By Larry Dreiling

At 645 feet underground, fresh air is hard to come by.

Even with large fans that bring air from the surface, those working in the Hutchinson Salt Co. mine in Hutchinson, Kan., were dealing with soot in the air and particulate matter from diesel-powered equipment.

The solution to cleaning things up down below was to switch to B100 biodiesel (100 percent biodiesel). Hutchinson Salt Co. began using biodiesel in June 2003, and used 31,229 gallons of B100 in the first year.

Hutchinson Salt, along with the Kansas Soybean Commission and National Biodiesel Board recently hosted a tour of the salt company's mine. Hutchinson Salt Co. is the first mine of any kind to use B100.

"The main benefit is we've cleaned up soot in the air and have cut particulates. Workers, particularly the operators of the loaders, like the soy biodiesel much better because they say particulates do not get in their nostrils and the air is noticeably cleaner," said Max Liby, vice president of manufacturing for the mine. "Also, lubricity is much greater than if we used regular diesel fuel, so the injector pumps and injectors work more efficiently. The soy biodiesel actually cleans the injectors."

Air quality is a critical issue for workers who use diesel engines in confined spaces, and using biodiesel fuel in mining equipment is one way to help protect their health.

Biodiesel is a renewable, alternative fuel to petroleum diesel, and is made from domestically grown soybeans as well as other fats and vegetable oils.

Biodiesel burns cleaner, reduces emissions like particulate matter by 47 percent and cuts carcinogens 80 to 90 percent. Biodiesel is sulfur-free, non-flammable and biodegrades faster than sugar.

Clark Duffy, director of the Bureau of Air and Radiation for the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, said Hutchinson Salt should be commended for their efforts at improving health of their employees.

"Kansas is meeting healthy air standards, something 30 other states and many metropolitan areas in the U.S. are not meeting. We can and should be an example to improve air quality," Duffy said.

"Hutchinson Salt Co. has chosen to be a leader and innovator in public health and safety and care for the environment of their workers. There aren't too many facilities like them.

"It's great to have innovative solutions to air quality problems, but if we aren't aware of them, and don't advocate those solutions, change will not occur. That's what's so important about the initiatives of the Kansas Soybean Commission and the National Biodiesel Board. We need to make sure that the word gets out to do those things to improve air quality in those places where it's a problem.

Hutchinson Salt Co.'s main product is highway salt for inclement weather. Clients include the states of Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Iowa and Illinois, and the city of Chicago.

A side portion of the work in the salt mine is Underground Vaults and Storage Co. The mine's constant 68 to 73-degree temperature and 40 percent humidity are ideal for storage of films and other documents, according to Lee Spence, UVS president.

"We started in 1959. One of our directors was in World War II and saw how Adolf Hitler used salt mines for storage of documents and personal belongings. That director took the idea for a storage facility back to one of the owners of the mine. At the time, that was Jake Carey, of Carey Salt Co.," Spence said.

That year, UVS entered into a 99-year contract with Hutchinson Salt Co. to take over the mined area of 980 acres. The area dedicated for vault space now totals 1.5 million square feet. Over 5.5 million containers are stored in the mine, all of them will receive an increase in care because fewer particulates in the air from B100 mean less matter settling on precious documents.

"We have over 75 rooms, each 300 feet long and 50 feet wide filled with storage items," Spence said. "We lay a thin layer of concrete on the floor, paint the walls and add the shelving. Customers from 23 countries store everything from motion pictures to oil and gas seismic records, as well as medical, criminal, and tax and insurance records."

With the construction of a new elevator, the public will be admitted to a new Underground Salt Museum.

"The public will breath cleaner air because of B100," Spence said.

While the institution of a B100 atmosphere is good for Hutchinson Salt, Jerry Wyse, a Haven, Kan., producer who is chairman of the Kansas Soybean Commission, said this is just the start.

"We need to establish an in-state industry that can use Kansas soybeans. We are extremely excited about the use of 100 percent biodiesel under a farm community," Wyse said. "We also want to increase in-state demand for soybeans. We feel good about this being an example. We also want to increase the competitiveness of Kansas soybeans and the use of biodiesel in Kansas.

"Farmers have funded the initial research and development of biodiesel, including working on the development of ASTM (American Society for Testing and Materials) standards for the fuel. That included engine and fuel testing."

Biodiesel is where ethanol was 20 years ago, Wyse said, but it is really ramping up quickly as the fastest growing alternative fuel in the nation and the world.

"The product is consumer driven. The more consumers ask for it, the more widely it will be available. Farmers have created initial demand by using it in their own vehicles. It's pretty awesome that we can grow and use our own product," Wyse said.

According to the NBB, biodiesel is the first and only alternative fuel to have fully completed the Heath Effects testing requirements of the Clean Air Act.

"Biodiesel is a great fuel for use inside mines," said Harold Kraus, soybean farmer and NBB director. "It is made from a natural product, so the air mine workers breathe from B100 is also natural. Besides cutting emissions, biodiesel also has a pleasant odor when it burns," he said.

"Soybeans are important to Kansas not only for the vegetable oil biodiesel comes from, but also for the animal industry, as Kansas is the largest producer of packed beef in the United States," Kraus said. "The animal industry is the largest user of soybean meal, for its feed, plus the waste fat from animals can be made into biodiesel," he said.

The salt mine is one of more than 500 fleets using biodiesel. That number is expected to continue to rise, in part due to a biodiesel tax incentive bill that will take effect as law on Jan. 1.

The tax incentive should make biodiesel more accessible to the general public as it will significantly narrow the cost gap between biodiesel and regular diesel fuel, which will in turn fuel demand and supply.

Other biodiesel users include the Missouri Department of Transportation, all four branches of the military, NASA, Harvard University, National Park Service, U.S. Postal Service, L.L. Bean and others.

About 300 retail filling stations make various biodiesel blends available to the public, and more than 1,000 petroleum distributors carry it nationwide.

Larry Dreiling can be reached by phone at 785-628-1117 or by e-mail at ldreiling@aol.com.

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