state vehicles.
The unusual idea came from Dallas Hanks, a 44-year-old biologist who is working on his doctoral degree at USU. With an initial $50,000 boost from UDOT, Hanks aims to prove the 2,500 miles of state-owned highway right-of-way could yield an annual average of 500,000 gallons of 100 percent biodiesel, also known as B100.
Hanks, a former Utah Valley State College biology instructor, said he conservatively estimates planting swaths of safflower, camelina, canola and perennial flax will save about $1.6 million per year in mowing costs. UDOT officials said they wouldn't know the total taxpayer savings until the project's first-year experiment is finished.
But if their estimates are accurate, plants grown along the swards would end UDOT's need for stinky and polluting diesel, insulate the state from foreign oil dependence and set a very high standard for state agencies seeking to meet Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr.'s order to show a 20 percent increase in energy efficiency by 2015.
"It's really a great opportunity to show some leadership," said UDOT Executive Director John Njord.
By addressing efficiency, energy development and climate-change concerns, the project "has it all," said Laura Nelson, Huntsman's energy policy adviser.
"A lot of agencies are pursuing the conservation initiative," she said. "This is probably the most innovative [approach]."
Biodiesel is not the same as ethanol, another plant-based fuel source whose net energy yield is in question and which has greater negative impacts on the environment. Scientists estimate that biodiesel is three times more efficient than ethanol because it is easier to refine.
Two weeks ago, UDOT began using commercial biodiesel in equipment based in Brigham City and the Cottonwood canyons in Salt Lake County. The agency hopes to use solar power for electric needs at its Murray maintenance shed and has 25 solar-powered weather stations scattered around the state, said spokesman Nile Easton.
Hanks said he has thought for years about how to put UDOT rights-of-way into production. Midwestern states harvest roadside grass for hay, and California harvests oats that grow along one of its more out-of-the-way highways.
Fruit trees seemed a possibility for Utah, but they would have to be irrigated. Besides, UDOT engineers those strips with anti-erosion soils and gravels and plants them with soil-fixing vegetation to create safety zones for vehicles that career off the asphalt.
Rising fuel prices finally tripped the switch. "There really wasn't a reason to do this five years ago," Hanks said. But the steady climb of petroleum fuel costs has made the biodiesel project feasible.
All four of the drought-tolerant plant species will be included in the test plots in Kaysville, Tremonton and Mona, where there will be two plots. Scientists also will seed plots at USU's research farm in Kaysville to compare the roadside yields to what good soils on flat ground would produce.
While switchgrass shows promise elsewhere for so-called cellulosic fuels, that plant isn't a good choice for Utah's climate and elevations, said Ralph Whitesides, a USU professor of plants, soils and climates.
Whitesides, who also is Hanks' doctoral adviser, said the genetically modified seeds UDOT will plant are immune to the herbicide Round-Up, which means UDOT can control weeds without harming the biodiesel crop.
David Drake, the USU Extension agent in Richfield, said he and some Snow College chemistry students have organized what they call the Central Utah Biodiesel Project. Recently the state Department of Agriculture funded a trailer-mounted biodiesel lab they plan to take to farms where farmers can process seed to make fuel for farm equipment.
The UDOT seed could be processed on-site or the seeds could be harvested and taken to him for conversion to biofuel, Drake said.