A biodiesel fuel operation in Henry County is catching the attention of people from college officials to congressmen.
Fifth District U.S Rep. Virgil Goode, R-Rocky Mount, toured the biodiesel plant at Bassett Forks on Monday.
"I was very impressed with the facility," Goode said of the operation that is owned by Dean Price.
Price buys canola seeds from local farmers and uses them to produce biodiesel, a clean burning fuel alternative that does not harm engines.
Price, who also owns the Red Birch convenience stores, then sells the biodiesel fuel at the Bassett Forks store.
On Tuesday, it was selling for $4 per gallon compared to $4.40 for diesel, Price said, and "we're selling as much as we can make."
Goode also said he does not believe Price's "operation would have any of the negatives associated" with ethanol, which is produced using corn. That, in turn, drives up the cost of dairy, beef and other feed, as well as other products made with corn.
Ben Bowman, work force development coordinator at Patrick Henry Community College, spent much of Tuesday afternoon investigating the biodiesel process and touring the Bassett Forks site.
Part of his job, Bowman said, is identifying skills that may be needed in work force development, as well as emerging technologies. The first step is gathering information, as he did Tuesday, he said.
The energy "problem is too big for one company. Too big for one community," Price said. To be successful, "it will take a grass roots movement ... I can't think of a better place to start than the community college."
Derrick Gortman, project engineer for the biodiesel operation at Red Birch, said a single person can handle the manufacturing process, but two make it more efficient.
Basic skills such as chemistry, accounting, "maybe a little bit of electrical knowledge and good common sense" are necessary, Gortman said.
"The rest is just measuring out what you need for a batch," he said, adding 5,000 gallons of biodiesel can be produced in about 12 hours.
What the emerging industry does need is help with marketing, educating and distributing the fuel because many people believe it will "mess the engine up," Gortman said. They also may think a conversion kit is needed, or believe corn is involved in making it, thereby driving up the cost of other corn products.
"Older people" who recall the fuel crunch of the 1970s may associate the use of biodiesel to the "ethanol problems of the past" when the use of ethanol meant engine or other problems.
But those problems have not been reported with biodiesel fuel, Price said, adding he uses it in his Ford F150 pickup and it burns clearly and has no negative impact on the engine.
Another barrier is selling farmers on the idea of planting a canola crop, according to Sam Brake, who also works with the project.
Planting canola "is not much different than planting wheat," he said, but the planting technique differs slightly.
For instance, "you can't plant it too deep and it needs a little bit of attention" to thrive, Brake said. He added that he expects the next canola crop to cost $9 to $10 per bushel.
If farmers have storage facilities to hold the canola until it is needed, they also will be paid for that service, Brake said.
No one will argue an alternate energy source is needed, Price said.
"I don't say biodiesel is the answer" to ending U.S. dependence on fuels from other countries, Price said, but it could be a beginning, providing there is enough local interest.
In addition to being better for the environment and helping to address the energy crunch, a thriving biodiesel trade also would attract new business, Price said.
He hopes to see the creation of a cooperative of canola farmers and biodiesel fuel manufacturers, a "grassroots effort right here in Martinsville and Henry County. If we don't do something" to decrease U.S. dependency on oil, "nobody else will," he said.