PARIS (Reuters Life!) - Duck fat has a rich history in French cuisine as the key ingredient in savoury cassoulets and confits, but now industrious farmers are turning the grease into biodiesel and biogas.
A farm cooperative based in St. Aquilin, a rural village in the southwestern region of the Dordogne, is powering a tractor and two other vehicles with biodiesel made from duck fat and hopes to convince others to do the same.
The animal product is in no short supply in this scenic area where two million of the web-footed birds are raised each year, according to the regional agricultural council.
"We're really doing this out of activism, to recognize that we have to do something to help save the planet. We should stop the big speeches and start with little acts," said Jules Charmoy, who raises russet-hued Limousin cattle on his organic farm.
Concerned about the world's reliance on oil, Charmoy and a partner identified a recycling need close to home given the profusion of duck used by many restaurants and food businesses.
Their 50-farm cooperative of like-minded farmers collects the fat from neighboring businesses once every two weeks, and then makes a veritable duck soup that will end up as fuel.
"We also have frying oil and fat from pigs and calves. There's a little bit of everything in there but the dominant thing is duck because we're in the Dordogne," said Charmoy, 37.
The fat is heated to 120 degrees Fahrenheit (49 degrees Celsius) to rid it of all water, after which the heat is reduced and alcohol and potassium hydroxide are added. The mixture is shaken and when it settles, the biodiesel is separated below a layer of glycerol.
Before being used as vehicle fuel it is mixed in a 30 to 70 percent ratio with diesel as per French law, said Charmoy.
The group produced 20,000 litres (4,399 Imp gallons) last year of the biodisel which costs about 20 percent more than the discounted diesel farmers are allowed to buy.
Similar home-grown and commercial operations using duck fat have been undertaken across the world from the United States and Britain to China. U.S. poultry giant Tyson Foods recently began transforming the millions of gallons of chicken and pork fat it processes each year into biodiesel.
Back in France, duck fat from the Dordogne -- as well as other animal parts and vegetables -- will fuel a biogas plant being built nearby in the nearby town of Bergerac by another cooperative of farmers.
Five smaller plants are already operating in the region, demonstrating the interest in finding a new use for farm waste, said Francis Cadalen, who is heading the project due to be finished next spring.
The plant, which will process from 9,000 to 10,000 cubic metres of waste per year, will generate about 360 kilowatt-hours of electricity per year, said Cadalen.
"Also, for the farmers, it's another revenue source. To sell energy -- it's another thing besides food production, it permits us to protect ourselves," said Cadalen.
Despite its ecological and culinary attributes, duck fat has its downside, according to one skeptical post in a U.S. online forum on biodiesel.
"Chicken fat is great, duck fat apparently makes cars waddle," it read.
Reporting by Alexandria Sage, editing by Paul Casciato