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Pennycress? Yep, It’s the Next Big Biofuel

pennycress could be next big biofuel cropGet ready to hear a lot about pennycress biofuel this year. Pennycress sounds like a name that belongs to an unassuming little weed commonly found along roadsides – and it does – but a while back the U.S. Department of Agriculture started to investigate the use of pennycress seeds in biofuel production and this year promises to be a breakout one, with farmers in the Midwest getting to rake in a bumper crop.

Biofuel from pennycress seeds

At first glance, pennycress seeds don’t seem to have enough oomph for biofuel. For one thing, they are tiny – they can be measured in less than a couple of millimeters. However, field pennycress is part of the same oilseed family that includes camelina, another weedy plant that has been proving itself to be a big time biofuel player.

A blend of camelina fuel is already in use among commercial and military aircraft, including the Blue Angels and Thunderbirds high precision jet fighter demonstration teams.

The long history of pennycress oil

Pennycress is also another good example of biofuel research programs that predate the Obama administration. Researchers have been poking around pennycress for industrial oil-based products since the 1940’s, and things really took off in 2007, when the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service got interested in pennycress as a biofuel source.

By 2010, USDA researchers were reporting that pennycress had the “right stuff” for biofuel production using conventional growing, harvesting and processing methods. Its oil content is about double that of soybeans, and it far outperforms corn in terms of its net energy output.

Pennycress and the biofuel economy

The rise of pennycress also teases out the fact that cost-competitive biofuel production relies partly on identifying crops that provide the farm economy with added value.

Pennycress as a biofuel crop is especially attractive because it is a non-food crop that can be grown in the winter as a ground cover, and harvested in time to prep the soil for growing another crop over the summer. That provides farmers with an additional cash crop over and above what they would normally produce during the year, with the added bonus of providing a winter ground cover to prevent soil erosion while fixing nutrients in the soil.

Steve Tartar of the Journal Star reports that Illinois farmers planted only 1400 acres of pennycress last year and are already planning 10,000 for next winter, having discovered some of the advantages of cultivating a weed: namely, it is easy to sow and it chokes out other weeds as it grows.

Research funded by the USDA has shown that pennycress seeds will take hold when simply sprayed over a field, in contrast to more expensive seeding operations that involve drilling holes or furrows in the ground.

At the Register-Mail, reporter John Pulliam notes that the USDA has partnered with Western Illinois University, the Pennycress Energy Company and a new federally funded regional economic development group called EBI Network in an effort that could make Galesburg, Illinois the go-to place for pennycress production. The goal is to recruit farmers to put about 200,000 acres under cultivation within a 50-mile radius of the city, providing enough feedstock to make a commercial scale seed oil pressing operation viable.

That seems like a rather modest goal considering the potential for doubling up land that is currently under production for soybeans. Tartar cites Peter Johnsen of Biofuels Manufacturers of Illinois, who foresees a “pennycress belt” of 40 million acres stretching from Ohio to Nebraska

Image: Steve Hurst @ USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database.

Follow Tina Casey on Twitter: @TinaMCasey.

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Written By

Tina specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.

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