Refinery Seeks to Jump-Start Jobs in Delta

by Luke Jones  on Monday, Nov. 25, 2013 12:00 am  

In the sleepy town of DeWitt, past a wooden sign labeled “ArcoFeed,” within the walls of a half-ruined filling station, there sits a metal box about the size of a refrigerator.

At certain times of day, that box will be pumping out what could be the future of a small-scale biofuel industry throughout the Delta region.

The box is a miniature biorefinery. It turns waste vegetable oils into biodiesel. Its operator is Johnny Davis, a semi-retired farmer who owns the crumbling gas station, a feed business and a cattle farm.

On a sunny day in November, Davis points out a box of used cooking oil left at the filling station near a door marked “tire department closed.” The cooking oil will go into the refinery later.

Stepping through the door, Davis switches on some lights to reveal the refinery equipment. It consists of the metal box, a tangle of tubes and wiring and a large plastic tub to hold the finished product.

Davis picks up a Mason jar of golden liquid from atop the tub, unscrews the lid and sniffs: It smells like the diet version of diesel fuel. “They say you can drink this,” he says, adding that he has no intention of putting that to the test.

The refinery can pump out between 50,000 and 80,000 gallons of the liquid per year, which Davis will sell to the city of DeWitt for use in the same trucks that collect the waste oil input, as well as some tractors and mowers.

But Davis and the mini-refinery are small cogs in what is planned to be a giant machine of job creation in the Delta region. The plan traces back to alt.Consulting, a nonprofit in Pine Bluff that works to grow entrepreneurship in rural areas.

In 2010, the firm observed that the entire Delta region was declining in population.

“We knew, as the community development organization that we are, that we needed to create competitive business opportunities in the Delta,” said Ines Polonius, executive director of alt.Consulting. “What we were looking for was an opportunity to basically create more competitive opportunities because many opportunities available to entrepreneurs are not high-profit.”

Polonius said her firm began researching the biofuel industry in the state. There were obstacles:

  • Crop-based biofuel has difficulty competing with edible grains and vegetables, such as soy;
  • The costs of creating biofuel tend to outweigh the profits; and
  • Buyers are tough to find.

Rich Byers, manager of biofuels for Future Fuel Corp. in Batesville, said of the roughly five initial biofuel manufacturers in the state, only two are still producing.



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