A nation thirsty for biofuels has everything from switchgrass to mesquite trees mentioned as a potential feedstock for ethanol or biodiesel production. Add cotton, specifically cottonseed oil, to the list.

Cotton farmers traditionally have traded the cottonseed extracted from the ginning process for the cost of ginning. That tradition could change for some with the new biofuels explosion.

A Gonzales, TX, 4-million-gallon/year (mgy) biodiesel plant is feeding crude cottonseed oil into its new equipment that went online in late 2006. It's one of three biodiesel plants in a system operated by GeoGreen Fuels, LLC, headquartered in Houston.

The second plant will be in conjunction with a farmer co-op in El Campo, TX, near the Gulf Coast. “Cotton growers will now have an even broader market for their crops,” says Jim Roppolo, manager of the 1,200-farmer-member co-op, adding that the 5-mgy El Campo plant is scheduled to go online this fall.

“The inputs (oil) will be right here for the biodiesel production. That will save us a lot on freight,” he says.

A third 4-5-mgy plant will be built in Crockett, TX, between Dallas and Houston, says Brent Kartchner, principal owner of the Geo Green Fuels. It's also scheduled to run on cottonseed oil.

Dustin Blumenthal, GeoGreen Fuels plant manager in the Gonzales plant, notes that it currently runs primarily on cottonseed oil and traditional soy oil. “We are a multi-feedstock plant that can also produce biodiesel from chicken fat (obtained from regional poultry operations),” he says.

“We have a continuous-flow process and run whichever commodity is most available and economically feasible. That is usually cottonseed or soy oil,” he says.

Blumenthal says the cost of cottonseed oil and soy oil are virtually the same, 39-42¢/lb., depending on grade. Premium chicken fat costs about 30¢/lb., while secondary chicken fat is 28¢/lb. “We usually buy enough cottonseed or soy oil and secondary fat to make a 50-50 blend to help hold down costs and still produce a quality product,” he says, noting that prices are a few cents higher for oil and fat since the spring, but demand remains high for the fuel.

Bobby Crum, vice president of Valley Co-op Oil Mill in Harlingen, TX, indicates the Valco Bioenergy biodiesel plant was scheduled to go online by early summer.

“We will use primarily cottonseed oil,” he says, adding that the Valley Co-op plant is similar to the Gonzales operation. “However, we will also look at cheaper feedstocks in order to be competitive.”

The idea behind the biodiesel plant is to create more added value for the co-op's product. “We have been looking for a way to diversify our product,” says Crum. “We want to be in the food oil and fuel market. This new plant enables us to do that.”

Blumenthal says this up and coming industry is seeing more competition, meaning a clean, high-quality product must be produced to develop and maintain markets for the fuel. “Johnson Oil Company, a local fuel distributor, is handling most of our product,” he says.

“They like the quality they receive from us,” says Ross Spann, GeoGreen Fuels chemist. “We're still working to develop more markets for the glycerin byproduct of biodiesel production. We hope to eventually market it as a liquid feed to livestock.”

With continued research into biofuels using cellulosic materials, more byproducts of cotton ginning could be funneled into ethanol production, says Calvin Parnell, director of the Texas A&M Center for Agricultural Air Quality Engineering and Science.

“Gin trash and other biomass could become a source for making ethanol,” he says.