Irving-based Darling International has worked for years in the low-profile meat rendering industry, using the leftovers from the meat industry and manufacturing to manufacture a range of products from cattle feed to cosmetics. While their industry vertical may not typically make headlines, the crux of what Darling does has formed the basis for an exciting, new division for their company: turning animal fats into biofuels.
In partnership with Valero Energy Corp., Darling has begun production on a $425 million plant in Louisiana that will do the work of converting animal fat into fuel.
The story is a common one: there is an increasing number of stories like this one, illustrating new and innovative means of gleaning biofuel from organic matter. Increasingly, however, the biofuels industry has shifted its focus onto utilizing fats and oils in order to sustainably craft biofuels, which now “make up between 25 and 30 percent of sales in fats and oils now,” according to Tom Cook, president of the National Renderers Association. “It’s provided a whole new outlet that just adds to the traditional market, which is primarily animal feed.”
Biofuels are still a niche product, and have yet to really make it into the mainstream — especially compared to the use of petroleum-based fuels. However, biofuels are still steadily gaining ground, having accounted for more than 7 percent of U.S. transportation and heating fuel last year, with ethanol and biodiesel being combined with traditional petroleum-based products at gas stations nationwide.
The shift into biofuels, however, has been helped along by government mandate more than consumer demand. According to the Dallas Morning News:
“In 2005, Congress mandated that refineries add greater amounts of biofuel to the fuel stream. So far that has largely benefited the ethanol industry, which turns corn into motor fuel. But with the federal mandates starting to shift emphasis to other fuels like biodiesel and renewable diesel, that should change over the next decade, said Ben Evans, a spokesman for the National Biodiesel Board. “Biodiesel is never going to be the only source of fuel. It’s never going to overtake petroleum,” Evans said. “But right now the transportation fuels market is completely dominated by the petroleum sector. “We think the market would look a lot better if it was more diversified, like the electricity market, which is very diversified and much more stable.” For now, the bulk of biodiesel comes from a network of smaller producers, Evans said.”
However, the fact that — at least at this point — biofuels appear to be relegated to the role of a hedge against traditional petroleum-based fuels, could be the deciding factor in whether or not biofuels ever become a mainstay in the marketplace. At present, consumers use biofuels not by choice, but because Congress has mandated the use of ethanol in gasoline. The public at large still remains ignorant to the real-life benefits of the fuel, and ambivalent as to whether or not it is a viable alternative to gas. This, combined with the difficulties in refining mass amounts of biofuel from leftover by-products still make oil and natural gas production an ironically more sustainable enterprise for the energy industry over the long-term.
Still, it isn’t difficult to imagine how, even as a minority player in the energy market, the ingenious development of biofuels in the manner that a company like Darling International is undertaking could spark a major improvement in the U.S. economy over the long haul. With the opening of their new biofuels plant, the company to come to employ a new team of full-time workers and develop a new revenue stream. Even if biofuels continue to account for only 7 to 10% of the fuel market, that 7 to 10% could be a game-changer for millions of Americans.