We visit a factory in Denmark where animal fats from rendering of wastes from slaughterhouses and dead pigs are transformed into green diesel.Could you even have imagined that some of the pigs you produced would one day become fuel for your car? Science fiction has become reality with the development of processes for converting animal fats and vegetable oils into so-called biodiesel.

An example of how this fits into pork-industry activities can be found in Denmark, where a recently opened factory makes biofuel out of the waste material from pig-processing plants.

Løsning, south of Horsens on the western side of Denmark, is the home of Daka Biodiesel. This company produced its first diesel fuel from animal fat in the early months of 2008, at a plant for which the start-up cost of DKK180 million (about $36 million at the currency exchange rates of the time) was funded entirely by the members of a farmers' cooperative.

Some 90% of the plant's shares are held by Danish renderer Daka, which is itself owned by the pork-industry cooperative that includes Danish Crown and Swedish Meats. The holder of the remaining 10%, a German company called Ecomotion, is a biofuel producer in Germany and brought that expertise to the project.

Daka operates rendering facilities in Denmark and also in Sweden through its Swedish subsidiary called Konvex. The raw material to be rendered is a combination of wastes from slaughter/processing activities and dead animals from farms. Three principal products result, consisting of meat-and-bone meal, fat and water. While the meal is either burned or sold as a protein ingredient for petfoods and the water is re-used in cleaning the factory, the fat comes to Daka for transforming into an energy source for powering vehicles.

One such vehicle was standing at the plant during our visit. It is a BMW 520 Diesel driven by the plant's sales director Leo Virta. He reports that the car — and a Citroen C5 for managing director Kjær Andreasen — is run experimentally on a blend of ordinary diesel and 30% biodiesel.

Such usage has had to remain experimental while the official regulations on biodiesel for cars were being worked out. As with all forms of biofuel, there is a strong political and regulatory element to the subject. In the case of converting animal fats into fuels, the story started when European countries found some cows affected by the disease BSE and responded by insisting that the products from rendering had to be burned rather than any previous application, including feeding them to farm animals.

Today the market possibilities seem to be re-opening, with sales of meal into petfood being joined by a projected inclusion in fish feeds. But European Union legislation has continued to insist on incineration for the fat and meat fraction in the highest risk bracket known as Category 1. It is this category of fat that the biodiesel producers want to utilise, on the basis that it is both safe and more productive than burning the material. Løsning in fact takes both Category 1 and Category 2 fats, although not the top feed-grade type rated as Category 3.

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"We can see the blending of biodiesel in car fuels becoming mandatory in Denmark by 2010," says Virta. "The first step will be a trial at all petrol stations in one part of the country, probably with a 2% mixture, but we think the law will eventually approve about 5%. In fact, the EU's own goal is to have 5.75% of all fuel used."

The world of biodiesel already looks large. Europe's biggest player is Germany and its market currently is measured at about 5 million litres per year. Figures for the EU in 2008 show a total capacity of more than 15 million litres, out of a global production of around 32 million litres.

In that context, the maximum of 56,000 cubic metres per year rated for the Løsning factory appears trivial. Even when a similarly sized plant on the Danish island of Fyn (using rapeseed meal) is taken into account, Denmark's involvement in biodiesel is tiny compared with that taking place elsewhere in Europe and North America and minute in comparison with the Latin American countries of Brazil and Argentina.

But the managers at Løsning call its investment so far of approximately 50 million a good start to see how the factory works. It was built with the option of increasing capacity by 50% at a later stage, if desired. From a technique viewpoint it has started well, reaching 85% of its nominal capacity within 11 months of being launched. Some of the product currently is delivered to the Danish market for combustion or for the test of car fuels, the rest is being sold to EU traders. The big issue, however, is how the EU legislators will decide to classify biodiesel production.

A classification of first generation would be unfortunate in its likely affect on price and some products could even be forbidden. Some lobbyists in Brussels have called for this status on the grounds that the animal fats would be better used in the chemical industry and similar applications.

The Daka team says theirs is a second-generation plant, the first of this type in Denmark, providing a much-needed service in recycling of wastes.

Transforming by-products into biodiesel at the plant involves an initial conversion of free fatty acids to esters, followed by processing of fatty substances and a final refining stage to remove any micro-components that might otherwise give problems of sedimentation. In addition to biodiesel with a low sulphur content, the production process results in glycerine and potassium sulphate. Daka reports that it is working to further reduce the costs of producing the fuel and is also developing effective methods for utilising the energy in the glycerine created during the production process.

For pig producers, of course, the success of the venture could also help to answer the question of whether bioenergy will mean more than running vehicles on processing waste. Revenues earned from the transformation may potentially contribute towards maintaining price levels for pigs at slaughter.