Welcome to the biodiesel rock concert

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Rock music from Green Day and the Goo Goo Dolls pulses over loudspeakers in the mega-resort Gaylord Palms as a crowd of 4,000 gathers this morning for the fourth annual National Biodiesel Conference here in sunny Kissimmee, Fla.

Before a vivid stage backdrop of green forests, mountains and rivers, one can see right away this is no ordinary farm meeting. A handful of celebrities, taken with the global warming cause, have cozied up to the infant biodiesel industry. Daryl Hannah makes an annual appearance before this crowd. The conference itself is set up to generate as little waste as possible, including using recycled paper, providing attendees with recycle bins, and reusing shipping boxes and shipping peanuts. The conference is using tree-free or recycled paper and soy inks; local food banks receive any untouched food left over from convention meals.  

While the rest of the world shivers in a blanket of snow and ice, a record crowd — everyone from New York investors to Nebraska soybean growers — has gathered here to talk about the hot potential this industry brings to the nation. Pro football hall of famer Jack Youngblood was backslapping the folks at last night's Super Bowl party. Astronaut Jim Lovell will be here to talk about overcoming adversity. He was the astronaut who did not get to land on the moon because of Apollo 13's aborted mission due to a fuel accident in space.

2007 was, by any account, a landmark year for biodiesel. The industry hit a home run by grabbing a 1 billion gallon mandate in the new energy bill. Public awareness has jumped from 45% to 65% in just one year says Joe Jobe, the charismatic Executive Director of the National Biodiesel Board. Sales have tripled in two years by some estimates. In two years they have built 85 plants in the country. All of the Fox generators, equipment and trucks that brought the world the Super bowl were running on at least B20 (biodiesel), noted Jobe.

Yet, soybean farmers who have trekked here are worried. There's talk in the hallways of the price of soybeans and how that price may push the biodiesel industry toward other feedstocks.

The biodiesel ship is about to set sail, and soybean farmers fear that ship — the ship they helped build — will leave without them.

Enter algae To make the point, Jobe picked up a jug of biodiesel that was made not from soy but from algae. This liquid fuel meets all certification requirements to be used in any diesel vehicle, he told the audience. Just then a new Mercedes Benz with unmodified turbo diesel engine was unveiled near the edge of the stage. "It has B100 made from algae in the tank right now,•bCrLf said Jobe. The car is powered by solazyme algal biodiesel. Solazyme, Inc., is a synthetic biology company formed in 2003 to pursue biofuels from microalgae.

Tomorrow I'll talk with an Iowa soybean farmer who is a member of the National Biodiesel Board. We'll see what he has to say about soy's future in the biodiesel industry.

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