A Publication of WTVP

Across central Illinois, a promising new crop has spent the winter covered by a blanket of snow. Planted last fall after the corn harvest, pennycress is now being grown as an energy crop to produce biofuels that will benefit the environment, our farming economy and consumers. Before long, it could be the fields of Illinois agriculture rather than the oilfields of the Middle East that fuel our cars, and maybe even our airplanes.

Dr. Terry Isbell and his team at the USDA National Center for Agricultural Utilization Research, or Ag Lab, as it is known locally, discovered that pennycress seeds contain 36 percent oil, more than twice that of soybeans, and the composition of the oil made it a perfect candidate to produce biodiesel fuel. Field trials showed that the crop could be planted and harvested with existing, conventional farming equipment and produce yields of one ton of seeds per acre. From this ton of seeds, 95 gallons of oil could be extracted and made into high-quality biodiesel fuel.

One thing that distinguishes pennycress from other energy crops is its ability to sprout in the fall, over winter and then resume growing in the spring to set seeds in time for farmers to plant soybeans in the same year after harvesting pennycress. This ability to double-crop pennycress and soybeans is attractive to growers who can earn additional income from fields that would otherwise be left bare over the winter.

Pennycress has the attention of another group as well. Biofuels Manufacturers of Illinois (BMI) was establishing a 45 million gallon-per-year biodiesel plant in Mapleton, Illinois. BMI realized that this new energy source could improve both the economics and quality of its biodiesel product. BMI has created a research and development company, Arvens Technology, Inc. (ATI), which is focused on improving pennycress as a commercial crop and creating new energy applications through innovative technologies.

To carry out this work, ATI has been establishing partnerships with different organizations to leverage their special capabilities and experience. The USDA Ag Lab in Peoria has been a key partner with ATI in conducting fieldwork to determine optimum planting dates and seeding density to maximize yields. In addition, USDA scientists have been developing methods to extract oil from the seed and then chemically transform it into biodiesel.

Another early partner was the Ag Guild of Illinois. This group of large-scale, innovative farmers in central Illinois agreed to help establish the most effective farming practices to grow pennycress. Through their efforts, optimum strategies have been developed. One new innovation is that pennycress can now be planted in the fall by aerial seeding from an airplane. This time-saving approach allows farmers to provide the GPS coordinates of their fields and the plane will fly over and drop the seed. This has the important benefit of allowing earlier planting as well as reducing the workload of farmers during the busy fall harvest season.

While farming research has been ongoing, ATI has a partnership with Western Illinois University and Dr. Win Phippen to create new varieties of pennycress. Using modern genetic techniques, improved pennycress varieties with higher oil content and greater yields, while maturing earlier in the year, are being developed. The remarkable genetic improvements in corn and soybeans have been key to the continuous increase in the yields of these crops that meet the demands of an ever hungry world. Similar benefits can be anticipated for pennycress to meet our growing appetite for energy.

In addition to production improvements, ATI is also working to develop new processing technologies and valuable products from pennycress. The Peoria-based Biotechnology Research and Development Center (BRDC) has been an important partner of ATI in developing uses for seed hulls left after the oil has been extracted. This material is known as presscake biomass and contains significant energy that can be captured through innovative processing. BRDC, ATI and the USDA Eastern Regional Research Center have a three-way collaboration to develop a technique known as pyrolysis to produce bio-oil. Pyrolysis involves heating the biomass to high temperatures in the absence of oxygen so that a crude-oil-like liquid is created. One ton of presscake biomass can produce an additional 95 gallons of bio-oil that can be used as heating oil or refined just like petroleum crude oil. With this additional oil yield, one acre of pennycress can produce 190 gallons of liquid fuel from both the seed oil and bio-oil while having no negative impact of the traditional corn and soybean production.

One of the most exciting potential applications of pennycress is to produce aviation fuel that meets the guidelines of the Sustainable Aviation Fuel Users Group (SAFUG). This international organization of 10 major airlines and aircraft manufacturers has agreed that biofuel used by participants can “perform as well as or better than traditional jet fuel while leaving a smaller carbon footprint.” Members also pledged to use only renewable fuel sources that require minimal land, water and energy to produce, and that do not compete with food or fresh-water resources. Pennycress is one of the only sources of biofuel that can meet these stringent requirements. One only needs to think of the quantity of aviation fuel that is consumed at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport each year to recognize the potential market for pennycress-derived aviation fuel and the positive impact it could have for Illinois farmers.

To tackle this market opportunity, ATI has established a collaboration with Alion Science and Technology to examine technologies that can be used to produce aviation fuels meeting the SAFUG fuel requirements. Experimental work has demonstrated that pennycress oil can be made into green jet fuel meeting the industry performance requirements. ATI is working with both BRDC and Alion to assess the technology and economics of various implementation strategies while modeling net energy balances and greenhouse gas emission reductions that can be attained by using pennycress as an aviation biofuel.

While agriculture has been traditionally thought of as only producing food, it is becoming increasingly clear that this important economic sector of Illinois can produce energy as well. We are lucky to live in a region that uses creativity, hard work and our natural resources so well to produce a home-grown energy supply for the future. iBi

Peter Johnsen is chief technology officer of Biofuels Manufacturers of Illinois, LLC and Arvens Technology, Inc.