Flint Hills Resources’ new biodiesel plant is a joint venture with Benefuel designed to turn low-value materials into high-performance products. It’s a task that project engineer Dillon Oakes has unknowingly prepared for since he was a toddler.
Dillon Oakes has never been able to sit still. Not as a pesky three-year-old zipping around the hills at his dad’s workplace on a motorized three-wheeler, and not now.
“Oh man, I was a noisy kid. Growing up on a big ranch in southeast Kansas, there was a lot of stuff to get into. And let me tell you, I got into all of it,” Dillon recalls with an innocent smirk. “Not much has changed.”
At just 25 years old, Dillon is the site project engineer helping manage the construction of the Duonix biodiesel plant set to begin production in October in Beatrice, Nebraska. It’s normally a job for a much more seasoned employee. But this is the kid who learned to fuse metals before he hit puberty.
His inquisitiveness found an outlet on his eighth birthday when his uncle gave him a classic ERECTOR® set. Dillon started out small, following the instructions to piece together the girders and gears to make whatever the box dictated. But as his collection grew, so did his ambitions. Dillon ditched the manual and let his imagination run wild.
“I remember watching ‘The Sandlot’ and trying to replicate the robotic catapult they made in the movie to get the Babe Ruth baseball back over the fence,” said Dillon. “That didn’t go over well, but it was fun trying to make it work.”
Even with a whiff every now and then, Dillon never stopped swinging. He was always trying to make his creations bigger and better. When he was 10, he traded in his mini metal toys for his dad’s toolbox and immediately got to work.
“One time when I was really young, I got into dad’s shop and built a wooden go-cart,” Dillon recalled. “But I didn’t have wheels for it, so I took a couple roller blades apart and used those for wheels.”
But there was one problem. He didn’t want to do the initial trial run down the big hill outside their house. Luckily, he found a willing test subject — his seven-year-old sister.
“She was always wanting to hang out and be a part of my adventures,” said Dillon proudly but slightly embarrassed. “So I found a way for her to help.”
No bones or pigtails were hurt during the trial run or the thousands of subsequent rides they took down that hill. But that was certainly not the last he heard about it.
“Yeah, my family and friends still give me a hard time for that,” said Dillon as he shook his head and smiled.
“I love to build things. There’s something about taking a pile of parts and putting the puzzle together.”
His resourcefulness led to many other adventures. At age 12, he learned how to weld. At 14, Dillon dragged his father to the bank to take out his first loan to buy a 1978 Toyota FJ40 – a land cruiser he restored with the help of his dad and grandfather. In high school, he found himself in drafting and wood shop classes. He made hay bale rings for local ranchers, metal roses for his mother and a big cedar chest he still has today. But Dillon’s seminal creation to date came in college.
“I bought the bare chassis for an Ultra 4 race car,” said Dillon. “Then I ordered parts and went through every detail of building it myself.”
More than eight months were spent customizing and assembling every aspect of the extreme off-road vehicle. When it was finished, Dillon gained much more than a machine that could scale mountains of stone.
“I broke my back working on that rock crawler after class, after work and every weekend. But you wouldn’t believe the sense of accomplishment when I drove it for the first time,” he said. “It changed me to be a person who’s not timid or afraid to dive into something.”
Today, Dillon is more precocious and determined than ever. He’s taken his lifelong passion and skill for building and turned it into a career in engineering. It’s a natural fit. But this isn’t dad’s workshop. It’s the real world.
Dillon’s passion has turned into a career in engineering. One he’s ready to master, just like each project before it.
As a project engineer at Flint Hills Resources, a Koch company, Dillon uses his hands and head to refurbish an existing plant into a new, pioneering biodiesel facility.
Nestled alongside beautiful Nebraska farmland, the new Flint Hills Resources biodiesel facility will be unlike any plant in America — one that takes lower-quality materials and makes high-quality biodiesel.
Yet to hit the big 3-0, Dillon takes pride in the opportunity to sign off on many decisions for the plant set to open in October.
“This innovative biodiesel plant is a huge challenge,” said Dillon. “It’s exciting. We’re building something that’s the first of its kind and I’m one of the gatekeepers.”
While biodiesel has existed since 1930, a peek behind the gate at the Duonix Beatrice plant reveals what makes this a pioneer facility. Most plants in the U.S. make biodiesel for fueling transportation by refining soybean oil into fuel and mixing it with petroleum diesel. That is, until October. The Duonix Beatrice plant, which is operated by Dillon’s company, Flint Hills Resources, has an innovative catalyst from Benefuel that expands the range of feedstock available to make biodiesel.
“The catalyst is the secret sauce,” said Dillon.
But here’s the thing: this recipe has never been created on a large, commercial scale, only in laboratories and pilot plants.
“All the research and engineering we’ve conducted say it will be successful,” he explains. “And I know it will. But until we press that green button, it’s all just theories.”
Much of the success of this plant is in the young, weathered hands of Dillon Oakes. There’s no instruction manual to ensure it will work. No little sister eager to be the guinea pig. Just a warehouse full of spare parts and the shell of the plant there before it. It’s a steep task. But this isn’t the first time Dillon’s scaled mountains. And it won’t be the last.