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Fall 2007 - Sunflowers

Destination Purdue > Fall 2007 - Sunflowers

Sunflowers fueling student start-up

By Lauren Nikides

When he was a senior at Bloomfield (Ind.) High School, Sawyer Sparks wasn't preoccupied with typical high school events like attending basketball games and prom; instead, he was bringing a business idea to life.

Sawyer Sparks

Photo by Lauren Nikides

Sawyer Sparks, a sophomore agricultural economics major from Bloomfield, Ind., started his own biodiesel business while he was still in high school.

That business, Greene Bio-Fuels, now produces diesel fuel from sunflower seeds. It's work that allows the sophomore agricultural economics major to pursue his passion and fuel the country's growing demand for bioenergy. Sparks' company is unusual in this field. While others have focused on soybeans for biodiesel production, Sparks' focus on sunflowers offers certain advantages.

"The sunflower aspect of Sawyer's business is a new age of the biodiesel industry and will relieve the stress on the soybean demand in Greene County and later on in the surrounding counties," said Derick Fordice, a sophomore agribusiness management major who helps Sparks with his business. But mostly, sunflowers are about the bottom line. "My business is going to give farmers the market to grow sunflowers rather than soybeans because they are cheaper to grow and more profitable as an alternative fuel," Sparks said.

B100 nontoxic, but can increase emissions
By Lauren Nikides

Biodeisel fuels have advantages over conventional diesel fule, as well as some disadvantages. The information here comes from the Purdue Extension publication, What is Biodiesel? by Shawn P. Conley, assistant professor of agronomy, and Bernie Tao, professor of agricultural and biological engineering.


  • Pure biodiesel (also called B100) is very energy efficient. B100 is more than four times as efficient as conventional petroleum diesel to produce, transport and distribute.
  • B100 can be used directly in most diesel engine applications.
  • B100 is nontoxic and biodegradable.


  • B100 contains approximately 8% less energy per gallon.
  • B100 generally will freeze at higher temperatures than conventional diesel.
  • B100 may increase nitrogen oxide emissions.
  • B100 may cause damange in older vehicles

Find out more:

Purdue GOinAG
Purdue Agricultural Economics
Purdue Extension BioEnergy

His sunflower biofuel business has been successful, but Sparks said it would not have been if not for the lessons he learned while trying to develop his first business idea - improving asphalt. Sparks' idea was to make a more environmentally friendly asphalt using soybean oil instead of petroleum. The "bio-phalt" idea did not work out. However, he kept coming back to it, which is how Greene Bio-Fuels came about.

The bio-phalt idea didn't work because he couldn't get the soybean oil, Sparks said. By creating his own sunflower oil crushing operation, he realized he could make a bigger profit and a bigger difference to area farmers. The hardest part about being such a young business owner was convincing customers and local farmers that his idea would work and that he had the maturity to pull it off, said Sparks.

"It's really hard to convince people about what I want to do because people look at you and think, 'You're too young and inexperienced.' So, you have to step it up and go beyond their expectations," Sparks said. This skepticism among customers meant early struggles for his new venture, including finding start-up money. But Sparks was able to convince others that, despite his age, he could make his business work.

"I think the biggest success is that I've proven that it can work," Sparks said. "I've proven to people what I can do and that my ideas can work. People know about it and are talking about it. At least in my mind, that's a success," Sparks said.