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Last updated 2:15PM ET
April 20, 2018
WUSF 89.7 News
WUSF 89.7 News
Turning Chicken Fat into Fuel in Dade City
(WUSF) - After two years of nothing but silence, an old citrus processing plant in Pasco County is showing new signs of life.

SOUND: Welders banging a tank that is being retrofitted for use as biodiesel.

REPORTER: I'm here inside what used to be the Lykes Brothers Citrus processing plant in downtown Dade City. Huge stainless steel tanks that tower nearly three stories line the inside of the building. Right now, it has the stench of old orange juice - two years old, to be precise. That's how long it's been since this plant was occupied. But soon, the smell will be more like french fries.

No, they're not cooking potatoes here - this cavernous facility in the Dade City Business Center could soon be the largest producer of biodiesel in the entire country. Beginning Friday, chicken fat will be rendered and mixed with various chemicals to produce a blend with diesel fuel. The end product can smell like the business end of a vegetable fryer.

SIMS: It kind of makes you hungry, if you're not careful.

That's Jeff Sims. The general manager of Agri-Source Fuels has big plans for the shuttered citrus plant.

SIMS: It smells like french fries. It smells like popcorn. We've made biodiesel out of pork grease, and it smells like bacon. REPORTER: And it beats the smell that comes out of the tailpipe of trucks? SIMS: It definitely beats the normal smell. And there's no smoke associated with it.

Sims says they want to make this unlike any other biodiesel plant in the country.

SIMS: Here, you're kind of getting an idea of what kind of storage we have. You realize that what you're looking at are 178,000-gallon stainless steel tanks, and I have 28 of them in this one room. So our storage capability for raw materials is incredible - and I just walked into it. This facility was slated to be sold for scrap. All this stainless was going to be cut out and just sold for scrap prices. And for somebody that was ready to build something similar, it was just the find of a lifetime, really.

So it turns out that when Sims came here to see if the tanks could be transported elsewhere, this turned out to be a perfect setting for a whole new plant.

The chicken fat will be transported here by both truck and a rail spur that comes into the rear of the plant. There, workers are busy pressure-washing sticky orange juice residue.

SOUND: Workers pressure-washing inside of tanks.

SIMS: We'll be dealing obviously with chicken fat - or chicken oil - palm oil, we're going to deal with cottonseed oil, we might deal with some soybean.

And chicken fat and soybeans are a lot cheaper than a barrel of oil.

Meanwhile, Alabama has introduced a bill to mandate the entire state fleet use alternative fuels. As for Florida:

HIGDON: We're so far behind on this, it's ridiculous. Every bit of biodiesel that comes into Florida today, it's imported.

Pensacola real estate developer Rick Higdon owns Agri-Source. He says Agri-Source has already signed a contract with one distributor for 40 million gallons of chicken fat a year. And with five and a half million gallons of storage in Dade City, that gives them the ability to buy when the price is right.

Higdon says Florida needs to catch up with the rest of the country.

HIGDON: This is not a new mousetrap. Europe, South America, they've been on biodiesel for years and years.

Gov. Charlie Crist recommends the state spend $68 million on alternative energy. That includes $50 million for developing ethanol and biodiesel products - some of which will come from chicken fat.

SOUND: Drilling, banging, etc.

Back in Dade City, Sims expects from 25 to 50 people will be working at the plant once it's up and running.

SIMS: From the sound of things from the guys who used to work here at the juice plant, they were telling me it's a lot harder to make orange juice than it is to make biodiesel. A lot of them are going to be coming back and going to work here. They're familiar with the plant. They know where every valve, every pipe, every connection, every plug, every disconnect is in this entire place. And it's also giving them the opportunity to work in a place they might have been employed for 20 years before the thing shut down.

The plant's opening is scheduled for Friday.
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