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Motoring on Sun Oil

Thursday, November 13, 2003
filed under: Utilization/Trade

Great Plains Oil LLC hopes that someday, you’ll be running your car on biodegradable motor oil made from sunflower oil.

The company, based in Eads, Colo., is a business partnership with Kiowa County Growers, Inc. The business effort got underway in 1999, and today about 500 people own shares in the company, some of whom are sunflower producers contracted for supply.

Colorado Mills LLC in Lamar, Colo., crushes oilseed for Great Plains Oil, and products are finished in the company’s blending operation in Eads. The small town in Kiowa County was selected as a location for the start-up business, since over 24,000 acres of sunflower are grown in the area. Besides high oleic sunflower oil, some canola, linseed, soy oil is used as well.

Great Plains Oil now makes a number of biodegradable oil products:

Concrete forms. Increasingly being used for construction, concrete forms are made of expanded polystyrene, with concrete poured within the forms. Forms treated with the oil are easier to work with when pouring concrete, helps protect forms from deterioration, and helps increase the quality of the concrete finish.

Dust suppressant. Biodegradable dust suppressants have proven to be as effective and durable as conventional dust suppressants, with reduced risk of surface and ground water contamination.

Chainsaw bar oil, two-cycle engine oil. Vegetable based oils significantly reduce equipment emissions, biodegrades and is low in toxicity.

Bakery equipment oil. The availability of a biodegradable vegetable oil is especially important for organic bakeries, who can no longer use conventional mineral oil if they wish to call themselves organic.

Irrigation drip oil. A biodegradable oil eliminates the risk of irrigation well contamination of petroleum-based drip oil.

Motor oil. Great Plains’ automobile engine oil, AMG2000, has been tested successfully in the laboratory and in road field tests.

After several years of R&D, Great Plains is now stepping up its sales efforts, which is no easy task. While the company now markets its product line in seven states, competing against conventional petroleum-based products and gaining consumer acceptance—particularly for the engine oil— are key challenges.

“We’re still trying to recover startup costs, have had drought affect our sunflower supplies, and have seen the price of sunflower oil nearly triple from what it was when our plant first started,” says Steven Puls, who along with Norm Arends has been at the forefront of Great Plains’ development efforts. Arends coordinates production contracts, while Puls concentrates on sales. Both have engineering backgrounds; Arends is also a retired district judge, and Puls is also church pastor.

Puls says consumers are reluctant to try the engine oil, especially with newer vehicles, since automobile manufacturer warranties may not cover use of the oil. “That puts us in a catch-22; Fear of trying the product in newer vehicles makes it more difficult to build consumer acceptance. People are more willing to try it in older vehicles, but that can be a biased evaluation. The older the vehicle, the more likely it is to have potential problems, and the oil may be unfairly associated with those problems,” he says.

Vegetable oils actually perform better naturally as an engine lubricant than petroleum products, says Puls; petroleum and synthetic products need extra chemicals and additives to perform effectively.

Puls runs the sun oil in his own car. “After the petroleum oil is purged from the engine, our oil is so effective in that it acts like a detergent to flush out remaining impurities in the engine. So we recommend more frequent oil changes to start; an oil change after the first 1,000 miles, then after another 2,000 miles, then every 3,000 miles, just like your regular motor oil.”

Great Plains Oil received $243,000 in funding from the USDA within the past year, through a program designed to help value-added agricultural businesses like Great Plains Oil develop its markets. The grant funding needs to be matched by funds obtained by the company.

“We’re still documenting performance of the engine oil, and in some cases we’re trying to sell some products direct to be more price competitive,” Puls says. “This is still a work in progress.” – Tracy Sayler

Widespread acceptance of plant-based automotive lubricants depends to some extent on the issue of certification. Currently, automotive engine manufacturers require that motor oils meet standards set by the American Petroleum Institute (API). This is a costly process involving testing methodologies that have been developed over the last century for petroleum-derived lubricants.

The European market for biolubricants is more advanced than it is in the U.S., and some countries there have mandated the use of vegetable oil-based lubricants, as well as some synthetics, in place of mineral oils. The main biolubricants sold in the European market are hydraulic fluids, chainsaw oils, niche oils (including gear oils, two-stroke engine oils, and cutting oils), and concrete release agents.

A brief from The Carbohydrate Economy (, a project of The Institute for Local Self-Reliance, Minneapolis. The Carbohydrate Economy provides comprehensive information on plant matter-based products and the cutting edge companies and cooperatives producing them. It offers a 20-page report, “Lubricants from Vegetable Oil,” which provides an overview of the use of vegetable oil-based lubricants in industrial and automotive applications, and identifies companies that sell these products.

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