A Penny for Your Thoughts

Posted on June 14th, 2012

Pennycress Harvest Enhances Biodiesel Diversity

A team of entrepreneurs and researchers just finished harvesting fields of pennycress in Illinois. Although some people think of pennycress as a weed, its penny-shaped seed packets are full of potential as a new feedstock for biodiesel.

The Illinois team has been researching pennycress as a possible new feedstock for biodiesel since 2008, and now they think they’ve uncovered the best way for farmers to add it to the corn and soybean rotation as a winter crop. This is an exciting development that could mean another viable, sustainable source of oil for our nation’s biodiesel supply.

A member of the mustard family, pennycress grows wild in the Midwest, and its seed packets contain oilseeds that yield 36 percent oil when crushed. An acre would yield the equivalent of about 80 gallons of oil.

This makes a lot of sense. We can grow pennycress during the winter on existing farms that would otherwise just sit dormant. It has no impact on existing crops, conservation grounds, or critical wildlife habitat.

As a winter crop, pennycress also provides a valuable service as sustainable ground cover, which helps prevent erosion and nutrient runoff. It also takes very little energy and no inputs to grow in Midwestern states that run roughly between I-70 and I-80.

Peter Johnsen harvests pennycress outside Peoria, Illinois.

The Illinois researchers estimate there are potentially 40 million existing farm acres for it. The partners are contracting with other farmers to grow and harvest the plants next year. They plan on crushing the seeds and selling the oil to biodiesel producers. This year the pennycress oil is priced similarly to soybean oil.

What’s exciting about pennycress is that it is an opportunity to produce an energy crop immediately on underutilized assets with no negative impact to the environment or the farm.

For growing pennycress, the best approach the team found is to drop the seeds from an airplane into standing corn in the fall. It germinates under the corn, and is harvested in early spring using a soybean combine, before soybeans are planted. It’s then crushed with conventional crushing equipment, and the meal has potential value as livestock feed.

Farmer education is likely to be one of the biggest hurdles for making this a reality. Although many consider pennycress a weed, it dies off in the spring and does not compete with corn or soybeans. In other words, it is planted in-between the corn and soybean crops on land that would otherwise sit empty. It is also easy to get rid of with routine herbicides if necessary.

Alan Weber, NBB feedstock program manager, has been appointed to the federal Biomass Research and Development Technical Advisory Committee.

For pennycress to succeed, it’s going to take a desire for innovation among farmers, and a shift in their thinking to grow a crop in the winter. But the results could yield huge dividends for farmers, fuel producers and consumers alike.

The National Biodiesel Board has placed a high priority on encouraging such innovative feedstock development. NBB’s feedstock program supports industry programs for expanding the supply of oils and fats for biodiesel production. This includes serving as an advocate at industry meetings and providing strategic vision for future research investments in Washington, DC.

To that end, Alan Weber, who manages the program, was recently appointed by the U.S. Depts. of Agriculture and Energy to serve as a member of the Biomass Research and Development Technical Advisory Committee. The prestigious committee helps USDA and DOE in meeting important goals of a healthier rural economy and improved national energy security.

The diversity of fats and oils from which biodiesel can be made has always been one of its greatest strengths, and pennycress progress is an exciting new development that is a perfect example of how our industry continues to be innovative and sustainable.

Don Scott serves as the Director of Sustainability for the National Biodiesel Board.

Leave a Reply